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.