The recent feud between big-name artists and streaming services epitomizes the sheer complexities of the music industry in an era when many music consumers have never owned a hard copy of a recording, whether it be on vinyl, tape or disc.
Digital, or cyber music, now reigns supreme. Giant tech companies - the likes of Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google – dominate the distribution of music. It is a long way from the digital clouds to a struggling old-fashioned music store on Main St, Nowhereland!
And stranded someway in between is the unsung (so-to-speak) originator – the artist who has never had a hit, give or take the odd kick up the butt! It is these hard-working heroes who are struggling to make a living out of their musical talents at a time when being a full-time musician has never been so challenging – not helped by a worldwide pandemic curtailing live performances, whether they be global big-name tours or backroom-bar, one-night stands.
So, when legends the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell hit the global headlines by pulling their music off Spotify in protest over Covid-related opinions expressed by popular podcaster Joe Rogan, it provided an opportune time to focus on the plight of musicians in the digital age.
As social media went ballistic on the rights of free speech in the cyber world, it was not long before big names like Young and Mitchell found themselves with targets on their back. Professionals across all facets of the music industry began to question whether Young, Mitchell et al had got their priorities right.
Instead of raising issues of content on the streaming services, should in fact they be focusing on compensation?
Suddenly the recording industry is facing the same conundrum which confronted the publishing moguls a decade or more ago when digital dimes replaced print dollars as new media impacted on the traditional newspaper and magazine advertising. For the music world, it is now income from digital sales and pay-per-stream to that of across-the-counter hard copies.
And the sheer complexities of revenue from digital streaming has, for a number of reasons, focused particular attention on those recording artists who never have – and probably never will – made in any impact, either by sales or airplay, on the charts.
Case is point is Americana artist Rachel Baiman. Rachel who? You may well say. Baiman is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who moved from Chicago to Nashville at eighteen, more than a decade ago. She soon found work in a wide variety of roles - a session musician, for the likes of Molly Tuttle, a sidewoman to Kasey Musgraves and also as a producer – before releasing three solo albums and touring internationally.
A quick click on her Spotify profile reveals that her most popular track “I Could’ve Been Your Lover Too,” off her 2017 release Shame, has scored nearly five million hits, with another, “Something to Lose,” getting more than two million. Not a bad effort for a little-known artist, but a long way from Americana stars like The Band (238 million – “The Weight”), Steve Earle (101m – “Copperhead Road”), Lucinda Williams (24m - “Fruits Of My Labor”), Emmylou Harris (19m “Boulder to Birmingham”).
And for a comparison more relevant to the current debate, Neil Young’s highest tally on Spotify is 233.8m for “Heart of Gold,” while Joni Mitchell tops 23.8m with “Both Sides Now.” (And, yes, at the time of writing both artists could still be accessed through this writer’s current Spotify Premium account).
So when Baiman went public with her views on why Young and Mitchell had got their priorities wrong, she was doing so from the perspective of the honest-to-goodness artist trying to survive as a full-time musician in this ever-changing digital environment.
Writing in the roots magazine No Depression under the headline - THE WRONG HAUL: Neil, Joni, Have You Forgotten Your Own? - she pulled no punches:
"Over the past few years, we've seen streaming services basically destroy the economy of the music industry. Musicians are making less than a penny on each stream while selling pitiful numbers of digital and physical music. Record labels are broke and unable to invest in any kind of artist development and growth. The industry has been essentially driven into the ground by these hugely profitable streaming platforms, and here come Neil and Joni, using their political and social power against Spotify - because of JOE ROGAN??? Are you kidding me?"
"Personally, I don't have a strong opinion about Spotify's responsibility to police the podcasts that they host. It's hard to stomach anti-vaxxers in the best of times. I understand the issue with Rogan's huge listener base, and I think it's a valuable conversation to have. But Spotify was built primarily on the blood, sweat, tears, time, and hard-earned dollars of musicians. I just wish that those big artists, who truly have the power to make a difference for us small and even medium-sized fish at the bottom, would have taken a beat and realized that they could have made this play so much more effectively, and for much more relevant and impactful reasons."
Baiman then cut to the chase:
"I feel these old industry heroes have forgotten us little guys, drowning here at the bottom, and even the middle. I have 40,000 to 80,000 listeners per month on Spotify, and over eight million streams in total, yet I can't pay my bills with royalties, for even one month if I can't tour. Sometimes I imagine how much different my life, my art, my live show, my capacity to create could be if I was paid even a penny for each of those streams. Here we have an entire class of musicians that have barely been able to get off the ground and tour since 2020, and it's nigh on impossible to eke out a living from your recorded music alone."
She concluded her No Depression contribution with a plea for big artists to speak out and join the lobby for a new streaming model which benefits all artists.
Enter an artist with a big name!
Unlike Baiman, Rosane Cash, the daughter of a music legend, hardly resides in Struggle Street. An artist in her own right, and one admired in the industry for her integrity, Cash has long championed artists rights and is on the board of the Artist Rights Alliance. She too has joined the Young/Spotify debate by focusing on the implications for the average musicians.
In an article for Rolling Stone, she agreed with the principled position of the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and their anger over Covid misinformation: “But they’re legacy artists, and they have the clout to get their labels to agree to pull their work off Spotify. I wish they would explain how they were able to do that and why. I think they should have said that first: ‘I have the ability to do this because not everyone does.’ Because it’s not viable for most artists. The public doesn’t understand the complexities. I’m not the sole rights holder to my work. Sony still owns some of my masters. Universal still owns some of my masters.”
She then focused on the burning issue of remuneration for artists and songwriters:
“It’s not only that a lot of people who aren’t rights holders can’t remove their work. A lot of people don’t want to. These are the digital platforms where they make a living, as paltry as it is. That’s the game. These platforms own, what, 40 percent of the market share? There are a lot of younger artists who are starting out can’t do it, or it would be sacrificing their income. My son is a musician and he cares about that, you know, 500 bucks, whatever it is, he gets for his streams.”
Cash added in Rolling Stone: “The first problem that needs to be addressed is that Spotify needs to be monitoring this shit and fair pay. It’s just abysmal what they pay artists. Spotify is not a music company. It’s a tech company. It’s not like we love Spotify. It exists. What are you going to do — delete the internet? There are always going to be people who spout misinformation, and we have a lot of politicians who are just vicious and vile. Online platforms have to monitor themselves.”
So how exactly does the streaming pay-model work? An honours degree in business studies and accountancy is probably a prerequisite to fully understand the extreme complexities of the current system.
According to Business Insider, artists are paid from $0.0033 and $0.0054 every time their song is played. One estimate has it that it takes the average artist roughly 315 streams of a song to earn $1 from Spotify. The Songwriters of North America body estimates that Napster pays the highest rates, with a song on that platform earning one dollar for every 53 plays.
Canadian cellist and composer Zoe Keating is seen as the “go to” artist standing up to the streaming giants. As part of her campaign for a fairer payment system, she publishes an annual breakdown of her royalty earnings from streaming.
Business Insider reported that from January to September 2019, Keating earned $US0.012 per stream from Apple Music, and about $US0.003 per stream from Spotify after distributor fees, which vary. In total, she earned $US6,800 from Spotify and $US5,800 from Apple Music – the difference due to the fact that Spotify (2m streams) played more of her music than Apple (495.5 streams) during this period.
Keating’s actual highest rate in 2019 was $US0.017 per stream by iHeartRadio, though she had the least play there out of 14 streaming services.
“I wanted people to see the difference between all of the services,” Keating told Business Insider. “Down at the lower levels, no one knows what everyone else makes and no one knows what services pay. How can you make decisions if you don’t know what the numbers are?”
The real complexity relates to the payment system favoured by most streaming services and this in itself favours major artists over the likes of Baiman and Keating.
It is known commonly as a "pro-rata" system which works like this: All the money generated by streaming listeners is added together, then divided proportionally by listening time to determine how much each artist should be paid. So a popular artist is likely to get more streams just by virtue of being popular.
Spotify has posted a video for artists in which a spokesman for the company’s licensing department, Alan Galbraith, explained that this “stream share” determines each artist’s cut of the company’s monthly revenue.
Galbraith added: “One way to think about it is to think about divvying up a pie. For instance, if there are a million eligible streams in a month, and you have 100,000 streams in that month, then your stream share is 10% of the revenue pool, or pie.”
So, for example, if one of the most popular artists was to account for 10% of all streams in Spotify in one particular month, that artist would get 10% of all money paid to Spotify even though some streamers may never play his or her songs.
And, as a measure of popularity, it is worth noting that an artist at the top of Spotify’s playlist, Billie Eilish, currently has almost two billion Spotify plays for ”Bad Guy.”
Many in the industry, including Keating, believe a fairer alternative would be to introduce what is known as a “user-centric” system. This would mean that if a streamer paid $US9.99 a month for Spotify Premium and that person only listened to one artist - say Keating - then that amount ($US9.99) would go exclusively to Keating.
“These companies are taking power away from listeners, because listeners don’t have any say where their money goes,” Keating told Business Insider. “If you only listen to me, I should get all the percentage of the money you spend on music.”
Just to add to the confusion of royalty payments is the distribution of streaming revenue to not only the artists but also those who also clip the ticket when a song is played.
For most songs, there are two distinct copyrights. There is the song composition (the music and the lyrics), and there’s the actual sound recording (the “master”). In most traditional recording contracts, record labels would own the sound recording, while musicians would retain the publishing rights. The split means many artists don’t have full control over their music.
According to financial consultants, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips: “For each dollar of revenue Spotify earns, 58.5 cents goes to the owner of a song’s sound recording (usually a record label), Spotify keeps 29.38 cents, 6.12 cents goes to whoever owns publishing rights (usually the songwriter) and 6 cents goes to mechanical rights (often, but not always, owned by the songwriter).”
And, of course, this maze has become even more convoluted in recent years when several big name artists, like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and David Crosby, sold both sets of rights to outside companies and so have no say in how, when or where their songs are played.
Perhaps the final word on this perplexing enigma should go to Rachel Baiman who chose to end her contribution to No Depression with this: “It's time for us to get smart about how we're going to move forward as a creative class, and ask our heroes and leaders to do the same."
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation