My Two Cents on the Whole Music Streaming Business Debate

It’s true that the economic life of a middle tier musician has changed inversely to the rise of online music streaming.  Is correlation really causation?  I think what no one wants to talk about is that this is a supply and technology driven problem, not greed.  There are more new musicians now because of technology.  Musicians never retire because of digital.   ABBA is literally mounting a tour of avatars.  Music is in a golden age for the listener - it’s a buyer’s market, and the price reflects this. 

Artists are very often nice people, community minded folks.  It’s easy to criticize the big company and your artist peers will quickly agree.  I think it’s a false flag to rally around.  I think the biggest reason no one wants to come to the local club and hear a nice person play a nice folk song, is that they can watch Bob Dylan go electric at the Newport Festival in 1965 on YouTube (note 1).  Fresh and local struggles to compete with the achievements of all recorded music in history that is found online.  Somewhere tonight, someone will shred guitar, very well, at the bar, only to be dismissed as “not a Hendrix”.  Even Hendrix was not initially Hendrix.  There was a pre-Hendrix stage, but we’re all post-Hendrix now via our phones.  To elaborate, this article talks more about the tension between old and new music. 

Revenues are stagnant, and dropping per musician, but maybe that’s just efficiency and splitting the pie more ways?  Technology has eliminated non-value added steps to physically create and move around the product from musician to listener.  Digital studio processes are much cheaper.  No one is afraid of wasting tape anymore.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to guess that 75% of the costs have been removed from the process (note 2).  The cheapness of production has caused recorded musicians to multiply like mushrooms in a soggy field.  The so-called “bedroom producer” works the “lofi” genres with entry level production methods.  But it’s good music!  Many are dedicated and work incredibly hard on their product, often for no realistic expectation of revenue.  They are literally willing to work for free.  Some of them get really good.  You’ve never heard of them, and that’s the point.  There’s more song-hours to hit play on than ear-hours to fill.  When it’s new music we crave, and we do, the precariously employed working musician is more threatened by competition lower on the ladder if you ask me.  Let me make it worse for the 99.99% of working musicians by sharing my Spotify indie list with only 0.01% on it.

Despite the fact that we are eating each other’s lunch, artists will often say that we “win together”.  It’s authentic, pro-social, and rational, pro-survival, behaviour.  Most of us try to build a wide network of alliances with like-minded peers.   We like each other, and want to play (and drink) together.  The music actually gets better with collaboration too.  Winning together works well for the amorphous currency of attention from the audience.  We shout together in unison to be heard.  Occasionally some nuggets of revenue fall from the sky.  If you are able to, it’s usually good business to share nuggets with someone who may be in a position to return a nugget with sauce on it later.  JP Morgan and Citibank don’t want to share a customer, but two musicians easily can (note 3).  So it’s strange, but the musicians I don’t know are my competition, and when I meet them they may instantly become my ally. 

I think the big picture problem is shared between the working musician and the listener.  I think artists need to accept the reality of our marketplace.   There is no right to a living wage from one’s art specifically (note 4).  We should view the initial stages of a music career like going to school, which doesn’t pay either, and may take years.  Playing skills alone are not enough.  We have to participate in the business, and do the marketing work too.  But persistence through time (years!) does eventually make one better at the craft.  Our marketing efforts build momentum, and hopefully come to a place where the audience should happily pay the living wage.  For the audience’s part, know that it’s personal.  Art is not a commodity.  Don’t ask musicians for free stuff, or price-compare shop them against each other.  If you can afford it, be a patron of the arts by buying “merch” and concert tickets.  Many musicians have a tip jar (note 5)

The musicians discuss amongst themselves, not if, but how evil is Spotify?  As a music platform, they compete with, and have behaved roughly the same as iTunes, Amazon, and Google.  I think it’s hard to blame Spotify for winning when Apple charges the listener, and pays artists about the same.  I don’t have a problem with honest capitalism.  I don’t think the music platforms have lied to anyone about the economics (note 6).   Spotify is now getting into trouble for disinformation on their podcasting business, and general tone-deafness in an unequal world.  But in this regard, Spotify is just like Facebook and YouTube.   So, let's judge them the same.  I’m inclined to be not impressed with the platforms’ ethics.  Free speech does lead to dumb things being said, and we need common sense limits.  But if this was an easy problem to solve we wouldn’t be debating it endlessly.  I do think the FB and YouTube are being ethically negligent by dodging the problem because they (not Spotify) have a profit model that works under the status quo.  I think we should treat them like polluters of misinformation.  Polluter pays, i.e. regulate them at their own expense. 

I can wrap up where I stand now.  I want the listener to respect my work.  I also should respect the listener’s time and money.  Streaming platform’s are very good consumer products, and that’s why they have taken over.  So I don’t have a problem with streaming.  If one of the platforms becomes significantly better or worse in the future, I’ll make my own listening choice.  I used to be on iTunes, but I felt I had to switch to Spotify because my numbers were bigger there, and I should go understand how the audience was experiencing me.  I'm not big enough to draw people into any platform I want, so for now, I will go where the customers lead me.  

Thanks for listening.


  1.  Also competition from the golden age of TV streaming must be affecting the music audience’s appetite.

  2. An artist used to make a buck or two from a CD sale, so I recall.  Now they get 80% of a $0.99 digital sale, so that’s indicative of how many middle men have been kicked to the curb by technology.

  3. Though keep in mind, the musicians also have to split the revenue.  Alas, it’s easy for the fan to find a new musician now, and they are probably cheating on us.  1000 fans in 1995 is not the same thing as 1000 fans in 2021.

  4. Though I do support Universal Basic Income in general, because it’s not just musicians who have this problem.

  5. I just implemented this on Spotify, directed to a charity (8% self-reported overhead cost) supporting working musicians in Canada.  It’s a community tip jar.   My music is for sale on iTunes and Bandcamp if you want to support me personally.

  6. To be clear about rights for people who don’t know: Musicians willingly upload knowing the deal.  No one takes the music and streams it without explicit consent.

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