Cameron Ray, a Dallas-born singer-songwriter, left North Texas to pursue his music career in Knoxville, Tennessee, just this January. He still comes back from time to time, like last week when he played The Kessler Theater for Bill’s Records’ Birthday Bash.
Thanks to the advent of music streaming services, no matter where Ray is living, anyone with an internet connection can tune in to hear his music. But music streams do not pay the bills, and Ray does not expect them to. At the start of 2018, Ray peaked on Spotify with more than 35,000 streams but was paid about $150. This is not an uncommon payout.
“I feel like the consumers aren't as educated as to what an artist is getting paid per spin, and a lot of times, I just don't think they care,” Ray says. “As an artist, you have to care because it's your blood, sweat and tears.”
When it comes to streaming, artists are like the sweatshop workers of the music industry. They put everything into their recordings — chiefly their money and time — and get little in return, while others reap the benefits.
All of the major music streaming services pay a fraction of a cent per stream, according to digitalmusicnews.com, a music business and technology news site that publishes an updated list of what these platforms pay artists each year. Even on Pandora, 2019’s king of per-play royalty rates, an independent artist would have to receive more than 87,000 streams to earn $1,472. On YouTube, the year’s lowest per-stream royalty player, an independent artist would have to receive nearly 2 million streams to earn the same amount, according to digitalmusicnews.com. That's close to what a minimum-wage earner grosses in a month.
Despite the low payouts from most streaming platforms, Ray says that if his music wasn't on Spotify, he wouldn't have a following.
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“If you bash it, or say anything bad, or say ‘Don't put any of your music on Spotify,’ you’re not gonna have those listeners,” he says.
While in town for his show at The Kessler, Ray spent some time at Zach Balch’s Flint Creek Records in Dallas to record an acoustic version of his single “Anymore.” Balch is a freelance performer, producer and recording engineer who works 60 to 70 hours a week to make ends meet. Those pursuing a career in music should be aware that they’re not in a lucrative business, Balch says, especially as it pertains to streaming.
Balch believes, however, that artists shouldn’t give up on the fight for fair compensation, and that audiences should make an effort to be ethical in their consumption of music. He makes the case that while people are accustomed to consuming art for free — whether through streaming platforms or art museums — the work that goes into each creation should be honored and paid for, and that artists should be rewarded. While Balch himself does not live up to this ideology in his day-to-day life (for which he expresses guilt), he says that every patron of the arts should seek out ways to help pay for the art they're consuming. He says this is the consumer's civic duty.
Sam Damask, the man behind indie-funk project Grand Commander, says he does not feel obligated to do anything as a consumer, despite receiving the same low per-stream payout as every other independent artist on major streaming platforms.
“While I agree it would be nice if Spotify paid more money, music is not just a product,” Damask says, “it’s also an advertisement for people to buy our merch, know who we are, come to shows.”
Damask doesn’t feel slighted by streaming platforms, such as Spotify or Apple Music, he says. As he sees it, these services carry the benefit of bringing his music to the ears of people who would otherwise not know it existed.
“My perspective is that if there’s a global platform that can sell my music to thousands of people that have never heard it, that’s only a good thing,” he says.
A month ago, Damask played a show in Wichita, Kansas, where he had never been before. Still, people not only showed up to see him perform, they were singing along to his songs. Additionally, through certain streaming services, Damask can tell where his music is being heard around the world and says that some of his songs have reached people in 70 different countries. This information helps him target advertisements for his music and merchandise to people abroad.
One other way in which streaming platform's algorithms are changing consumer's behavior is by eliminating the drive to hunt for new music because they're automatically being fed their next listen.
Paul Slavens, local musician and KXT radio host, says trying to find new music on streaming services without the use of algorithms would be like walking into a library in search of one good book out of millions of bookshelves. An algorithm’s job is to parse the selection of content so consumers don't get overwhelmed, he says.
In curating music for The Paul Slavens Show, Slavens says he becomes a human algorithm. He takes in the information — song suggestions from listeners through his blog — filters it and spits it back out through the airwaves. He's aware that he may not always be giving people exactly what they want, but his operating philosophy on his show is that at any point in time, someone should be pissed off about the music he is playing.
“What it comes down to is not listening to things that you like, but listening to things as information instead of as a sandwich that’s supposed to make you smile,” Slavens says. “I know from personal experience that most of my favorite albums, I did not like the first time I listened to them. … The only way is to learn and grow, and to not hang on to your prejudices.”
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Slavens embraces the changes brought on by streaming, but he doesn't think his own band, Ten Hands, could make a living exclusively from their streams.
“You monetize other things like licensing and mostly merch,” Slavens says. “You try to get people to buy actual physical things. You lead them to your physical things by the music.”
Ray and Damask share the luxury of being solo musicians, collecting all of their payouts from streams, as opposed to having to split the earnings from fractions of a cent per stream among several band mates.
But, there's no doubt the world and its music consumption are changing. If others want to fight against that change, so be it, but it's not a fight Damask wants to pick. To him, the biggest battle is letting audiences know that he and his music exist.