Every year, Spotify presents its hundreds of millions of users with a cute little gift: their own listening data, neatly packaged up with bright graphics and increasingly cringe all-purpose text pretending to be personalised. It’s wildly shareable, inevitably memed, and usually a reliable mix of accurate and hilariously off-base. (Petition to have all playlists just named “Sleep” excluded from now on.)
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The ugly truth, of course, is that all those numbers — streams and minutes listened and different fake-sounding sub-sub-genres of pop — conceal the only one that really matters. Now that streaming has largely replaced purchasing as the dominant model for music consumption, the vast majority of artists need you to actually buy things from them in order to make a living.
Spotify infamously pays artists fractions of a cent per stream.
The actual amount of money that makes it back to the artists varies, depending on how much of a cut labels and distributors take. But most sources agree that Spotify pays between $0.003 and $0.005 per stream, and that’s before the money is divvied up according to whatever terms are set out in distribution contracts.
Money isn’t taken directly out of your Premium monthly fee (or revenue paid from ads you listen to, if you’re on the Free tier) and paid to the artists you personally listen to. Instead it all goes into one big pot, which is then divided between artists (and labels) according to how many of their songs helped make up Spotify’s billions of streams each month.
Safe to say that Taylor Swift and Lil Nas X are securing the bag in other ways, on top of having some of the most popular songs in the world. But for smaller artists — even acts with hundreds of thousands of listeners — it’s brutal out here.
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Peter Hollo is a Sydney musician and radio host who plays in post-rock/electronic/jazz four-piece Tangents. The group put out a double album this year through a U.S. based label.
“We managed 170.7K streams and 71.9K listeners,” he told Mashable via email. “Sounds impressive, but this has resulted in at best triple figures in our pockets.”
Artists are beginning to fight back, with a new union protesting at Spotify’s offices last year and campaigning consistently since for a fairer model, including a pay out of one cent per stream. Some people have made a point of ditching Spotify in protest at this imbalance of power — either in favour of other platforms that pay out (fractionally) more, or to return to buying music solely the old-fashioned way, in album and single form.
But it’s still a useful, and fairly comprehensive, platform for both music discovery and access. There’s no shame, really, in continuing to fork out your hard-earned cash for that pleasure and privilege, any more than there is in holding onto your Instagram or Amazon account because it’s convenient for looking at photos of your nieces or getting things delivered in a hurry. (Yes, your ethical mileage may vary, but it’s your call.)
What you can also do, however, is make a point of supporting the artists who make the music that you love.
Making music is expensive. Even at the most grassroots level, artists need to pay for gear (whether it’s a single laptop or multiple pricey instruments), insurance, paying their managers and crew, accommodation and travel for touring, studio time, paying for mixing and/or mastering, and the costs associated with putting music out physically — not to mention the countless hours of training, rehearsal, and actually writing and composing leading up to recording a single song.
All of that has to happen, over and over again, in order for you to throw on something to dance or run or cook or sob to. And working musicians have had the roughest couple of years in living memory, with COVID-19 essentially shutting down live music for all but the most irresponsible acts and venues across 2020 and 2021.
So this year, treat your Spotify Wrapped like a shopping list.
Look at your top artists, and go and buy something from them — whatever you can afford. Buy a digital or physical album from their official website or your local record store. Buy a ticket to their live shows, not just festivals, if you’re vaccinated and feel comfortable doing so — they’ve missed seeing your faces! And pick up a shirt or other gear from the merch table while you’re there, if you can afford it. Shows are usually the best place to buy merch, because generally more of what you pay will make it to the artist’s pocket with fewer middlemen and overhead costs like postage and ecommerce, but online works too.
For digital music, Hype Machine’s Merch Table tool helps you see if you can buy your favourite songs or albums on Bandcamp — a platform that takes just 10 to 15 percent of the sale price (and also gives you the option to pay more than the minimum if you want), and also does Bandcamp Fridays, a monthly 24-hour period where the platform takes no cut at all. Even if you can only afford a single song, for the price of a cup of coffee, it will mean something to that artist that you made the effort and spared the change.
“For digital [Bandcamp is] really the best, but any digital purchases are good,” Hollo explained. “It takes a ridiculously low number of digital sales to eclipse all streaming royalties.”
And try to spend your money where it will make the most difference. Yes, you mostly listened to Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift all year like so many other people, and money spent on music is never wasted. But the $30 you could drop on a shitty sour bucket hat is almost definitely better spent on a shirt or two whole digital albums by that outlier indie artist you had on repeat all through spring then forgot about until your Wrapped reminded you.
Even if it feels like a token move to go pay a few bucks on Bandcamp for a song you loved this year, even if you never listen to that copy and keep playing it on Spotify, it’s a practical and meaningful way to help out the musicians who got you through this year, so they can get you through whatever the next year brings.
The story was originally published in November 2021, and has been updated.