Streaming and now COVID create age of reckoning for artists

Streaming and now COVID create age of reckoning for artists

Help by buying direct from the artist, shopping locally, staying in touch

Monday, March 15, 2021
By Diane Sewell for The Loreena McKennitt Community

To say the music industry has changed in the last 20 years would be a gross understatement. Now more than ever, artists must find creative ways to sustain their craft and for many, simply making a living wage has become incredibly difficult.

With the rise in streaming services like Napster, Spotify, iTunes and Pandora came the decline in CD sales. The days when you would walk into your local record store and buy your next album have mostly vanished. According to visualcapitalist.com, CD sales have dropped 80% in just over a decade. In 2002, CDs accounted for 95.5% of the recording industry’s revenue. Today, music streaming is the most common format in the United States and accounts for nearly half the market.  What was a $20-billion industry in 1999 was reduced to a $7.5 billion industry by 2014, mostly due to unregulated technology and platforms that undermined artists’ ability to make a living.

“Napster, the first widely used P2P (peer-to-peer) service, figuratively skipped the needle off the record and ended years of impressive profitability in the recording industry,” says an article posted on theguardian.com.  The story also cites a poll which found 82% of respondents earned less than £200 ($350 Can) from streaming during all of 2019.  An article on Fortune.com in 2018, entitled Why ‘Success’ on YouTube Still Means a Life of Poverty, reported that the top 3% of the most-viewed YouTube channels only made $16,800 (U.S.) in a year.

The royalties paid to the vast majority of artists on digital platforms are abysmally meagre – the lowest being Pandora and YouTube. And the amount artists get per play varies depending on such factors as the viewer’s/listener’s country and region, whether they’re using a paid or free account, an artist’s royalty rate, plus the pricing and currency in each region.  So, not all artists are digital equals. And while the most well-known may be able to generate significant income through streaming revenue, most artists cannot, something which also acts as a deterrent to new emerging artists.

According to William Deresiewicz, author of The Death of The Artist, a million streams on YouTube will pay just $700, even while YouTube itself generates an annual $30 billion in ad revenue. The digital revolution, argues Deresiewicz, has led to the erosion of the middle class of artists. “We can gorge ourselves to our heart’s content,” he observes, while cautioning “how nourishing these products are and how sustainable the systems that create them are questions that we need to ask ourselves.”

So, if the new music industry model has literally led to more starving artists, why should we care, asks Deresiewicz. Because research shows, he says, that 96% of people surveyed believe the arts contribute value to society.

While musicians have been pushed towards more touring to generate revenue in the streaming era, the onslaught of COVID-19 has become “an extinction event,” adds Deresiewicz. Just as the pandemic has raised our collective consciousness about the importance of front-line workers, so has it led us to think about what value the arts have in our lives.

“I believe our choices as consumers must reflect something bigger,” says Loreena. “It’s not all about the cheapest price. Now more than ever, we must all re-prioritize what means the most to us. We must make deliberate and conscious choices. This is an era of reckoning.”

Many see shopping locally, buying directly from the artist, and staying in touch with your favourite performers as much as possible as the most ethical way forward.

As theguardian.com story puts it: “Artist compensation was already volatile before COVID-19 made touring impossible and while streaming is up 20% during the pandemic, that does not mean much for artists.”

While Deresiewicz believes that consumer choices can have a direct and positive impact, still more must be done. “There is a need to correct monopolistic situations in the market. Just as rates are set for water and electricity, why not for music and art?”

Written by Diane Sewell, a career journalist for more than 30 years. In addition to working with Loreena for 20 years, she has also written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and assorted consumer magazines. She is also the author of several commissioned books.