Virginia Tech students’ favorite music is increasingly streaming into their ears instantly, and for free — a trend leaving many of their favorite artists with weakening streams of revenue.
A survey conducted by the university’s Communication Network Services in coordination with the Future of Music Coalition shows Hokies are most likely to access music for no cost through YouTube, Pandora and free versions of services such as Spotify and Last.fm.
Tech students’ music preferences will be further explored in a panel discussion tonight that will discuss “The Value of Music.” The event, hosted by CNS in a partnership with the FMC, will be held in Squires Student Center’s Old Dominion Ballroom tonight at 7:30.
Kristin Thomson, who is a consultant for the music advocacy group FMC, said the discussion will seek to shed light on the changing landscape of the music business and how artists can reconcile their need for revenue with consumers’ preferences and use of emerging technologies.
“We’ve always been interested in ensuring that artists are fairly compensated for their work in this environment with so many changes,” Thomson said. “We’re also really interested in how music fans can discover and enjoy new music. And there are all these emerging technologies to try and relate the two together.”
Thomson, who will be moderating the panel, said college campuses are fascinating for FMC because students are using the latest technologies to acquire and listen to music.
She said one of FMC’s main goals is to educate musicians on the shifting dynamics of the business.
FREE SERVICES ‘GOOD ENOUGH’
The survey of Tech community members found a clear preference for free streaming services. A vast majority of the survey’s respondents said they use YouTube or Vevo either “a lot” or “sometimes” to listen to music.
The popular video service, which is free, was the most common method of listening to music. Pandora and other free Internet radio sources, were the second most popular source for music.
“We’ve also been testing, kicking the tires on a lot of these services, really trying to understand what the consumer experience is like,” Thomson said. “We spend a lot of time actually using the services to figure out why they’re cool or why they’re not cool so we can understand why consumers might adopt them.”
FMC’s report on the Tech survey said YouTube and Pandora dominate college listening patterns because they provide “free access to relatively large catalogs of music.”
According to the report, YouTube offers the world’s most diverse on-demand music catalog. It is attractive because it is free, legal and searchable.
Pandora differs in its form of customization, but, according to the report, has seen tremendous growth in part because it “facilitates music discovery, leading listeners to other artists or songs that share the same traits that the listener already likes.”
But the survey showed one indicator looms large in college students’ decisions: cost.
The report said usage of services other than YouTube and Pandora is markedly lower. A majority of respondents said they “rarely” or “never” used paid subscription services such as Rhapsody and Spotify premium.
While many of these services offer enhanced features or remove interruptions from advertising, students aren’t necessarily willing to pay for the added convenience.
“According to the survey responses,” the report said, “they are more interested in options that provide ‘good enough’ catalogs and ‘good enough’ interactivity, for free.”
THE FILE-SHARING PROBLEM
These trends bring mixed feelings for musicians.
“Most folks from the music industry would be pleased to see people choosing more legal or licensed services because there is some revenue that flows back to rights holders, including musicians.” Thomson said.
Jeff Kidd, the spokesman for the university’s CNS department, is also interested in seeing more students choose legal methods of enjoying music.
His department is responsible for making sure Tech’s bandwidth is not used to illegally distribute music, and legal use of music is one main goal of the cooperative effort between Tech and the FMC.
“While there are clear educational benefits, providing Internet access to thousands of students also has its risks,” the report said. “Specific to our partnership is understanding how (Tech) students are using their Internet access to listen to and acquire music.”
Kidd was proactive in bringing the panel discussion to the university so students can immerse themselves in the debate over the value of the music they are listening to.
“One reason we wanted to do this is to take a more proactive stance in terms of communicating to the community about some of the issues, concerns and benefits of the Internet music environment,” Kidd said.
In accordance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the university receives complaints from record companies if music is illegally uploaded from the Internet service it provides. It contacts the students — often within an hour of receiving the complaint — who uploaded the material and asks them to address the issue.
The school also attempts to inform students so they can avoid the situation all together.
“The approach the university has taken, I think from the get-go, has been an educational one,” Kidd said. “I think the biggest ‘gotcha’ in file-sharing and the Internet is that the peer-to-peer clients, once installed, will share things whether you want them to or not.”
He emphasized that complaints are not filed over illegal downloading, but instead directed at those who make the music available, an act that many peer-to-peer clients — commonly known as torrents — perform without prompting.
“They think the complaints we get are about downloading, but they’re not,” Kidd said. “The complaints we get are about uploading. That coupled with the fact that these clients do it automatically is just a really hard thing to get around if you are going to have one of these on your computer.”
In FY10-11, Tech handled 1,213 complaints of illegal file-sharing on its Internet connection. As of Nov. 15, Tech has handled 428 cases this semester.
Thomson said the survey found these illegal options are decreasing in prevalence on Tech’s campus.
STREAMING REVENUE WITH MUSIC
And while the FMC recognizes that an increase in legal music consumption is a step forward for the musicians it represents, Thomson said many of the services college students prefer are not lucrative markets for artists.
“The price, the unit cost, has gone down a lot,” Thomson said. “What you used to make by selling a CD in a store is very different than the price you get for having something streamed on Pandora.
“There is a debate in the music industry about what this means for us.”
In its report, the FMC describes its “longstanding interest in and advocacy of the development of a legitimate music marketplace — one where musicians can sell their music for a fair price, and where music fans can discover and enjoy the music that they love.”
Data from FMC shows that streaming services direct considerably less revenue back to the artists. And of course many YouTube clips are unofficial recordings and generate no revenue at all.
Kidd said the panel — which will reach out to an even wider community than the survey — would be useful in putting a finger on the pulse of how Tech students interact with music.
Thomson will moderate a panel including two Tech students, two music industry executives and Phil Norman, one of Kidd’s colleagues at CNS.
Norman said tonight’s panel discussion is a way of gaining more insight into how music producers and consumers can find common ground.
“The point is to have the discussion,” Norman said. “There’s two sides to this story. We’re not there to force an ethical line down this issue. There’s a reason this culture is changing. There’s a reason the FMC is called the Future of Music Coalition. The business is changing.”
The discussion is open to the public. After a short presentation of results from the survey, audience members will have the chance to offer input and interact with the panel members.