Throw Skee-Lo a Buck For God’s Sake” by Eric Steuer, Wired, Aug 2015

I have a soft spot for old pop-rap, and on a surprisingly regular basis I fire up Spotify with the sole purpose of listening to Skee-Lo’s one and only hit, the 1995 paean to the little guy “I Wish.” It really holds up: great beat, clever concept, funny lyrics, catchy hook. Still a jam, 20 years later. At home the other night, it came on as a part of my “Hip Hop You Can Play in Front of Your Kids” dinner playlist. “I wonder where this dude is now,” I said to my wife. “I’d love to throw him a couple of bucks for having made something so fun back in the day.”

Problem is, I can’t. I could go to iTunes of Amazon and download the track, hoping that some small fraction of my small payment would find its way around the array of suits and stakeholders to wind up in Skee-Lo’s pocket. But that feels like a pretty inefficient way to show my support. (Also, it’s 2015, MP3s? Yuck.) At the same time, I’m well aware that streaming a song isn’t a meaningful way to financially support its creator.

Don’t get me wrong—I like Spotify. And Beats and Rdio and the other on-demand music services I use. But the reality is that most artists are paid next to nothing per play. Listeners like me have transitioned from buying music to using streaming services because they’re easy and inexpensive. We love the access and the immediacy. But I suspect that even the most enthusiastic Spotify user shares at least a vague sense that getting so much music for so little (or for free, if they’re willing to put up with the ads) is an unfair trade. And while I don’t believe that these services are to blame for the record industry’s current financial woes, it’s pretty clear that they haven’t  gone too far out of their way to help artists either.

Many music fans want to be able to do something tangible that would help support the musicians they love—there’s just no easy, effective way for this to happen. But it wouldn’t be hard. Streaming music services should take a cue from mobile payment systems like Square and let users offer tips.

If you’ve been to a coffee shop or restaurant in the past few years—or if you’ve used an on-demand-service app like Lyft or Postmates—you’ve noticed how easy Square and its ilk have made it to tip workers: Just select the percentage and you’re done. From 2013 to 2014, tipping on Square increased in frequency by 35 percent; tips for New York City cabdrivers have more than doubled since taxi companies started since taxi companies started making it easier to tip digitally. Plenty of writers have thus done plenty of hand-wringing about how tipping has been made too easy, with some going so far as to call for abolishing it altogether in a crusade against “tip creep.” One thing’s for sure: In an opt-out scenario like this, people are far more likely to throw a little extra dough around.

So what happens when you apply that model to artists? Well, we might have a way to do what most reasonable people wrote off years ago—make being an Internet-era musician a financially worthwhile endeavor.

To be clear, this is totally different from the Internet tip jars you used to see languishing in the footers of musicians’ personal websites 15 years ago. Remember that magical time? The Napster free-for-all was on the rise, and the market for physical media was beginning its long, steady collapse; in our naiveté, we thought that artists might weather the storm if enough fans stopped by to say hi and drop off a few bucks via PayPal. That didn’t work, because the process was cumbersome: First, go to an artist’s site; second … nope, sorry, two steps is too many.

We’re a culture of centralized platforms now, and turning payment into a side quest isn’t exactly a recipe for success. You know what is, though? Leveraging the infrastructure of the services that we’re already using and automatically paying for with monthly subscription fees. Imagine a button on your favorite band’s Spotify profile that allowed you to send them a buck while you’re listening to their song. Spotify already has your credit card info; more critically, its platforms already enable musicians to set up verified profiles. By allowing artists to link their profiles to digital payment accounts, and by employing some UI magic, the streaming services could make tipping artists a seamless, nearly trivial process.

Obviously, other online media outlets could apply this approach to help compensate other types of creators too. How many times have you watched an amazing documentary and wished that you could help support the almost certainly under paid filmmaker who spent years researching, interviewing, shooting, and editing it? More than once, I’ve swiped through the last page of an incredible novel on my Kindle and wished I could give the author a little something extra. Netflix, Amazon: Make this so.

Recent news that Facebook will soon begin to facilitate payments means that the company could build a similar system to make it possible for people to tip journalists, video makes, photographers, and anyone else whose work is published to the social network. (Imagine: a positive, productive way to use
Facebook!)

In the age of free, plenty of people won’t be willing to pony up—probably even a vast majority. But with passionate fans, an approach like this could substantially impact the financial lives of many artists. Look at Patreon. Since earlier this year, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer has used the crowdfunding site to get more than 4,500 fans to collectively pledge $31,000 for every new song, web comic, podcast, or video. Doubly interesting is that the fans are doing it without expecting anything in return except the art. This isn’t Kickstarter-style backing, where people contribute money in exchange for stuff like exclusive vinyl records and T-shirts. With Palmer’s Patreon campaign, they don’t get much more than the satisfaction of knowing that they’re helping someone whose work they like and respect continue to lead a creative life.

The trick will be figuring out how to make fan transactions a reality for all artists—not just those with audiences as large, rabid, and motivated as Palmer’s. By enabling tipping inside the platforms that we already use to consume creativity, streaming services could make it possible for fans to easily support any artist they love. If this happens, you can bet I’ll be shelling out like crazy to all the old-school rappers on my dinner music collection. They just have to get in line behind Skee-Lo.

 

Comment (Robert Tischer):

Online tipping through existing centralized services one already subscribes to is a pipe-dream. There is no financial motivation for the centralized service companies and their shareholders to share the pot with the artists. Eric Steuer needs to think one step bigger and reverse the financial equation: Let the musicians remain the owners of their content and they can through a few bucks to the Internet distributors for sending their content to their fans. Has sort of a revolutionary sound to it. So be it.


 
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