Taylor Swift, Spotify, and the Musical Food Chain Myth

Taylor Swift, Spotify, and the Musical Food Chain Myth

By Doria Roberts -
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

by Doria Roberts
© 2014 Doria Roberts/Chatterbox Blues

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” –Alice Walker

I cannot tell you how happy I am that the conversation about Taylor Swift and Spotify is happening. Maybe people will start listening to what independent artists like me and my peers have been saying for years now.

A little background…

For those who don’t know me, I’ve been a indie musician by choice for 22 years. In 1999, I was chosen to perform at Lilith Fair and quit my day job the following Monday. I attracted several major labels, but ultimately, I walked away because I felt the industry was not going to be supportive of me, the business model was almost laughable for a new artist with little leverage and an insidious law called the Work For Hire Copyright Law had been passed that year, which prevented copyright ownership from reverting back to artists and remained with record labels in perpetuity. Like, that means forever. Luckily, Sheryl Crow and Don Henley went to Capitol Hill and had it repealed, but, by then, I was determined not to be become a cog and had committed to my full time life as an artist.

And, you know, I had good run of it…

Fast forward to 2008 when everything was crashing. I don’t think people think of artists being affected in a failing economy, but we were. Gas prices were sky high as were flights so expenses went up and venues started paying less because fewer were able to come out to the shows because they were broke, too. And, for the first time in all my touring history my American dollars lost value going into Canada. It was sobering to say the least.

In the years preceding this, I saw a slow but very deliberate decline in my music sales, which was more than just supplemental income, it was nearly half of my income. So, I stopped touring full time to assess the situation and come up with solutions.

The only solution I found that allowed me to stay true to who I am an artist was to stay put—which brings me to today.

Life As An Artist Now

Like clockwork, once or twice a week since I stopped touring full time in 2008, I get asked when I’m coming back to XYZ. And, like a broken record once or twice a week, I’ve had to say I can’t afford it. I’ve had to explain that not only have physical CD sales been down, but also the digital money I used to get from legal downloads all but disappeared. Instead of getting weekly payments ranging between $200-$750 from my distributor, I started getting an average $11.36, once a month from all streaming services combined. Yes, $11.36/month is what I get from all of them. That is not a sustainable business model for a truly independent artist.

While carefully building and maintaining a social media connection with my fan base and doing mostly one-offs in some of my bigger markets, I decided to do a full regional tour in 2012. And, while I am grateful to the people who came, I had miserable turnouts at most of the shows. In Buffalo, where the temp dropped to 30 degrees that night, I cleared $14 once the door was split with the venue. In Philadelphia, where I started my career, I lost upwards of $1,500-2,000 on one show because only 12 people showed up. It was the night of the Presidential debates, something I couldn’t have known when I booked the show months before. But, I still had to pay the venue, their door person and sound person, pay my band, pay for their hotel room and mine for three nights so we wouldn’t have to stay in NYC, paid for their flights (along with baggage handling fees for my cellist’s cello), my rental car, gas and food for myself and the band (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Same with DC where the venue wouldn’t even allow me to officially charge a door fee and where some people (my fans included) opted not to pay one even as a requested donation.

This is my reality and the reality of the many artists you care about.

I’m sorry if you think so, but music is not free. It costs money to make and it costs money to support via touring. It’s a “life cycle”. This “life cycle” is how I used to get my CDs out and how I used to see my fans two to three times a year in some places. It worked like this: Fans would come to my shows, they and their friends would buy my CDs, and then I made another CD and went on a another tour, and so forth and so on.

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Comments

Michael, we appreciate your contribution to a well-rounded, fair discussion. We know that this isn’t a clear-cut issue; it’s extremely complex.

At Source, we don’t argue that streaming isn’t a growing field in the music industry, or that other fields don’t seem to be declining. However, streaming’s growth doesn’t mean that it is the solution to the industry decline, or that its growth makes up for the declining fields.

The article you linked to sets piracy as the enemy of musicians. Of course piracy hurts musicians; we haven’t argued otherwise. Is some pay better than no pay? Yes. Is that some pay enough? Based on the income artists are receiving, no. When you compare purchases to streams, a $1 income from a download sale is much better than a $.006 income from a single stream. Even after you take out the retailer’s cut of the download sale, it still takes 100 or more streams to equal one song purchase.

Your article argues that Spotify provides an alternative to piracy but doesn’t compete with purchases. Really? That argument doesn’t work. It can’t say, “We’re pulling people away from Option B, but we’re not pulling them from Option A.” Spotify either competes with both (by creating a new option in that shared market), or it competes with neither (by existing in a separate market entirely).

In your linked article, it says that Spotify has paid out $2 billion since 2008. That’s a lot of money… but what it doesn’t say is how many streams it has had in that time frame. An average per-stream rate would provide some perspective on that big, impressive number.

So, what’s the solution? One option was pointed out in Doria’s article: she asks fans to stop streaming IF they don’t already own the song. If they own it, then yes, stream away. Add to that artist’s revenue, and listen to your music however you want. But don’t substitute low-rate rentals of music for ownership. We know that fans like streaming. We don’t think streaming is going away any time soon. But we do think it needs to change if it wants to stick around, and it needs to pay artists more so they can keep creating. We don’t have all the answers, but, by discussing all points, we’re hoping to contribute to the solution.

Thank you, Doria. I remain hopeful that fans, services and legislators will do the right thing and all will balance out. But it only will balance out, thanks to artists like you speaking up. I like the way you put this into perspective.

Wonderful article and I agree with everything. I also encourage all artists, indie or not, to pull their music off of streaming services. I’ve put in to have mine removed and I hope more follow.

Thank you! The real thieves are the record companies and streaming services – who are partly getting ripped off by the record companies! Then of course their are old idiots like BONO and U2 scalping their own tickets outside of a U2 concert. THAT and other so called “big star groups” were doing the same and was a big turnoff for fans.

The internet is the the biggest venue and growing. It is not going to stop. I have played for years in well known bands and am a Grammy Award winning songwriter. Now days that and $3.50 will get one a cup of coffee at Starbucks ! Thank God I had most of my hits in the 70s and 80s. I collected and still am under old agreements and the mean ass attorney I have. He receives a percentage of what I earn. I get paid !! The records companies are the thieves who charge the streaming services with “the books/accountings” that are hard to find!

I am glad you are doing better Doria. I am going to listen to you tonight!

My personal solution to this mess is going back to Electronic Dance Music that I use to do. I, of course, love it. The DJs who are also EXCELLENT musicians that got sick of the “game” are now making millions. They went FLYING right past the record and publishing companies and the companies STILL don’t know what happened! I have sent packages to close business people that are way up the ladder that STILL have NO IDEA what EDM is, why the average concert has at least 100,000 people in a stadium every weekend somewhere on this planet! The top name DJs are also starting to use drums, guitars, keyboards and even horns on stage. Of course they have singers such as Avicii “Wake Me Up”, Zedd “Clarity”, and Daft Punk “Get Lucky”. IF you are interested, I would love to send you a package about EDM and the way it is morphing into different styles almost every month. It IS another musical art form – not just “boom boom”. AND THE AUDIENCE AND THE ARTISTS BOTH OWN IT!! Lots of tracks played on stage are a song first that goes on to be improvisation – just like a jazz group! I play classical and jazz piano so I recognize the similarities. Anyway, just a suggestion.

I have heard of you before and can’t wait to get back home and listen to you. Many Blessings and Keep Your Music Coming!!

You just told my story, with some slightly different details – parallel lives. I quit music as a full time professional and went into corporate land. I can pay my bills and purchase my favorite music, but my art has suffered. And I miss my family of musicians. That bond is like no other. In the U.S. people have generally lost their value of art and music. Wanting it free and wanting it now seems to have overshadowed quality and culture. Regularly people ask if I’m performing.I always answer by saying, “music in is my soul, it’ll come around again.” How do we turn it around?

– LFA

Thanks for writing this. I’m sorry that life has got so tough for you and I think it’s important to spread the word about the difficulties that artists have in the present situation.

The problem is that the general public has got used to obtaining free or excessively cheap music on the internet and it’s going to be very difficult to turn that situation around. It’s the classic shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted. How did we get to this pretty pass? It doesn’t really matter. We have to deal with the situation as is.

I can’t see us independent artists having much of an influence on the general public. Only artists with high profiles such as Taylor Swift might make the public think for a few minutes, but even then it will take an awful lot of Taylor Swifts to turn the tide. And don’t forget that while Swift has pulled her catalogue from Spotify, you can now listen to artists that were not available on the site before, such as The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, which suggests capitulation.

Without being defeatist, I think the only way to deal with this situation is to diversify. Many music commentators say that the future lies in many small streams of income rather than one big river and I think this is turning out to be true. CDs, downloads, streaming, radio play, placement in film and TV and video games, YouTube etc. as well as live or internet performances. And if we have to get a part-time day job to make ends meet, then so be it.

The truth is there are so many musicians – excellent musicians too – that the market is flooded. The world doesn’t owe us a living and it’s going to take a lot to make a mark and keep afloat. But nothing worth doing is ever that easy, is it?

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