In an era where paying for music, films and tv feels like a punishment, we keep making free music and no revenue for artists the norm. I see many of my peers happily publishing on their social networks that they are releasing their EPs and CDs and that they are available on all the digital platforms. The post usually looks like this:
Now, I have to ask: What are you happy about? Why are you so happy to announce that your music is being released for free streaming, if you also ordered physical copies of your album in bulk that you are expecting to sell at some point? This is a weak marketing strategy, it is like me having two T-shirts that are the exact same and I'm offering you one for free and one for $10. Which one are you going to pick? And why would you even think about buying it if you can get one for nothing? This is simply contradictory.
I'm not saying I'm against music streaming, I think this is a model that could and should work. However, I believe the models that are in place right now are not fair to artists and if you think closely they revolve around the idea that you pay not for the music but for the elimination of ads, this way of thinking devalues our art.
It feels like we don't even know what we want. I'm not sure if we want to earn well-deserved money from our projects or if we are just going down the ''exposure'' road. I guess there's no right way of doing the ''Independent Artist'' thing. However, I'm pretty sure that a sustainable business model starts with a well thought out plan. So honestly, this is just confusing to me, because, while I'm always truly inspired by the hard work of the people I've got to know, and while I appreciate the work, the time, and the money that go into the making of our music, it seems that we are not taking informed and responsible decisions that will actually lead us to make a living from our music.
However, contradictions like advertising free streaming over your physical copies or paid downloads lead me to believe that a bunch of my colleagues out there still believe that they should earn money for the work they have created. I understand this is a big issue for many of us and we feel like we don't have any choice if we want our music to be heard. But it seems to me like we want point A to equate point B without realizing what our actions mean:
If our intentions would translate into a real sustainable model that's how things would ideally work. Unfortunately, I haven't heard about the return on our investment to be the source of money that will fund a new project.
What Are Our Options?
It seems that we can go down two roads: ''Exposure'' vs. trying to sell one tune for 99¢.
Exposure: Making your music available for free streaming or even available for free download via Spotify, Bandcamp, iTunes, etc. You hope people will be more interested in your music if you offer it for free. Hopefully, if curious souls will download it and play it over and over again, they will get to know your music and this is how you'll grow your fan base. The deal breaker for me is: if you don't put value on your music why should someone else do it?
Trying to sell one tune for 99¢: You sell your music and don't make it available for free streaming. If someone is curious about your music or has been following you and wants to hear what's new they will have to buy it, in other words, to support you. As a new independent artist this might not make us a lot of money and it will limit somehow the number of people we reach. However, I think the engagement will be meaningful, since whoever pays for your songs is supporting your music. And contrary to a single play on Spotify that will give you $0.00066481 you will actually get 99¢ for each sale. Bear in mind that to get those same 99¢ through streaming your song will have to be played 1489 times. To this extent building a meaningful relationship with your listeners and taking a stance as a musician and as an artist is far more valuable and shows integrity.
Maybe a combination of both wouldn't be a bad idea, but if we are lousy communicating how it makes a difference for us when someone streams our music and when someone buys it, then the listeners will prefer the free streaming/download every time.
We can't just give music away for free and then think that we are not part of the problem but rather victims of the way things work.
I'm curious to know how many people listen to your music on Spotify and then go on iTunes to buy it and download it. We are musicians, selling music should be part of our income. And I know it is very probable that the music industry is heading towards a different direction. Maybe the way we will be making money from our music is not by selling albums. Admittedly there are different ways in which our music can make money. For example sync licensing placements, meaning that your music will be synced to visuals like ads, tv, films and video games. This is supposedly a good source of income for musicians.
Nonetheless, getting sync placements will cost money. Outsourcing your music is not an easy task, you could do it through a company or get legal advice on how to do it and who to contact. So if we are not earning money from our music this will be more money coming out of our pockets.
As this seems to be the most obvious shift in how musicians earn money there are efforts being made, a great example is the non-profit initiative between Berklee College of Music and MIT among other leading academic institutions, that together with ''music and media industry organizations, creators, technologists, entrepreneurs and policy experts who love and value music'' are ''creating an open-source protocol for the uniform identification of music rights holders and creators.'' They believe that ''new technologies can be applied to radically simplify the way music rights owners are identified and compensated, resulting in sustainable business models for artists, entrepreneurs, and music businesses alike (Open Music Initiative).''
So I believe there's still time to create a sustainable model that is fair to musicians as well as to listeners. In the mean time, while the music industry tries to catch up with technology, we as artists have to do something to be part of the solution and contribute big or small by setting the example and informing the community that we are part of what it is we need and why we need it.
I am trying to gain perspective. I'm honestly asking why it is so good to be a ''Spotify artist'', to be on tons of digital streaming platforms we don't even know of but that will pay us nothing? I know lots of you will still be thinking "exposure", but that is a mentality I can't agree with. The internet should help us gain exposure but shouldn't translate into giving our music away for free. A lot of people, including musicians, will argue that selling music is a dead practice, that it is no longer a way to earn money. But I beg to differ: music should earn us money, it is our job. And maybe we can still save it if every creative artist decides to do something about it.
What Are We Doing With Our Music?
Are we creating music for likes on FB and Instagram followers? We do need to find our audience and reach new people, but what are we reaching them for? Are they supporting us? Maybe if they liked what you do they will show up to your next show. However, we should ask ourselves: what sustainable model are we creating for our businesses? How much money goes into creating a high quality recording and a video? How much money did you get back from what you invested in all that work? If what you are trying to do is to grow your audience and get people to go to your shows then how many shows do you need to do before you get back a fraction of the money you've invested?
If we have no expectations on having our recorded music be a source of income then I'm afraid to say that what we are doing with our music is making a hobby out of it. Sure, we can have another music or non-music related job and self-fund every project. But then as artists we are blurring the line between a hobby and a profession. We are making our profession even more difficult for ourselves.
I get that many times the hobby and the profession overlap for many of us. Especially, when we have our heart and our mind set to making music we don't want to think about anything else but the music. However, we need to act according to the outcome we expect to achieve.
We Are Not Honoring Our Craft
I can say one thing about distributing our music on digital platforms for next to nothing and other issues we face like playing for free: This just shows the disrespect for musicians that's inherent in our culture and very often we, the musicians, only help to spread and continue that disrespect. I get that is hard to act according to how we feel about these issues. We want to be heard, we want to play but we don't have viable options.
We've all seen those responses on social media from musicians that have been asked to play for free in some sort of event where everyone is making money but the musicians get paid in ''exposure''. We love how they respond and we share the response and comment on the issue because we know that our job is just as valuable as any other. So in this order of ideas why would you go and just give your music away? Still... ''Exposure''?
In any case, not getting what we deserve relies heavily on us. My generation is used to having unlimited access to unlimited material. As if we are going to have the time to go through all of it! I think we should ask ourselves: Why do we need all of that? Or at least, is there a sustainable and fair way of getting access to what we want? Most of us need a little push to understand that the intellectual property of every artist is valuable. In the bottom I want to believe that most of us want to act fair and contribute to the musical ecosystem that we are a part of.
Take A Stance
For what it's worth I'll be holding off the release of my music for free streaming when my album comes out. I'm honestly still debating wether or not I'll put my album on streaming services, although after writing this blog I'm leaning more towards not doing so. I know that I'm a small part of a large whole, but if the little I can do helps to educate my family and a couple of friends I feel happy that I've done my part. Whenever possible I think we should reach out to the people that follow us and get them involved. Also, we can't expect non-musicians to care for our business or be well informed about how music is distributed and how we are not earning anything from it. Most people think they are being fair by paying for streaming services.
I completely understand that it is impossible to stay on top of all the issues that arise in every field. That's just the way things are. As human beings we pick battles to fight and more often than not these are related to the career path we choose. Nonetheless, music is an activity many enjoy, no matter what they do for a living, so if I can let some friends know that they should support the artists they like by buying their music, I will. They don't have to care for all the little details because their lives don't revolve around music but ours do. So we better take good care of the music and try and spread the word as concise as possible to those who enjoy music but won't read this blog for one reason or another.
Be Specific About What You Want and Need
Last April I went to see Cory Henry at the Berklee Performance Center. Many know him as the keyboardist for Snarky Puppy. He is a brilliant organ player currently touring with his project entitled ''Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles''. During the concert he expressed himself. His words were explicit: He asked the audience to buy his music. He did mention his music was on Spotify but he stated that the way you support his art is by buying it.
An artist of the highest caliber like Cory Henry reveals the reality of the music industry. At least for me it was an eye-opener the fact that a top musician goes to work every day and has to defend what he does. Cory Henry was at a venue full of musicians and he had to ask the audience to buy his music. It seems to me like that wasn't a one time thing but rather his daily routine.
I think we need to be clear and honest about what we need as artists, it is not irrational or unfair to be able to support our art at least partially from selling our music, or even get a decent amount from streaming services. So while people might be busy fighting other causes, a clear message on our behalf delivered in the right way can make a huge difference. Maybe, instead of letting your fans know that your music is released for free streaming and that it also happens to be available for sale, let them know what action on their side would be meaningful and fair to you, if you prefer that they go to your website and get your music directly from you that's something you can communicate.
Because of everything I've mentioned in this blog and the way the music industry behaves nowadays I believe it is extremely important to be vocal about these issues. People will start contributing with small actions to causes that they might not follow completely but that they've come to understand are good and fair.
We are the ones that need to impart the respect that we deserve as musicians. You have probably worked your whole life learning your instrument, learning music, coming to understand the power that exists within music. And music is very powerful, sometimes we create it purely for the sake of art itself, a celebration of life. Sometimes it is for the sake of spreading sentiments like revolution, hope, love. So we do have a valuable job in society and we deserve to be paid for the work we do. Maybe in a world where money was not important for our survival the mere feeling of creating art and sharing it would be more than enough but that's not the world we live in, so why not take a stance and act accordingly?
Links to articles and charts that address different perspectives on this complex issue:
Money Too Tight To Mention?
Protecting The Power Of Music-Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider Guest Post at Music, Technology, Policy.
How a DIY Musician Found Her Audience Through Spotify
About: Open Music Initiative