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