When the history books are written about our current times, the rise of creator culture will likely go down as one of the most impactful paradigm shifts. It is a dynamic that extends far beyond music, but it is impacting the music industry more directly than it is other entertainment industries – in large part because the music business is not yet set up for the economies of micro audiences. Until it is, artist royalty woes will remain a festering wound that risks infecting the entire business. The solutions will require a combination of a new approach to monetisation and a realistic understanding of what streaming can truly deliver to an artist community that is continuing to grow faster than streaming revenues.
More mouths to feed
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, streaming revenues grew by 20% in 2020, with subscriber numbers growing even faster. Over the same period, the number of releasing artists grew by more than a third. The arithmetic is brutally simple: more new artists than more new music revenue meant lower average income per artist. As economist Will Page puts it, there are more mouths to feed. Even within the fast-growing artists direct segment, where revenues grew dramatically faster than the overall market (34%), the average income per artist grew by just 2% to $234 a year – that’s right, just $234 a year, across all recorded music formats. And of course, that figure is heavily skewed up by a few thousand ‘superstar’ independent artists, with the vast majority earning far, far less.
Big numbers, small income
With artists direct numbering five million in 2020, never have there been so many people releasing their music to the global public. This creator revolution is unprecedented and represents five million dreams being chased. But with just $234 of annual income up for grabs, the reality is that nearly all of those dreams will be unfulfilled. It has always been thus with music, but the difference now is that expectations have been raised, with matters compounded by the fact that streaming numbers can appear big but deliver only small revenues. For example, a self-releasing artist that racks up 100,000 streams might only take home $500, which could easily feel like a very modest return to an artist that does not have a comprehensive grasp of how streaming royalties work.
This is the paradox of small: more artists can reach global audiences and drive sizeable streaming metrics but have little or no realistic prospect of meaningful income. Much of the streaming income debate has revolved around the plight of the middle class artist but the bigger dynamic at play is the creation of the amateur enthusiast class. In the old music business, these artists lived in a different world from professional artists. They played in local bars and sold a handful of CDs there that they recorded in a local studio. Now they use the same creator tools as the pros and have their music on the same platforms. This can give the impression of playing in the same league as the pros, but they’re not. If they are good enough, do the right things and get the breaks then they can get into that league, but that will only happen for 0.05% of them.
Dreams just out of reach
Having dreams appear to be within touching distance but somehow never quite within grasp is fertile ground for breeding discontent and resentment. The parts of the music business that trade on this segment (artist platforms, digital distributors, streaming services, creator tools) have a duty of care that must move beyond its current remit of trading on artists’ dreams.
Fixing streaming royalties will not change things. Even if you doubled royalty rates, 100,000 streams would still only generate $1,000 for an independent artist. Meanwhile, it would result in streaming services losing 40 cents on every dollar earned, and that’s just to cover the royalty rates, i.e., not even considering things like having a product, staff, offices, marketing or operations.
Looking elsewhere for income
Streaming royalties are never going to add up for most independent artists, in the same way radio would never do so. And this is not just a self-released artist problem: most artists will never get paid ‘enough’ money from streaming, and trying to make streaming royalty mechanisms do so is tilting at windmills. As I have previously written about, the music business needs to build out its ancillary revenue streams for music creators. There are already lots of options, such as:
- Selling song writing services on Soundbetter
- Selling beats on Splice
- Selling merch on Bandcamp
- Selling subscriptions on Twitch
- Selling royalty free music on Artlist
- Sell live stream concert tickets with Driift
- Selling artist subscriptions on Fan Circles
- Selling digital collectibles on Fanaply
Record labels, management, distributors, streaming services, and creator tools companies all need to invest in helping their artists build their fan bases and income on such platforms. This investment in their creators’ incomes will ensure that they are better able to continue to make the music that fuels the business models that all those other entities have learned to make work in a way most individual creators have not and cannot.
Streaming services must fix the problem… or someone else will
Nevertheless, the market also needs something more – a platform glue that binds together creation, audience and consumption. Contrast a music artist with a games streamer. A games streamer creates, streams, finds and monetises their audience all within one platform (e.g., YouTube or Twitch). A music artist, however, creates music in one platform, takes it to another for distribution which then feeds it into streaming platforms where the artist has no direct relationship with their audience. There are exceptions to the rule (Bandlab, Soundcloud and YouTube especially) but they are just that: exceptions, not the rule.
Either streaming services need to start backing up their creator-first language with creator-first tools, or instead watch from the side lines as someone else does it for them. Whoever leads the charge, the paradox of small will finally become slightly less of a paradox.