Singing for Cents | Zoey Preston
Back in my freshman year, my band, The Swell released our debut single, “Wait.” In hindsight, I can hear how poorly mixed it was, and the long-winded solo with a wrong note at the end that somehow made it into the final master only serves to make me cringe. Still, we were excited to have something out on the vast musical streaming service network. And, after acquiring a whopping total of three monthly listeners on Spotify and Apple Music, our producer received our first paycheck in her email inbox.
“You guys made a dollar!” I remember her saying, and I remember laughing.
Unimpressive, to say the least.
Nonetheless, I am proud to say that I’ve made a whole dollar from streaming services; it’s enough to buy a pack of gum!
Obviously, my band hasn’t “struck it big” or anything. We’re no overnight sensation, nor did we expect to earn a fortune off of one crappy single. We were fourteen, putting out music for no reason except to put it out.
But looking back now, it makes me wonder about the people who create and release music for a living; it might not matter to me if my single makes only a dollar, but what about artists who depend on money from streaming services, especially in a pandemic when they can’t make money from live shows? How much does Spotify really pay its artists, how do you make money as a musician, and what does this mean for the industry as a whole?
Let’s crunch the numbers. Spotify pays its artists less than half a cent per stream, around $0.004 on average. Keep in mind, listens from different countries around the globe have different values, so the price per listen can vary depending on where it’s from. Additionally, different music streaming platforms pay artists different amounts, but Spotify is by far the largest and accounts for almost a third of the industry’s market revenue. Even Apple Music boasts $0.01 per stream, Tidal up to $0.012. So, when we consider that Spotify made over 12 billion dollars in profit last year, the amount it actually pays artists, who are creating and providing the content being streamed in the first place, is small.
97% of artists with music released on Spotify failed to gross over $1,000 in stream revenue. Note that this includes all 6 million artists who have released any sort of music on Spotify. Even so, 472,000 artists reach Spotify’s criteria for “professionals”, but of that only 39% actually make $1,000 per year.
Many protesters argue that Spotify severely underpays artists and are vying to get $0.01 per stream on the platform. Musicians like Kate Bush and Paul McCartney have pushed for streaming economy reforms in the UK, but they have yet to make any significant change.
The thing is, actually changing the way Spotify pays is easier said than done – Apple Music can pay artists a cent per stream because they make money based on only a monthly membership. It’s more expensive than a Spotify subscription, but Apple receives no ad revenue. Spotify, on the other hand, does have a free option where they’ll play ads paid for by different companies. And the amount artists get paid from ad revenue is a pool system that is totally separate from the flat rate they get per stream – it’s dished out based on what percentage of the total listens on Spotify an artist gets. If they garner 5% of listens, they’ll receive 5% of the ad revenue in the pool. (This heavily benefits mainstream artists).
Still, it’s important to acknowledge how streaming services have completely changed the way the music industry works, and not completely for the worst. On one hand, it’s easier than ever to release music; you don’t need to be signed to a label to throw a song on Spotify, and anyone can make a viral song from their bedroom.
On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to make money through streaming.
One could argue that if you have a viral hit, you’ll make money. This is true but only to an extent – while independent artists receive all the profits from their music, it’s arguably more difficult to make money through streaming when you’re signed.
If you’re under a record label, you receive 10% of the revenue your songs make on streaming services, and even this comes after you’ve generated back the money it cost the label to make and produce your record in the first place. This wasn’t a huge undertaking when music was a physical product. In the past, if you could produce a record and sell it on CD or vinyl, you made money – by selling ten records, you could make a hundred dollars. Now, you need to acquire 25,000 listens on Spotify to make the same amount. Very few artists actually own the rights to their own music; we’ve seen this with Taylor Swift and Kanye West battling it out with their labels in an attempt to buy back their masters.
So all of this begs the question: where does the money come from in the music industry? Because, as we’ve seen, a majority of it doesn’t come from streaming.
The “music industry” has extended beyond just music. Touring and live shows account for most of an artist’s revenue, as well as brand deals and merchandise. Big-name artists do so much more than just make music; they release clothing lines, makeup lines, make cameos in movies and television, and even appear in video games. Yeah – I recently saw an ad picturing Silk Sonic, the R&B duo Anderson Paak. and Bruno Mars, as characters in Fortnite. Bruno Mars’s CGI muscles were a jump scare, if I’m being completely honest.
The thought of trying to “make it” in the music industry can be daunting – many people believe you have to live as a starving artist until you make your big break and strike it rich. And, yeah, you’re not going to make a lot of money by putting your music up on Spotify. That is a harsh reality of the modern music industry. This shouldn’t deter you from pursuing a career in music if you want it, though. It may be hard to make money as an independent artist through streaming revenue, sure, but there are so many opportunities and money to make beyond what you can find on streaming platforms. Music is everywhere around us, from advertisements to movie scores to T.V. jingles. Somebody makes those! Many musicians get paid hefty amounts of money to write, play, and record music that never ends up on Spotify. There are jobs involved in helping artists make music, like producers, audio-engineers, master-ers, song-writers, and studio musicians to actually play it.
Streaming has undeniably changed the music industry. The question of whether it’s changed for better or worse is up to you, but our modern musical reality shouldn’t deter you from chasing your dreams. The music industry is broad, diverse, and ever-evolving, and there are still plenty of ways to earn a good living.