I love music. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent on it through the years, but a lot. I own thousands of CDs (either in physical or digital form) and am blessed to count as friends some of the most talented artists I’ve ever heard.
It’s that last part, I guess, that causes me to take what has happened to artist revenues more personally than most people who aren’t actually artists. The sad truth is that while superstardom and insane wealth have never been guaranteed to every kid who picked up a guitar, it’s harder than ever for even the most talented artists and bands out there to make a living, let alone get rich. Sure, the technology makes it easier and more affordable to record and produce your music, and the Internet affords more different channels for marketing and distribution than a band coming along in the 1970s could have dreamed possible.
Still, those developments means more groups vying for the attention of the audience than ever, and it also means that bands without a scrap of talent, bands that once upon a time would never have gotten past the front desk, are now part of the competitive landscape. There’s more signal, to be sure, but there’s a hundred times more noise to sift through in search of it.
Short version: it’s damned hard to make a living as a musician, no matter how good you are. And some of the best bands I have had the privilege of knowing write songs and play gigs and record in whatever spare time they have away from their day jobs.
This is why so much of what has been loosely termed “sharing” in the world of music consumers has bothered me. Even if you don’t buy the argument that acquiring a CD without paying for it is stealing, there is no argument that you’re acquiring it in a fashion that makes it less likely you’ll ever hear from this artist again. Band X does a great record. It gets bought a few times, shared a million times, it’s popular as hell but the band makes no money and next thing you know they’ve given up and gotten jobs as paralegals.
It’s basic economics – if you’re not going to pay for it, it’s going to go away. Oh sure, the next wave of artists will come along and keep you in tunes because they haven’t learned the lesson yet, but there’s no artist development. You’re always listening to bands with potential, not bands who have realized that potential. The cumulative effect is one of leveling – the average keeps eroding.
So I try to approach music not only as a fan, but as an informed consumer with a long, big picture view. If I love Band X, I want to hear this album. I want to hear the next album. I want there to be a next album. And I try to make sure that I’m behaving in ways that make the second, third, fourth and fifth CDs more likely. Which means I tell everybody about it (I do that here a lot) and I try to buy as much as possible.
Today’s music fan has a buttload of options. You can buy at iTunes or eMusic or Amazon or CD Baby. You can stream from places like Pandora and Spotify. Or you can buy directly from the band. But from the band’s perspective, these are not all equivalent alternatives. In some of these cases, the band keeps a decent cut of the money, while in others you can listen to their latest disc a hundred times without them noticing. The chart here illustrates some of the differences graphically (although I find the math a little harder to follow than I’d like), but for an even more useful explanation of how it all shakes out, check this from Techdirt, where the band Uniform Motion details specifically what they earn from various distribution channels.
- If you listen to their record 100 times on Spotify, they get nearly three euros.
- If you buy their album on eMusic they get $2.60.
- If you download it from Amazon they get €4.97 – a 70/30 split (in their favor).
- iTunes also has a 70/30 split, so they’d get €6.28.
That being said, it costs us 35 EUR/year to keep an album on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon (105 EUR per year for all 3 of our albums!) so we don’t make any money until 24 people have bought a digital copy of the album on iTunes, or 150 single songs, or if we get tens of thousands of listens on Spotify! In most cases, it’s actually more economically viable not to sell the music at all.
They get a nice cut of whatever you pay to download from Bandcamp (it’s a pay-what-you-like model) and if you buy an actual CD from them directly they get €4.34 (after factoring in the expense of manufacturing and production).
This has implications for the most artist-friendly means of consuming. iTunes is the best deal, while simply surfing Spotify is the next best thing to breaking into their van and stealing their equipment. Now, I say this as a guy who uses Spotify a good bit. I’ve actually figured out how to make their service work in the artist’s favor, at least a little bit.
- I always want to sample before I buy, and Spotify is the awesomest sampling service in history. The band actually gets a penny or two here and there if we all use Spotify to shop.
- I have an eMusic subscription, although after looking at these numbers I may just kill it and move my cash to iTunes or Amazon.
- I buy one-offs at iTunes and Amazon already.
- And here’s the fun part. Once I have purchased a CD, I will listen to it not on my iTunes player, but on Spotify. That way the band gets the revenue from the disc purchase at the other site and whatever meager cut they get from streaming on top of it. It’s not much, I realize, but at least I’m trying.
I can’t tell you how to spend your money, but I do encourage you to think about all this. If your approach to music is to spend as little as possible, fine, but you need to understand that when a band you really liked calls it quits and goes to work waiting tables, you played a part.
It’s a very elementary application of the old economic axiom: you get what you pay for.
Image Credit: Audiolicious