By Art Levy
With the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, it’s as if someone has pulled a giant emergency brake on the U.S. music industry. Tours and live concerts through the early summer have been cancelled, drying up the main source of revenue for most musicians. Artists have gotten creative, live-streaming impromptu performances from their living rooms and passing around a virtual tip jar.
It’s a quirky invention born of necessity, as the crisis has laid bare the severe shortcomings of our current musical landscape. Over the past decade, streaming has come to completely dominate the industry and has changed compensation, ownership, even the very nature of songwriting and recording for musicians, as many trend towards shorter songs as a way to get more streams and placement on playlists. In 2019, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that streaming accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. music market, while physical and digital sales account for about 9 percent each.
But with “social distancing” and “self-isolation” entering our lexicon, does this mean we’ll all be home more, streaming more music? Maybe, but as has been frequently reported this decade, pay-per-stream business models like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube offer an absolute pittance to the vast majority of musicians. All of these platforms pay a varying amount per stream, but what they all seem to agree on is dividing pennies into comically small numbers. According to figures published in Mashable, Spotify pays from $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, split between rights holders (songwriters, publishers, etc.). To earn a minimum wage (federally defined as $7.25 per hour), a single artist would need almost 3.5 million streams. It would take 2 million streams on Apple Music and, incredibly, over 21.8 million streams on YouTube to reach this same threshold.
Digital artist-friendly platforms are few and far between; Bandcamp seems to be the exception to the rule. Each artist’s page includes options for their fans: you can stream, you can pay for a digital download, or you can buy physical merchandise, such as vinyl, CDs, tapes, T-shirts, and more. Crucially, there are actual dollar amounts in plain view, a not-so-subtle reminder that creative labor needs to be compensated. Bandcamp is also upfront with its fees, taking 15 percent from digital sales and 10 percent from physical sales. On Spotify, there are options to buy merch, but they’re not as obvious, with no dollar amounts advertised and seemingly no real way to incentivize the listener to open their wallets. Spotify’s merch links are also exclusively handled by Merch Bar, a third-party vendor that does not list on its website how much it takes per sale.
With artists’ touring revenue halted indefinitely, Bandcamp subsequently suspended its own profit share for 24 hours on Friday, encouraging fans to buy directly from artists. Meanwhile, it’s seemingly business as usual at the streaming giants, with little mention—on social media or in the apps themselves—of how a music fan can economically engage in the musical ecosystem. The streaming giants’ business model is based around passive listening, the culmination of music’s slow public devaluation over the past few decades. We’ve all been subtly trained to expect to receive a massive amount of music for free. Yet this pandemic calls for a more active and direct relationship between artists and fans. Paradoxically, it’s digital connection—the same disruptive force that severed music makers from controlling their work in the first place—that could be the way forward. Maybe digital tipping will become the norm now, or smaller, self-sustaining musical communities could provide more of a safety net for musicians. It’s still too early to tell, but when it comes to supporting our artists, music fans need to be just as creative.