Technophobe: How to pay musicians

Megan Youngren/Sun Star Columnist
November 13, 2012

I’ve always thrown around the statistic that for an album or track bought from iTunes or AmazonMP3, an artist gets about 10 percent of that price. Usually, that would be a dollar per album. How true is this? And what about Spotify, with its terrible ‘every track makes money for the artist’ ads – how much money? We’re used to having all the music we want available for free and streaming services provide that legally, but are you helping the artist by using legitimate avenues, or just avoiding copyright enforcement penalties?

The truth about artist’s share of the sale price of albums is harsh – getting 10 percent would be a good deal. The amount is often lower – but at least there’s less cost taken by physical media and shipping so more can go to the artist than in the past. The rest of the sale goes to the distributor and record label.

When using on-demand streaming services, the artist gets a fraction of a cent per stream – Spotify ideally pays about five thousandths of a cent, but it’s often less. Streaming offers the opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought the music to ‘contribute’ to an artist’s paycheck, but it still requires millions of listeners for that to be a significant amount of money.

And that’s for bands that are well-known enough to even have people stream their music. To free artists from this payment model, they need a different source of initial funding, so they can sell their music themselves without being contracted to a music label.

You might have heard of Kickstarter – a crowd-sourcing website that allows for interested parties to chip in at the ground floor of a project.  The party running the Kickstarter sets a goal amount to raise, and offer various goodies at different contribution amounts – often, one level of contribution will effectively be preordering. It’s a different source of capital for the musician, giving them freedom from labels, but it isn’t optimal for those lacking a trusting audience willing to each chip in a bit.

None of this helps with the problem of low streaming reimbursement, but it allows for real profit from album/track sales via sites like Bandcamp or CDBaby that take only 10 to 15 percent of the sale, not 90 to 95 percent. Many artists aren’t or contractually can’t be on these alternative services though. Contracts signed with major labels might have other forms of artist reimbursement than just royalties; regardless, signing to a label distorts the efforts of fans to pay artists for their work.

The answer to these problems certainly isn’t just to pirate your music, although this is all a wonderful justification to do just that. Paying for Spotify doesn’t do more than just using the ad-based version – the artist gets almost the same amount. That fee is to get rid of the ads, not to help the musicians. Using Spotify in any form isn’t some magical way to help the artist, and their ads saying so are a bit dishonest. If you feel bad for procuring music via piracy, you shouldn’t feel much better using a streaming service. It being ‘legal’ doesn’t make it fair.

Is the answer to buy artists’ t-shirts and other merchandise? Going to their concerts? Maybe yes on the t-shirts, but it’s unlikely you’ll travel out of state to go to their concerts if you’re not going to a music festival. Unless the artist self-releases music, only a portion of the money makes it to them. Nonetheless, that is what they make their living off of, and it’s unfair to say that we deserve their work for free. There’s no consistently good answer to this yet and we should keep in mind that when considering new, supposedly legitimate music services.

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