A couple of weeks ago I published my annual sales & streaming revenue.
The Guardian wrote about it, as did Digital Music News and Hypebot.
Then I wrote an email clarifying a few things, and Hypebot published that. A lot of the email is about streaming blah blah blah…
…the big money is to be made at the top of the tail…and therein lies the promise of commercial music streaming services. It will be financially valuable to those who make hits and those who aggregate legions of artists. For a single artist like me commercial streaming will never be more than promo. I accept that. But I will keep talking about it until streaming companies do more to make that promo more useful…
All my music will always be available for free in the places where I decide it works best. Right now that is Pandora, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. If I determine the promo from a certain service isn’t useful, and/or if I don’t like how they do business or how commercial and ad-plastered the experience is, I won’t give it to them. I would prefer casual listeners to stream from the service of my choice or just torrent it.
Don’t have much else to say on that topic except this…I have a lot of confidence about what I do (translation: bloody ego maniac!!) and I’ve never seen myself as competing with other artists. I believe there is a small class of people who will like my music and my music will eventually find them.
Aren’t I just an example of “The Long Tail” at work? I will not ever sell one million copies of my albums, but I do sell 10k a year…..year after year with no marketing…. because people keep discovering my music on the Internet.
…another of my motives for releasing data: with all the commentary that seems to say “get big or get out”, I want to say that small can be good and to encourage all those weirdos who make good art to keep at it.
Keep at it fellow weirdos.
I think a lot about the ripples that radiate out from everyone’s actions.
I write this because I feel a need to explain why I’ve been talking about the music ecosystem. Here it is.
By some combination of luck, charm and doggedness, I’m moderately successful. (I say “moderately” because I’m certainly not one of those millionaire musicians but I sit somewhere in the possibly-shrinking middle class.)
So things are ok for me but I have this conviction that every successful person has an obligation to help others get to the same place. Whatever ‘helping’ means to you, you should do. For some, it’s charitable donations, for some it’s volunteering, for some it’s mentoring. I do a fair amount of donating to charities and other artists’ projects, but I discovered that maybe, right now, I could make more of an impact by speaking or writing about things.
That is one of the reasons why I started talking about my streaming earnings. I thought I could use use my story to draw attention to how a niche artist operates and to demonstrate that being a successful niche artist might be a desirable career goal rather than just a fool’s errand.
There are more choices than “Struggling” or “Superstar”.
I wanted to inject a healthy does of skepticism into what I saw as a new and well-funded marketing strategy, accompanied by a parroting press, that proclaimed “never pay for music again” and “artists don’t need to sell music any more”. Streaming is not new (I’ve had my music available for streaming since, um, 2005?) but this story about it was. I’m not a saint by any means, but I thought I could make a difference here.
Spotify (the company who did all that marketing to coincide with their US launch) very cleverly packaged their business model as a quest to save the music industry. It’s genius. “Labels, we can get you money you are losing to piracy! New artists, selling is over but we can save you! Just focus your efforts on building critical mass on our new platform!”
Obviously that message is resonating with major labels. New artists go along because they are desperate and have to put there music wherever it can be stumbled upon. But I’m an established niche artist not suffering from ‘piracy’. I make what is, apparently, a shockingly large portion of my income selling music directly to a comparatively small set of listeners. I’m not the only one.
Spotify graciously reached out to me after my first chirpings on the topic and arranged for me to meet with DA Wallach. Over burritos, he patiently listened to my diatribe and pretty much admitted that my model might be outside Spotify’s scope and maybe artists like me shouldn’t put all our music on the service. (That’s what i do, by the way, have some of my music up there)
I’ve never met Daniel Ek, but I don’t blame him for his blind spot when it comes to the economics of niche artists, not because I don’t think he gets us - although maybe he doesn’t, I don’t know. Most mainstream music industry folks have always been totally mystified by me. It’s why I’m DIY - but because it’s business. It’s his job as the CEO of a corporation to pursue exponential growth. By definition niche artists are not going to generate exponential growth…unless there are a lot of us ;-)
I’m pretty sure Spotify has been miffed at bearing the brunt of artist criticism but honestly, they asked for it. They were not the first streaming company by far but they were the first to audaciously declare that their business model would save everyone.
Did I need saving? Do other niche artists need saving?
Now, that doesn’t mean I think things are hunky dory for all the musicians I know. Why? New recording artists are not being hurt by file-sharing/piracy/insert-preferred-term-here. They are are being snowed under by the avalanche of artistic expression created by the largest group of young people in history. There is so much artistic expression that the internet has facilitated the distribution of, that most artists’ future fans haven’t found them yet.
Meanwhile, companies have stepped in to profit off the free and semi-free work of the striving masses. A little critical thinking and you quickly realize that it’s in the interests of many to call the art that is the product of your angst-filled soul-searching, “content”, and to keep it semi-free. Those companies might not have any incentive to send their audience elsewhere in order to help an artist sell albums or concert tickets or tshirts.
That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just capitalism at work.
So now what? Casual listeners should not have to pay for music. Those days are over. Let them listen for free or pay for a subscription to the streaming service of their choice. Assuming services pay all rights holders the same rates, we’re good there.
Next, it should be easy for avid listeners to connect to the artists they love and they should be encouraged to do so - to purchase experiences like concert tickets, albums, vinyl packages, whatever. Streaming companies need to facilitate that, rather than doing everything they can to keep listeners inside their walled gardens.
And that’s what happened yesterday. I haven’t explored it in depth yet but I’m guardedly happy about it.
In an uncoordinated and grassroots fashion, other artists have expressed their opinions on the subject. Like me, many have been criticized for being vocal. But you know what? I think it’s made a difference. I doubt Spotify would have thrown this bone if artists hadn’t made some noise.
Youtube, you’re next.
An interview with me on Virgin Disruptors: why I released my earnings data and what else I want from streaming services.
Tune into a live debate on these topics with me, will.iam, Imogen Heap, Amanda Palmer, Scooter Braun, Songkick, Vevo and Spotify…on Oct 28th at 11am Pacific Time (1pm EST/7pm GST) at Virgin Disruptors.
I usually save my blog for music issues. This isn’t a music issue but everything is connected. That sense that the world is falling apart, that we can’t get our sh*t together…it affects me. So I’m going to self-indulgently vent…and then go write some angst-filled music.
Here’s the story.
On Oct 14, I got a letter from the USPS stating that our post office is again under study for permanent closure. I say “again” because the Camp Meeker post office was on a national closure list in 2011 but after a six month feasibility study and lots of public comment, the USPS spared us in 2012 and said it would remain open but with reduced hours.
My neighbors and I have been fighting closure of the post office because it has one feature that makes it very important to our lives: it is the only place you can get your mail.
Camp Meeker is an old town from the 1880‘s and it is dense, with 350 houses packed into less than a square mile. The USPS, for historical reasons unknown to me, won’t deliver mail to any of the houses. Instead, every resident is assigned a free PO Box and picks up mail in a dilapidated trailer. The trailer was installed as temporary structure 40 years ago, across the street from the semi-collapsed remains of the previous post office built in 1906.
There are no other businesses in town. There used to be hotels, a grocery store and even a bowling alley, but everything burned down or closed in the middle of the last century. So the dirty old postal shack is it.
It might be ugly, but it’s all we’ve got. It’s a place to run into your neighbors and there is a bulletin board to advertise free kittens and the local supper club. But mostly, it is where we get the mail. I wonder how many communities of the size and density of Camp Meeker not only have no post office but no mail delivery whatsoever?
I’m sure the the USPS thinks we don’t generate enough money to justify staying open. I’d argue (if they’d let me argue with them) that the primary purpose of our particular post office is that it is THE ONLY place to pickup mail, because they refuse to deliver it. But also, the USPS have only themselves to blame for their lack of revenue.
I run a small business. When I initially moved here I made a point of supporting the local post office. Every day I would mail all my CDs from the shack even though they had no digital system and clerks had to add up amounts on the back of an envelope, which meant there was no itemized receipt, mistakes were made and it took forever. I asked if maybe a digital system could be installed? No money for that, was the response.
Mailing things overnight is something I had to do pretty often, but because the pickup time here is late, you couldn’t actually use the USPS overnight service. The clerks wouldn’t even sell overnight delivery to me, because they knew the package wouldn’t actually get to it’s destination on time.
The post office never had any supplies to purchase like tape and was often out of priority mail boxes because the postmaster at the time had to use a computer to order them and he himself said he was afraid to use one. I’m not making this up. So, to buy tape, or a box or send something overnight I would drive 10 miles to the nearest UPS franchise.
Eventually I got fed up and outsourced all my mailing to my dear sister in Vermont. We still visited the post office every day though to pick up the mail.
I say “visited” because in June the post office closed without warning. We got home from Europe to find a handwritten note posted on the door.
"The post office is closed until further notice due to a sewage leak. This is a Haz Mak situation. All mail to be picked up at the Occidental post office until further notice"
(yes is it said “Haz Mak”)
In an attempt to find out what had happened, our neighbor and Camp Meeker Park and Recreation board member Tony Tominia called and spoke with various officials in several USPS departments.
Tony talked in early July to Ken Boyd, a USPS manager in San Diego. Mr Boyd said the Occidental postmaster reported that the creek had backed up into the septic tank and then overflowed onto the postal trailer floor. The postmaster told Mr Boyd that human feces were on the floor of the trailer. Hearing this, Mr Boyd made the decision to close the post office.
There is a wee flaw in this story: it’s summer in California and the creek is, literally, a trickle. Even in the wettest part of winter though, for the entire history of Camp Meeker, the creek has never come anywhere near the building. And, the postal shack doesn’t have a septic tank. It has a camp toilet.
Again, I’m not making this up.
The USPS hired an outside company to investigate the overflow, and also to test some mold on the outside of the trailer that the postmaster said was causing respiratory problems in everyone who worked there (like I said, this place is classy) . The forensics company determined that the liquid on the floor was water from a nearby sink and that the mold on the outside of the trailer was omnipresent in Camp Meeker and not harmful.
Mr Boyd told Tony that as soon as he received the paperwork to finalize the findings, which he expected in a few days, the Camp Meeker post office would be immediately reopened.
A couple days later, Tony met with the postmaster who had reported the sewage, Jeannie Ramirez. She said that her real reasons for instigating the closure of the post office was not sewage but because her employees were complaining of respiratory issues from the mold and refused to work in the trailer. In other words, she lied.
What is curious about this is that I talked to one of her former employees, who was actually laid off along with another employee. She said that neither she, nor anyone else complained about respiratory problems or mold. So did Ms Ramirez lie about that too?
You’d think if the postmaster was so concerned about her employees exposure to mold that she might try get rid of the mold? But rather than take 1hr to scrub the mold off the outside of the trailer, or hire someone to do it, she preferred to inconvenience an entire community by closing their post office for more than four months.
I couldn’t figure out anyone’s motives until I looked online at the USPS regulations. Closing a post office takes months of procedure and public input, unless there is a safety issue with the postal facility. If there is a safety issue the USPS can close a post office immediately. Interesting.
Anyway, the post office remained closed. Weeks later Tony wrote to postmaster Ramirez, USPS managers Tony Carvelli and Eddie Masangcay, and Diana Alverado of USPS property management requesting an updated plan and timeline, along with an update to the sign on the post office door so that the public wasnt misled.
No one responded to the questions although the “Haz Mak” sign on the door of the post office was taken down and he got a call from Tony Carvelli
“Tony Carvelli called me. He expressed his displeasure with me sending emails to his superiors stating he had no plan or timeline. I asked him what his plan was. He replied he could not form a plan till he figures out what is wrong with the trailer. I asked him his plan for determining what is wrong with the trailer. He said he was trying to figure that out as well. I told him based on that, I would continue to report that there is no plan and no timeline.”
A couple weeks later, on the suggestion of a local boy scout, Sebastopol’s Wolf Pack 128, Den 2 Cub Scouts retired the flag at Camp Meeker’s post office since it had remained flying outside all this time.
That was in August. Fast forward to 3 days ago when we got a letter from the postal service notifying us that another feasibility study is being conducted to see if permanent closure is possible. The letter stated that if residents wish to make comments they should attend a meeting next week on Oct 23 at the Occidental Post Office, at the rather inconvenient time of 5pm.
Jim Wigdel, s USPS public relations official, told our neighbor Tony that business had dropped off, so the status of the Camp Meeker post office is again up for review.
Um, yeah. It is hard to do any business when you’re CLOSED.
Since the post office closed, I’ve made sure to have all packages delivered directly to my house via UPS or FexEx. I’ve done this not just because I’m crazy and like to have mail delivered to my HOUSE, but because I don’t have the greatest confidence in the sorting abilities of the Occidental post office. Two packages addressed to me since the closure never arrived. They had tracking on them, and the USPS tracking says they arrived at the Occidental post office and were “delivered”. Delivered to whom? I’ve also received several letters in my mail pile that were addressed to someone else and had more than a few letters addressed to me returned to sender because they were addressed to my street address rather than PO Box.
I try to let everyone know about my PO Box, but occasionally a client will send something to my street address. In the past, clerks at the Camp Meeker office had a master list on the wall to match up names and street addresses with PO Boxes. If someone addressed a letter to my street I would still get it. However, now we get our mail in Occidental and postmaster Ramirez says that regulations require her to return such mail to sender. As a result I’ve tried to change all my bills and deposits to electronic. I can’t help but wonder how much of the drop off in business is due to other people doing the same? How much of the revenue drop is due to the USPS driving away their customers?
Apparently our expectations of anything Federal are so low that we no longer expect mail to be delivered, and the only employment opportunity in town - a single part-time job at $10 an hour with no benefits - is too extravagant an expense .
Off to make angst-filled music.
Last night I went to a World Economic Forum meeting in San Francisco. Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman, was soliciting topics for the annual meeting in Davos. He’s an inspiring and clearly beloved figure and listened with eagerness and curiosity to everything everyone had to say. Present were local Economic Forum members (academics and executives from the key companies in Silicon Valley), Young Global Leaders (that’s the under-40 group I’m in) and a younger group called the Global Shapers.
The conversations were about the world economy as a whole but I couldn’t help applying what was said directly to the music industry.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, you develop a negative attitude about it" said Professor Schwab, and an executive from Salesforce commented that when people don’t have faith in the future, they act on fear. I thought both statements rather neatly explained the stance of the RIAA over the last decade.
Later, Professor Schwab said “a business should not only be accountable to its shareholders, but also to its employees & society" and also when Mitchell Baker from Mozilla said that resilient economies need to keep risks and rewards tied (actually I can’t remember if she said economies, companies or systems…but they all work). These statements led me to thinking about flaws in the digital music economy.
In years past, records were costly to produce and the artistic risk of each artist was linked directly to the financial risk of their record label. For all the problems of that industry, both parties needed needed each other and with success reaped their respective rewards.
Today, marvelous as they are as a discovery platform, it’s true that there is no risk at all to digital music services if an artist’s music is not wildly popular. In the case of YouTube, they reap their reward by selling advertising against the art of thousands and thousands of artists. A niche artist’s inability to attract bizillions of eyeballs will not affect these companies one bit. Modest success reaps little financial reward for individuals in this ecosystem. Yet no individual artist has the leverage to negotiate for a higher percentage of advertising revenue or has a say in what kind of ads are slapped on their art. Google is not accountable to us. I’m doing fine, but I might be an anomaly because so many of my peers are not, and that bugs me. What can I do about it? What’s next?
Anyway, it was an interesting evening and I thrive on this stuff. I haven’t attended many WEF events but would like to go to more.
The first year I was nominated into the Young Global Leaders I was a new mom and funds were tight. Attending a meeting of YGLs in China with my nursing son seemed outrageous and totally out of the question. I don’t have to bring him with me anymore but meetings still happen in mostly far-flung (to me) locales like India. Of course, I do travel for tours all the time but I have concerts there to pay for it. And truthfully, as interested and engaged as I like to be regarding world events… it’s not clear most of the time what the heck my role as an artist is at the WEF.
I’m used to being a fish out of water, and reveling in it, but I’ve yet to figure out how to be myself in the context of the WEF. That bugs me too.
Yes, there are music economy issues that I would love to discuss with the incredible braintrust of larger minds in the WEF community. But at the same time, I’m an artist first and minor thinker and commentator second. Artists are inherent outsiders. My value to a group like the WEF is to hold on to that otherness, and not to try too hard to fit in.
(Idea: The “World Artists Forum”, an annual meeting of artists where we invite business leaders to play music, dance and paint with us.)
I always go when the meetings are local, like last night. No one has ever asked me to perform, but I’ve offered. Playing music is my most effective way to contribute. I’ve performed at enough brainy ideas gatherings to see how necessary a musical “break” is. We need time to allow our brains to digest what we’ve heard and give ourselves some space to come up with new ideas. A musical break is perfect for this (Andrew Zolli nails this every year in his curation of the Pop!Tech conference, well worth attending). There is nothing like the lightening bolt of art to make you think outside the box, and boy could the world use some out of the box thinking.
A polar explorer, who’s name I didn’t catch, made a comment I took to heart, “Leadership is a mindset. How can we get every person to think like a leader?”. Although people often look to me to be a leader, I’m not a natural one and I certainly don’t think like one. I’m a maverick maybe, but not a leader. So I challenge myself to lead my way out of this conundrum before my 5 year term as a YGL is up.
Now I’m home and struck again by the juxtapositions in my life. Last night in a 5 star hotel banquet room I dined on sushi with venture capitalists, executives and academics. Back home, my “town” isn’t officially a town but is an unincorporated cluster of 300 houses packed into a single square mile in the woods. The only business is a post office, in a delapidated trailer installed to be temporary in the 1970’s and that has been closed for 6 months because of a leaking toilet. My husband just loaded all our monthly garbage into the car to take it to the dump and tonight there is a town meeting about how on earth to rustle up the 20k needed to build the only playground for miles around. We are better off than most of the world but it certainly doesn’t feel like the bubble of privilege people kept referencing last night.
“For a life full of learning, be like a child. Be curious. Always let new things pique your interest. ” - Klaus Schwab
Shout out to Drue Kataoka, a visual artist and fellow YGL. She spoke about Silicon Valley’s strength coming from intersection of arts and technology, the unacknowledged role arts education has played in many careers and the need to add arts back into STEM (turn STEM into STEAM, she said). Yes. That. She was an inspiration to talk to and I felt more at home being there because she was there too. Thank you Drue.
By the way, last week I played cello with Thomas Dolby, Dan Hicks, Narada Walton and Don Was. It was a blast. Go see Mr Dolby’s live scored performance of his film The Invisible Lighthouse this next month if you can.