Is the streaming experiment failing artists?

Monday, March 15, 2021
Loreena McKennitt

Today, many artists around the world are holding demonstrations at Spotify offices to deliver their demands; a penny per stream, increased transparency, an end to lawsuits against artists, and more.

As many of you know, I have run my own career and label since 1985. During this time, I have witnessed many changes in the music industry. When I first jumped in, cassettes and vinyl were the dominant formats. By 1989 I was starting to reproduce my music on CD. I had been alerted to the coming digital tsunami by an insider at Philips, who was interested in using my music as content for this new format. For reasons I do not recall, it was not an initiative I participated in.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s music was sold in stores and bootlegged on beaches around the world. The bootlegging was one of the origins of music piracy and the digital nature of CD’s made it easier than ever. Once the internet became commonplace, new models of commerce were being explored through companies like Apple, offering downloads which more closely resembled the business model of the physical formats, certainly in terms of what artists were paid — somewhere in the order of 25 cents per song.

But music continued to hold such value in people’s lives that a black market (like the bootlegging days) established through services such as Napster or BitTorrents, all of which delivered our music for free. In this unregulated atmosphere, a generation grew up acquiring music for free and believing it was their right to do so. The income of artists, as meagre as it once was, was about to get a whole lot more meagre — in a business with no minimum wage or the protection of employee benefits.

In an attempt to forge a new business model, Spotify emerged to create a subscription service whereby subscribers would not “own” a license to play music (as was implicit in a CD, vinyl or cassette) but through a monthly fee, they would be able to stream music anywhere, any time and as much as they wanted. This model would rely upon volume of listens and artists would be paid in increments of approximately 10 cents per thousand plays, rather than the 25 cents per song.

This brings us to the present with Spotify and the many streaming services. Although the monetisation of streaming music has slightly improved since becoming the main modality of music consumption, it falls profoundly short of what artists were once paid in the physical format days.  This has thrust many artists into deeper poverty, or to abandon their careers altogether.  Those who remain are left with no other sustainable source of income except relentless touring — until even that option disappears, like when a pandemic comes along.

Like most, if not all tech companies, in 2008 Spotify launched a business experiment in an unregulated environment.  Ever since they have marketed their services to consumers on the basis of convenience and efficiencies, with no concern for the fair compensation or viability of the artists or producers. Artists were asked to ‘buy-in’, largely because the previous unregulated decades had decimated the analogue business model, including bricks and mortal retail stores.  Artists and labels had no other choice but to embrace Spotify and the other streaming services, only to find that after 11 years, this big tech experiment have yet to turn a profit.

So what is a music lover to do? And how do you decide where to buy your music or how to consume it?

For many, my response will not come as a surprise. Buy it as directly from the artist as you can. Like food, go as directly as you can to the producer. And if you still have any analogue equipment, explore loving that again and all the non-monetary riches that can come with that. Know that your listening pleasure will be more fairly compensating the artist. as well as the local retailer from whom you might still buy it. It is with sadness that I watch so many accomplished and promising artists, rise and then fade away and who are now like a disappearing species akin to the spring birds in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The new DDT for musicians is a digital world which exploits artists rather than fostering a diverse and local economy not to mention feeding our hungry souls.