There's a bit of consternation about what is going on with musical artists and the music industry in the wake of widespread dissemination of music digitally. The ease of moving music around as bits, whether illegally (pirating) or legally (streaming), has clearly shifted the playing field in this domain.

A recurring theme in discussions on this is the idea that these changes are screwing over many musical artists -- pirating simply deprives them of income, the payouts from streaming are not comparable to what they have traditionally received. Sometimes there is pushback: critics who indicate that the musicians need to adapt to the new market realities and accept that their economic position has changed. To caricature it, it's the "Once the car came along, horse whip manufacturers had to adapt or die." type of idea. Musicians, and their advocates, often respond with "but music is art not horsewhips" and as such has a transcendent value that needs to be valued in its own right. I see this back and forth as a kind of tension or conflict between the role of musicians as artists and musicians as producers of economic goods.

The only way I can think of to try and get some perspective on this conflict is to step back and ask "What should the role of musicians be in contemporary society?", but I haven't been able to find any works that address the issues as I see them.

In the back of my mind I have Plato's Republic, a work that lays out ideas about what constitutes a "good" society, but doesn't speak too directly to today's world. I'd like to know what contemporary philosophers say about what a "good" modern, industrial society should do to support the arts.

There are some points about the role and value of copyright, for example as discussed by Lawrence Lessig, that get at the philosophical (more in the colloquial sense) underpinning of this aspect of how society can/should promote the arts, but I'm looking for more.

The only contemporary philosophical works on the role of artists in society that I've been able to find deal with the artist as shaper of public discourse, and don't get at how (or if) society should be structured to support artists in some special way, or the ways that artists should adapt to market forces.

  • 3
    Can you zoom in a little further on what exactly you'd like someone here to explain to you (briefly, in a few paragraphs)? Is there any particular piece of writing that you're studying that's made this an interesting or important problem?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 10, 2016 at 13:55
  • @JosephWeissman There is no specific work at this time; I've been sitting on this question a while trying to make sure it was apprpropriate for this forum. Periodically there are media reports like when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify(maybe?), or other online discussions where this comes up.
    – Dave
    Jun 10, 2016 at 14:15
  • I'd suggest that all musicians remove their music from Spotify. Most would be worse off by no more than about ten pence a month. Industry has taken over culture and art and now commercial sponsorship is about the only way to make a buck. If you can play Bach well you will starve. If you can mention a mainstream commercial product on a popular Twitter account once a week you can make £50K per contract. It's a mad world for musicians. I think their main role these days is to fund silicon valley salaries. .
    – user20253
    Mar 17, 2018 at 12:25
  • 1
    Piracy is good for artists--it's bad for music industry middlemen. The very idea of selling bits is stupid. Bits are, and always will be, easily and infinitely copyable. If you want to be a successful artist, give away your bits as fast as you can to everyone, everywhere. Post every song online for free, upload every video to Youtube. Keep and sell what is unique and precious: your time. The more bits you give away, the more valuable your time will be, and the more you can charge for it. Aug 15, 2018 at 0:11

4 Answers 4


(This addresses the question in the title on the value of musicians in the market place -- as for the larger question of what value are musicians to society, mentioned later in the text, I don't have any references)

One thing that seems to be missing from the discourse, or at least the discourse of the Taylor Swifts and Metallica's of the world, is that the royalties model of compensation for musicians is the exception not the norm. The idea of musicians getting filthy rich off of royalties from record sales will likely go down in history as an odd fluke of the 2nd half of the 20th century more, not a paradigm shift in the way musicians should be compensated.

Consider that throughout history the vast majority of musicians received on time payments for their performances. Their stature as accomplished or famous musicians simply meant that they could charge significantly more for a single performance, not that they would receive continuous royalties for them.

Today, most studio session musicians (even those recording on albums for major pop artists), local musicians (those who play at weddings and social venues, etc...) receive one time payments for their performance. One time payments are the norm, not the exception.

One might argue that those are receiving payment for the act of performing itself, not for the artistic content of the performance (i.e. the act of creating the music, which is supposedly more valuable and does warrant recurring payments as opposed to one time payments).

But then does Picasso get a royalty payment every time somebody saw one of his payments? No, he just gets a very large one time payment for his creative act and that's it. Screen writers usually get one time payments for their movie scripts, big hollywood names get one time payments for the movies that act in....Why should musicians be any different?

Even in big time Pop music, a lot of the music is written by professional song writers, who then receive a one time payment for handing over the intellectual property rights to the recording artists and/or the record company. And classical composers who were commissioned to write a symphony or an opera received one time payments for those as well.

Moreover, the boundary between the creative act of writing music vs performing it is very fuzzy. What does a beautifully improvised jazz solo count as: A creative act or a performance?

Based on the horse whip analogy you mentioned, one would think that the musicians were loosing a source of income that they've depended on forever, but that is not the case. The royalties model is a fluke that a select few who were born in the right time and right place took advantage of, and now, because of streaming, things are going to go back to the way they always have been.

  • From what I've read, the royalty model generally doesn't work for the musicians. Except for the superstars, the record labels generally take most of the money somehow or another, and the musicians make money for performing and for merchandise sales. Sep 14, 2018 at 21:44

I think economic theory is helpful here. Immediately prior to easy illegal pirating, music was what is known as a club good. That is a good that costs effectively nothing to let additional people enjoy (once it has been produced), but people can still be excluded from using it. As a result, people can still be charged for using it. A standard example is a toll road.

It seems now music has become more of a public good which is nonexcludable, i.e., it's not feasible to prevent people from using it once it has been produced. Clean air, national defense, and basic research are standard examples of such goods. They can be very valuable, but due to their nonexcludability we can't directly charge people for using them. Thus often public goods need to be paid for by governments (who can impose taxes to have them produced), or perhaps philanthropy.

Incidentally, much the same seems true for journalism.


Well, one way that great musicians and artists have survived has been to receive commissions from wealthy people who value their art and desire either to have it for themselves or to provide it somehow for others. This sidesteps the issue of what should their role be; they now have a market role that doesn't require "marketing" anymore.

I suppose that pop music itself is sort of a new phenomenon, and sprang up with the consumer products of albums and concert tickets, as well as radio advertising.

I don't really have an answer to "what role outside of the market should artists and musicians have", but maybe this provides some helpful insight into what the market does provide.


About musicians and money:

  • Musicians make music, not money. If someone wants money, he should just follow a marketing or economics career. This is a categorical fact. Either you do music and live a humble (although rich*) life, or either you make money (although having a poor life).
  • There's no "role of musicians in the marketplace" or "role of movie stunts in the nail polishing industry". That's a fallacy, created by people who wants to live a life of rich, making money. Justin Bieber or Meriah Carey are only the face of commercial organizations. Justin Bieber is not a musician.

About the role of musicians:

  • The role of musicians is making music as a form of art. Art is about communicating feelings**. Why do we need to communicate feelings? To experience life. So, a musician is something like a contemplative philosopher.
  • Any perspective that pursue making money out of music makes you a corrupt musician, like any attempt to make money out of politics makes corrupt politicians.
  • Piracy and copyrights does not concern artists, artists have plenty of ideas, and want to share them. Piracy concerns only sellers, who want money out of ideas.
  • If society wants to reward artists (with money, copyrights, avoiding piracy), its fine. But it's not a problem of artists, the role of artists is just making art. If they're not rewarded, it means society does not need them. If you think we need artists, find a way to valorize them. But if you are an artist, you cannot do that, it's not ethical. It's the people (non-artists) who should judge.

[*] I state that for experience: I've lived as a professional musician for some time, never played for money.

[**] If you are an original, intelligent, cultivated person, there's no money in making art. But if you're vulgar and corny perhaps you will end earning money.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .