I was planning on continuing my series on recording this week, but in case you aren't already aware, there's a big controversy happening in the music world after Taylor Swift and her record label decided to pull her entire catalog off of Spotify, a very popular streaming music service.
Taylor claims that she ("she" meaning her and her label) pulled her music from Spotify because it doesn't pay artists enough for their work. Spotify's CEO (Daniel Ek) responded by saying that the service is better than the available alternatives (piracy and radio), which pay absolutely nothing to the artist. Ek claimed that they've distributed over $2 billion dollars to artists since 2008. Swift's camp responded by saying that the payout Ek claimed is inaccurate.
Many commenters have theorized that this entire controversy is a publicity stunt intended to inflate the asking price of Taylor's label, which is purportedly looking for potential buyers. Whether that is the case or not, the debate raised by this situation is still highly relevant to millions of other artists and all music consumers.
This conversation is certainly relevant to me as a gigging musician with a day job who is nowhere near the success of Taylor Swift, so I thought I'd offer a couple of notes. Keep in mind, these are my opinions, and my experience. I can't speak for other artists. I can only speak for me.
So, where do I stand on this issue? Well, I always have a hard time picking a clear winner in a debate, and this battle is no exception. I believe that Taylor and Spotify both have valid points, and I believe they are both wrong on a few things.
My most popular song makes .00 cents per play on Spotify
My band has our entire catalog (4 albums, an EP, and a single) on Spotify. The payouts we get for each play vary depending on the popularity of the song, but our most popular song makes .00 cents. Yes, I said .00 cents. If we factor in a few more decimal places, you'll see that it's actually .0008 cents per play. Now, I'm no math-doer-guy, but if my calculations are correct, if that song got 1 million plays, that's $800 bucks.
Since radio airplay pays almost nothing for musicians at my level, and piracy pays absolutely zero, Spotify is correct in saying that whatever money one makes from Spotify is more than one would earn from those distribution methods. On the other hand, Taylor is correct in saying that this is not enough for most artists to make a living from.
Keep in mind, the vast majority of Spotify artists are never going to get a million plays for a song. We non-Taylor Swifts slog through social media and one-on-one conversation to convince a potential fan to play a few of our tracks one or two times. If we get lucky, they like what they hear and pass the word to their friends, but in general, one assumes that listeners play a couple tunes then move on to another artist.
Let's back up and take the idea of "making a living" out of the equation... If my band had a song reach a million plays on Spotify (which would be awesome), that still wouldn't be enough to reimburse us for the investment of recording that song, let alone an album, or 4 albums, an EP, and a single.
In discussing these issues online and with others, many people ask a question along the lines of: "why do artists deserve to get paid? If they enjoy it, they should just do it and quit whining." The best way I can respond to this is with the metaphor of a tradesman.
A guy, let's call him "Pete," goes to school to learn electrical engineering. He puts out a lot of money for tuition, and spends a lot of time studying and practicing the skills he learns. When he's done with school, he goes into an apprenticeship, where he's paid (at best) minimum wage. After accruing hundreds of hours of experience, he finally gets invited to join a union, and is paid a proper living wage for his work.
By contrast, a musician, let's call him "Artie," goes to school to learn music. He pours out tuition money, and invests time in learning to play guitar. He finishes school, and starts a band. They spend hundreds of hours writing and rehearsing their songs. They pool together several thousand dollars, and go into a studio to record. They shell out more money for the mixing and the mastering. At this point they have put out around 10-15 thousand dollars. They put the songs up on Spotify. They get a few cents for each play.
When you invite Pete the electrician to your house to re-do your wiring, he does the work and you pay him. When you listen to Artie the musician's work and enjoy it, what do you do?
One of Spotify's primary arguments is that the money they pay artists is better than piracy, in which the artist gets nothing. While technically true, that's not really a great way to make your point. Paying a grocery store ten cents for a $3 dollar gallon of milk is better than me stealing it outright, but that doesn't mean it's the best way to go.
Spotify is better than piracy... but only barely.
I've seen some people make the argument that most of the money a song makes goes to the "label" instead of the artist, which means it's okay to pirate, because you're only stealing from evil corporations instead of starving artists. That may be true... for those artists that have labels. I don't have one, so I can only say that every penny you send my way helps immensely more than giving me nothing.
I'll confess, I have a Spotify account. I've had one for a few years now. I simply don't know of a better way to get music. CDs are bulky, and you have to have them with you in order to listen to them. Downloading to my phone and taking up valuable hard drive space is silly when streaming is available. I would pay more for Spotify if it meant artists got more money, but, I doubt most people would.
So, yes, I use Spotify, but I am in no way trying to convince myself that it is the moral high ground. It's better than piracy, yes, but only barely.
No one (including Spotify and Taylor Swift) knows what the hell is going on in the music industry
Spotify and Taylor Swift actually agree on something, (sort of), and that is, when it comes to the dilemma of how artists should be paid for their music, no one knows what the hell is going on right now. Spotify has come up with a solution that is great for fans, but pretty abysmal for the average artist. Taylor's solution is to sort of try to stick to the old music industry system. That would be great for labels and many artists, but unrealistic for fans.
I don't have a better answer. No one does. All I know is, as a musician, I'm going to keep making music. Each time I record a new album, people ask me, "how are you going to promote/market/sell it?" My answer is always, "I don't know. I just want to make music." I've actively tried not making music. It doesn't work.
If someone figures out a way to pay for the time and effort I put into my recordings that works for the fans and the artist, great, but until then, I'm just going to keep making music. It's not a good way to make money, in fact, it's a pretty great way to lose money. But, I can't help it. Whether I get paid or not, I'm still going to do it.
If you actually care about supporting music, there are ways you can help.
1) Send a musician a check. A lot of musicians use kickstarter or other crowd-funding services to finance their albums and tours. That works. Chip in. You don't have to limit yourself to just one artist or project. Realize that most kickstarters fail because they don't reach a funding target.
2) Go to live shows. Most artists make a hell of a lot more money from playing gigs than they do from recording or streaming. That is, if people come to their shows. If they play to an empty room, they still have to pay for gas, they still spend their time rehearsing and writing, and their money on gear. But, if they play to a packed house, they might actually have a couple of bucks to put toward their bills.
3) Buy merch. T-shirts, bumper stickers, and hoodies can't be downloaded... yet. So, while it still counts, buy band merchandise. Most of the money goes to the artist.
4) Pay extra for things. You give your waiters, valets, and bartenders tips. Most musicians make a lot less than those guys, and put out a lot more money for their gear and gas. Buy a CD at a show, and pad the price a little. It goes further than you think.