Streaming Unconsciousness: Real-life Spotify earnings numbers from a Real-Life Indie Artist

The Lowest of Low Gajeel punk cat ponders streaming data in terms of the fundamental relationships which govern radioactive decay.
The fundamental relationship which governs radioactive decay is not dissimilar....

Part of a series of "Demystifying the Life and Lifestyle of an Indie Artist" articles, in which (this time) we look at the arcane world of streaming revenues, with real numbers.

For a long time, artists have been a little peeved at the … let’s call it lack of transparency… about exactly how Spotify and other streaming services pay artists for their streams. It wasn't so much a "mainstream issue" as it was a peeve and a point of frustrated confusion for people whose work is available for streaming. A sort of "niche fact-of-life" of little interest or concern to other people.

Then, back around Christmas time 2018, Whitney Houston was all over the news for breaking Spotify streaming records and making hundreds of thousands of dollars in one weekend for some Christmas song she released years ago.

Social Media Opinions (those great arbiters of culture) were divided between “what a bitch, making more money over the weekend without lifting a finger than I’ll be lucky to see in 10 years of working a dreary job I hate. Life is unfair and musicians are taking the piss.” and “But she made it and owns the rights, so that’s fair, and anyway artists only get paid an average of $0.004 — $0.008 per stream, so suck it up.” There was also a smattering of "That's a bit cheap, isn't it? $0.004 — $0.008?"

As for me, I say good for Ms. Houston. Personally, I like to listen to The Book of Mormon and Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics over the holidays, but whatever. When I was growing up, my dad would bring out his beautiful Spike Jones record with the big picture of Spike on the cover, with a superbly red background, and we’d play that and sing along to “Cocktails for Two” while eating all the cookies my mother had made (until she looked in the tins and realised how many we’d had and yelled at us for eating so many so quickly. Then she’d go bake more… it was a tradition.) Well, those were other times… I still love Spike Jones though. “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown was a big holiday hit with me growing up, too, incidentally.

Now, in this digital age, upstart snot-nosed musicians like me rely on streams and (to a much lesser degree) digital sales for their bread-and-butter. On the one hand, this has made it possible for people with decent computers and pretty minimal gear in garages and kitchens and basements to produce quality work and actually get it out there for ears to hear in a way that was impossible 25 years ago. On the other hand, there’s so much music out there, it’s hard to find an audience anyway, since there are thousands of other people also trying to get a little piece of that Spotify pie.

As we talked about earlier, this has given rise to a huge industry selling “services” to musical hopefuls who dream of actually being able to afford bread (and maybe some butter one day) by music alone. These services charge you money to explain exactly how to get the most from the streaming platforms (mostly concentrating on Spotify and maybe Youtube). In the main, it boils down to this: Get on as many Spotify playlists that you can, and get your music on popular Youtube channels that cater to your genre. Make stuff that stands out a little bit, but not too much. Hit the algorithms and get on Spotify’s automated playlists, too.

Indie artists, songwriters and musicians reach desperately for remuneration for their work as the algorithms and the numbers game take hold of how the industry functions.
By opening out greater accessibility to listeners, streaming services have changed how the music industry works. Artists face fierce competition to be heard, and to earn a tiny portion of that streaming revenues pie.

Why? Because streaming revenue depends on volume. Not volume as in loud, volume as in thousands and thousands of plays.

Ok, well, we know that. That’s what the whole Whitney Houston Christmas thing was about.

Generally, people giving paid or free advice about this tell you to track down playlists you think will be suitable to host your music, find out who makes them, stalk them on Facebook or elsewhere, and send them messages to make them aware of your work. And don’t expect any results 95% of the time or more. Ok, so far, so good, I guess. You can probably spend a few days or a week seeking these folks out and spam out “please notice me” messages, and maybe get lucky. I hope you do! I haven’t tried it yet…maybe for another blog I’ll do it and report back.

“Well, if that’s the game, and you know it, why haven’t you tried it yet?” I hear you ask. Well… I don’t really have a pre-existing genre into which my music fits easily. It’s too electro for “alternative” playlists (which tend to be post-psychedelic kinda-Nirvana kinda-other 90’s stuff influenced rock and female vocalists singing about feelings no one admits to having in public), it’s too weird for EDM playlists, it has too much beat and structure for “Ambient” playlists, and tends to be too tuneful and structured for “experimental” playlists. I call what I do “FutureRetro Electro” but it’s not like that “genre” means anything to anyone besides me, apart from maybe “Oh, it’s that goat band with the red triangle”.

So, searching out playlists and channels in which to nestle my strange and varied offerings is…. not so quick and easy for me as it might be for some other artists. That’s fine, that’s my path and my mission. But yeah… that’s why I haven’t done it personally yet.

Anyway! Here’s why this blog is here today: when I read through all the Whitney Houston articles and their charming comments over the Christmas, I had a “hang on a minute!” logical syllogism moment.

If it is true that artists get paid roughly $0.006 per stream “on average”,

and it is also true that I have about 190,000 streams under my belt,

It does not follow that I have earned $68 for those 190,000 streams.

Therefore, if the Spotify numbers being bandied about and discussed as to whether the pittance paid out per stream is a pittance or a boon, surely I should have earned at least ten times what I actually have.

What gives?

The failure of the numbers to make sense.
What's it all mean?