Can Musicians Make Money Off Of Streaming?

Derek is an MBA in entrepreneurship, painter, and bassist for Onward We March, a local progressive metal band. He teaches business skills to artists and writes weekly music business advice for his blog Derek Thinks Music. Got a business question about your art? Shoot him an email at derekmiller5@gmail.com

Boon or burden?

There’s been quite a raging controversy over Spotify over at Hypebot as musicians across the industry chime in with their opinion on the streaming service.

Zoe Keating, Cellist and brilliant DIY musician, talks about how independant artists are treated unfairly.

That’s it. That’s my complaint: fairness.

If Spotify would level the playing field and make the distribution equal to all artists. I would lay off (since I am sure that my constant complaints are a total priority for them!). Now, if Spotify was to make those royalties algorithm-based, they’d have my full nerd support. For example if, thanks to their ‘related’ algorithm,  people listen to small-artist X after listening to large-artist Y, then I could see that a particular play, not all of them, of artist Y could be ‘heavier’. However, if people end up at artist Y by searching for them directly, the play-weight should reflect that. Data, do it with data!

But just to pay tracks from major labels more because they are major labels, that is so OLD. Where is the revolution in that?

Four indie labels have already withdrawn from the service. Sam Rosenthal of Projekt, the most recent label to pull out, issued a public statement explaining the label’s decision bluntly: 

For a stream on Spotfy…. NOW READ THIS CLOSELY….. on average $0.0013 is paid to Projekt’s Digital Distributor. 5000 plays generates around $6.50. In comparison, 5000 track downloads at iTunes generates $3487. To be clear: I am not suggesting that every stream would have been a sale at iTunes. Believe me, I understand the reality of the music business. I am providing that as a comparison for you. Let’s look at this another way: To earn the U.S. monthly minimum wage – $1160 – 892,307 plays a month are needed at Spotify. This is not a viable number for artists.  

Spotify responded to Projeckt by changing the subject:

Spotify does not sell streams, but access to music. Users pay for this access either via a subscription fee or with their ear time via the ad-supported service [just like commercial radio] – they do not pay per stream. In other words, Spotify is not a unit based business and it does not make sense to look at revenues from Spotify from a per stream or other music unit-based point of view. Instead, one must look at the overall revenues that Spotify is generating, and how these revenues grow over time.

Spotify is generating serious revenues for rights holders, labels, publishers and the artists that they represent.  We have paid over $100m to rights holders since our launch, and the overwhelming majority of our label partners are thrilled with the revenues we’re returning to them. Spotify is now the second single largest source of digital music revenue for labels in Europe, according to IFPI.

But is this current royalty structure sustainable? According to Spotify’s filings in the UK, it lost $42 million on licensing fees in 2010 alone despite a five-fold increase in revenues from the previous year. 


What does all of this mean to an independant artist? Is streaming worth the loss in income so more fans can listen to your music? Can you ever break even on streaming? Is it better to just ignore the whole deal?

Here’s how I see things playing out:

1) Streaming services are similar to radio in that both benefit major labels with more money and muscle than independant bands. 

When it comes down to corporation-level negotiations, a DIY artist will always be at a disadvantage. Self-sufficent bands don’t have legal departments, lobbyists, consultants, piles of cash, or a fanbase ranging into the millions that can be used in negotiations. If Spotify can’t sign a DIY singer-songerwriter it’s no big deal, but if Spotify doesn’t have access to the entire Universal Music catalog, the streaming service will be severely crippled. The streaming service has to make that deal.

As such, these large entities leverage their influence and power to ensure that they maximize their benefit from negotiations. Organizations not at the table miss out.

It sucks, but I don’t see a solution to this problem without either a PRO stepping into negotiations or a coalition of DIY artists forming their own right’s group.

2) There’s no turning back, the cloud is here to stay.

For better or worse, streaming services figured out how to monetize piracy. Judging by the success of Rdio and Spotify, businesses have made their services more appealing than piracy. Unless there is a game-changing method of piracy to replace BitTorrent, the ease of use of the cloud will continue to draw in customers. (Piracy in Sweden is down 25% since the Spotify’s introduction.)

Businesses won’t give up this revenue stream without a fight.

3) Streaming is marginally better for indie musicians than radio.
Radio was a passive music experience, with a song selection heavily influenced by who had the most cash for promotion.

Streaming/cloud services/piracy enable an active music experience by allowing curious fans to give new bands a try. It won’t pay much, if anything, but it does benefit smaller and niche bands that wouldn’t get much airplay on traditional radio.

A minor win.

4) Streaming an album is a moral dilemma.
As a fan, it was absolutely awesome to hear the new Mastodon the day it came out for free on Spotify. Now I’ve got no qualms about throwing dollars at Mastodon, I’ve bought every studio album because they’re that gravy. But. having spun the album a few times, there wasn’t any reason for me to buy the actual album anymore.

This is a mammoth moral dilemma.

Instead of Mastodon seeing my entire $10 for a digital download (minus iTunes’ cut), the money is instead spent on a subscription to an intermediate who only offers the band a fraction of the $10. The middleman (streaming) scoops most of the profit off of album before it ever hits the band.

Owch.

How do we cope with this?

5) Delaying and limiting releases to streaming is an effective compromise.

By delaying release of new material to streaming services, we ensure that super-fans who are willing to pay for a “brand-new” album actually pay for the album, while not excluding casual listeners who may convert to a sale later down the line. This is the same method of price discrimination that movie companies use; movies don’t come out on DVD/Netflix until months after they’ve left the theaters. This ensures that movie-buffs willing to pay a price premium to see a movie in theaters actually pay.

For the same reason, any b-sides, rarities or limited-edition material shouldn’t be released to streaming services as this would discourage willing fans from paying at the cost of providing the material to casual fans, who really won’t care about “extra” material.

What are your thoughts on streaming?


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: