When I’m blasting the new Logic album from every speaker in my tiny Civic, I don’t use CDs or tapes. These days, our entire music libraries are online, and apps like YouTube, iTunes, and Play Music represent a new way for producers to sell people songs, but the number one music app, as everyone knows, is Spotify. Spotify is a service that streams music from any major artist you can think of, whenever you want. Unfortunately for us humble music listeners, if it sounds too good to be true… it is.
To break Spotify down a bit, it’s a service that has two versions: Free and Premium. With Spotify Free, you can listen to music, but you have to deal with ads, and can only shuffle through artists’ albums or playlists you create. If you pay $10 a month (or $5 for the student discount, which also gets bundled with Hulu), you get upgraded to Spotify Premium, which allows you to get rid of the ads, listen to whatever song you want whenever you want, and even download the music to your phone to listen to through the app offline. By comparison, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are two other popular services that are similar to Spotify, but feel more artistoriented. Artists can upload their own music to these services, and users can listen to their music for free. The advantage of Spotify over SoundCloud and Bandcamp is accessibility to major artists, which isn’t available on smaller platforms. All these services are great for listening and music discovery, but they all also contain serious underlying problems.
The issue with Spotify at its core is that it’s not profitable as a service. They can’t charge too much because people can buy MP3s instead if they end up being cheaper than using Spotify. They can’t charge too little either, because they can’t pay artists if they don’t make enough money. That’s exactly the issue — Spotify can’t pay their artists enough. Spotify is reliant on the music industry to produce its content, but when it’s broken down, the streaming service pays their artists less than a hundredth of a cent each time a song plays.
Spotify’s low payouts have led to two class action lawsuits: the NMPA and the Lowery-Ferrick lawsuits. According to these cases, Spotify supposedly didn’t pay enough mechanical royalties (the royalties a company pays when a copy of a song is made) to their artists. For example, when making a CD of a song, the CD manufacturer pays a mechanical royalty of about 9.1 cents per CD. Spotify, on the other hand, only pays around 0.007 cents per stream of a song. This problem has lead to artists like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke pulling their music off of Spotify as a form of protest. These days, their music is back on the service, but the artists in question already receive substantial income from concerts and general music sales, which allowed them to take their music off the service without excessive losses. However, most artists, especially independent or more obscure ones, can’t afford to pull what Swift and Yorke did. If they don’t run their music on Spotify, then they lose popularity, exposure, and ultimately, sales. If small artists don’t use Spotify, then they can’t get the exposure to drive music sales. If they do use Spotify, then they don’t get paid enough, so they can’t make more music, which prevents them from posting more music on Spotify, which again leads to more losses. It’s a vicious cycle with no real escape for small or up-and-coming artists.
But can small artists stay relevant on SoundCloud or Bandcamp? Sort of. They’re definitely alternatives to Spotify, but they aren’t free of issues either. SoundCloud’s platform, unlike that of Spotify or Bandcamp, isn’t focused on profits through their service. Instead, SoundCloud is treated more like a catalyst to fame, which leads to music sales outside of the streaming sphere. As a result, SoundCloud’s problem is an oversaturation of music (primarily in rap and hip-hop), leading to generic, cash-grab songs that don’t improve the genre or move the music industry forward. Take, for example, the so-called “mumble rappers” that have popped up on SoundCloud recently. Artists like Lil Xan, Lil Yachty, Smokepurpp, and Lil Uzi Vert all have pretty similar sounds, and are commonly credited as surface-level rappers who don’t really send a unique message with their music. Artists like them get lost in the sea of other artists that sound identical to them, and therefore, don’t stand out enough to gain popularity (and subsequently, music sales) Of course, there are exceptions who have undoubtedly changed the music industry like Post Malone and Travis Scott, who both got their start on SoundCloud. They didn’t get money from SoundCloud, but their sound and subject matter was unique enough to lead to fame, and therefore individual success. That kind of story can’t be expected from most artists coming out of SoundCloud, though. Another music streaming alternative is Bandcamp, which allows artists to gain direct profits from the service. Bandcamp isn’t the best solution either, because it isn’t widely used, so there isn’t any guarantee an artist will make money off of the service. Since neither SoundCloud nor Bandcamp solve the problem of paying artists, what can artists do?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution, at least not yet. Spotify, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud are all services that every music lover is going to appreciate, but none of them are good enough to support artists. For now, the best way to help music artists is to use platforms like Spotify, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp, and if you really love their stuff, buy their music directly. MP3s, vinyls, and CDs are all great options for music listening, with the added benefit of making sure your favorite artists can continue to make music.