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Your Top Albums of 2018: The Reflection Challenge

We live in an era where, thanks to platforms like Spotify and last.fm, we can track stats on most of the music we listen to throughout an entire year. It might seem like an entertaining piece of personal trivia to receive this kind of insight, or perhaps it is useful as a bridge back to the memories made with the music you sought out; I’d like to push the envelope a bit further into something you can take action on. What if you took those stats and turned them into direct appreciation for the artists that impacted your year?

Let me give you the backdrop for this thought. Streaming services have made music extremely accessible for artists to share and listeners to enjoy, and in doing so, some artists have been able to recover revenue lost to the massive Internet piracy trend that was born out of the 2000s. With listeners only needing to pay $5-10 a month for all the music they can listen to, it seems like we could ask for nothing more. This has, however, come at the cost of the artist, as streaming services distribute payouts based on the number of songs streamed. This payout is dismally low, with the most popular streaming services paying less than a cent per song played. This means only the artists who can amass and sustain massive popularity can turn a profit, while less popular artists and artists with long songs essentially give their music away for the not only for benefit of listeners, but to the executives and upper threshold of artists. In 2017, the average artist on Spotify generated $6.09 per album. Total. Here’s the research.

The biggest streaming services pay less than $0.01 per track play.

The biggest streaming services pay less than $0.01 per track play.

Let me give a personal account of how disparaging this system can be. At the beginning of 2018, I took account of all the listening stats recorded on my last.fm account since 2011, which came out to 29,526 songs played across 2,160 artists and 2,253 albums. According to the 2017 payout data across all music streaming platforms, if I had exclusively streamed all that music I would have contributed $117-806 to those artists (not counting YouTube’s payout rate, which is $21.84, just so you know). And that’s split among each artist based on the individual frequency of my listening to them. Compare that to how much those albums might have cost if I bought them at $5-12 a piece, which comes out to about $11,265-27,036. Best case scenario, if I streamed all that music, artists didn’t even make 10% of that money, and when you consider that Spotify Premium only costs ~$10 monthly, if I had held that membership over the course of 84 months (7 years) that’s a lifetime contribution of $840, of which only $117 is distributed unevenly across 2,160 artists. Yes, this system is deeply problematic.

So listening to artists this way is, in general, hurting them financially. We’ve gotten a bit carried away with convenience and frugality, losing sight of the meaningful exchange and intentionality of a direct purchase. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in which artists must either resolve to surrender this financial avenue and come up with other ways to make a return on their albums, or forsake the idea altogether. It is true that the cost of recording and widespread distribution, as well as other barriers-to-entry for these things, has lessened significantly. However, as the market for music becomes more deeply saturated with time, there’s less time and money to go around.

I’m not going to suggest or ask that people totally abandon music streaming. It’s better to listen to music for cheap/free than to not listen at all because things are crummy! I don’t think the average person who utilizes these services should feel guilty that the system is so messed up. There are so many economic and cultural reasons that gave a rise to this state of the music industry, and it wasn’t all sunshine and roses back when corporate record companies were in the top seat of influence either.

I want to bring us back to how cool it is that we have this incredible accessibility to music. We have the tools to be more connected to what we listen to now more than ever. In past posts we’ve talked a lot about how to be intentional listeners and supporters of artists, and in light of the New Year I want to put forth an idea inspired by something our pal Dave Mantel suggested on social media a couple years back. Take those artists in your top ten/five/three that you listened to in 2018 and ask yourself, “How did I support them?” Did you purchase any of those mind blowing new releases? Did you go to a show? Gush your feelings out in an embarrassing tweet you had half a mind to delete until they replied?

The specific challenge is this (but only if you can reasonably afford it and only if your conviction is not one of guilt, but a desire to engage. There are cheaper/free alternatives to this you can read about here, here, or here!): budget out your ability to purchase those top albums of 2018 you loved but never got around to buying. No, this won’t necessarily dismantle the capitalist machine or push your favorite albums onto the front page of Bandcamp. Not yet, anyhow. Artists and listeners exist for one another. We don’t owe or deserve a certain outcome from this relationship, but it flourishes when we make efforts to be an active part of it.