Well, I did it. I pulled the majority of my music off of Spotify, as well as YouTube Music and other free streaming services. I’ve decided to share how and why I came to this conclusion, to clear up any questions for my fans, and to also aid any other musicians out there who are struggling with this dilemma. I’d love your feedback on this, so feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
I love technology. As an independent musician with no record label, I wouldn’t be able to do my job without it. Technology allows me to release my music to the masses instantly, without the cost or plastic waste of printing and mailing CDs.
But, as with everything, technology-based music has a dark side: because it’s intangible, it is perceived as having less value. If you’re over the age of 25, you will remember the days when you would eagerly wait in line to buy your favorite artist’s new album on CD, cassette, or even vinyl. You paid your hard-earned $20 (or more) and went home with something you could hold in your hands. You could open the case and admire the meticulously designed artwork. You protected the music with your life. You cringed when your CD skipped in the car, or your vinyl got scratched. I cried when my favorite CD, Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel, cracked and was rendered un-playable.
But now, music is intangible. It’s easy to find. It’s instantaneously playable on any pocket-sized device. And it’s FREE to the listener. All of that together inherently de-values music. It makes it seem less important, less cherished, less honored, and more likely to be taken for granted.
The Devil’s in the Digits
I put my music on Spotify years ago, just as the platform was gaining traction. I was told it would be the future of the music industry, and the new wave of music consumerism. And yes, it is. But that doesn’t mean I (or Taylor Swift for that matter) agree with how it’s structured to hurt musicians.
Consider the following graphic:
What you see above is a screenshot of my earnings from all stream-based plays. The majority of these are from Spotify, while the rest are from YouTube Music and a few other lesser-used platforms. I’ve circled my all-time plays and my all-time pay, and done the math: 852 plays yielded $4.31 royalty payments. That’s half a penny per play/stream.
Now, let’s consider the alternative digital option: a 99 cent mp3 from iTunes. When a fan (let’s call him Joe) buys my mp3 for 99 cents off of iTunes, I receive 70 cents, while the remaining 29 cents goes to iTunes.
Now, let’s consider the “play rate” of that mp3. What I mean by “play rate” is the amount of times Joe will listen to my mp3/song he paid for. Let’s say for argument’s sake he really likes my song and he listens to it once a day for 2 weeks. That’s 14 plays. But then, as human nature shows, Joe tires of listening to my song every day, but he still likes it, so his “play rate” scales back to an average of 1 play per week over a year.
14 plays after download
52 plays (1 play per week, 52 weeks in a year)
= 66 plays
Now, we can do the math: I received 70 cents from the sale of my mp3 to Joe. Joe played my song 66 times in 1 year and 14 days…
$0.70 sale –divided by– 66 plays = $0.01 (1 penny) per play.
So now, let’s compare:
I make HALF a penny per play via Spotify / YouTube Music
a FULL penny per play via an iTunes download, if the listener is listening liberally (once a week) through a full year.
So now, I have to state something obvious….
If you are a fan (non-musician) reading this, you may think “well hey, I think I’ll go with Spotify, because I can listen to it for free, and YOU still get paid for your music, even if it’s just half a penny. It’s a win/win.” And yes, by the basic laws of supply and demand, that does seem like a win/win – you get it for free, and I still get paid something (though it’s peanuts). But it’s actually a lose/lose. Here’s why…
I rely on making money from my current music/albums to help fund my life as an artist. Without decent revenue from my music, I cannot continue to make more great music for you to listen to and enjoy. Without decent revenue from my current discography, I can’t afford to invest in new recording technologies, gear and instruments. I can’t afford to hire musicians to appear on my next albums. I can’t afford to continue being a musician. So my fans lose, too, because I can’t keep making music for you to enjoy in the future.
Back in the day, you’d have to shell out $20 for a CD, while independent musicians paid upwards of $1,000 to get those CDs produced. But with iTunes, you can pick and choose what tracks you want for 99 cents each. Less than a buck per track isn’t free, but hey, it’s dirt cheap! And the musician doesn’t have to pay out the nose to get CDs pressed. The pay-per-mp3 99 cent platform is and was, in my opinion, the REAL win/win. Unfortunately, that platform will cease to exist in the next decade, as Apple has decided to phase out iTunes.
The Fallacy of Exposure
Musicians are constantly sold this ridiculous idea of “exposure.” We’re offered exposure in lieu of pay by disingenuous bar owners and festival promoters. We’re told exposure is just as good as cash in our hands, and that with enough exposure, we’ll see rewards later.
If you’re a musician reading this, listen up and listen good: I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and 9 times out of 10, the exposure argument is bull shit.
Spotify, YouTube Music, and all of these other streaming services are touted as great ways to “get exposure.” The theory is that if someone discovers you on Spotify, they will become lifelong fans and rush out and buy all of your albums on CD or iTunes and pay for your live shows. But analysis of consumer trends, habits, and psychology prove time and time again that this is rarely the case.
Have musicians made their big “break” through free platforms like YouTube, Napster, and Spotify? Of course. Fiddler Lindsey Stirling and the treadmill-dancing band OK Go got their big breaks on YouTube with their cool, free videos. But for the most part, if you are an independent musician, you are more likely to win the lottery than make it to the “big time” by way of these free platforms. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: “Do I want to hope and pray free exposure leads to a big break, or do I want to make a respectable living as a legit, self-respecting artist and put food on my table?”
As musicians, we are told, whether explicitly or implicitly, that we need to sacrifice everything – our health, our bank accounts, our livelihoods – for the sake of our music, that we must be noble, romantic musical martyrs. We’re told that exposure is equal to cash, and that if we expose ourselves enough, we will reap the rewards.
Well, I’m done exposing myself. I’ll keep my shirt on, thank you very much.
Melissa Cox is a United States born songwriter, vocal coach, writer, and multi-instrumentalist residing in New Zealand. Hailed as a “cross between Grace Slick and Loreena McKennitt” (Sing Out Magazine), she has shared the stage with the Spin Doctors, Sister Hazel, Three Dog Night, Smash Mouth, and many others. You can get her critically acclaimed album “On a Cloud, Marooned” here: www.melcoxmusic.com/on-a-cloud-marooned.