(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images )
Sir Paul McCartney is one of the best-known musicians on the planet, thanks to his years as a Beatle and a chart-topping solo artist. Yet when he sang a newly released number on the Grammy Awards telecast Sunday, the response from some corners of the Internet was a blank stare. "Wait, who is Paul McCartney?" read one nonplussed tweet. "To be honest, I have no idea," read another.
Although the overwhelming majority of music fans aren't so clueless, such reactions reflect what one label executive calls the high "noise floor" of the Internet: There's so much music being created and distributed, it's hard for anyone's work to get noticed. The Internet provides powerful tools to promote songs and performers, and McCartney is using a number of them. But he's also barred his works, old and new, from seemingly every online jukebox that lets people play music on demand for free or for a monthly fee. Those moves highlight the tension between artists' desire to embrace the viral energies of the Internet and to retain some measure of control over their work.
Subscription music services let their customers play an unlimited amount of music from online libraries for a flat monthly fee of $5 to $10. The most popular of these is Spotify, which added a controversial new feature to the package when it debuted in its native Sweden in 2008: an advertising-supported tier that lets people play a large quantity of music for free. That version has attracted about 12 million users, compared with 3 million subscribers who pay for an unlimited tier with no ads.
To some labels and artists, the subscription services are little better than piracy. The royalties are minuscule — about half a penny per song played on Spotify — and the way they're calculated is maddeningly hard to understand. That's why some artists and labels have kept all or part of their catalogs off these services. And lately, acts such as Coldplay, the Black Keys and Adele have withheld new releases from Spotify at least temporarily for fear that free or low-cost listening will cannibalize sales on iTunes and other music stores.
Supporters of subscription services say there's no evidence that letting people stream songs for a monthly fee hurts sales. To the contrary, they say, those services promote sales by letting fans sample songs they're thinking about buying and exposing artists' work to a larger audience. And although the royalties for recording artists are tiny, they're larger than the amounts paid by webcasters (such as Pandora), traditional radio stations or, of course, pirate sites.
As a solo act, McCartney has long worked with new music distributors on the Internet. He started making his post-Beatles work available through eMusic, which sells downloadable tracks to subscribers at a discount, almost five years ago. He let National Public Radio, AOL and MSN's websites offer free streams of his latest album, "Kisses on the Bottom," for a week before and after its release Feb. 7. And his Facebook page links to a free video of McCartney performing songs from the album live at Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
McCartney has never gone all-in on subscription services, however. He pulled his works from Spotify in 2010, and earlier this month made them disappear from rival services. His current label, Concord Records, insists the move is just a temporary one designed to bring more attention to his work later in the year. Nevertheless, any Spotify or Rhapsody user whose curiosity about McCartney's new album was piqued by his Grammy performance would have been forced to look elsewhere — or listen to someone else.
For better or worse, the Internet makes music instantly available to anyone who wants to hear it. Many of the sources aren't legal, but they're free and easy to find. As a result, broadband has effectively ended the era when people had to buy an album to find out how good every track was (or wasn't). Consumers expect to be able to hear a recording before committing it to their collection. The challenge for artists and labels is to persuade potential fans to do so on legitimate, royalty-paying sites. At the same time, they have to find ways to introduce themselves to new generations of listeners. That means having a presence on the sites that millions of those listeners use, rather than trying to coax them to places chosen by the artist.
None of that may matter to Sir Paul, who doesn't need the money or, really, the attention. His star is so bright, even after all these years, that he has no trouble selling out concert halls. Most acts aren't so lucky. They're faced with a more difficult task, fighting both obscurity and poverty. And some of the most promising responses to the former problem don't necessarily solve the latter.