I recently opened a royalty statement from BMI that flew into my email inbox. These emails are typically fun to open, even if the payment is only double digits. This time, the number $507.37 popped up and I shouted to my husband “Babe! We got $500 in royalties this quarter!” Obviously this is not a lottery win, but notably more than usual. I read the statement closely: $7.33 for one track with 71,911 spins on Pandora. Wow. That’s a lot of spins for an instrumental track from my first record that I wrote in 2002 while watching a Simpson’s episode. I was 20 and living in Portland renting the house my best friend grew up in. The song is called Evergreen House, Second Floor, named after a sign we found and placed on the front porch. I scrolled further down. The most-played track on Spotify had 493 plays, which garnered me a whopping $0.30. And then I found it: $446.18 for ONE song played on BBC radio. Thanks United Kingdom! A figurative ocean could fit between those numbers. Why such a discrepancy?
The 20th century was the only time in the history of music where some musicians got very well paid for their work. Those days are over. I am not an economist. One might say a folksinger is opposite of an economist, but I have a reasonable grasp on supply & demand economics. Recorded music’s supply is far greater than the demand. Maybe this decline in payout is an easier pill to swallow for a musician of my generation who never had the opportunity to be paid well for their intellectual property?
Taylor Swift has pulled her entire catalog from Spotify, explaining that “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” I agree with her sentiment that music has great value. In fact, music defines our lives. It is with us in our most dark and most euphoric moments. However, amazing recorded music is far from rare. As the only artist in 2014 to reach platinum, the lovely Ms. Swift has very little to lose from the lack of exposure that Spotify offers to someone like me. You can die from exposure. I wonder if iTunes offered her some sort bonus for this act of streaming treason? I doubt that this move by Taylor and her people has a lot to do with altruism or championing the struggling artist.
I would stand to lose quite a few new ears if I were to remove my songs from streaming services, and sharing music is my mission. There are new types of streaming services out there, like the Standing O Project who are offering a subscription streaming service where artists get 50% of the small monthly fee. Patreon offers fans the ability to subscribe to one particular artist and receive exclusive content. Another factor in all this mess is the amount of free content on the internet vying for our brainspace. Youtube has way more musical content than Spotify or Pandora, and I don’t hear anyone challenging them to pay up to the Performing Rights Organizations.
Yes, I very deeply wish that 71,991 plays on Pandora would pay my mortgage, as opposed to pay for 2 cups of coffee with a modest tip. However, my hope is that somebody heard that song and it defined the fuzzy borders of their life for just a moment, and made it more beautiful. That’s a pretty good consolation prize, just one that makes it clear that my husband and I need to look for jobs if we intend to keep our house and our two kiddos well fed. I most certainly wonder if I am devaluing music as a whole by keeping my songs on free streaming services, but at this point in the arc of music history I don’t feel like I have a choice. Rumi says “Why do you stay in jail when the door is wide open?” At this point the door is blocked by an avalanche of easily sharable mp3s. Until I can figure out how to get more songs on BBC radio, I am stuck here, broke and choosing every day anew to do the coolest job in the world, even when the pay sucks.