Streaming Music Sucks for Artists - But Fans Have the Power to Help
Like it or not, streaming is the future of the music industry. And while Spotify and its competitors obviously provide more revenue for artists than illegal downloads, it is harder than ever for artists to make a living directly off their music. But there ways for passionate fans to support their favorite artists.
It's no secret that the transition from physical album sales to (frequently pirated) digital downloads wrecked the bottom line of the record industry. Over the last few years, as streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube have taken over a massive share of overall music consumption, there has been some hope that industry revenue would bounce back, because these platforms provide options for monetization and thus royalties. However, it's become increasingly clear that streaming has an long way to go before it will replace the revenue that physical sales used to generate.
(image via: Spotify)
In a recent piece in The New Yorker, John Seabrook details the impact that streaming music has had on songwriters specifically, gutting their income from royalties. In one example, he speaks to a songwriter who co-wrote a hit that had nearly 3 million plays on Spotify... and received a royalty check for $17.72. The place of songwriters is particularly difficult in the new streaming-dominated economy of the music industry, as they don't generally have the alternate revenue options of touring and merchandise, and outdated copyright, licensing, and royalty rules have adapted poorly to the transition from physical sales and radio to streaming. While this transition hasn't hit performing artists as hard (thanks mostly to their ability to tour), it has still taken a major toll on artists' ability to get paid well for their music.
Of course the transition to internet distribution and streaming has had some major benefits. It's brought down barriers to entry and allowed artists to reach large audiences without the need of record labels and/or large financial investments to print physical CDs. But once an artist has built up a following, their ability to sustain their career will almost always rest on their ability to tour - and touring isn't always an ideal, healthy, or sustainable lifestyle. Writing for New York Times Magazine, Mike Errico detailed the problems with this situation in his article Touring Can't Save Musicians in the Age of Spotify.
So the long term financial outlook for musicians looks bleak, because fans' addiction to the convenience of streaming isn't going away. If you love streaming music, but want to support the musicians who create it, there are a number of ways that you can support artists directly.
Buy merch - If you like an artist, buy and rep their gear. When artists sell merchandise, either on their website or at shows, the majority of the profit usually goes directly into their pockets. Plus when you wear their merch, you are helping spread the visibility of their brand.
Go to smaller shows, not just festivals - Part of this is obvious, as most fans know that artists rely heavily on income from touring to support themselves. But perhaps less known is the huge inequality in booking fees that is common between smaller acts and headliners, especially at large events such as festivals. So if you want to support less known artists, it's important to see them at smaller events and club nights - especially when they headline such gigs.
Bandcamp - If any artists you like use Bandcamp for any of their releases, you should absolutely buy those releases there. Bandcamp allows artists to sell directly to fans without needing a label or distribution, and they provide at least 85% of sales revenue directly to artists. In a typical label agreement, going through an online store like iTunes, artists end up with something in the range of 20-30%.
Support them on social media - Social media, particularly Facebook, is not the powerful, free promotional tool that it used to be. Artists are required to pay significant fees to reach their full audience of fans via their Facebook page. So one of the easiest ways to support an artist is to like, comment on, and share their content on social media whenever you can. Repost their tracks on Soundcloud, retweet their tweets, etc. Though this doesn't put any money directly into their pockets, having a large and engaged following on social media often translates into better placement on lineups and higher booking fees.
Tell promoters about them - Few things are more frustrating for an artist than constantly getting comments on social media asking when they are coming to x city, or playing x festival. It's flattering, but artists generally don't have much control over where they play - they get booked where there is demand. So if you want to see a musician live, one of the best ways to make that happen is to tell local promoters, venues, and festivals about them. This can be as simple as making a post to the Facebook page of a venue or festival, and encouraging other fans to do the same.
If they launch a Kickstarter, back it - Spending months in the studio to write an album can financially cripple an artist who supports themselves with constant touring. Because the labels that traditionally funded such studio work are dying off, some artists have embraced crowdfunding as a new way to raise money to fund their creative work. This is one of the most direct ways for fans to make sure their favorite artists keep making music - plus artists frequently offer exclusive merch, unreleased tunes, or other unique bonuses for fans who back their crowdfunding campaigns.
Just straight up give them money - If you love an artist's music, but you either stream it or download it illegally, consider just hitting them up on their social media and asking if they have a place where you can donate money. If nothing else, they can probably give you a paypal email where you can send them some cash. Plus more and more social media platforms are rolling out payment features - you can send money directly in Snapchat and Google+. Most of us will spend $4 on a coffee at Starbucks, or $6 on a beer at a show without thinking twice about it. IMO, sending a musician $5 just because you love their music is a much better use of your money.