Streaming means indie artists go broke

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It’s a well-documented fact that artists don’t get paid well for music that people stream online. The actual magnitude of this problem was recently made more public when alternative rock group Camper Van Beethoven released a picture of their royalty check. One of their songs got played over a million times and their payout was a bit more than $16. That should be astounding to everyone.

As an amateur musician in a band myself, I can attest to the amount of time and energy artists put into creating songs. I’ve sat for hours listening to my singer record 121 takes on a vocal track because he wasn’t satisfied with his performance. Imagine that process repeated over the 20-30 tracks that professionally produced songs have. It’s an absolutely laborious process. Bands will often spend months in the studio trying to perfect their sound.

Then, when tracks finally get out of the studio, some poor soul has to sit there mixing for hours and hours on end. Mixers will listen to the same song thousands of times, often sitting alone in a windowless room late at night, slowly watching their sanity slip into effect inserts and automation data to make the artists sound the way they want to.

After mixing is finally done, the track has to be mastered. Now the process is even more nuanced and delicate, because changing the decay on your reverb effect by less than a tenth of a second will drastically alter the way the track sounds. That’s why albums usually take upward of ten months to go from a songwriter’s ideas to serenading ears.

Imagine putting all that love and care into something, and then having it turn out really well. It’s popular, people want it, they use it one million times, and — after everything — you only get $16. That’s nuts. President Obama is pushing for higher minimum wage laws to nominally help low-skilled workers, but these laws will mainly help to boost the salaries of union workers, since union wages are often calculated as a multiple of the minimum wage. But union workers have an average hourly pay rate of $23.75. In an hour, they make almost 150 percent of what Pandora pays an artist for streaming one million songs.

While I don’t want to minimize the positive effect that Pandora and other streaming services have had on making discovery of new music more accessible, they have to start paying artists a bit more for use of their intellectual property. As streaming becomes more popular and increasingly few people buy music — instead opting for Spotify — artists aren’t going to earn a decent living from their music. Indie bands could possibly be a dying breed, leaving us only with music that record labels heavily subsidize and promote, which would be a terrible state of affairs for the quality and diversity of music.

A friend of mine is an incredibly talented musician who has taken to simply giving his music away. He told me that it was basically impossible to make any money from online distribution, so the best he can do is get more music in more people’s ears so that they pay for his live show. We don’t need to leave talented artists behind like this. The music industry needs to find a way to get artists more money from the online distribution of their intellectual property.