Swimming Against the Stream: Musicians Fight for Their Worth in the Internet Era

The cops were getting lots of calls. Drivers were worried. There was a woman walking down the road — the narrow part of Highway 1, just north of L.A. And she was pushing a baby carriage.

When the cops found her, it turned out she was not a crazy person. She wasn’t even a mother.

She was a musician on a mission.

The woman was Suzana Barbosa, a longtime Toronto singer and leader of the band Lumanova, who had lately become fed up with the state of the music industry. She’d had it with the paltry amounts paid to songwriters and performers by streaming services like Spotify. She’d had it with our culture’s preference for glamorizing starving artists instead of paying them decently.

Barbosa was so fed up with the music business that she decided to walk some 400 miles, from Los Angeles to the Google campus in Mountain View, to publicize what she sees as an existential threat to the world’s independent musicians.

And she did it with no money.

Barbosa brought a sleeping bag, clothes, a sleeping pad, a laptop, some video gear, and food. All of that went in the baby carriage, which ended up weighing about 85 pounds, and which, by last Friday, Barbosa had pushed all the way from Venice Beach to Mountain View.

It was not easy. Some days she walked 20 miles. She slept by the side of the road when no one offered her shelter. But she got her message — “Walk Miles for Music,” written on the front cover of the carriage — out to thousands. She stopped runners who were listening to Pandora and Spotify, and told them about the services’ infinitesimal payments to content creators. She proselytized to the people who offered her shelter, many of whom had no idea that the ultra-convenient music services they use are, as Barbosa sees it, hollowing out what remains of a musicians’ middle class. The cops in Lompoc asked Barbosa what her trip was about, just so they could explain it to the drivers calling to fret about a woman pushing a baby carriage down the side of the highway.

Barbosa is one of a growing number of musicians and music professionals who regard the prevailing situation in their industry with a mix of terror and outrage. As they see it, the great promise of the Internet — interaction between fan and artist unmediated by recording corporations or mainstream media — has given way to a virtual sweatshop in which everybody gets paid except the people who actually make the music.

Much of that has to do with streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, and Beats Music, which are ascendant at the moment. They offer subscribers access to a universe of music for a few dollars per month — or nothing at all, if the listeners sit through a few ads. For the consumer, this means millions of songs at the launch of an app, and, depending on the service, pre-built playlists to listen to, sometimes along with sophisticated algorithms that anticipate what to play based on your individual tastes.

These companies are growing: Spotify, the Swedish service that launched in the U.S. in 2011, announced late last month that it had reached 10 million paying subscribers worldwide. (If you include those who listen to the free, ad-supported version, Spotify now has 40 million listeners.) Meanwhile, Beats Music, the Spotify competitor started earlier this year by record executive Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop headphone magnate Dr. Dre, was acquired last week by Apple for $3 billion. The press release announcing the sale strongly hinted that for Apple, the target of the purchase was the Beats streaming service (along with Iovine and Dre), rather than the headphone business.

But if these products seem a fantastic value for consumers, they represent a terrible deal for artists — especially smaller ones. Royalties paid per stream of a song routinely extend to the hundred-thousandth of a cent in the case of YouTube, which is the world’s largest music streaming site, and the worst offender in terms of royalty rates. An artist that gets 1 million streams on YouTube would average a meager $1,750, according to the Trichordist, a site covering the digital music industry. The same success on Spotify would pay only $5,210; its average per-stream payment is $0.00521. At the high end of the spectrum, an artist with a million streams on Google’s Play service can expect to make $45,730 — a modest year’s salary for a feat few will ever accomplish.

The mechanisms behind these payments are incredibly complex, giving the companies behind them many ways to redirect responsibility. (Much of the responsibility does lie with record labels, which set how much of their streaming revenues go to the artists.) But the outcome is universally simple: not much money for musicians. “People are listening to my songs 300 to 1,000 times a month, and I get $2,” Barbosa says. “It’s horrible. It’s shameful. I’ve been dong this for 13 years, and I feel like I have to choose between doing my art or having a family.”

One of the inspirations for Barbosa’s walk was Unsound, an in-progress documentary about “how musicians and creators survive in the age of free,” by San Francisco record producer Mikael “Count” Eldridge. The film follows artists like Tycho, Rhett Miller, Jurassic Five, Zoë Keating, and others as they struggle to survive in the world of online micropayments and evaporating record sales.

Eldridge first envisioned the project during the much-mocked Metallica-Napster legal wars, which he says frightened musicians into sliencing their objections to piracy. When an album he worked on was nominated for a Grammy, but he couldn’t afford a ticket to the awards ceremony, Eldridge paired his life savings with an online crowdfunding campaign to begin making Unsound.

He was at first agnostic toward streaming services, but has since come to believe that they are severely harming musicians and others who work on records.

”They’re not only not paying a living amount [to artists], but they’re dishonest about it,” Eldridge says. Spotify often defends its royalty payments by saying that when the service acquires more paying users, artists will earn more money. Eldrige dismisses this as a lie, basically “a Ponzi scheme.”

”It’s not about building a sustainable business,” he says. “It’s not about offering a valuable or even a valid service. It’s about who can get the most eyeballs.”

Eldridge is not alone in these criticisms. Artists like Thom Yorke and David Byrne have railed against streaming services for making it harder for lesser-known musicians to earn a living, among other things. But the services also count defenders among the music community, like Billy Bragg and former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, who argue that they give fans unparalleled access to music, and — at least for customers who pay — represent an increase in what a casual listener spends on music per year over what they spent at the height of the CD era. (A Spotify subscription costs $120 a year; in 1999, prior to the collapse of the recording industry, the average consumer spent about $64 a year on music, purchasing roughly six CDs.)

But the most imposing argument in favor of streaming services is their essential popularity: the fact that they provide a way — other than piracy — to meet the demands of consumers who grew up thinking music was basically free.

Barbosa and Eldridge are not persuaded by this. The latter compares the music business to the markets for free-trade coffee or responsibly manufactured clothing — both products for which consumers were eventually convinced to pay more after being educated about the exploitation of their creators. Eldridge wants to see streaming services like Spotify disappear completely in favor of a model in which fans stream and purchase music directly from artists through their websites — sort of an online farmers market for songs.

That is probably not going to happen anytime soon, even if his campaign to educate consumers about the predicament of mid-level musicians succeeds. But there may yet be another, deeper flaw with the music-streaming business: Even with 10 million subscribers, Spotify cannot turn a profit. It and other streaming services must pay 60-70 percent of their revenues to the record labels that own the songs they stream. The best hope for Spotify and its ilk to become self-supporting is to grow so large that the leftover revenues will cover overhead, payroll, and a profit.

It’s unclear whether any one streaming site can achieve this, especially in such a crowded market. And if it is possible, that doesn’t mean the investors who currently keep Spotify and others afloat will wait around long enough for it to happen. (Apple, however, would seem to be able to afford to do just that with Beats.)

So it may be that nothing about the current streaming economy is sustainable: neither the royalties paid to artists, nor the business model of the streaming services. But if there’s one thing we can be sure of in the Internet-era music business, it’s that nothing stays the same for long.

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