The Problem With Streaming
(& What We Can Do)
"The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and has overturned the order of the soul."
- Leonard Cohen, 'The Future'
Click on anything in this article that is underlined, as that will bring you to its source.
My commitment is for this post to be a practical & helpful database for musicians & music fans in 2020, so please feel free to comment below with your own thoughts, facts & resources below the post.
As of 2021 this is a bit outdated, but sadly, it still largely holds true, and in fact, most services are fighting to pay artists even less.
Hi, my name is Taylor Abrahamse, and I'm a singer/songwriter in Toronto Canada. I've been writing music for well over a decade, was a finalist on Canadian Idol, have written viral music for Youtube channels and music for TV, run a professional recording studio, and was mentored & produced by Grammy-winning producer/engineer Eddie Kramer out of his love for my songwriting. I have made the vast majority of my income as a professional cartoon voice actor & coach heard around the world, although it takes up maybe 1/6th of my time. I'm thankful for that income & love voice acting, but the disparity of income between the two career paths, given my genuine skill & effort at both, I think paints a troubling picture.
You may be here by chance, maybe you found out about my debut record - or maybe found my audio credit tracks in pill form in the year 2182-B. In any case, thank you for being here. This post is all about the current music industry in 2020 - the facts, the impact, and ways we can create a system that truly works for everyone.
The music industry isn't hunky-dory? Whats the problem?
Problems facing today's music industry are complex and plenty - underfunded school music programs, the pandemic mostly eliminating live music & shuttering live music venues, age-old arguments about music reducing in quality and becoming more 'homogenized' are starting to get backed with objective research.
But I want to focus on one aspect here - streaming services, which many artists, including myself, find too convenient to ignore, but are presently toxic to the integrity of music. The effect & reach of music is impossible to truly measure, so it becomes a service that is easy to undervalue. It also becomes easy for some to view artists who speak out against streaming services as 'whiny' 'naive', or 'greedy', so while I will try to speak on the cultural & creative damage streaming is causing, I will do my best to keep to the facts. I am not driven to write this because I am greedy, I am writing this to be heard - the public & companies need a deeper understanding of what really goes into making music, so the rules they set do not take music workers for granted, and allow them to keep effectively doing what they were born to. There is deep, profound, creative potential that is squandered in a world where musicians are mostly forced into a life of extreme fragmentation & poverty.
Surprisingly, some industry players even argue that many streaming giants literally cannot afford to pay artists any better, at least in the case of the biggest offender (Spotify), because Spotify licenses music rather than outright owning the songs it streams. Therefore, when time comes to renew a license agreement, record labels & music unions can keep jacking up the cost to license until Spotify cannot afford to keep expanding, and loses its audience.
Let me be clear that, typically, artists are requesting something around a cent per stream from all platforms, which some of the less popular streaming platforms are already doing - I believe if that is truly an impossible ask for Spotify, there is something deeply wrong with streaming as a model, or at least middlemen at labels taking too much of the whole. Either way, streaming simply doesn't work for artists right now, and artists & music fans alike owe it to themselves to stand up for what is fair.
It requires millions of streams per year (numbers usually reserved for major acts) for an artist to earn a minimum living wage, and especially during a pandemic, other sources of income cannot pick up the slack - nor should they. While, yes, major label acts or certain legacy artists seem to sustain themselves and their creative output despite these issues, the problems are especially apparent with the dramatically diminishing 'middle class' of present-day musicians. These are artists who built a loyal following & thrived, often in the days when people still really bought CDs and records, who are now forced to compromise their creative output in order to survive. They worked their lives to make art of a certain standard, their fanbases (hopefully!) want to hear them unconstrained and free to keep reaching or exceeding that standard. However, with their finances exasperated by streaming companies, they are now grappling with paying the bills in a fragmented 21st century music business where they can't necessarily afford the team they could anymore, and as a result, their quality of life and musical potential becomes compromised.
And if its a nearly-impossible feat for 'middle-class' artists, imagine what its like for emerging artists.
Take it from someone who is one, and any of the thousands of artists signing petitions for streaming services to get their act together.
There are two specific changes I would like to see with streaming:
1. Everyone involved in musical projects are properly credited for their work. Much like streaming services pay artists slivers of cents for their music, most streaming services only list a sliver of the team that went into making an album. This makes it harder for artists to be acknowledged, secure future work, and in the overwhelming world of music metadata makes it even harder to help ensure everyone gets paid.
In my own way, I’m looking to help with this problem by creating ‘audio credits’ tracks that play after my album on streaming services. In trying to make them entertaining, I went pretty overboard & bizarre, enlisting a bunch of fabulous musical friends (and a Morgan Freeman impressionist) to perform my album's credits as 'little pieces of sonic art'. If credits tracks became the norm, I believe the music world would be better for it. And artists, you don't have to go overboard with them like I did - even reading credits over a beat would get the job done! By the way, you can find the credits tracks I made here, and the written credits here.
2. Artists are fairly compensated for their recorded music. Generally, artists are aiming to bring the minimum to one cent per stream. Yes, there are other ways artists can find compensation, but it doesn’t mean the resulting system is fair, or sustainable. As a result of artists being paid terribly by streaming services, more and more they are forced to manage their entire careers, on top of trying to make art they can be proud of, a near impossible feat that has lead incredible hit-makers such as Donald Fagen to outright give up on making albums and be forced back to touring. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become especially dire that we are properly paid for our recorded music, since artists cannot (or at least should not) play live shows.
Streaming is a many-layered beast of a quesadilla, but let my try to distill the streaming realities for you.
- In 2020, streaming music pays anywhere from 0.00437 cents per stream (Spotify) to a little over a cent per stream (Napster). Its even worse with certain sectors of Youtube and services in China, where a stream pays as low as 0.00040 (Tencent, QQ). It takes about 3.5 million Spotify streams per year to make the equivalent of an American minimum wage, or about 1.2 million on the two platforms that pay about a cent per stream (Tidal and Napster). Millions of streams are not numbers an artist can likely reach without an enormous upfront investment, as I'll explain later in this post.
- While these numbers are awful, they're even worse, ironically, if one has support from a record label or publishing company. In theory one has access to a greater audience in that case, so it should end up being better for the artist. However, there are examples such as classical artist Tasmin Little, who received barely $15 USD from streaming during a six month period, despite having 600,000 monthly listeners.
- Netflix insists on ‘buyouts’ for composers, which typically means they are, over time, compensated far less for their work than in the golden age of TV composing. TV composing, by the way, is also slashing away at its royalty payouts for composers, and forcing composers to comply.
- Metadata, the data that helps ensure everyone involved in a song gets paid, is a convoluted mess with different payouts going to a myriad of different organizations, and without universal standards for metadata inclusion, review & payment collection, most artists are missing out on money they are owed.
- The most popular of the music streaming services is Spotify, so lets focus on it. If an artist manages to get 100,000 streams on Spotify as someone with no co-writers and as a self-released album, you could make maybe $400 USD according to the calculator here. Other estimates and factors put you a little higher or lower, but that's a fair average. 400 bucks - half a month's rent? Just play a couple virtual shows, work a part-time job till you book some festivals someday, and you're set, right?
Now, lets look at what’s typically involved to just get 100,000 streams, unless you're Ed Sheeran:
- A rigorous promotional campaign prepared months in advance, with an emphasis on releasing singles to streaming platforms (typically one a month). You can look at countless music social media coaches, and they will tend to insist on the same thing, just start down that Youtube rabbit hole.
- Spending days/weeks submitting your song to playlisters and taking the time to make sincere, personalizes pleas to them. You also need to make sure to upload your track weeks (ideally a month) in advance, and usually pay a distribution website such as Distrokid or Tunecore a fee to upload your music (I recommend Indiepool myself, a small and honest operation). Many databases of these playlists & their contact info require money to even submit such as SubmitHub or PlaylistParrot, unless you want to spend thankless months you could be creative building a spreadsheet.
- A thorough understanding of how to build an audience on streaming platforms, which often involves an extensive social media campaign of having fans pre-save a song before its released (pre-saving can itself be very convoluted), carefully scripted yet somehow sincere video content, teasers and other content created for numerous platforms (which all have different dimensions & file restrictions and means you usually need to develop strong video & photo editing skills), professional photoshoots, ideally a professional music video, investing extensively in ad spend and understanding the complex & glitchy convolutions of Google Ads or Facebook (and probably having to hire someone for it anyway), spamming friends and family to listen to your music, joining countless websites for extra features to give you whatever edge you can get for building an audience (Hypeddit, Hootsuite, Kenji being just three of a never ending sea of new things), and more things I’m surely forgetting. Again, just look at what the gurus spout on Youtube, ideally newer videos because the rules are also changing at a ridiculous clip.
- Doing lots of that stuff yourself. Yes, you can risk delegating all of these tasks to other people - but this again costs money many worthy artists do not have, and as I've found various times from personal experience, especially if you're on a budget, may result in unreliable people taking money and running (and its not enough money to go to small claims court over). Also, if you have even the slightest vision for yourself, people willing to work for low fees will almost always give you worse results than doing it yourself. Choosing the wrong company to get you streams & fans could also get you blacklisted from streaming services. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Reluctantly make even less money per stream. In a grotesque recent development, streamers can further dig into their paltry streaming payouts to have Spotify give your song a better shake at getting streams, essentially creating further money for Spotify on the backs of already underpaid musicians. It doesn’t help that the CEO of Spotify has also told aritsts to simply release music more often, in a tone-deaf response to anyone who justly believes in ‘quality over quantity’.
- Recording & producing a song, and getting it done well. The expenses involved here already almost entirely ensure a middle-class established artist will not see a return on their investment unless they are simply singing over a trap beat and making something very musically rudimentary. Many artists today are forced into being their own producers, sound engineers, mixing/mastering engineers, etc, simply because their other musical income streams are shriveling up. Having to learn a whole other skill set that people train for years to gain mere competency at, is risky to say the least. It is not to say it is impossible, but artists are often their own worst critic, and objectivity is essential at the mixing & production levels which an artist often cannot provide.
For my debut album, I was out to create a very ambitious, dense, fully-orchestrated record - near suicide for a debut album in the 21st century, but normal for the decades of recorded music that inspired it - the 60's/70's. While I had other people I was collaborating with on the production/mixing/mastering aspects, I ultimately had to do certain parts myself due to sheer financial limitations, and I have no idea if that was better for the record or not.
It became apparent to me earlier on that simpler genres of music such as pop & hip hop are partially so popular because they are vastly easier to do well with modern technology and home studio setups - whereas, creating a 'vintage' record with sophisticated songs that require real instruments, songs that demand to sounds on-par with the greatest records of the 60's/70's is virtually impossible without immense access to pro studios, and gargantuan budgets. I had some of those advantages on this record, in no small part thanks to some Canadian music grants, owning my own mid-range pro studio & having extraordinary producers like Eddie Kramer & Fred Mollin having involvement - but that is a very rare scenario to be in, and we all still felt the constraints of the modern industry pushing against us every step of the way as we tried to fulfill what a couple decades earlier, would be a more manageable vision.
Simply put, to gain that return, an artist needs to somehow balance being an artist with doing the work of what used to be a team of people, and almost certainly not break even on their investment. Unless you're Netflix, how can you perpetually be in the red but put out quality content? However one goes about it, the financial barrier for entry is so large that, without being born into wealth (which is a reality for many 21st century music megastars, a sampling here), or having one's music ‘go viral’ (situations which are often allegedy fabricated), a musical artist may not ever see a return on investment. And even then, they may not break even, or have any certainty releasing the next single will be any simpler for them, and build that much on the previous release. Fame should not feel like it is a necessity for breaking even as a musician.
We can keep saying ‘its career building’, ‘its exposure’, 'We’ll be able to leverage that exposure into other income streams’, and while that is true to a certain degree... the whole situation is icing on a mud pie, a consolation prize that enables a toxic marriage with a system that may have no choice but to fundamentally undervalue artists.
As far as I can tell, here is the impact the modern music industry is having on artists,
and how it connects back to streaming services.
The Impact On Artists & Creativity
- Diminishing Creativity & Time To Be Creative. On a conference call hosted by a major music events organization here in Canada, a music business expert recommended artists spend roughly a quarter of the year actually being a musician, and the rest being their own music promoter, publicist, touring manager, social media manager, and more, unless they can afford one. As we've already addressed, an ever-increasing majority of musicians cannot. Imagine Leonard Cohen having to slog for years doing the job of ten people - Do you think he would cultivate the skills and practice necessary to write ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Tower Of Song’, or Paul Simon would find the skill to write 'The Sounds Of Silence'? Its already enough of a mixed bag that years of shady management forced him into late-career touring. Or imagine how compromised The Beatles output would be with only a song per month, and most of their time spent managing their own careers? You'd also have to choose between Magical Mystery Tour or Sgt. Peppers, which came out the same year. Or if Dolly Parton had to choose between having the time to write 'Jolene' or 'I Will Always Love You', two monster hits written on the same day.
While this is more indicative of social media & the computer revolution as a whole, streaming's poor payouts are a major contributor to why artists have less time to be creative, yet the demand to release perpetual content.
- Diminishing Impact & Reach For One's Music. This is a bit harder to pin down, but hear me out, and look honestly at your own life & social media use. If TV channel surfing is overwhelming, now times that by a thousand, and that is social media. It is generally understood that attention spans are shrinking, and therefore I'd assert, there is less capacity to really take in a song or a record. While the immediacy of social media & how it devalues art is a profound contributor, streaming services generally serve to strengthen, enable, and jump on the bandwagon of these services. A musical artist can slave away for years for the fleeting chance of you scrolling through and staying around for hopefully thirty seconds so they can make a sliver of a cent from their $10,000 dollar music video. Its not to say that it is impossible to make a living this way, but to leave a lasting, meaningful, positive impression on someone, I've become deeply skeptical of. Experts believe humans are exposed to thousands of ads daily, and spend an average of three hours daily on social media. To cut through that noise and make a difference, is a tremendous feat, regardless the quality of your music. It makes it harder as an artist to wake up feeling one can make any difference with their work - I'm continuing to do this to hopefully prove my gut suspicions wrong.
- Streaming & social media is affecting what music gets made, heard, and how songs themselves are being structured. When computer algorithms largely determine what gets seen, artists feel an obligation to play into that algorithm. How? By knowing the ever-changing rules of all platforms: what time of day to upload on which platforms, how best to hashtag, what artwork to use, a careful release strategy - but also, by making something so fundamentally eye-catching, our animal brain just can't help but clikc on it. Social media, the drug that it is, plays into humanity's basest instincts, which seems to be a strange blend of comfort (kittens!) and terror (horrible news and 'doomscrolling'). This also shows itself in what music people consume when on the social media drug. Successful online music tends to:
- Be covers with a twist (Popular songs in different styles do well including WOTH, Scary Pockets, Postmodern Jukebox)
- Rely so heavily on visual gimmicks that the music is secondary (Look at the entire career of OkGo)
- Overtly follow trends. Look at who is musically trending on Instagram or TikTok in 2020 and the amount of pretty Halsey, Drake, or Billie Eillish soundalikes finding an audience is heartbreakingly high.
While every generation has always had imitators and music trends, never has the bar for entry into the music industry been so low (you just need a phone!), so the field of imitators has never been so saturated, and the pull towards homogenization been so strong. On the coattails of the 'American Idol' idea that anyone might be the next star, social media promises the same, but on a whole new level - today, YOU could be a star right now with your next post. As a result, there is an endless barrage of talentless talent, churning out easy to make trap tracks to pre-made beats, or pretty girls with rudimentary ukulele knowledge raking large online audiences. This redundancy serves to further entrench certain trends in the public consciousness, and take away further attention from anyone trying to do something unique, unless it is so comically bizarre and extreme that it can't help but cut through the noise a bit.
It is so odd & tragic to me the amount of deification and appreciation that goes on for artists that are 'distinct', yet how that appreciation manifests in impersonators, rather than more originality. That's algorithms for ya!
Further forcing music in certain directions, listening equipment itself is built around trends and the expectations of particular genres. For example, playback equipment is often built around accentuating the throbbing bass of hip hop & rap, and sound engineers over the years have fought for audience attention in the loudness wars, encouraging extreme punchiness and the resulting simplicity over dynamic shifts, key changes, richness, and nuance. These realities make anything outside of the confines of these rules or style expectations sound ‘out of place' and therefore often 'not as good' to many listeners, regardless of their merits.
But more than that, song structure is getting affected - as music is listened to in increasingly chaotic environments, the adage of ‘keep it simple, stupid’ rather than a sage guideline, becomes a necessity. The simplicity and repetition of popular music has at times become so monotonous, scientific studies themselves have even argued that music overall is simply not as good as it used to be. This isn't just the old cliche of every successive generation thinking the music they grew up with was better.
It is also encouraged to ensure the hook of your song is presented ASAP, to help keep the listener around for at least thirty seconds - at which point, the song counts as a ‘stream’ and payment is secured. Songs have, on average been getting even shorter as a result of this practice as well. The epitome of this trend is something like ‘Old Town Road’, a song that took a slight twist on what was trending (Trap) by infusing it with some country aesthetics & playing heavily into ‘meme-ability’ in its marketing strategy. As of this writing, it has become the longest-running Number one single of all time at 19 weeks. While I like the track & like the important & necessary discussions it created, I don’t think its a stretch to say that its a far cry from the inventiveness & emotional depth of most monster hit singles of the 20th century (Ex. Whats Going On, Bohemian Rhapsody, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, heck, even 2000's 'It Wasn't Me' by Shaggy), songs that still resonate with people today. Yes, there is tripe in every decade, but I don't hear popular music (or middle-tier artists) daring to reach the same creative heights as before with their sound, leaving any semblance of inventiveness to their music videos instead. It is so common to hear songs on the radio that use the same fundamentally pleasing four chord progression that artists have regularly parodied the un-originality of popular music, a famous example here.
In the 60’s/70’s artists would often sign record deals that included substantial promotion and many albums to give a unique artist a chance to find their audience - it was riskier, but allowed the possibility of extraordinary critical/commercial smashes like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumors’, an album with such an impact, it can still chart today. I assert that so many of the greatest artists of all time with ‘acquired taste’ voices - Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Neil Young - are products of their time, and would not have had the same quality of output, or nearly as many opportunities to create & thrive, in todays music business. We would probably be without stunning works like Old Man (Randy or Neil's), Marie, or Hurricane.
I’ve been lucky to have a fair shake, at least with my debut album, at truly making something special, ambitious, and complex and in the spirit of albums from the 70’s I grew up with in the early 00's. Heck, I was even approached by the great Eddie Kramer, a pioneer of sound engineering working with artists like Jimi Hendrix & The Beatles, who believes greatly in my skill as a writer. His touch got me a lot closer to achieving that vision.
But I also made an album designed to be consumed as one, in an age that is woefully ill-prepared for that. I'm glad I did what I wanted to, but I don't see how I can have that luxury going forward. Sometimes it seems I only hope that, if I sacrifice my creative sensibilities to plough away at the business side, they're still there when I can return. This is not a choice any true musical artist should have to make, but for those who see it and deal with this struggle every day, it is up to us to create a new world now.
How Do We Make A Difference?
Valuable Music Resources:
SIGN PETITIONS! Like this one.
JAXSTA - To counteract the realities of spotty credits on streaming services, I’m thankful for Jaxsta. Advertised as ‘your music industry resume’, its an extensive and intuitive way to discover who did what on a recording. Not only is this vital for artists today, but a fascinating and intuitive way to expand your knowledge of music history. I still encourage you to create audio credit tracks as well, and perhaps to advertise Jaxsta in those audio tracks - more ways to know who did what can’t hurt. Now free to use for 2020.
MUSICIAN UNIONS - There are a myriad of local & national unions who are working to fight for streaming parity, and could use voices like yours.
BANDCAMP - Bandcamp is the little rebel that could, managing to pay millions to artists around the world and become the go-to place to purchase albums online from indie artists. Aritsts set a maximum amount of times a song can be streamed through the service before requiring payment, and can even set it at PWYC. With easy merchandise integration and a quasi-successful Patron angle thrown in for good measure, Bandcamp is only getting bigger, and I think all artists are better for it.
Check out this service which will take Spotify playlists, and find those tracks on Bandcamp for you.
BANDZOOGLE, ESPECIALLY ITS 'SUBSCRIBER' SERVICE - Bandzoogle is a website building platform designed for musicians, and was what this site was built with. While I find it's flexibility in design sorely lacking and un-intuitive (like all drag & drop website builders, but its especially mediocre here) - what I LOVE is its features that cater to musicians, such as a built-in mailing list feature, a wide array of music services one can embed, easy-to-make online stores, and its own Patreon-style service called Suscribers... all of these features, by the way, don't take ANYTHING from your sales. Just an annual fee to build & maintain the website. I made a subscriber feature, and for clarity's sake, called it 'Be A Patron' in my menu.
PATREON - While Patreon isn’t solving the reality that streaming should pay better, its certainly a band-aid. Created itself by Jack Conte, an independent music & visual artist (half of popular duo Pomplamoose), Patreon has become a vital tool for making scheduled donations to artists of all kinds, in exchange for content. I’ve enjoyed being a Patron for creators such as David Firth, Todd In The Shadows... yes, Youtubers, not musicians, I'm a jerk. However, its proven sensible and successful for various musical artists as well, and reliably ensuring artists receive their payouts for tiers as low as $1 a month/per piece of content.