Do You Feel Guilty That Spotify Pays Artists So Little?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Since a generation of young people had no ethical qualms over stealing music, asking if artists are paid too little under the new streaming model might be a moot point. We live in a society where we want everything free or very cheap, but we’ll also pay $7 for a cup a coffee, or $200 to see a Broadway roadshow. For many people, music is a peak experience, more important than coffee or plays, often providing the emotional soundtrack to their memories. Shouldn’t we worry that people who create the songs we love get paid properly?


What we’re seeing here in America is a economic paradigm shift that’s effecting all aspects of society. The middle class is being deflated while its wealth is being shifted to the ultra rich. More and more people work for minimum wage. Even once well-to-do professions are under attack. And people who were once rich rock stars are now making far less. The super-stars are always well-rewarded, but making it big isn’t as easy as it used to be. Streaming music is great for tens of thousands of would-be stars to get a start, but it’s now much harder to make a living from even a moderately successful album. The middle-class artist is disappearing too.

So, I’m asking, are you fine with that or not? I love Spotify, but it bothers me that artists who once made much more money from the CD sales model are now making much less renting their music. Listening to music over the internet is far more convenient than playing CDs or LPs. Having access to nearly all music with the tap of a few keys is fantastic. Paying $10 a month is an incredible bargain. And knowing it’s legal is righteous. But, is it fair compensation for the artists?

PBS News Hour has been running a series on this issue. Their coverage is probably all you need, but this discussion is all over the web, especially since Taylor Swift pulled her catalog from Spotify. Here are some recent articles:

If you read enough of these articles you’ll realize this is a vastly complicated issue. Part of the problem is most of the streaming royalties goes to the record companies, and song writers, singers, and musicians get the tail end of the payment stream. But that was also true back in the LP/CD days. How the record companies divvies up its money with its artists is between those parties, but as fans we pay for the music, and set a standard. At least streaming is a major step up from stealing. Personally, I’d like to see more profits go to the artists themselves, and I’d like to see royalties paid to musicians. I think it stinks that all classic songs I love, the musicians were only paid a one-time fee.

The solution I would suggest is streaming services should charge a subscription fee for their service only, and then we pay 1 cent per stream to be divvied up by the record company, composer, singers and musicians. So Spotify might charge $2.99 a month for me to use their service, and that would go to them. And I would be billed 1 cent per stream, so my monthly bill would vary. If I listened to no music that month, it would be $2.99. If I listened to a 1,000 streams, it would be $12.99. Most people pay $9.99 now, so that would be equal to 700 streams.  That’s about 25 streams a day, or about 1.5-2.0 hours of music a day. Which is probably more than what most people listen to. If you want constant background music you should use radio or Pandora type services.

Such a payment system would also allow me to subscribe to more than one music service, because they do offer different content and different features.

CD and digital song purchase sales are down. At one cent a stream, it would take 129 listens by a fan to equal the purchase of a song. I think this is a decent equivalent. But if you watch the PBS Newshour shows you’ll see how artists lament the passing of albums. Fans really prefer hits. Spotify could encourage albums listens by charging 5 cents to stream an entire album.

Streams should not count unless we listen to more than sixty seconds of a song. Any song we give the hook in less than a minute should be considered a free trial.

If artists wanted to sooth listeners who hate the thought of constantly renting, they could let streaming services count the plays and after 129 mark the song as owned, and free from then on out. This would also encourage subscribers to stick with the service.

I bought thousands of albums in the last fifty years, and many of them were duds. I’d only listen to them once or twice. Most often I’d buy an album and listen to one or two songs many times. Album sales were not always fair to listeners, even though artists made the most money from them. The streaming model of pay per play is actually more fair to listeners and artists. It’s fair to artists because they’re paid each time a fan plays a song. It was always depressing to spend $15 for an album that turned out to be a turkey.

I hear the complaints by my favorite songwriters that Spotify cheats them. I feel bad. But I also think one cent a stream is a fair price. It’s more than what they get now, and if their songs are actually popular, they’d earn about the same, or even more in the long run over CD or digital sales. Songs that people really love will get played 129 times, and if an album has enough good songs, it will eventually earn about the same amount of money.

I’ve bought many albums by Bob Dylan three times, first as LP, then CD, then as SACD. I still play his songs so much, I’m sure at one cent a play, I will eventually pay more than what I did buying those albums three times.


6 thoughts on “Do You Feel Guilty That Spotify Pays Artists So Little?”

  1. I don’t use Spotify, so thankfully, this is one thing I don’t have to feel guilty about. I often buy a whole album if I want a song. I can concentrate my guilt on not recycling enough.

  2. Artists would prefer that we bought their CDs, so you’re good Carol. But CD sales are declining fast. Many people thought the iTunes sales model would replace them, but their sales are in decline too. Subscription music is the growing method of distributing music. It’s a bargain for fans, but not so great for people used to making a living selling songs.

    I wrote this partly about Spotify, but also about how our economic world is changing. If you look around, the system is finding ways to pay everyone less. That’s a disturbing trend I don’t think people should ignore.

  3. No, I do not dig it! But also, I do not feel at all guilty either, I don’t do streaming music. With the crap-ass Internet we have here in the US I have very little data on my mobile device to waste it on streaming music, tv or movies, so I concentrate on reading which is really what the Internet was/is about for me, all human knowledge on tap in an instant.

    If I want background music and I often do for writing or traveling, then I use the 40 some GB of music I own and have collected the last thirty years which is why I bought it in the first place.

    1. I have 139 GB of music files, but I hardly ever listen to them. Streaming music is just too convenient. I mostly listen to Spotify while at the computer, or through my Roku 3 connected to my stereo and TV, but I do have my favorite playlist downloaded to my iPhone. I don’t stream through the broadband. Once I got hooked on streaming music I just never could go back. It’s like owning a very record store.

      1. Streaming is indeed seductive. I have hundreds of CD’s that have been sitting in a closet for a very long time. I used to make half-hearted attempts to burn them to a drive. But, pffft. It’s not worth it.

        I don’t feel guilty about using streaming. Streamers might pay musicians more if the market would let them charge customers more. It won’t, though, because the demographic that holds sway in that market has devalued the product so much.

        Of course, eventually, if people cannot make a living making music, they will stop making music, contrary to the fantasies I’ve heard, spouted in all seriousness, that musicians do it for their muse…

  4. Do we need professional musicians? (Note that I ask the same question about professional athletes, for pretty much the same reason.)

    Sure, it’s great if you can make money doing what you want to do. But is sitting on your butt listening to music, or watching a sporting event on TV, really the right way to experience music or sports?

    If you like music, music should be a part of your life – playing music with friends, singing in a choir, etc. Most people I know wouldn’t think of singing in public – not unless they got drunk first, certainly – because they’re “not good enough” (i.e. they’re not professional singers). But shouldn’t music be participatory, rather than… passive?

    Similarly, should you be watching sports,… or playing them? Physical activity has benefits – not least because of the social aspect of playing with friends. Watching someone else has no benefit at all, that I can see. (OK, it’s entertainment. I get that. Indeed, I watch people play computer games, so I can hardly object to sports or music fans.)

    I don’t use Spotify, and I hardly ever listen to music at all. But would it be such a bad thing for society if it became impossible to make a living as a professional musician, if music became something you did, instead of something you just passively absorbed?

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