Down That Stream Without A Paddle

October 03, 2023 6 min read

Down That Stream Without A Paddle

“I don’t understand how the f*** you get paid for that s***. I mean, can somebody explain to me how you can get a billion streams and not make a million dollars?... it’s not working for the artists right now and I just want to speak to that.”

Those words came from none other than Snoop Dogg during VVIP’s 2023 Global Conference while on a panel with Larry Jackson, celebrating 50 years of Hip Hop. You can watch it here at the 21:18 minute mark:

Make no doubt about it, what he says rings true, and much more loudly for smaller artists who want to have a go making a living from their art.

So, how are artists paid for recordings anyway?

There are five different royalties an artist can receive through the release and sale of their music.

  1. You have mechanical royalties, which is a fee paid every time a copy of a song is made on a physical format like a CD or vinyl record or every time someone presses play on a streaming service.

  2. You have performance royalties, where money is paid for the public performance of a song, either on TV, the radio, during a live performance and some streaming.

  3. You have synchronization royalties, where money is paid when a song is used on a TV show, in a movie or some other form of visual media

  4. You have digital performance royalties, where money is paid for the use of music on a non-interactive digital platform like Pandora or SiriusXM

  5. Finally, you have print music royalties, where money is paid when a song is sold in sheet music form.

These royalties are collected through various performing artist organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SOCAN, etc.), agencies such as Harry Fox, digital distributors such as DistroKid or SoundDrop, and other such organizations who then pass on the money (after taking their fees - if any) to the person who owns the rights to the song (the songwriter or the publishing company that owns all or part of the rights). 

So, what do they get paid?

There is no question that people are not buying music as much as they once did thanks to the plethora of paid and free streaming options. Statistics from the World Economic Forum show that, based on 44,000 people surveyed in 2022, 64% of people consumed music through some form of online service (Paid and free streaming, as well as social media platforms), with only 10% buying the music they listen to.

We love our streaming services (the Apple Musics and Spotifys of the world). They’re cheap and convenient ways to access vast libraries of music. For the artists though, cheap and convenient comes at a cost. 

Royalty rates paid by streaming services are affected by several factors (country, subscription tier for the end user, length of song, etc.), however, when it comes to the amount of money paid per stream, the top five are as follows (via Producer Hive):

  1. Tidal -$0.01284 per stream
  2. Apple Music - $0.008
  3. Amazon Music - $0.00402
  4. Spotify -$0.00318
  5. YouTube Music -$0.002

So, what does that mean? It means that for an artist to earn a living wage in the US of $64,116 per household per year, an artist would need at least 20.1 Million streams on Spotify per year!

I say “at least” because every artist is a business, and may have a team around him/her/them. The artist may have to give a percentage to pay their manager, their booking agent, their press people and anyone else on their team, not to mention cover the expenses of actually recording and releasing the music. So realistically, you might want to add a few thousand more streams to cover those as well.

When you compare these rates to say mechanical royalties for a CD ($0.12 per song under five minutes per CD made - not sold), or royalties for radio play ($1.35 per spin according to SOCAN in Canada, though these vary widely), or a play on SiriusXM ($44 per spin according to the CBC), you can see that musicians who rely solely on streaming services are, for lack of a better term, getting screwed.

(Well, they were getting screwed before - a CD sold for $20 meant that the artist might get $2, the rest going to distribution, the label, etc. That $2 would also shrink some more with whatever the artist needed to pay their team out of that cut. Plus ça change, plus ça reste pareil.)

A war on creativity as well as money

There’s more to it here, as explained by Alan Cross during his Ted Talk Streaming is Killing Music.

Money aside, he goes on to say that music is now being written to fit the format of streaming. Earlier, I said what streaming services paid artists per play, but what constitutes a play? To summarize what Mr. Cross says on this matter, a play is only counted if the song is played for at least 30 seconds. So, if you listen to a song and you hit skip after 29 seconds, the play is not counted and the artist receives nothing.

Mr. Cross goes on to say that because of this, songs are getting shorter (Old Town Road by Lil Nas X - a massive hit, is under two minutes) and hooks and choruses are coming faster and more frequently, all in the hopes of catching your attention for at least those 30 seconds. This kind of stacks the deck against the indie artist who wants to create something new; do you go for art or attention?

What is an artist to do?

This is a hard question since the majority of the potential audience uses streaming services. Hoping for a snowball’s chance in hell to get heard or playlisted on one of these services means shaking hands with the devil for most artists.

Some have tried, or are trying, different ways to release music to capitalize on profits and sales rather than streaming revenue.Vulfpeck famously gamed the system in 2014, releasing Sleepify, an album consisting of 10 32-second(ish) tracks, all containing dead silence. They asked their fans to play this album on repeat while they slept and managed to raise $20,000 to fund a tour before Spotify pulled the plug on it.

Mary Spender, an independent artist and YouTuber has decided to release the songs from her new album Super. Sexy. Heartbreak. As singles to streaming services, while fans can get the whole thing by pre-ordering a CD (which also comes with a digital download). This strategy somewhat echos moves by Coldplay (with Ghost Stories) and Gwen Stefani (with This Is What The Truth Feels Like), who initially released paid versions of their albums months before adding them to streaming services.

How can fans help?

We all love music and want to support those who make it, regardless if they’re an indie artist doing it DIY-style, or someone on a big label. Here are a few things to consider that can help:

  • Buy your music - Doesn’t matter if it's a CD, a vinyl record, or a digital album from the iTunes Store or a service like BandCamp, buying a physical or digital copy will help the artist get more money faster than streaming can.

  • If you’re going to stream, consider subscribing to a service that pays a higher royalty rate - If you’re on Spotify, maybe consider switching to Tidal, which pays the artist 3 times more per play.

  • Listen to entire songs - A play only counts after 30 seconds, so give the artist a bit of your time.

  • Go to shows and buy some merch - A huge booster for smaller artists is to go see them. Pay the cover, buy the ticket, grab a t-shirt and go say hello! You might just discover your new favourite artist for the price of parking at the Enormo-Dome to see a major-label musician.

  • Streaming is not going anywhere anytime soon, and the artists will continue to receive pennies on pennies for their work. One can hope that things will improve, but let’s be real. The only fighting chance most have are their fans and their fans’ generosity.

    By Kevin Daoust -

    Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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