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.
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.
Well, I did some searching around, thinking that maybe earnings are tied to follower numbers, or that the more a song gets played, the higher the rate it earns per-play... maybe something like that. I came across articles explaining about how it’s important to correctly tag your music files (ID3 tags, within the music file, which nestles information like Artist Name, Track Name, Track Number, Album Name, Composer, Year, Genre, etc. into the mp3 file). This is true. If you don’t tag your songs properly, they won’t show important information to anyone who’s downloaded it, such as “What the hell am I listening to?”
And also importantly, any revenue earned from sales, streams, licensing or downloads that might be collected on your behalf by an aggregator, collecting society or musician’s guild won’t find its way to you since nobody can really identify what it is, or work out, for instance, whether you’re the performing artist AND the composer, or just the performing artist. So if you’re due revenue as a composer but you’ve only listed yourself as the performing artist in your ID3 tags, you won’t necessarily get paid as a songwriter.
And all that kind of thing is good to know.
But still….. streaming revenue. That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s pretty difficult to find anything other than the standard “$0.004 — $0.008 per stream, on average” info when you search online, trying to make sense of things. You can find things about how the Spotify payout algorithm is arcane and trade-secret stuff, and you will learn that there is some variation, according to … some things. And it’s vaguely linked to the uptake of the paid subscription service and ad revenues from those annoying ads they play (especially heavily at weekends) on the free one. Ok, well, that kind of makes sense.... but overwhelmingly, what I came away with from all of this was “well, unlike some other services, Spotify pays out for streams that are not just subscribers, they're not trying quite as hard as some other streaming services to pay nothing at all to the artists, and their rates also vary.”
I looked into this again today after seeing one of those (many, many) adverts in my Facebook newsfeed selling a course about “How to make $3,500 a month through Spotify streams while you sit on your arse and do nothing” because, you know, personally, I think getting 190,000 streams is pretty good for an unknown musician who’s put out albums only over the past year. I get kind of excited when I see that new listeners have discovered me in some strange and unexpected part of the globe. But this volume of streams (a little less exciting) has earned me $68 in a year. And although I’m not just sitting on my arse collecting my $68-a-year boon, I realised that this ad was literally trying to sell me some kind of dream over and beyond the hard slog of making the music, getting it into the shops, and trying to promote the hell out of it in a non-intrusively-annoying way, and based on my own experience of the streaming revenues I'm already actually receiving, it seemed totally unrealistic.
Doing the math, it genuinely confused me. If this guy I’ve never really heard of before (who obviously also makes some kind of a living from offering courses on how to make a living with music on Spotify) was earning the same kind of revenue per stream as I am, he would have to have almost 10 million streams per month, or 117 million streams per year. You’d think he’d be pretty well known in some way. Well, maybe he is… he’s been going for over ten years and does seem to have quite a following.
The numbers annoyed me sufficiently to delve more deeply into the data that Distrokid (my “aggregator”) kindly provides about the revenue they collect on my behalf (and of which, by the way, they keep nothing: I'm very happy with Distrokid, and I recommend them).
I very quickly realised, looking at the numbers, that the closest you can get to starting to understand why you’re not necessarily making what you thought you would on a per-stream basis (according to what everybody says and thinks when they’re bandying that one snippet of information around knowledgeably in their charming Social Media interactions) happens when you notice, and understand what’s meant by “stream revenues vary slightly from country to country”.
Using my own data to “crunch the numbers”, I decided to find out how “slightly” these variations may affect what you earn per stream, and by extension, overall. This is what I’ve found.
The data available to me at the time of writing (April 2019) represents 76 songs, played in 37 countries (with stream data for at least *several* streams per country: I think the lowest was 4 streams for one country. Most had considerably more than this), over the period from January 2018 to January 2019 (12 months). I worked out the medians for each country, not just a huge-number-divided-by-190,000 blanket average, and then, with these medians, worked out the percentage, by country, of where my streams were coming from, and did the calculations. In this way, the data reflected pretty exactly what I saw happening in my earnings reports.
In short, the average that’s shared around the internet as “what Spotify pays artists per stream” held more or less true for my streams served up to the following 10 countries: the USA, the UK, New Zealand, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Austria, and Ireland. The median per-stream royalties for these countries are, for me, $0.004. (Ranging from $0.006 down to $0.003, with most countries, including the USA, falling between 0.003 and 0.004)
Outside of these… let’s call them the “Lucrative 10”, the figures are a little different.
My streams from the remaining 27 countries can be grouped into two categories: “Not As Bad As It Could Be”, and well, “Pretty Abysmal”.
The countries (15 of them) that achieve “Not As Bad As It Could Be” status are: Hong Kong, Canada, Sweden, Spain, Philippines, Germany, Czech, Nicaragua, Mexico, Taiwan, Brazil, Latvia, Poland, and Malaysia. Their median per-stream payout sits pretty solidly at $0.002. So… half the low end of the widely-reported averages.
And then there are the remaining 12 — whose Spotify per-stream payouts are “Pretty Abysmal”. These are, for me, Portugal, Hungary, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, Chile, Finland, Japan, Indonesia, Argentina, Peru, and Italy. Their median per-stream payout works out to be $0.0004 (Ranging from $0.0009 to $0.0001, with Singapore, Chile and Japan in a 3-way tie for last place in terms of streaming revenue).
I honestly don’t know what the “reach” of most music is, since I only have my own data to work with, but I’d imagine that this kind of worldwide spread might be pretty typical for the mix of instrumental and English-language songs that I do. I don’t know for sure though, since my age demographic is also all over the place.
But — here’s something else. The distribution of streams between the 37 countries represented here might tempt you to assume that the average per-stream revenue earned would work out somewhere near the middle, or $0.002 per stream, right? Well, not exactly.
I’m Sicilian, and more than half my listeners, and the great majority of my streams in Spotify, are being streamed by people here in Italy. Friends, Romans and countrymen really are the ones who happen to be lending me their ears, in the main (not so much the Romans though...). Rounding up very slightly, the per-stream median for Italian streams is $0.0004. Which means that, in order to make the same 4/10ths of a cent as I do for a listener of one stream in the US or UK, say, I have to have 10 Italian listeners to make up the difference.
Of the 76 songs represented here, two of them have Italian in them (Chi Va La, and Coffee Machine), so the regional bias comes purely from the fact that I live in Sicily, and in general, Italians are enthusiastic about finding indie music that's being made here. Chi Va La only has one line, “Chi va là?” (if you've ever played video games in Italian, you'll know why) And Coffee Machine has a short verse in Italian, with the majority of the song in English. So it’s not a “language barrier” problem for the rest of the world so much as the fact that I come from a beautiful place with kind, supportive and enthusiastic fellow-countrymen. That’s not a bad thing from a happiness and creative perspective, but from a “making a living with music” perspective, it gets kind of grim.
190,000 streams, for me, equals $68. To put this into perspective, if my stream revenue was coming from the high end spectrum of the “Lucrative 10” countries (Norway and Ireland), 190,000 streams would pay just over $1,100. If the streams were more or less equally distributed across all 37 countries, they’d earn about $380. The disparity is pretty stark, but that's how it is.
The guy from the Facebook advert who, for a fee, will teach you how to make $3,500 per month seems to have about 290,000 monthly listeners (a huge heap-load more than I do), but assuming they were mostly from Italy and maybe listening to 3 songs each, that’s about $350. And if they’re from the “Lucrative 10” countries, it really does work out to about $3,500. Dude’s probably not lying, but the demographics of where your listeners are streaming your songs makes a ginormous difference in what you will earn.
So, today we’ve learned that artists who work hard and build up a fan base in countries other than those whose payouts-per-stream are more lucrative, really do face a rather stunning inequality in what they can hope to acheive, even when they're pretty successful in terms of stream numbers and fans.
Never one to shy away from odds stacked severely against me, it also tells me that in order to attain my goal of paying for my living expenses (€400, or about $450 per month in total) with Spotify streaming revenue, at the rates I’m currently getting, I’d need to have just over a million streams per month. Or 75,000 streams per month in just the most lucrative streaming zones.
And this is why a lot of indie artists try to get you to buy digital releases or merchandise, or subscribe to something like Patreon. They're not rich and greedy (necessarily), it's just how it all works. Assuming you're in a Lucrative Streams country, the $0.70 the artist will earn if you buy his/her/their song for 99 cents on say, Apple Music, equates to you listening to the same song 175 times on Spotify (or between 350 and 1,750 times if you're not in a Lucrative Streams country) . You'd have to really, really like that song to ever come close to streaming it that many times...
These figures hold true at the time of writing, and for the foreseeable future, assuming that Spotify (along with Amazon, Pandora and Google) are successful in their appeal against the recent Copyright Royalty Board rate determination to raise streaming rate revenue for artists by 40% over the next 5 years, and assuming that (even if they lose the appeal) payout-per-stream rises will be applied across all streams. If the proposed 40% increase over 5 years is not applied across streams from all countries equally , there is, of course, a potential for creating an even greater disparity between the rates paid out for streams in “Lucrative” countries, and those in already “Abysmally Low” rated ones. (Incidentally, you can read more about the ongoing battle between the non-Apple streaming services and songwriters, and some of the difficulties on both sides of that issue here. It's a Rolling Stone article, and will open in a new tab).
Anyway! To sum up, what can we extrapolate from this exercise?
If you want to make decent money as an unknown indie artist right from your first year, “hitting the ground running” as it were, without going out of your way to badger playlist curators to get your stream numbers up, and using social media in a rather desultory way to get the word out about your releases….
…. maybe try forging a path in the Norwegian/Gaelic Death Metal Folk genre. Or you know, just be Whitney Houston or something.
And if you do start earning stream revenues over the course of this appeal, don’t draw out your earnings and spend them until the appeal is settled — rates are already increasing (we'll see by how much, and what the spread is, when royalties for this year start filtering in). If the appeal against the pay rates rise is successful, artists might have to pay back the little extra they got.
I hope you've enjoyed this little glimpse into the "business" side of being an indie artist, and I hope it's been helpful to you.
Speaking of helpful....
If, as a listener and indie music enthusiast, you want to support artists you like, do stream the hell out of their songs, wherever you’re from. Share their social media posts, subscribe to their Youtube channels, and share the hell out of the stuff you like. Add them to your personal playlists in the streaming service you use, and share those, too. Throw a "like" onto their Youtube videos if you think they're pretty cool, and help them climb up the algorithmic search results so other people can find them, too. It's a numbers and algorithms game for artists, so if you SHARE(!!!) your enthusiasm, it can actually help an artist vastly in their quest to slowly, slowly reach an audience who actually digs what they do.
If you’re lucky enough to have a little money to spend, maybe skip the Starbucks or chocolate bar for a day and consider buying a few of your favourite songs instead. See if your favourite artists have Patreon, or offer some kind of band merch, and support them in that way. After all, they're probably not sitting on the heaps of streaming revenue money you thought they were, and they can’t make you cool and inspiring stuff if they die of starvation or are forced to quit music in order to pursue a vastly more lucrative “normal” job, like pot washing because even though people liked them, it never grew up past the algorithmic barriers. If they tour anywhere near you, go see ‘em. Even artists who are driven to create by something other than the promise of filthy lucre appreciate it when fans support them in these little ways. They — we — appreciate that effort way, way, way more than you perhaps realise, because ultimately, the way streaming has revolutionised the music industry has made this "numbers and algorithms" game supremely important. If you're already supporting the indie bands and artists you love, that's wonderful! I can promise you that your support does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
The strange irony of how things stand now, is that being a listener has never been as easy and passive an activity as it has now become, and yet the success of the artists who produce the stuff you're consuming depends more than ever on breaking through to actual, active engagement on your part. It's easy to forget, clicking around, in and out of things, maybe remembering to follow an artist, or maybe relying on the idea that you'll probably come across them again sometime, that your engagement, more than ever, is what enables us to continue, to the point that our lives as artists depend on it.
Artists spend countless hours creating things for you to enjoy. They also realise that consumption of the things they produce is generally quite a passive activity, and there's a whole sphere of activity in which all artists (and indie artists in particular) must engage beyond their creative endeavours, to try to shift that passive inertia into some kind of steadily growing fanbase who are willing to take the time to click stuff, add stuff to their streams and playlists, watch stuff, and share stuff. If we're lucky, someone will buy a little something, too. There's a whole industry based around teaching artists (for fees they don't even earn with music yet) how to get YOU, the listener to engage a little more actively with what they're doing. But a little support (even if it's just sharing the fact that you like their stuff in your socials) can actually do a huge amount for any indie artist, especially little-known ones who are just starting out. I promise you that every last bit of anything you do like this, really truly does help.
Anyway! That’s it for me, for now. I've got an album cover painting to finish...
Grá duit go léir … og leve dansen!