MUSIC IN A PANDEMIC: IS YOUR STREAMING ETHICAL?

The benefit of a larger audience increases support, but could diminish profits


By Joshua Jackson: Music Columnist


Amidst cancelled tours and the closing of almost all live music venues musical artists were hit with another blow last month. This time however it was not from the global pandemic but from Spotify CEO Daniel Elk, who in an interview with Music Ally explained how artists not succeeding on his platform need to focus on ‘creating a continuous engagement with their fans’ to do better.

A sentiment boiling down to Elk insisting that artists not working hard enough is the reason they are not getting big cheques from the streaming giant. In the wake of comments such as these and the collapse of the live music economy listeners can see clearly how financially fragile the streaming model has become, raising real questions as to how far the way we pay for music is actually supporting artists.

A decade ago it was very clear how artists earned money. Listeners bought (either physically or digitally) a copy of an album or single with the cost of that sale being split between label and artist. Today is quite different, while streaming services are almost universally tight-lipped about the amount they pay artists, attempts to calculate these numbers, for example this table published by The Trichordist blog, with examples of streams dropping as low as £0.00025 ($0.00331). A far cry from the £0.99 Itunes has for years charged to own a digital single. Making money from this model, as Elk pointed out, requires artists to produce constant music, aiming for shorter high-stream songs rather than spending two or three years refining an album or longer release. While live shows and tours stepped up as avenues through which artists could earn money without a streaming middleman, COVID-19 restrictions have dashed what was the most direct way to financially support artists.

In light of the live music lockdown it has become hard to ignore the raw deal streaming services are offering artists, and it has become vital to rethink how we consume music. Perhaps one of the most compelling solutions is veteran of the digital music world: Bandcamp. The service has always been a favourite of independent artists, allowing them to set their own prices, offering ‘pay what you want’ options and facilitating merchandise sales. As COVID-19 hit, the company introduced ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ a day each month where Bancamp’s fees for artists would be waived, allowing one-hundred percent of sales costs to go to artists. It is a business decision that stands in stark contrast to Daniel Elk’s ‘work harder’ approach to struggling artists. Bandcamp represents an indie and artist focused twist on the old ITunes and digital sales model. For artists, it would be ideal if we all switched to only consuming through services such as Bandcamp, however, the drawbacks of such a switch are obvious.


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We have become accustomed to having almost any song at our fingertips, having to buy each and every piece of music we listen to seems almost antiquated. Services, such as Spotify, put the playlist centre stage as our listening habits dart from artist to artist, song to song. Splashing out on the hours of music contained in the many different playlists most people now listen to is a prospect few would be keen on. Cancelling a streaming subscription and moving to buying music would also leave listeners without the advanced recommendation algorithms most services have, finding themselves likely spending more while being able to listen to less.

Some are attempting to adapt the streaming model, keeping up with our new listening habits while still supporting artists. Resonate is a cooperative music streaming service that markets itself on a unique ‘Stream2Own’ model. After only nine plays artists begin to earn money, while listeners only pay for the music they actually stream. The concept presents a real challenge to the models of the streaming giants, however it is still very much in its infancy. Without an IOS app, and lacking the recommendation algorithms, social media linking and a variety of other user friendly features taken for granted when using Spotify or Apple Music, moving to Resonate fully is currently unpalatable for most.

Getting people to switch wholesale away from the streaming giants will be a tough sell. While services such as Resonate show the potential for a more ethical future it is far from truly challenging the many features Spotify or Apple Music offer listeners. Perhaps what we can hope for from the pandemic is a greater awareness of the financial reality of music streaming. Bandcamp saw sales of over seven million dollars on May’s ‘Bandcamp Friday’, highlighting how listeners may be beginning to add greater variety to where they source music from.

The prospect of buying something once a month from Bandcamp or spending a few hours a week streaming from Resonate, knowing it will support an artist, may be beginning to take hold with listeners. The real challenge however will come as lockdowns ease and live music resumes, when news headlines are no longer filled with stories of struggling arts venues and the economics of the music industry return to the backstage. Low pay from big streaming services will continue and it will ultimately be up to consumers to decide if they are willing to pay more, or listen differently to better support artists.

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