Streaming services have become central to the way we consume music. Platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Tidal and Deezer make billions off of subscription fees, but this isn’t reflected in the size of their payments to the majority of artists. The music industry is a #brokenrecord, and it’s time we, as consumers, became more conscious of where our subscription fees end up once it’s left our pockets.
Bandcamp, not a streaming service, but a platform to directly purchase music from artists, waived their (already modest) fees for one day in March, in light of the financial uncertainty many artists are facing as a result of lockdown. This meant that the artists received 100% of the money people paid for their music. Artists, actually receiving the money paid for work they produced, shouldn’t be a radical concept, but in the age of digital music consumption, it is.
Gearing up for the day, musicians sifted through their archives, rediscovering forgotten tracks and even rushing to produce new bits in time to publish exclusively on Bandcamp for the fee-free day. Some artists incredibly also chose to donate all proceeds from the day to charities and the NHS. This was a noble move from Bandcamp, who are already very transparent with their fees and pay artists fairly and daily (whereas artists can be waiting months for payments from streaming services like Spotify). When Bandcamp first launched the initiative for a single day in March, they generated $4.3 million for artists in just 24 hours – 15x more than an ordinary Friday. In light of this success, and with immense appreciation not just from artists but also conscious consumers, they decided to make this a recurring initiative, waiving fees again for the first Friday of May, June and July. While this is an honourable act from Bandcamp, it only sheds light on the deeper issues surrounding the role of digital streaming services in the music industry today.
Tom Gray, of PRS and a musician himself, wrote a damning Twitter thread last week revealing what most consumers of music are blissfully ignorant of – the pittance the majority of artists are paid by streaming platforms. This sparked a huge discussion between many stakeholders across the industry, from artists, to labels, to musicians’ unions, about the bleak future of the music industry if nothing changes, labelling the industry as it stands as a #brokenrecord. He exposed the pay structures that are in place that stop the artists being fairly compensated for the work they produce, with most revenue going to the streaming platform itself and the label, before splitting what’s left between the artists and songwriters.
Although this has been an issue since the dawn of streaming platforms and the death of the consumption of physical music (RIP HMV), times have been even harder for artists since lockdown began. Tours and festivals are obviously out of the question, and royalty fees have plummeted since businesses are no longer open and playing music. It’s a worrying time for everyone, but music artists are a corner of society who have mostly fallen through the cracks for government help and are now relying solely on the digital consumption of their music in order to survive, from which - Tom has unearthed - they get paid next to nothing.
So what’s the answer? How do we #FixStreaming? While there’s definitely a need for artists, labels and streaming services to return to the negotiating table and formulate a pay structure that’s fair for everyone involved in the production and distribution of music, I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Tom, like many others in the industry, advocates for the adoption of a user-centric pay-out system. As it stands, Spotify pay artists on a ‘pro-rata’ system. What this means is simple: they pool together all the revenue they receive from subscription and ad revenue and – after keeping a hefty chunk for themselves – divvy up the rest to artists according to the number of streams the artist racked up.
This type of system has two major implications. Firstly, the most popular artists obviously benefit from this pay-out method. That’s the Taylor Swifts, the Drakes, the Ariana Grandes of the industry; leaving the vast majority of artists, who have nowhere near this kind of listenership, with diddly-squat. Secondly, it means that the money consumers pay for their subscription, goes towards music they don’t actually consume (unless you are consuming music by the Taylor Swifts, the Drakes and the Ariana Grandes). Effectively, I pay Spotify a tenner a month to listen to artists like Skengdo, but my money ends up with Taylor Swift, who I’ve probably never streamed in my life. That doesn’t sit right with me.
Tom also calls for subscription fees for streaming services to be put up by 25% so that there’s a bigger pot for artists. Would you pay an extra couple of quid a month to make sure the artists that enrich your life on a daily basis are properly compensated and motivated to stay in the industry and produce more of the music you love? I would.
Besides, streaming platforms aren’t directly losing money from lockdown measures (if anything, listenership is increasing as a result of lockdown). But artists definitely are. And streaming services should follow Bandcamp’s example and recognise that as their one single asset – the artists whose music they profit from – are suffering right now, it’s time to step in and compensate them for the inadequate payments they’ve been offering them for years.
But, no, instead of Spotify sharing the 22% revenue increase they’ve enjoyed in the first quarter of 2020, with struggling artists, they’ve instead launched a ‘tip jar’ function that allows the ordinary listener to donate to artists, on top of the subscription fee they already pay. We are once again in the ironic, laughable situation where individuals and companies with millions of pounds under their belts are urging the average Joe – whose income has potentially been less than stable as of late – to humbly dig deep into their pockets and Support! Your! Artists! It’s bullshit.
We need to recognise music as an indispensable component of our culture and of enjoyment in our lives. It’s time that musicians are appreciated for the value their craft adds to our lives every single day, in monetary form. We’ve had to say a temporary good-bye to a lot of aspects of our lives recently, but thankfully, music isn’t one of them, and we are indebted to artists for providing us with glimmers of bliss in this at this time. In a time when we’re all hopefully more conscious of whose pockets we’re lining, one of the best ways we can support artists whilst they’re undoubtedly going through rocky times, is to buy their music through platforms that actually give a shit about paying them fairly.
Bandcamp will waive its fees again this Friday 1st May from midnight to midnight PDT. If you’re in a position to, consider buying a track or two off your favourite artist. In these times, and well after this is all over, your money will go a long way in ensuring that the music industry is a sustainable one for the average artist to making a decent living in. Buy a track on Friday and be rest assured that every single penny of that will be in the artists’ hold by Monday.