Musicians hate the royalty structure of online streaming services, which are clearly reaping financial rewards while artists are being ripped off; meanwhile, fans, though potentially conflicted, love those services’ ability to deliver tunes, albums, and artists “on demand,” anytime, anyplace. Is there a middle ground?
BY FRED MILLS
Recently I was engaged in an online discussion about streaming music, and as a number of the respondents are musicians, you can imagine how more than a few of them came down on the side of the anti-Spotify crowd because the royalty rates for streaming plays are so miniscule. The discussion grew from quote by Pete Townshend that musician/label person Pat Thomas posted:
“I’m a user of Spotify,” admits Townshend, “so I feel like a complete hypocrite when I say ‘I think the guy that runs it is probably a f*cking crook’. Take me to court. I was reading about some artist who had 450,000 plays and he got a check for [almost nothing]. It doesn’t make any sense.” There’s also a recent article in The Guardian that adds some perspective to this, “Music Streaming Hailed as Industry’s Saviour as Labels Enjoy Profit Surge.”
Comments came fast and furious. Among them:
Steve Wynn: I love it as a music fan, hate it as a musician. But it makes sense to embrace the former over the latter, y’know?
Bill Janovitz: I’m with you Steve. I pay for premium Spotify but would be glad to play at least twice the $10 a month if I knew more was going to the artists. As an artist and an optimist, I subscribe to the notion that there will be more upside from streaming, each spin bringing at least some money, in perpetuity, as opposed to records, CDs, used ones in particular, being bought once. The real truth of the matter is few recording artists made royalties from sales of their records. If we were lucky, we got good enough advances that never recouped. Many times, this streaming discussion fails to take artist/label contracts into account.
Pat Thomas: As someone (me) who works for several different labels – I’m NOT seeing the upside to streaming at all. “Our” profits (indie-labels I’m speaking about) have gone down….
Paul Kimble : The streaming services are bad enough, but then you have Youtube, where you can listen to anything you want to, for free, instantly. It’s literally nothing more than institutionalized piracy. It’s only going to get worse with the incoming administration…if that’s even possible. GLB has over 10 million plays on Spotify alone, for only 10 songs, I’ve never seen a penny. /shrug. Heads on sticks times, I’m old and don’t have much to lose.
Stan Denski: I love Youtube and the instant availability of stuff. The major trend in the 21st Century is ACCESS over OWNERSHIP. Most of my younger friends don’t understand the idea of a CD or DVD “collection.” Ask them “What Kubrick films do you have?” and there’s a pause and then “…um… all of them?” And there’s nothing inherently evil about pressing a button on a phone or computer to play a film or song, and nothing righteous and “natural” about pushing a button on a CD or DVD player to play it. Personally I am tired of having “collections.” They are millstones carved in the shapes of albatross.
Kristian Hoffman : You may be shocked that an absolute nobody like me has these numbers, but I have had over 1 million plays of songs I wrote on Youtube – that’s right – over one million. And have never been paid anything because I didn’t post them personally, and I don’t run around taking every single other post of my music down.
Bob Martin : While I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think folks are looking at this the right way. 450,000 plays, when radio was actually the driving force, would be 450,000 listens. That’s one spin of the record in two major markets. Consider the number of ears. The difference now is that you can listen when you want instead of having to wait. AND you don’t have to listen to things you don’t want to hear.
Let’s do the math really quickly. A hit record in the 60s, for instance, might get played twice an hour all day long. So, that’s 48 plays a day. In a major market, that’d be, depending on size of market, that could be 100,000 people hearing it each time. So, that’s a possibility of 4.8 million listens in a single market… Considering that there are at least 20 major markets in the USA, that’s 96 million listens a day, just in major markets.
NOW… each time a radio station played the song, they owed, for lack of a better argument (but it was a lot less), ten cents to BMI/ASCAP, etc. From that, the record company got, say, nine cents. The artist got one or two cents. So, let’s be generous and say two cents. SO… for each radio station playing his record 48 times a day, the artist would get 96 cents. That’s 96 cents for 4.8 million potential listens. Or… 0.00000002 per listen, per radio station…
People tend to forget just how many ears got to hear music for a very small amount of money. Of course it added up over time, and then there were record sales on top of it. But, 450,000 plays isn’t even a day’s worth of listeners in a single city from the radio days….
Those are just a small few who weighed in. As I responded myself: Streaming’s a topic that I’ve been interested in for some time, and I have to say, I tend to fall on the “music fan” side of the equation, as Steve Wynn put it, so some of what I’m going to say here may be taken as anti-artist. It’s not intended to be, however. I’m not a musician myself, so perhaps I’m not entitled to presume anything on musician’s parts. In addition to being a fan and collector, I’m also a writer who just “happens” to be the recipient of (cough) free music sent to me by labels, publicists, and fellow music heads. I don’t take any of it for granted, either, and when I want something I didn’t get in the mail, I go out and buy it. Particularly when we’re talking vinyl, I try to order direct from the artist or label if possible; for example, I ordered the Southern Culture on the Skids blue wax LP from the gang even though I had already received the CD as a promo. Like I said, though, I’m pretty damn blessed with all the gratis music, so either through my own (so-called) writing or by publishing my fellow scribes’ reviews at Blurt, I try to repay the generosity as much as possible by helping to get the word out about the artists and the records.
I’m also a lapsed taper of concerts, and I’m militantly pro-bootleg as well precisely because I am a music fan who wants to hear more from my favorite artists than just the official releases. You can probably guess that I subscribe to the theory that, rather than bootlegs cannibalizing sales, they help turn fans into superfans who will in turn go out to the shows, buy merch, etc. I should stress that, other than live shows, I was never a file sharer during the Napster era and I do believe that piracy – which is different from bootlegging – is wrong and that it rips off the artists. I can say truthfully that I have never uploaded an album to the internet other than to transfer digital files to one of my writers who wanted to write a review for us.
Now what does all that have to do with streaming? A lot, actually. Bill Janovitz hinted at one aspect of this – that at least streaming generates SOMETHING in the way of income, as opposed to illicit file-sharing – which is basically what the streaming model replaced because it’s way easier than downloading. Piracy not only generated no income for the artist, it theoretically took money away from artists when it meant someone was getting an album for free off the internet that he might otherwise have gone out and purchased. In fact, for me, streaming has become my go-to means of previewing some new music prior to purchasing it. Two perfect examples: I streamed the new A Tribe Called Quest album when it hit Spotify, and subsequently put in an order for the album that finally dropped last week. And just recently I streamed the new Run The Jewels album (could have downloaded it as well) and immediately went to their site and ordered the super-duper 4LP version; it will hit in the spring, so in the meantime I can enjoy RTJ via Spotify, while the band can bank my preorder dough.
You can see where I’m going with this: Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud and their ilk ARE the new radio – a means by which to be exposed to new music, which typically I listen to at the office where I work and in the car, since I can play my CDs and LPs at home. I’ll add, too, that I am fortunate to be able to tap those audio resources and indirectly promote artists at the Blurt website by posting tracks to accompany our reviews and stories about those artists. Obviously there’s no metric to determine if my posting tracks translates into actual record sales, but I would like to think it has the potential to do so.
I can certainly sympathize with Kristian Hoffman and his YouTube plight here. Ditto all the artists who have seen the math and realized that they’re getting paid next to zip even after a zillion spins. The streaming royalty rates need to be adjusted because the artists are not being compensated adequately. (I will avoid touching on the other issue regarding streaming: whether or not the owners of streaming services are getting rich from them.) It’s all a matter of perspective, which is why I found Bob Martin’s calculations above – traditional radio plays versus streaming plays, and how many ears actually get to hear any given song – pretty enlightening, as it reinforces my contention that streaming is an excellent means by which an artist can get heard in an era where the chances of actually landing on radio are remote. Is it a fair tradeoff? By that I mean, is the knowledge that you are in fact reaching a listenership but still feel moderately ripped off sufficient to just grin and bear it and accept the new paradigm? Or should one stick to one’s guns and remain a purist while knowing that you are not going to be played on the actual radio (and therefore be heard by no one)? All debatable, but it’s definitely an aspect of the argument that must be considered.
And as I previously noted, once someone has been turned on to new music and becomes a fan of the artist, he or she can often turn into a superfan who feels very strongly about supporting the artist by purchasing records, merch, and concert tickets – or maybe even contributing to a Kickstarter campaign.
Ultimately, I think that if the argument is boiled down to intellectual property and the right of a musician to earn a decent living from that intellectual property, it oversimplifies or even ignores part of the dynamic, in that just because an artist has written a song he wants to be paid for performing, that doesn’t mean anyone is actually going to pay him (i.e., buy the album or the ticket). You have the right to create and own your music, but that right doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to turn that song into income. Most consumers want assurance up front that they are going to enjoy hearing that song, and in 2016, streaming seems to be the most efficient way of initially getting the tune in front of the public.
Coda: Posting one final note was Rob Cullivan who detailed the following: “Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad, which started out playing clubs in Rochester in the 1990s and then became one of the bigger reggae acts nationally, were asked how they survived, and their answer was simple. Never play for free (benefits excluded, of course). But too many bands undersell themselves at so many levels. I can see taking a few free gigs early, but once you’ve established your name, never play for free again. And paying someone else so you can tour with them? No way, that’s just silly. I get that musicians want to be heard through Spotify, but to me it just seems you get lost in a sea of other songs. I think it’s better to get 10,000 paying fans than one million listeners who don’t support you.”
I pondered Cullivan’s additional first person objection to – and valid extrapolation from similar arguments about – streaming services. To which I responded: That’s a valid point, yeah. I guess what I’m thinking is, first you have to convert those 10,000 potential fans, and there’s so much white noise these days that you have to reach them through the media they use rather than just sit back and wait for them to find you. Let’s say I read about a new band, or perhaps hear the tail end of a song on the local college station: to be able to pop over to Spotify or YouTube instantly and listen to their record is incredibly gratifying and in the immediacy of that initial rush I may even be convinced I should go buy the record. It’s the digital equivalent of being turned on to a band while wandering around the record store. (Let it be known that I have worked in stores three times, early 80s, throughout the 90s, and from 2012-2015, so I am devoutly pro brick and mortar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t accept digital for what it represents to a lot of folks, and to ignore that is to lose a significant percentage of potential fans. I use similar logic when I tell bands they need to release on digital, cd AND vinyl if they can afford it.)
In the week or so since this original discussion unfolded, I’ve seen several more of similar tenor. Working musicians, almost across the board, tend to fall into the anti-Spotify/streaming camp; I’d be interested to see actual royalty statements from a multiplicity of those folks, not only to give me a clearer picture of their objections, but to bolster the contention (which is also mine, do not mistake me here) that the powers that be need to take a hard look at what fair compensation for our artists should be. Historically, they have been ripped off to a ridiculous degree. I also feel, though, that in 2017, in a lot of instances, lower-radar artists are getting their music heard on a heretofore unprecedented level, with each fresh listen representing an opportunity for a new sale. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a crapshoot, but still… 1% of something is better than 0% of nothing. (Not trying to be facile here.)
I’d also like to see a broader understanding among the general public about what it means to be a fan, consumer, and collector of popular music. Because the music industry has ripped us off as well—just Google terms like “$10.98 list price,” “Napster,” “rootkit,” “RIAA lawsuits,” and my favorite, “Green Day sets list price for new CDs at $18.98,” among many—and it may be time for we fans and you artists to pool our resources and find a new way of doing business together going forward.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com. He receives a shitload of music in the mail each month for free, and he also buys nearly as much each month because he believes in supporting his favorite artists. He has the record store receipts to prove it. What’s in YOUR wallet?