It’s fashionable right now at this point in time, Winter, 2018 (specificity is important here, as we shall see) for musicians to hate on Spotify because they pay rotten royalties. They do pay rotten royalties, it’s true. But they haven’t made any money, either. If consumers of music would sign up for their service, they might be profitable, and then be able to pay more. Whether they would or not isn’t the question; right now they’re not able to. The main culprit here is with the consumer of music. The biggest problem for musicians is that while on one hand consumers are a problem, on the other, they’re the ones paying for whatever it is they do pay for. What they do pay for is live music. And those of us who present these off-mainstream, small-niche musicians need the Spotifys and YouTubes of the world to help promote them. And maybe, just maybe, the royalties are there, just in a different form…More on that at the end of this.
We’re in this weird boat, and how we got here is important. To get even a glimpse of an understanding, let’s do a history class. Don’t get too worried here, this is a highly-generalized version, which in this case is all that’s necessary. Let’s go back to Bach’s period. If you were a composer, you were essentially an employee of a court or church, if you were lucky. Musicians were like Alfred Hitchcock’s “cattle.” I’m sure there was a pecking order (does anyone actually know? I’ve never seen any reputable studies on this) but for the most part, it was just guys playing the notes they were given, though Bach liked some improvisation. The only real entrepreneurs of the music world were in all likelihood the itinerant bards roving around the countryside, busking their way through life. How much did they make? No one knows. What did they sound like? No recordings exist. Music was a live event.
Moving through time rapidly, and with many omissions, classical got the big wall of sound treatment with Beethoven, and then we started to get the first headliner musicians with the likes of Paganini. But still no recordings. Those didn’t happen until the early twentieth century, primarily with field recordings of rural musicians, at least in this country. Therein starts the possibility of musicians making money when they weren’t actually playing. It also starts the possibility of businessmen ripping off musicians, and plenty of that existed.
Jump ahead to the golden age of radio, which really was the 50’s though the 80’s, when pop music and all it’s variations hit the airwaves, blasting though every car speaker in existence. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of the mass-ownership of cars and the rise of radio were concurrent. It’s also why pop music ruled the airwaves. Motown, Do-wop, Rockabilly, Funk, Soul, Bubblegum, it didn’t matter. here’s the rub. It was also oddly parochial. The big cities played the national hits, but most were more local. A New Orleans station played a lot of local New Orleans musicians mixed in with the national hits. San Francisco, same thing, and all over the country.
The local stations were the only way a small town band could ever hope to make it big. A popular local band, usually one that played dances, scoured up enough change to record a 45. They’d sell it everywhere, gas stations (I was able to buy local band’s 45’s at a clothing store in town), small record shops, etc. They’d give demos to the radio D.J. they thought might give them some airplay. With enough airplay, more 45’s sold, and then more would come to the concerts. Hopefully someone outside of the area would pick them up and they’d grow to the national scene. Usually, though, it was a pay-to-play thing. If the band’s manager thought they band actually had chance, they’d have reps take the records to the large stations with an envelope attached. Inside was the evil payola, enough cash to guarantee some airplay. So even in the golden age, you usually had to pay to get noticed. Even Van Halen’s manager admits to doing this at one point in their career. To the tune of close to 100k.
Jump ahead to the death of regular radio. Its gone, folks. No longer are the airwaves filled with the Wolfman Jacks and Cousin Brucies. The D.J.’s then were as much of a star as the music. Two and a half minutes of music followed by a couple of commercials and a couple of minutes of patter by the D.J., complete with some plugs. There was usually twice as much non-music as there was music. Now, people hate it when Pandora throws in 30 seconds of commercials between 13 minutes of music. Now its streaming services and satellite radio, all of which you need to pay for if you want to get the full features. And most don’t even use them, they’ll just stream in their car off their phone.
Cd’s lasted a couple of milliseconds in the big picture, and now, they’re mainly souvenirs at live shows. Most artists we deal with tell me the number of hard cd’s they sell outside of shows is almost none. It’s the concert night merch table that moves cd’s, and that’s it.
So it’s become an “everything old is new again” situation, with a big difference. Before, there were no recordings and 100% of a musician’s income was derived from performances. Composers might have gotten a bit off of sheet music sales, but that’s it. For a brief tick of the historical clock, records were nice and profitable. But now we’re back to the old days, where most all the income of the musician is from performances.
The notable difference is that at least now we have recorded music from all the musicians we love to listen to. But do we buy it? Ever since the internet came to town, there’s been a Napster, or some sort of service that made it easy for consumers not to pay. It’s easy to rip from YouTube or any one of a number of places. We need to reset the clock and expectations and look at things from the absolute most-current conditions, because these are the ones we’re dealing with right now. They might be different tomorrow, and everything will be bright and beautiful again, but right now is what’s here.
Let’s take the one fact and put it at the top of the list of conditions we need to deal with: a musician’s primary source of income now is derived from performances. I’m not talking about composers or songwriters, who then perform the songs, I’m just talking about the performance aspect. There’s a huge qualifier here, and that’s the size of the artist’s popularity. The little guy playing amazing original string quartet music will never get the same deal as a Taylor Swift or Katie Perry. Not happening, get over it. Its not just you, it’s every business. The bigger clients get better pricing, no matter what they’re selling or buying. The bigger investors get the best opportunities. The biggest customers get the best service. Every industry, every time. You’re not getting Lorde’s deal.
Where does this leave Spotify or YouTube? As your best means of publicity. I’ll repeat that I agree the royalties are no good. But that’s the deal that’s out there. Spotify or Pandora, along with YouTube, are your best bet to get the word out about your music, and not just locally, like the little garage band saving pennies to afford to cut a 45, but around the world.
As a presenter trying to put on some of the more adventurous and niche-y music out there, we need these mediums to build interest in a show. People come because they can preview a show. There are so many venues out there, so much going on over every single weekend that it’s easy to for consumers to play it safe, skip the less-well-known musicians for the safety of the popular. In an email blast to a mailing list, I can link to some videos and a Spotify playlist and get far more reservations than before these existed. I know this for a fact, as I’ve been presenting and promoting for 25 years. It’s easier now, and the shows are more full, even for the most obscure groups. I can go up against tribute bands and win. Pre-Youtube and Spotify? Nope.
Where’s the balancing point of income-gained-from-better-attendance-at-shows vs. lost royalties? I don’t know. But I also know that with platforms like Kickstarter, a band doesn’t need to invest it’s own money into a recording project. You get to have all your fans chip in and pay for it. So perhaps you are getting the royalties, just front-loaded.
I can’t say I have the answer to whether streaming services are a rotten deal or not. I do say, look at the big picture. A huge number of the most exotically-sounding or most challenging probably would never have had a sniff at a career without the promotional advantages of all the digital platforms. Is it all going to change anyway? Yes, that’s a guarantee, and this conversation will be as old as the itinerant bard. In the meantime, all I’m saying is work with what’s here, right now, at this moment.