The debate about how streaming music services are affecting the music industry is often framed as “artists against streaming services.” But the issue is more nuanced than that.
Taylor Swift recently brought attention to the problem when she wrote a blog post and convinced Apple to reverse its policy and pay artists during the free trial of its new streaming service Apple Music. I agree with Swift. It’s not that I’m against streaming music services—I think they can actually be beneficial to many artists. But I do have an issue with those that offer a free tier of services that pay artists so much less than their subscription version.
Apple Music wasn’t going to pay artists at all for the free trial. But even when services do pay, there’s a huge discrepancy between the free tier and the subscription tier. Rates are split between artists, labels and other players. By my calculation on my albums on Spotify, the free tier pays me about one-seventh what the subscription tier pays, and there’s a similar difference on other services that offer a free and a paid option. If I were paid only when free users stream my songs, it would not be sustainable for me as an artist.
Streaming music is clearly the future. Consumers want it. It’s convenient. But it often feels as if, as artists and songwriters, we’re being asked to subsidize these new services. I didn’t see Pandora or Spotify employees offering to forgo their paychecks while the services got off the ground. If services offer a free tier, they should bear the burden, not artists.
Streaming services like Spotify offer artists access to a larger audience. But for some artists, these subscription services aren’t going to make sense at all. Smaller, more quirky, niche artists, such as progressive metal bands or exotic classical folk rock groups may have more luck streaming and selling all their music directly from their websites and keeping all of the revenue for themselves.
My advice for artists would be to figure out how to engage with those who are like-minded and to always value your music. Even if you’re giving it away for free for a time. If you don’t value your music, nobody else will.