Spotify pays artists shit. So how come they’re still using it?
We’ve all seen the anecdotes circulating on social media.
Peter Frampton got paid $1,700 for 55 million streams of “Baby I Love Your Way.”
Danny Michel blames streaming services for a 95 per cent drop in album sales in one year.
Artists need approximately 438 streams on Spotify just to earn enough money to buy a box of Kraft Dinner – because the average Spotify royalty rate is $0.00331 per stream, according to the latest survey by The Trichordist. Now Spotify, Google, Pandora and Amazon are actually appealing a US Copyright Royalty Board decision to raise those rates – a move artist advocates have described as “suing songwriters.”
There’s no question music streaming services are raking in billions in revenues while paying next to nothing to the artists their businesses rely on – all the while cannibalizing what was left of the market for recorded music.
About the only thing the streaming services haven’t done is hold guns to artists’ heads and force them to make music available on their platforms.
Which raises the question, “Why do they?”
“My music is on Spotify in part because I use it as a listener,” singer-songwriter Christa Couture told me via email, noting that she misses the days of HMV listening posts and sees Spotify as today’s alternative. “I didn’t want to benefit from the service but deny others from accessing my music in the same ways.”
Christa buys music by artists she discovers on Spotify, she said, but she realizes many people don’t, and she admits she hasn’t completely resigned herself to the idea that some people will only choose to listen to her music on a nearly-free platform.
“As it stands, I wouldn’t lose much if I weren’t on Spotify, but I don’t want to lose it nonetheless,” she said. “I haven’t considered dropping it because I think that ship sailed a long time ago – or I’m not principled enough.”
Artist manager Mark Watson, who represents David Francey and Madison Violet among others, agreed with Christa that streaming is here to stay, so artists and industry people have little choice but to adapt.
“If I don’t have my artists participate, their music doesn’t get heard,” he said. “Resisting it and trying to force people to buy would be like pushing cassette tapes. Unfortunately, music is basically free in the eyes of the public.”
What’s more, Mark pointed out, granting organizations and other industry bodies use streaming numbers as a measure of success or failure the way they once used album sales. Good luck convincing FACTOR – the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings – to loan you money for a tour or a new collection of songs if you don’t have thousands of streams to show for your previous efforts. And since many folk, roots, and world artists rely on support from funding bodies to grow their careers, giving up streaming simply isn’t an option.
Still, Mark said, as an artist manager, he hopes the streaming deals for artists improve.
Is Spotify the start of better things to come?
True North Records president Geoff Kulawick noted that the deal offered by streaming services is already better than the situation that immediately preceded their arrival – the proliferation of illegal file-sharing services such as Napster, which paid no compensation to artists whatsoever.
“I’d rather have low proceeds than no proceeds,” Geoff said.
From his perspective, streaming services deserve credit for putting illegal file-sharers out of business and creating an infrastructure in which artists and their allies can mobilize for better pay.
What’s needed now, he said, is a healthy field of competing services to help drive royalty rates up.
“The fact that Spotify is not Google, Amazon or Apple is a good thing,” he said.
“The bad guys here are the big tech companies, especially Google, who are constantly trying to drive down the value of content on their platform.”
So what happens if you’re not on Spotify?
But while competition among streaming services might pave the way for better pay in the future, it hasn’t happened yet. And that’s why at least one successful band in the Canadian roots milieu refuses to play ball.
“We’ve exchanged an illegal system that paid us nothing for a legal system that pays us nothing,” said Nicolas Boulerice of the Juno and Felix Award-winning Quebec traditional music giant Le Vent du Nord.
Around two years ago, the band members asked their label, Borealis, to pull the band’s music from streaming services after fans started telling them they “no longer needed to buy their albums.
”For a band that still sells around 15,000 copies of each new release, the loss of those sales was a serious concern, he said, speaking on the phone in French from his home in Quebec.
“In folk, people still buy albums,” Nicolas explained. It’s not like genres such as pop and rock, where the music-should-be-free mentality took hold with the advent of the mp3 – or at least with the advent of connection speeds that made it feasible to transfer them – and where the idea of free music is now so ingrained in a generation of fans that artists have little to lose by going along with it.
Le Vent du Nord announces to fans at its shows that its albums are largely not available to stream, he said, and it encourages them to buy them at the merch table on-site. The result, he said, has been more sales!
Still, Nicolas concedes, the band recognizes it will miss out on opportunities if it bypasses the streaming services completely.
He cites as an example the case of a reviewer in California who told the band he only reviewed albums he could access streams of.
For this reason, the band is considering posting a compilation of songs on the services while holding back their full albums to sell at shows or through their label.
At the same time, it’s trying to educate fans about the low low streaming rates, in hopes that they will choose to consume music in ways that compensate artists more appropriately.
“For a lot of people it’s cool, Spotify. They don’t realize the damage it does,” Nicolas said. “I believe that music lovers, if they knew the situation, would choose their music differently.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mis-stated the average Spotify royalty rate and the number of streams needed to earn enough money to buy a box of Kraft Dinner.