Only memories remain of HMV and Sam the Record Man. The likes of Apple Music and Spotify have swiftly taken over as the modern music library. For those born after the year 2000, it might be difficult to recall a time when listening and streaming didn’t go hand in hand.
The increased accessibility to music that this new era has brought in has been great for consumers. It has made discovering new music incredibly easier and for a small monthly fee, listeners gain access to a limitless supply of tunes around the world and across history.
But for creators, the streaming industry is doing them no favours.
As we embark further into the digital age and streaming services continue to dominate, musicians are getting caught in the crossfire.
The music industry has never been a fair game, artist exploitation and management battles have been commonplace since the dawn of time. The introduction of the iPod however, suddenly introduced a unique way for fans to rip off their favourite artists. Napster and LimeWire became the 2000s version of burning your friend’s CD or copying a tape.
Digitally torrenting music like this set the stage for the streaming services we use today. Spotify was born out of a need to replace illegally pirating music with something equally accessible for fans that also compensated the music industry, a win-win, they thought. But not for all.
As artists quickly assembled to have their music filed by such services in an effort to stay relevant and accessible to their fans, their bargaining power plummeted.
The current business model that streaming services use to pay musicians is flimsy at best. Most services pay per stream, offering a rate of under 10 cents per stream paid to the holder of the music rights. Meaning these 10 cents will likely be split amongst the record label, producers, artists, and songwriters. This model is a volume game, to profit largely as an artist you need to be pulling in millions of streams, a feat unlikely for many.
For musicians under the top-40 line, like Evin Jennings of Yellow Magnolia, it’s a harsh living.
“Pretty much any income we make goes right into our ‘band fund’. It’s pretty self-sustainable but there’s definitely no money to play around with, it’s like living hand-to-mouth,” the Toronto musician says.
Streaming services may not offer a great financial reward for smaller bands, but he noted that they do provide a great platform for increasing their global exposure. “It’s a double-edged sword because we’re still at the beginning of our career so there’s really not much money to be made with or without streaming services,” he adds.
With that said however, he highlights the low values to which his band earns per stream,
Amazon Music – $0.01
Google Music – $0.0038
Apple Music – $0.0037
Spotify – $0.0017
For bands like Yellow Magnolia with a dedicated but smaller fan base, the money is limited.
The streaming industry is perpetuating a model of benefiting the popular artists and forcing smaller artists onto the road to earn a living.
Touring as an artist is yet another double-edged sword. “The pressure of having to consistently put on great performances can be crippling. What used to be a passion is now your meal ticket. That can really take the pleasure out of it,” Jennings remarks.
Music journalist Joe Smith-Engelhardt has investigated the impact of touring on musicians’ mental health and notes that touring is not nearly as fun as it may seem.
“Every musician I have spoken to about this tells me the same thing, ‘playing shows makes it worth it, but it’s a hard life to live,’” he says.
The impact that touring can have on an artist is known all too well. The common archetype of the strung-out musician on the road has been revered, a price to pay for fame they say, but Joe argues it’s time that we acknowledge the darkness and reality behind it.
“Mental health resources are hard enough to come by for anyone but adding in financial issues and constantly being on the road creates even more problems,” he states.
In hopes of generating profits through ticket sales and merchandise, artists remain on the road playing gigs past the point of exhaustion. From afar, life on tour can seem cool and glamorous, but it often leaves artists drained, down, and less than okay.
The expanding discussion surrounding mental health in the music industry has led to certain initiatives like Royal Mountain Records’ mental health fund. Their fund gives each of its artists access to $1,500 per year for mental health services. The Toronto-based indie music label is hoping to set an example for the industry.
Another Toronto-based label, Dine Alone Records, offers mental health support in the form of a benefit package that includes “mental health expense coverage” for their artists.
As the streaming industry forces artists into the riskier lifestyle of frequent touring, these initiatives will hopefully aid musicians in the process like never before.
Joe pointed out that the majority of bands are self-funding, therefore they will prioritize merchandise, music equipment, recording and other band finances over their own health insurance as they so desperately want to continue growing.
A lack of sufficient mental health insurance for artists combined with a weak payment structure for their work is an inhabitable combination.
Joe argues a reform in the payment structure is necessary and might be coming soon. Such as, a weighted model providing fairer compensation to artists incapable of selling out arenas.
“Basically, if a listener pays their $10 every month for a streaming service, but only listens to one artist, that one artist will receive all of the money being paid out from that user,” he explains.
This model would put the autonomy back in the consumer’s hand to control where their financial support goes and benefit artists without the cost of their well-being.
Discussions about mental health in the music industry are far from perfect, but they are improving. As the streaming industry continues to surge, the consideration of artists needs to be at the forefront of the business model.