There are tons of things wrong with Spotify. It does not pay the artists enough money, especially new bands and artists that do not and will not move tons of records. David Byrne, who I admire greatly, feels that “the internet will suck all creative content out of the world.”
I could not agree with them more. Except, I completely disagree with them as well.
Again, I have to state the disclaimer that I am not a musician. I do not make my living by selling music. I might be singing a different tune (sorry) if I did make my living from making music. I am writing this as a middle-age man who spends a sizable part of his income on music. I know this makes me an outlier as well.
First, the argument that new artists don’t make money from Spotify has to be looked at from a different perspective. We still rely on supply and demand when we look at music, but interestingly enough, music is post-supply and demand. There is no longer a scarcity in the supply of music and it has been that way since the MP3 was first used especially in the consumer’s mind. There is an infinite amount. Therefore, unless, you are a huge selling artist, you will not make a lot of money. How is this different for new/indie bands than it was in the 70s and 80s? How many units did the Flamin’ Groovies or The Replacements move? David Byrne wrote that “if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services (Spotify and Pandora), they’ll be out of work within a year.” Again, how would this be different from bands such as Big Star with radio play? Yes, lack of popular success is what probably ended most of those bands in the end. However, they did have careers. They did build up a name for themselves. They did it similar to the way bands do it now by playing live shows.
Except new/indie bands have an advantage today that the indie bands of the 80s did not have. People have access to their music. In the eighties and nineties, I would have looked over a venue’s list, not recognized most of the names, and forgot about the list. Now I see a band is coming and can give their music a listen to and then decide to go see the show. In fact, I do not look up tours by artist, I look it up by venue. Now, I’m in a minority here, and I realize that, but if the show blows me away, such as Lydia Loveless’s opening performance for the Old 97s and Pallbearer’s before Deafheaven (who I only discovered because it was on Best of Lists for 2013 and on Spotify), I will purchased some music before I leave. Again, I know I am in the minority. My point is bands used to tour in support of their albums, but now the game has changed. Most bands, to make money, need to have their album support their tour. Live performances have a natural built-in scarcity. Physical merchandise has a built-in scarcity. That’s where the money has to come from.
Now, again my argument is anecdotal and not data driven. I did see more shows last year than any other year. A majority of the bands I saw last year I had never heard of before 2014. I would not have heard them if I relied on radio. I would not have heard them by just reading about them in Pitchfork, NME, Paste, or whatever magazine you choose. I would not have heard them from a friend’s recommendation, mainly because most of my friends would not recommend any of those bands to me. People that do not discover new artists, never actually discovered new artists. Those people listened to popular artists because they were popular artists. If you look at the popular artists of today, they are not much different in style from any previous decade’s popular artists.
Now, I do understand that artists want to be paid for something they have created. I always felt dirty when I downloaded music from file sharing sites, and only did it sparingly. I do pay for Spotify, and for me, I would actually be willing to pay for more. I have not listened to the free version in a while, but when they did, I did not think they advertised enough (I can see some eyes roll reading this sentence). One thirty-second commercial every 5 songs is still better than radio. According to Spotify, artists can sell merchandise with zero fees or commissions. I just did a quick non-scientific survey of established bands and indie artists, and only found two artists, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, took advantage of this feature. In both cases, the link leads back to their website. Now, if you have a web presence, which most bands of all levels have, why not take advantage of this. Some fool, such as me, might actually buy your album after listening to it. Millennials get lots of blame for not purchasing anything, but as this article states, they are a major reason vinyl sales are on the rise. It is not a large market, and it may be a fad, but why not take a chance and sell shirts and records on vinyl on Spotify while it is a fad. If bands do not want to sell online (then God help them), or if they cannot afford to sale their records online, use the Record Store Day website to help people find record shops in their area. In my area, there are close to 10 independent stores. In fact, kind of like the book industry, the big box stores have been hurt in this area but the small independent stores seem to be thriving for the moment.
Of course, there will be people who will not pay. They were always people who made tapes, copied tapes, burned cds, and bootlegged shows. Even with free services like Spotify, albums still are leaked. However, if people are now going to subscription and/or internet radio and listening to music, then the artist is getting more money than they would before from that person even if it is a fraction of a fraction of a cent per song.
I am typing this while listening to Natalie Prass’s excellent new album on Spotify. It is going into my album to purchase folder on Spotify. She performs on March 21 at Gasa Gasa. I probably would have heard of her because I like to read about music, but I would have never heard her music in a pre-Spotify world. Spotify changed that.
The music industry cannot go back to the way it was. It needs to discover new ways to do business in a post-supply world. As I see it, the artists have to realize that they are the product. They are in scare supply.