If you’re a human being who exists on the internet, you’ve probably seen a lot of people applauding Taylor Swift’s brave decision to face the Goliath that is Apple Music, threatening to pull her music from their service if Apple didn’t agree to pay royalties to artists during its three-month trial period. Apple Music conceded, and the bold and benevolent Taylor Swift saved the day for musicians everywhere – or so the legend goes. The real story goes much deeper than that. As Taylor Hatmaker explains via the Daily Dot, this situation is more likely the result of a great deal of behind-the-scenes issues between Taylor’s label, Universal Music Group and Apple. (Universal is currently the subject of an antitrust investigation for having allegedly conspired with Apple to suppress Spotify, YouTube and other free streaming services.)
Of course, the structure of the recorded music industry has changed drastically over the course of the last several decades, and it’s become much more difficult for musicians to earn a living from simply putting out hit records. It’s no longer realistic for artists to aspire to rock stardom; for many, it’d be enough to be able to survive financially on the work they create. The truth is, no matter how many letters Taylor Swift writes on her Tumblr, there isn’t a whole lot of money for musicians in streaming services, especially for smaller, lesser-known acts. Recent figures from a study by Ernst & Young regarding the French record label trade group SNEP suggest that for every €9.99 premium users spend on their Spotify subscriptions, artists earn about 68 cents, while the major labels keep a huge percentage of the spoils. The finished product looks something like this:
If this looks unfair to you, keep in mind that Pandora pays artists even less than Spotify. Apple has been less than transparent about how the payment structure will work for artists featured on Apple Music (When explaining how amazing the service would be for independent musicians, they chose to feature one who doesn’t actually exist). For the purposes of this article, we will primarily be talking in terms of Spotify, mostly because Spotify has been around for the longest and there are more statistics available regarding how it works. I’d also like to go on record stating that I’m a premium Spotify subscriber who loves the service, but still likes for my musician friends to be able to pay their rent.
At the end of the day, these streaming services aren’t offering struggling musicians a particularly significant cut of their financial gains. So what can you do to help? We consulted with five artists — Juli Amore, Mal Blum, Aimee Echo, Julia Nunes and Jenny Owen Youngs — and they offered us suggestions for the most effective ways you can support the broke indie queer band in your life. Here’s what they came up with.
1. Go To Shows
Go to the show! Bring friends with you! This one isn’t hard. The good news is, while online piracy has caused record sales to plummet over the last couple of decades, live music is still hugely popular. There’s simply no replacement for the thrill of an actual concert experience. People still love seeing their favorite band play their favorite song, no matter how many blurry Instagram videos flood our feeds. In most (not all) cases, the artists earn a cut of the door, so you’ve already done your part by simply buying a ticket — and if enough people show up, the venue is more likely to want to book the artist again.
Your presence at the show is especially helpful for queer musicians, who often have a tougher time getting gigs to begin with. As singer Juli Amore explains, “Live shows themselves generate revenue, and then there are direct album sales at shows as well as band merchandise. The issue comes when we only have a certain number of venues that will even book us so we’re already being cut out of supporting ourselves in ways that cisgender heteronormative folks have constant access to. Not to mention that you also then split the limited audience into tastes in musical genres and that support becomes a very small number of folks.” Basically, if you can come out to support independent queer musicians, you should; it helps the community as a whole.
2. Buy Merch
As record stores disappear and physical copies of albums become less and less of a commodity, it can be rough for musicians to make a buck. Singer Aimee Echo (of Human Waste Project, theSTART, Normandie and Black Sabbitch) explains, “Buy the shirt. Wear the shirt. Buy the music from the band. Buy other people the music. Do everything as directly as possible. Buy from the band or the band’s website. Honestly, as cheesy as it is, those VIP meet and greet packages, the money usually goes directly to the band… so you meet them and you give them money!” Buying merch directly from the band eliminates the middleman; after expenses, the cash goes directly to the artist, and if you’re up for it, you can usually tip!
Plus, you look amazing in your new t-shirt, which is great exposure for the band.
3. Use Streaming Services For Good, Not Evil
Sage oracle Jenny Owen Youngs told me about a band called Vulfpeck who used Spotify’s less-than-ideal business model to their advantage. They put out a 10-track album called Sleepify, which consisted of 10 completely silent tracks ranging between 31 and 32 seconds, and encouraged fans to play it over and over again while they slept or otherwise went about their business. Sure, each streamed track was worth a little under $0.007 (for premium Spotify users, less for free users), but listen to the whole album 10 times, and the band had earned about 70 cents. Over the course of time, Vulfpeck racked up $19,655.56 — until Spotify unceremoniously removed the album without further explanation. Undeterred, Vulfpeck used the cash to rent a van and book a tour across the US.
While this seems like an incredible fairy tale, it is still possible for artists to earn some money with Spotify. Users who listen to tracks on Spotify Premium end up paying artists $0.0068 per track (or $0.0014 for free listeners). Only about a quarter of Spotify’s users are premium, so this averages out to roughly $0.00275 per track. Shortlist recently published a fascinating list of how several popular songs have fared over Spotify: how often a track was played, how much money the labels made, and then how the artists made out. Although the final numbers for the artists are nothing to sniff at, they’re hardly proportional. Although the business model for streaming services isn’t ideal for the average Joe in a band, it doesn’t mean these services are inherently bad. There’s still an amount of money being generated for the artists, and they’re a great way for listeners to discover a wide array of immediately available new music.
I asked Jenny if she has ever made any significant money with Spotify, and she answered that she has. For her, monthly payouts from iTunes and Spotify are roughly in the same ballpark (although she concedes that this is possibly not the norm for most artists; data tends to show that digital downloads are decreasing as streaming services become more popular).
“The thing with Spotify or any streaming service is there’s always a positive side to counter against the negative,” Jenny explains. “Like, there’s ease of exposure/discovery which can lead to purchases of music, concert tickets, etc. if you become a fan. And it’s easy for friends to connect and make playlists, and then recommend stuff to each other.” She considers a well-curated Spotify playlist to be a monetize-able mixtape for users to share music they like with friends, all while slowly contributing to musicians over the course of time. “I think it’s one of those things where the music consumption model is gradually leaning more and more heavily to streaming, so unless you’re Taylor Swift there’s something to be said for using the model to your advantage if possible.”
“Bandcamp is also a great direct-to-fan music platform that streams for free but you can buy immediately in their platform — in higher-fi audio than iTunes — and they have a subscription feature that bands can use as well.”
4. Actually Pay For Music
In theory, we expect to have access to media all the time; the internet’s made it very easy for us to listen to music, watch movies or read articles at a moment’s notice. The thing is, we don’t always make a conscious effort to make sure we’re supporting the people who provide us with said entertainment. Taking a minute to donate a few bucks towards the artist goes a long way. Via the ever-charming Mal Blum: “There’s no need to feel guilty for streaming! A lot of artists have songs streaming for free on places like Bandcamp or Spotify because we want people to have access to our music when they don’t have money. But the caveat is that if you have been streaming the same artist’s songs for awhile, and you want them to keep making music, somebody has to buy something eventually or they will have to stop. So, if you need to assuage your streaming guilt and you have the means to do so, here are some fun new ways to give bands money:
Think about your favorite artist to stream tracks from on Bandcamp. Think about how many times you listened to one of their songs this year. Divide that number in half and click the ‘set your own price’ button and donate it to them. Buy an album you already own and give it to a friend.”
Really, though, when’s the last time you bought a physical album? You could buy it! You could put a record on and sit in the windowsill and drink a cup of tea while you read the liner notes. It’d be beautiful.
5. Literally Give The Band Money
Listen, do you know what it’s like to love a band with your whole heart? As a lovestruck teenager who followed my favorite musicians around with an Almost Famous-esque fervor, I watched my favorite band lose their record deal, buy a van, put out their own albums on their own label and tour on their own dime, surviving entirely on the love and generosity of their fans. We built an international community around taking care of them — we’d sneak tips into their merch tip jar, offer places to crash and shower, sometimes bring them snacks. We believed in the music, and that was enough. It changed the way I thought about the business, and probably has a lot to do with why I work in live music now.
There are a million more ways to help out your struggling musician friends. “Tell your favorite band to keep the change when you buy their merch. Pay in large bills,” Mal suggests. “If the band doesn’t have any merch or albums you want, ask to donate to their gas tank. Ask for a mailing address and mail them a birthday card with a check in it, like a kind grandmother.”
6. Get Interactive
In the gilded age of Amanda Palmer, it’s not uncommon to see artists using Kickstarter or similar platforms to raise money for their projects. These can be helpful for some musicians to raise money for huge projects, but this format neglects the struggling musician’s day-to-day. Thankfully, Julia Nunes turned me on to Patreon, a new platform for independent artists where fans can set up a subscription-based account and donate directly to worthwhile endeavors. While Kickstarter is mostly geared towards raising money towards one specific goal, Patreon is designed more towards sustainability for artists, musicians and other content creators. Patrons can pledge an amount to be donated to the artist every time a piece of content is uploaded, and in return they receive certain artist-designed levels of rewards. Julia describes Patreon as “basically the only reason I was able to work on my album for a year. Usually I tour to make a living (and also because I love touring) because you’re very right, Spotify and Google ads do not make a dent in the cost of living.”
Jenny also touts the benefits of Patreon: “What’s cool about it is that it’s sort of wide open. You can be as creative and personal with your content as you can dream up.” She also recognizes the value of connecting directly with fans on other platforms; she regularly interacts with fans on social media, does merch giveaways and sometimes uses an online concert platform called StageIt to play shows when she isn’t touring. StageIt shows are ticketed, and feature a scrolling chat window where the musician can interact directly with listeners (and if they want to, users have the option to tip). In order to survive, musicians need to develop several different revenue streams: records, live shows, merch and anything else they can think of to set themselves apart. “Being a modern musician is like having a leaky roof and putting out a zillion pots and pans to catch all the water dripping from various holes.”
7. Word of Mouth
If you can’t afford to give away actual dollars, you can help musicians simply by helping them get more exposure. Juli Amore offers: “Besides direct financial support, it’s a numbers game in today’s age. I would like to see more people clicking “like” and “hearts” on YouTube and SoundCloud, and following queer musicians that they enjoy. Retweets and Facebook likes/shares go a long way because they can reach beyond the limited audience and it costs nothing to show that kind of support. Maximizing exposure for an artist is one of the best ways to show support because otherwise we’re just taking money from within our own communities, which could be used to fund projects against intimate partner violence, homelessness, access to healthcare etc.”