I Can’t Believe It’s Getting Better?

It’s Getting Better?

If you read any copyright related interview I did in the last decade, I probably sounded akin to a doomsday prophet. Not that I shouldn’t have. RIAA were suing soccer moms for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Net Neutrality was about to be abolished, SOPA was gaining enough momentum to where we were all positive it would be passed, iTunes was monopolizing the digital music market, and at the bottom of it all, musicians were going broke with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Most of these issues are still around, but becoming more and more neutered. RIAA is slowly figuring out that getting less than 10% of their investment back in mass litigation probably isn’t sustainable or favorable for share holders. With a little backroom pressure  from Congress, the FCC,  just this week, promised us that Net Neutrality will indeed be back to kick the likes of Comcast and Verizon in the balls. After SOPA was thrown out, a similar bill, PIPA, was tossed aside by the Senate Majority Leader.
Musicians are still going broke. But it’s not like my musician friends and I would light Cuban cigars and race our yachts around Lake Michigan in the 90’s. Musicians have always been broke. There’s a joke I vaguely remember, or am making up and not realizing it because I’m tired:

“-How can you hire a musician to come to your house on a Saturday night?
-Order pizza.”

The only thing that changes is the things that musicians blame for making them broke. And it’s not to say that the music industry isn’t full of caustic, evil shit. It totally is. But we all knowingly dove head first into it. I realize 90% of my readers will want to punch me in the face for saying this, but I think being broke is a really important part of being an artist. Example:
When I got my first “break” financially (which was in the licensing/composing realm), I immediately upgraded everything related to my work. I moved into a big 2-floor condo in a artsy part of town, built a 3 room studio in it, put in studio desks, automated surfaces, the works. When I was all done and ready to start making tunes, I was lost. You see, before that, if I spent $700 on a piece of gear, I would stay up for 40 hours learning every single possible feature, hack, and possible use for it. When it came time to use it, I knew exactly how to make it work for me. Now, I sat alone in a 3 room studio with 5 figures worth the gear, only able to make something I was happy making sitting in one small area with the gear I had already owned.
My long-winded point: Being broke makes you value your tools more, which, in turn, makes you much more adept and creative when using those tools.

I still watch new synthesizer review videos as if I’m watching pornography, but I realize that 90% of the “crap” I could accumulate runs a larger risk of hindering my “natural creative process” than helping it.
Not that I could afford it all even if I chose to buy it. My dog and I aren’t starving, but I’m far from wealthy.
Which leads me to:

Spotify. Let’s Think Before We Bitch

(I realize that the sentence above is pure comedy for anyone who follows me on Twitter.)
Something has caught my eye on social media sites and at times, mainstream news reports: Spotify Hate

Why do artists hate Spotify? Well, a shortened answer would be because they aren’t getting a sizable amount of money. But this is, in almost every case, due to one or all of the following reasons:

1. They’ve signed away a chunk, if not all of their streaming royalties to their record label or digital distributor (ahem, IODA). Keep in mind, that even with a straight forward equation such as iTunes, with a very fair record contract, for every $1 the listener spends, the artist will get $0.23 after the label’s, distributor’s, and store’s cut. And that’s after recouping album expenses.  So if your streaming agreement goes by the same rules (if you’re lucky enough to not have completely “licensed” those away), you’re only getting $23 for every $100 out of Spotify.
And yeah, that sucks. But, you suck too for putting your signature on that agreement. The era has passed where we should sob for musicians sucked into bad agreements with record labels and distributors. For decades, labels have been lower on the scale of trust and ethics than personal injury lawyers and used car salesmen. Want to make money? Roll up your sleeves and release your music yourself, or find a label that will respect you enough to give you a fair deal.

2. Bluntly put, nobody is listening to their music. I know people who have complained about Spotify ripping them off on their debut, 3-track, experimental electronic EP. How exactly do they think the system works? If nobody is listening to your music, you’re not generating any income. This is no different than if an unknown artist is on iTunes, or even featured on a CD in Best Buy. Generating a listener base is an unpredictable process that takes the duration of your entire career. Spotify has never claimed to be a solution to that, but in a way, they are, with their radio channels and social network integration.
In this New York Times article, heart strings are pulled for an “avant cellist” who says “In certain types of music, like classical or jazz, we are condemning them to poverty if this is going to be the only way people consume music”.
Did I miss a part of the last 30 years where classical and jazz artists weren’t condemned to poverty? When you see thousands of ravenous fans eagerly waiting at an airport in hopes for a glimpse of their musical idol, they’re Beliebers, not freestyle bassoon junkies. And while that’s a fact that makes me want to walk into the ocean and never return, it, again, isn’t Spotify’s fault.

3. Spotify was started a mere 5 years ago, and wasn’t even fully available in the US until 2 years ago. They’re just now building a vast library and ironing out kinks with their massive servers and device integration, and even then, their subscriber numbers don’t even stand near the ones you’ll see over at iTunes or Netflix. They’re still losing money as a company, but as they grow, they’ve promised to increase royalties. So, it’s safe to say that if Spotify continues to grow at the rate they have, in 2 years they’ll be paying almost triple what they are now. And what they’re paying now per song stream is much higher than the likes of Pandora or Youtube.

And the Spotify hate doesn’t just come from beginning or obscure artists. Thom Yorke said to The Guardian, in jest of Spotify: “We don’t need you to do it. No artists needs you to do it. We can build the shit ourselves, so fuck off.”

Really Thom? You’ve created a legal, royalty paying library of music that will allow me to literally listen to whatever artist I can think of, whenever and wherever I desire to? Because that’s the one thing we, the people, the pirates, the innovators, could not do in the last 7 years when we had all the technology in our hands to do it. Our alternative to piracy has been listening to music encoded as Youtube videos, which is so hilariously ass-backwards that I still can’t wrap my head around it.

(And sorry to be sharp, but if I remember correctly, Radiohead’s last innovation in the world of music distribution was asking their fans for donations for a 128Kbps version of their album, only to sell them a listenable quality version 2 months later via a RIAA-aligned record label.)

The real bottom line to every single issue in the music piracy debate is that people will turn to whatever is the most convenient, as long as it is affordable. I truly believe that the vast majority of music pirates in the Napster era weren’t raiding the music industry like looters in a riot. They were simply acquiring music in a much more convenient way. It’s actually hard to imagine life as a music lover 14 years ago, relying on album artwork and magazine reviews to direct what will fit my pallet, and then having to drive to a music store that would carry what I was looking for and shell out the little money I had to see if it was worth listening to in the first place.

And I think, in another decade, we’ll be scoffing at the idea of trolling websites with porn banners and downloading torrent clients that tricked us into installing toolbars and spyware to “conveniently” acquire an album we wanted to listen to. And for once, finally, the more convenient solution actually involves artists being able to be compensated without a record label.

How Much Are They Really Paying?

Whenever I offer my career’s finances into conclusions like these, I always want to remind you that the data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Not that it isn’t real, or a good indicator, but every musician has weird trends and slumps in sales that they cannot seem to explain. December of 2012 to December of 2013 is an ideal period of time to crunch numbers from, as I have spent most of that time off the map. I didn’t have any new “The Flashbulb” releases, I didn’t tour that much, and I’ve done no promotion for my own music. There’s aren’t any notable additional variables to consider.

So just short of publicly divulging my income, I can tell you that Spotify has made me about 30% more than iTunes, Pandora, Amazon, Xbox Music, Google Play, eMusic, Rhapsody, Rdio, Deezer, MediaNet, Simky, Nokia, and Myspace Music combined in that period. Even if you tack on my checks from ASCAP to that long list, Spotify is still ahead.

I can tell you that Spotify alone, for the last 9 months or so, has paid for my rent in a 2 floor coach house with garage. But what is predictably notable, is that the numbers for Spotify are growing monthly, and have actually doubled from the first month to the last while sales on other platforms remained the same.

I know, some of you are thinking “where’s Bandcamp in all of this”? I didn’t include Bandcamp because unlike all of the other services, they’re focused on integrating with their artists, rather than stuffing them into their own library. For that reason, and because of an extremely fair royalty percentage, Bandcamp remains my favorite company to do business with in this field. That being said, due to me only linking to Bandcamp on my website and often publicly suggesting to buy through them, they just now have numbers higher than iTunes in royalties. But that number is still far below Spotify’s.

Also, I should note that Pandora has never paid me a dime, and my music has been on their system since the beginning of the company. I’ll hopefully be working that out legally, but that’s a 25 page post for another day.

So what’s changed?
Well, when I compare my income from album sales and streams, Spotify seems to simply look like quite a bit of additional income. As Spotify grows quickly, my sales from other sites grow slowly, like they have since I started selling music through them. So that leads me to the conclusion that Spotify is overwhelmingly succeeding in 2 things:

1. Generating income from casual listeners or listeners who don’t have the expendable income to buy my albums. This demographic used to exist almost exclusively between Soulseek and torrent sites.

2. Rewarding artists who have re-playable albums. If someone buys my album on iTunes and listens to it every day while exercising (yeah, not likely), I get $7. If that person uses Spotify, it can accumulate to a whole lot more.

Of course I’m not discouraging people from buying albums. I still prefer the old hard drive of music, and as an old-fashioned 30-something, I probably will for a long time.

But at the end of the day, that additional income has allowed me to almost completely scale back on television composing and concentrate hard, exclusively on writing and recording new material. For the first time in my life, I’m able to be “The Flashbulb” and not have to worry about filling in the income holes to monetarily survive.
I don’t know how sustainable it is,  I’m certainly not betting on it keeping me afloat all the way to retirement.

So in regards to Spotify, as a completely independent artist who does just about everything himself, the last thing I’m doing is bitching.