On March 16, I woke to the news that Jason Molina had died. Molina’s struggles with alcoholism and associated health problems became widely known in 2009. It also became known that his family were struggling to pay his medical bills and that Molina did not have insurance.
Molina’s death is a singular event. It is unique. It is his death. But a feature bears comparison to the deaths of Mark Linkous (2010) and Vic Chestnutt (2009). All three died without health insurance and with financial difficulties. This scenario is not isolated to these three.
Artists like Molina, Linkous and Chestnutt were never chart-toppers, but during the 1990s they developed strong and loyal followings, including the likes of REM, Glenn Hansard, Tom Waits and others. Despite gaining more exposure into the 2000s, this did not necessarily translate into greater sales or financial security.
A factor, not the cause, but a significant factor in the scenarios surrounding these deaths has been the rise of websites like Spotify or Grooveshark and the decline of musician income from record sales. Arguments about legality of these sites and their impact on the music industry go back and forth. Most consumers minds appear to be made up – there are 24 million users on Spotify, 6 million of which pay $5 or $10.*
My aim here is not to defend the music industry, but connect points whose relationship isn’t immediately apparent. I contend that the decline in artist royalties due to streaming sites is a social determinant of the poor health and life expectancy among artists. And this places an ethical obligation on consumers.
If consumers are only paying approximately $10 a month, but consuming more music than ever before, and artists** are only receiving 0.5-0.7 cents per stream while also living lives that are socially and medically insecure, then it is time to broaden the scope of questions from legality to ethics.
Spotify and other sites like it may be legal, but are they ethical? There is a lot talk about ethical sourcing of coffee beans or the conditions of workers in clothing manufacturers. This is important. But it would be a sad situation if this ethical concern was not also extended to those who produce the music that enriches and shapes our personal and social realities.
Many musicians of lesser fame than Molina struggle to secure basic needs such as medical care or permanent residence. This is part of mythos of the struggling artist, but it is also a reality that has been compounded by developments in music consumption via music streaming websites.
I am not suggesting that consumers necessarily need to stop using Spotify or other websites – although I am not excluding that option either – but they do have an obligation to ensure an equitable and just compensation to the artist. This could be achieved by hearing a song on Spotify and then buying the album directly from an artists website. I am sure there are many more imaginative approaches. But the point is that if we love a song or an album, then we should extend that love to the person that produced it.
* This fee isn’t for the music, but for the privilege of not having advertisements.
**By Artist I mean people who put their lives into their music. People who may have interim jobs but predominately depend on sales of records and concert tickets to live. I am not referring to hobby artists, people who have a profession and some artistic endeavor on the side.