Loretta Barnard

Musicians Shortchanged by Streaming Sites

Despite the popularity of streaming apps, the reality is that those who created the music see very little of the money.


How do you listen to your music? Playing music through your iPod or CD player (do they still make those?) is going the way of the dodo and more’s the pity, although – somewhat fascinatingly – vinyl has been edging its way back into the market over recent years. Nowadays, streaming is the preferred medium for listening to music, even among older music lovers. Music streaming services are available around the world and accessible on most of our electronic devices. Subscribing to them is very affordable for most people, and some even allow streaming at no cost, although you’re subjected to advertisements at regular intervals.

Streaming is also now the main avenue for all artists across all musical genres to get their music out there and be heard. If artists are not on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, or any of the other major streamers, then they have little hope of anyone ever hearing one note of what they play. Their work remains unheard, even by their fans.

The streaming services themselves do extremely well, raking in the profits hand over fist. A recent report said that the three dominant labels – UMG, WMG, and Sony Music – collectively make $US14.2 million per day. Per day! The companies are rolling in it, their executives are receiving fat bonuses, and yet the majority of artists are still struggling to make a pittance.

It’s a complicated business: payout figures to artists vary between streaming companies, and the more subscribers a company has, the more it usually pays out in royalties. There are also variations based on the country in which a piece of music is streamed and, of course, certain artists and labels get a better deal than others. But for the purposes of this article, let’s pick a figure and do some sums.

A few years ago, Spotify paid the majority of its artists the princely sum of $US0.0011 per play. That means that if an artist’s work was streamed 1,000 times in one day, he or she earned a total of $1.10. That’s $7.70 a week, or $400.40 over a year; and the reality is that most unsigned and indie artists do not get 1,000 streams per day, so what they earn is nowhere near that.

Consider that there are usually numerous rights holders in a piece of music and that they share that amount between them … It’s very sobering.

Here’s another way of looking at an artist’s income: if you (one individual) listened to one particular song 200 times in one year, you contributed the grand total of $0.22 to that artist’s annual income.

Then there’s YouTube streams. According to a 2017 report in Mixmag, for every 1,000 plays, an unsigned artist can earn $US6.40 on Apple Music, $US3.80 on Spotify, but a paltry $US0.60 from YouTube. Signed artists do better, earning $US7.30 (Apple), $US4.40 (Spotify), and $US0.70 (YouTube). That’s 1,000 streams. You can see that unless you’re Justin Timberlake or Adele, you probably aren’t going to be planning your retirement anytime soon.

According to Digital Music News, Spotify now pays something like $US0.0038 per stream. If we stay with the 1,000 streams per day, then the figures are a little better: $3.80 per day, or $26.50 per week, and $1,383.20 per year. If you’ve listened to that song 200 times in one year, your contribution to that artist’s income is $0.76. You get the idea.

Now consider the fact that there are usually numerous rights holders in a piece of music – record labels, publishers, performers, and songwriters/composers – and that they share that amount between them and hopefully you will feel a little compassion for struggling artists. It’s very sobering.

Big name music stars like Ed Sheeran, Drake, Rihanna, and others certainly do well from streaming services because 1) they get literally millions of streams across the world and 2) they get a better deal from the streaming services. But it’s also true to say that what they earn from streaming is a mere drop in the ocean compared with what they could have made had listeners bought an entire album.

Mind you, it could also be argued that streaming sites have effectively accelerated the decline in the “album” as a whole because the free and cheaper models of Spotify and other companies don’t let you play an album in sequence on a mobile device.

Indie artists and artists in niche genres are resigned to the realities of streaming. Because society undervalues them, so does the economy.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m someone who likes to hear a whole album and the concept of shuffling the music I listen to is anathema. I’m also one of the very few people who doesn’t stream music; I buy digital albums to listen to on my iPod or computer. You can dismiss me as a dinosaur now if you like, but almost my entire family and many of my friends across the generations are musicians, composers, and songwriters. Some of them have received wide-ranging critical acclaim from around the world and received various awards for their music, but none of them is even close to a deposit for a shack down the south coast, let alone a villa in the south of France.

Indie artists and artists in niche genres are resigned to the realities of streaming. They’re artists first and foremost and they want their work out there even if they’re starving in a garret. The truth is that society has always undervalued artists, and that applies to painters, sculptors, authors, poets, and so on as much as musicians. Because society undervalues them, so does the economy.

Look, streaming is here to stay, there’s no argument there, and it is very effective in giving listeners immediate access to whatever music we happen to enjoy – pop songs, hard rock, modern jazz, symphonies, and so on. It’s a marvel of technology that we have music literally at our fingertips.

But we need to urge streaming companies to be fairer and to pay proper royalties to their artists. After all, without them they have nothing.

And for we ordinary folk – please spare a thought for the artists we really admire, the ones whose music we stream hundreds of times, whose music makes us feel good. They have poured their hearts and souls into their work. Shouldn’t we try to repay them for the pleasure they give us by buying an album every now and then from sites like iTunes, Bandcamp, Amazon, etc.?

Everything is so easy for us these days, but making a living in the competitive musical world is not. Just keep this in mind next time you stream your favorite artist.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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