On spotify, Taylor Swift and making a living as an independent musician in the digital age

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.

5 thoughts on “On spotify, Taylor Swift and making a living as an independent musician in the digital age

  1. You have put a value on your art that transcends dollars and cents. Although it does not pay your mortgage or feed your kids, art that ‘defines the fuzzy moments’ connects us on a level beyond the mundane. That’s invaluable.

  2. My Music performances DO pay for my mortgage, lifestyle, wife and family. Everyone is touting the “I need exposure” and I totally get the idea that “maybe I made someone’s life more beautiful for a second or two” that’s awesome. HOWEVER, do you have ANY measureable way of determining if Pandora or any other streaming service IS in fact driving interest in you or you music? Any “Hey Heard ya on Pandora, tweets?” and from that group, how many are actually becoming PAYING fans?

    Why do we need a massive audience? Why not just a couple thousand people that actually respect and value our art financially? That’s a great kind of hyper-niche famous, and you can still do very well financially that way.

  3. I admire your desire to share your music for more reasons than financial. I also admire Taylor Swift for taking a step, whatever the reason, towards possibly slowing the decay of royalties to artists. I like to think that her team doesn’t talk her into anything she doesn’t want to do for a good reason, and I don’t see her as someone primarily motivated by the dollar sign. As you say, there are newer streaming services that pay better, and maybe the ‘500 plays for $0.30″ kind will decline. Maybe. I’ll still gladly pay for tour music, Taylor Swift’s, and others that make me happy. I’ve moved away from streaming except for a sample listen now and then.

  4. Your music is valuable to me. It takes a lot of hard writing to make a song that is easy to listen to. The songs your come up with make my world sweeter. Now the challenge is to also be an alchemist and change those songs in to gold. I tend to agree with the person who wrote, ditch the free sites, market to your fans and they will support you as they are able because they know you and love your tunes. Good luck. You will choose the path best for you.

  5. Music is a profound part of the human experience, though it’s hard for us to realize that before 1877 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonograph) “artists” didn’t have recordings (though composers still had royalties).

    It will take technology awhile longer to innovate past the artificial barriers (media concentration) that allow Taylor Swift to saturate the globe and thereby concentrate the economic benefits, hopefully more things like “KickStarter for music” and “streaming to discover a new artist/song” can allow musicians to make a living, since most of them, like athletes, end up giving lessons/coaching in order to stay close to the thing they love.

    Sadly, just like SEO allows some content to be more prevalent/discoverable, artists must often game the system in order to even be heard.

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