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Fifteen years ago, one word changed music forever. All together now: Napster.

It was the summer of 1999. Teens John Fanning, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker invented the peer-to-peer file-sharing service so people could swap mp3s. Napster wasn’t the first P2P service, but it was the first music-focused one.

Napster was the first tidal wave to erode the concept of paying for music. Suddenly, you didn’t need to buy an actual CD anymore but could download the songs you wanted. For free. Is it stealing if what you’re taking is intangible?

“Heck yes,” said Metallica, among the first to sue Napster when the band’s unreleased songs leaked to a radio station. Or as Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said, “If we are going to sell our music on the internet, in whatever way we so choose, we cannot do that if the guy next door is giving it away for free.” By the time Napster went bankrupt in 2002, the damage to the music industry was irrevocable. “The ease of being able to obtain music for free instantly has diminished its value,” wrote Pitchfork Review editor Jessica Hopper in a recent Napster retrospective.

There will always be those who defend Napster and getting music for free (or what the RIAA considers copyright infringement). “If you’ve bought an album on vinyl, why should you have to pay for it in digital format?” goes one argument. “Most music royalties only fill the pockets of record executives, not the actual artists,” goes another. The latter isn’t factually wrong – musicians only see about 10 cents from every dollar iTunes purchase, according to The New York Times.

Still other proponents of free music say that services like Napster give indie bands under the radar greater exposure, which could theoretically help them tour and make money off of merchandise. After all, writers like Richard Menta credited Napster with helping Radiohead’s album Kid A debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts when it was released.

But many of us believe musicians should be compensated for their music. Fairly compensated. In the digital age, what does that mean?

Music services like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, and Deezer license music from artists and pay them per listen. Is one better than the other? Do any of them pay musicians what they used to earn? (No.) If you love music, want musicians to be paid, and want your money to go to a company employing a fair and ethical business model, which streaming service should you pick? It’s a tricky question, because it’s hard to track exactly how much artists get.

“Instead of buying your music, you pay a subscription fee that is in some way filtered down from Spotify to record label to artist, based on some opaque algorithm of pay-per-play, which is based on some opaque deal struck between the label and Spotify, and then the label's opaque individual contract with each of its artists,” wrote Paul Miller on The Verge.

Other factors include fluctuations in the streaming site’s revenue and whether there are other people in the band to split royalties with. So this is hardly the definitive guide to ethical music streaming, but hopefully it can give you more to think about. The short version is if you like it, buy it; don’t stream it. More on that below.

The Best: Nokia, Google Play, and Xbox Music

Some hipsters may find it hard to believe, but Zune (now Xbox Music), the wildly unpopular iTunes rip-off from Microsoft, might be one of the most ethical choices for streaming music, at least by payment figures.

David Lowery, a guitarist and songwriter formerly of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, compared the numbers on, The Trichordists, his website devoted to protecting the rights of artists on the internet. According to his calculations in February 2014, Xbox Music was in the top three, paying artists three cents per stream. Google Play is even better, at $0.0457 per stream. The best is Nokia, at slightly above 7 cents a stream.

As The Trichordist explains, music-streaming platforms without a free version generally pay musicians more because they have more revenue. Although supporting Microsoft, Nokia, and Google Play may give you pause – they’re a far cry from mom-and-pop record stores –they might actually get more pennies to your favorite band. The key word is pennies.

Pretty Bad: Spotify and Pandora

Created in 2008 and launched in the U.S. in July 2011, Spotify streams music with a “freemium” model. If the ads interrupting your music every few songs annoy you enough, you can pony up $10 per month for a premium membership. Each song a premium user plays gets the artist about half a cent, as of 2013. But if you’re a free user, each song you stream can give as little as one-twentieth of a cent ($0.0005) to the musician. Theoretically, the more users who go premium, the more money artists can make. But until then, musicians are making almost nothing.

Consider cellist Zoë Keating, who caught the attention of The New York Times: “After her songs had been played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, she earned $1,652.74. On Spotify, 131,000 plays last year netted just $547.71, or an average of 0.42 cent a play.” Scott Timberg of Salon wrote this summer that Keating earns six times as much from iTunes song sales than she does from her music streaming.

Spotify especially hurts jazz and classical musicians, as they’re on indie labels that don’t have deals with Spotify and are unlikely to see the massive plays of pop stars. Jazz pianist Jason Moran likens Spotify to the Walmart of the music industry, sending smaller parties into extinction. Yulun Wang, who co-founded jazz record label Pi Recordings, had to opt out of Spotify entirely. “What we found when we got out of Spotify...was that our sales went up; they absolutely jumped,” he told Salon in July.

But if you’re looking for an alternative to Spotify, don’t choose Pandora. Not only does Pandora not let you hear the exact song you want (you get something similar; it’s more like internet radio), but the company supported the Internet Radio Fairness Act, a decidedly unfair bill The Trichordist describes as “nothing to do with internet radio or fairness and everything to do with screwing artists out of 85 percent of their royalties.”

If you aren’t convinced Pandora’s all that bad, one of Lowery’s headlines says it all: “My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89.”

Bottom Line

Unfortunately, for now it looks like “streaming music ethically” is an oxymoron. As Gryffin Media points out, listeners would have to stream an artist’s songs 36,866 times a month for him or her just to afford ramen noodles. David Lowery therefore argues that we need to start looking at the human cost of all the free stuff we can find online.

Idealists might look to Lyynks Music, a startup that “hopes to replace unethical and extremely artist-unfriendly problems associated with Spotify.” Launched in late 2013, the site says musicians can set their own prices for song streams, but it doesn’t look like major musicians are actually on there. Today, perhaps faced with the difficulty of taking down Spotify, Lyynks seems more focused on helping up-and-coming artists find an audience. Lyynks doesn’t say how much it pays artists either, just vaguely states: “The share given to the artist exceeds the amount we have seen in other content distribution models.”

As a listener, I’m left wishing one streaming service would rise to the top and differentiate itself with ethical practices. (Nokia is a somewhat underwhelming winner for artist payment.) As Paul Miller wrote on The Verge, “What I really want is some sort of ‘free range’ sticker slapped on my music consumption, so that I know the artist was ethically treated in this transaction.” For now, it looks like that free-range sticker is looking beyond streaming services. Sure, use them to discover new music, but then buy music directly from artists whenever possible and support them on tour. It’s not a fun, flashy answer, but there it is.

Holly Richmond

Holly Richmond is a Portland writer. Learn more at

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