The Financial Struggle of Aspiring Musicians in the Age of Streaming

The business model of the world’s largest streaming service, Spotify, has long been criticised for underpaying musicians, and the stats make it clear that only major-label artists with a sustained following can survive on streaming as their only source of income.

In the UK, a single stream of a Spotify track earns the artist a measly £0.0024, and this figure has more than halved since 2013. So unless they’re racking up thousands upon thousands of streams, indie-label artists will still need day jobs in order to remain financially stable.

The frustration felt by musicians at this next-to-nothing salary intensified last month when Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek shared his ‘solution’ to the problem. The billionaire suggested that artists needed to produce a continuous output of music, as opposed to the standard model of releasing a new album and a bunch of singles every few years. The bottom line? Forcibly overwork musicians instead of paying them fairly for music they have taken time and care to produce.  

Ek’s comments caused a major backlash amongst artists, many of whom recognised that Ek can’t seem to differentiate between art and commodity as he views them as one and the same. Singer-songwriter Zola Jesus tweeted “It is extremely clear that Spotify’s billionaire Daniel Ek has never made music or art of any kind for that matter”, whilst prolific veteran songwriter David Crosby opted for a less eloquent response, calling Ek an “obnoxious greedy little shit”. Either way, the general consensus was clear; musicians strenuously object to Ek’s quantity-over-quality argument.

Ek also claims that there is a “narrative fallacy” surrounding the idea that Spotify does not pay artists enough for them to make a living on. We already know about the trivial quarter-penny earnings from a single stream, but let’s take a closer look at the figures. A single would need over 3,000 streams to earn one hour’s worth of the UK minimum wage (£8.72). This amount would only just cover distribution costs in the first place; music distributor TuneCore charge £7.49 per year to upload a single to Spotify. So, assuming you total a commendable 3,000 streams for the year, you’ve only earned a miserable 77p. Go and buy yourself a hard-earned pint of milk, or a first-class stamp!

To make matters worse, streams are only counted for tracks that are listened to past the 30 second mark, and it is worryingly common in an impatient streaming culture for tracks to be skipped almost instantly if they don’t immediately grip the listener. Ek’s idea that this major financial issue is just one big misconception among artists is absurd to say the least.

The pittance earned from streaming in recent times has also caused the prices of live shows and festivals to skyrocket to compensate. A weekend ticket to the famous 1969 Woodstock Festival cost $18 (£99 in today’s money), whereas the biggest festivals nowadays cost almost three times as much. Despite not going ahead, a ticket to Glastonbury 2020 would have set you back £270. The more distinguished artists can charge even more for large-scale tours and stadium gigs.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. In 2014, Michigan-based funk band Vulfpeck found a way to cheat Spotify’s system when they released an unusual album called Sleepify on the platform. The album consisted of ten tracks of pure silence all lasting just over 30 seconds, which the band encouraged fans to stream on loop whilst they were asleep, promising to fund a free tour with the royalties they earned. Despite Spotify inexplicably removing the album within a month, the band received an impressive $20,000 (£15,280) of royalties. Even Spotify acknowledged that this was a very clever stunt!

Despite the alarming truth behind Spotify’s economic model, it is undeniably a great resource for discovering music due to the vast content available at your fingertips. The aim here is not to feel guilty for using Spotify; boycotting the streaming service worsens the situation for struggling artists. The best thing we can do now is to get listening to those independent artists who need royalties to keep them afloat, whilst remaining optimistic that Spotify might give artists a much fairer deal in the future.

Featured image from Spotify