We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the online pharmacy's monthly supply of the pills that allow us to trudge productively through this waking life is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, an ethical query about online streaming services.
Andrea Sauceda writes via Facebook: "Does using Spotify (and/or other streaming services) make you a bad person?"
Given that many questions of right and wrong are arbitrated by the U.S. legal system, let's start there. Unlike, say, Napster or an assortment of BitTorrent sites — wherein users take/took digital copies of copyrighted music without payment or permission — Spotify (like Rdio, Pandora, Soundcloud, et al) operates entirely legally, with performers and license-holders receiving a fee for allowing their music to be streamed. The same goes for YouTube, though you're considerably more likely to find pirated (and thus unpaid-for) recordings there.
From samples made available for streaming through online retailers to pre-release album streams on websites such as this one, a good deal of free online music listening is not only ethical, but, for the artists involved, highly sought-after. In addition, sites such as Bandcamp are set up in order for musicians to sell their work directly to fans, but they allow for and encourage free previews — in effect, an on-demand streaming service the artist has not only authorized, but encouraged.
That said, I understand why you ask: Spotify pays artists (and license-holders and songwriters, who often aren't one and the same) a significantly reduced rate compared to other royalties. Many articles have been written on the topic, covering many different points of view, and opinions vary wildly from artist to artist. So instead of issuing some sort of blanket ruling, I'll simply encourage you to chase the feeling that led you to ask in the first place. You're looking to support the artists you love, while also experiencing the full range of music-listening options available to you. That's a fine and worthy pursuit, and there's no reason you can't come up with a balance that gets you there.
For starters, Spotify (and/or its many cousins) works well as try-it-before-you-buy-it discovery engine. You can't discover a new favorite band if you've never heard its music, so take advantage of the many different ways to stumble upon great stuff and then make purchases as an informed consumer. If you love a piece of music you find, then don't hesitate to buy it.
From there, dig into the tremendous array of ways to sustain the livelihood of musicians whose work sustains you. Contribute to their Kickstarter campaigns if they exist. Go to their concerts and encourage your friends to join you — and, while you're there, buy a T-shirt or music directly from the band itself. Champion the music you love on social media; that word of mouth means a lot, both financially and for morale. For more on the best ways to lend your support, this article by my colleague and pal Jacob Ganz is essential.
Finally, speaking of social media, you can often get a definitive answer to your own ethical quandary by simply asking bands what they think. "How do you feel about fans streaming your music for free online?" is a perfectly reasonable question to put out there. More often than not, the musicians you love are themselves circulating ways for you to hear their music without paying for the privilege — a quick look at an artist's Twitter feed will usually give you a good idea — but it never hurts to ask, just to make it clear that you view listening as a privilege.