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The case for Spotify

The Bourgeois’s Ty Clark defends the oft-demonized streaming service

Jeremy Luther

When recorded music first became a commodity, there were people who strongly opposed it. In a 1906 essay titled “The Menace Of Mechanical Music,” composer John Philip Sousa said, “talking and playing machines offer to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders and all manner of revolving things.” 

Flash forward to 2016. For many professional musicians, the new menace is digital streaming technology, which provides consumers an infinite number of music choices always available at their fingertips, typically for a monthly price less than the cost of a single CD.

According to Billboard, Spotify is the streaming service market leader, with an apparent 30 million paid subscribers and close to 100 million non-subscription users. These numbers keep going up and do not appear to be slowing. 

Still, many artists ask why they should be on Spotify or, more specifically, why the unsigned artist should be. 

Consider the numbers I just mentioned—100 million users. If you are a sludge metal band and one percent of those users like sludge metal, that is one million potential fans. 

There are many ways that Spotify can benefit artists. Firstly, Spotify gives credit where credit is due. Spotify’s “Guides and Best Practices” states that “all of the music on Spotify is delivered by labels and distributors (CD Baby, Tunecore, The Orchard, Universal, etc.). Music cannot be directly uploaded to Spotify. This is to ensure that all of the music on Spotify is fully licensed and prevents illegal or unlicensed music from being uploaded by 3rd parties.” In other words, the artist or company that owns the music is sure to get their cut of each stream. 

Much has been made of Spotify’s compensation formula—by its own admission, the average payout per song play is between $.006 and $.0084. That’s less than a penny per play, which sounds awful. 

If you follow music news, you might have heard Portishead’s horror story: 34 million Spotify plays yielded songwriter Geoff Barrow a paltry $2,511. Obviously, Portishead is a massively well-known band with other lucrative revenue streams—big paychecks from film and television licensing, touring and festival performances offset the small Spotify returns. But Portishead’s music is owned by Universal Music Group, not by Geoff Barrow, which means Barrow only receives a fraction of that half-a-penny per-play. If he were the sole owner of the music rights, the $2,511 payout would’ve actually been somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000. This horror story says more about the financial relationship between artists and major labels than the fairness of Spotify’s pay structure. 

Furthermore, according to a recent BBC article, music streaming is actually boosting the sales of vinyl records. “Half of consumers say they listened to an album online before buying a vinyl copy,” the article states. Not to mention, you can also sell merchandise directly on Spotify, now.

We independent musicians not yet at the level of playing Glastonbury or Coachella are still playing shows and maybe touring. Songkick, a site with which Spotify works, shows the listener the when and where of the band’s next closest show. It’s simple show promotion for the artist plus a good way to find your markets, once you have a fan base. My band has reaped many new fans because of Spotify’s show promotion.

Outside of tour promotion via Songkick, Spotify allows fans to share music via Facebook and Twitter, more free publicity that leads—hopefully—to more fans. Take a personal experience: when producer Trent Bell shared Temples’ “Keep In The Dark,” I listened, was instantly sold, and soon purchased their record and saw them live. 

Also, consider that the musicians you look up to are just people who share the same love of music that you do and most of the time they are looking for a new audio fix, themselves. Get a nice share from a famous artist on Twitter and you have publicity gold. Get a nice share from a well-known TV show host like Rachel Maddow and you’ll be more than high on Tulsa heat, you’ll be high on the influx of followers and new fans (looking at you, John Moreland). 

And then you have playlists. Get the attention of a Spotify curator and your plays will go through the roof, and the blogs, managers and labels will take notice. This happened to Tulsa’s very own indie pop act, Sports. 

About a year ago, the band put its record Naked All The Time on Spotify. A curator quickly discovered the band’s single, “You are the right one,” and added it to a playlist. As the band’s frontman Cale Chronister put it—“it triggered a snowball effect and started appearing on a bunch of other playlists and got more people to hear [them].” Soon after, Sports landed a management contract. After a well-attended July show at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, Sports members asked some fans where they had heard of them. The answer was, overwhelmingly: Spotify. 

Sports’ fortune may be a case of good luck, but it’s my impression that this happens more often than we know. Make a record with good songs and proper recordings and your chances of being heard, liked, and placed by tastemakers goes way up. 

It’s important to note that Sports owns 100 percent of the rights to their music and get every dime that Spotify pays them. But how much was it? 

“Enough to propel us forward so we can do things differently with our next record,” says Chronister. “We can’t complain about Spotify at all.”

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