I’ve never answered this question the same way twice. There are similarities though. A lot of stammering, a lot of second-guessing my answers, talking really fast, and of course, realizing halfway through that I’ve lost them, along with any chance of them actually looking for my music. “Well, I have CDs with me now, but if you don’t have a CD player, I guess the best way is my bandcamp page…oh, but it’s also on iTunes. And I sell it on my website too. Or you can stream it on Spotify…or my website…or Amazon…or, or, or.”
And now with today’s release of Apple Music, the answer just got even more complicated. Now you can buy on iTunes, or stream in iTunes, or download for offline listening…but then why buy the album? Etc, etc.
But this isn’t even the hardest question. The hardest question comes from the people who truly care, the people who really want to help you out and support your career, and that question is, “What’s the BEST way to listen to your music?” There is no one answer to this question, but in this post I’m going to attempt to break down the different options, and how they affect the artists you want to support.
First of all, I lied a bit in that last paragraph. There is one right answer to this question, and that’s “any way you can.” What’s important is that you listen SOMEHOW, and listen repeatedly, and share it with friends, and learn the words, and come to shows to sing along and dance. If I tell you some convoluted way to listen that might make me more money, but is very inconvenient for you, then while I may make more in the short term, you probably won’t listen and I’ve lost out on a long-term fan. This may seem like a very business-like way of looking at how people become attached to art, but I’ve been there myself. Convenience is important, it’s what puts the music in front of you and allows you to experience it in just the right time and place for it to make the fullest emotional connection with you. This whole post could basically be summarized by saying, “I don’t care how you listen as long as you listen.” But as someone who’s been dying for more transparency between artists and listeners, I will continue with the gross capitalistic details of various methods.
Let’s start with CDs. CDs always feel great to sell, because we put down a hefty fee to have them made, and it’s good to recuperate that cost. But at the same time…nobody listens to CDs anymore. I have definitely gone to shows, gotten a CD from a band, and then never listened to it, because oh yeah, I don’t own anything that plays CDs. The band got my money, because I wanted to support them, but am I really supporting them if I never listened to it? Maybe, since there are other ways to appreciate music other than through recordings of it, but it’s probably not what the band hoped when I bought it.
What about buying digitally? This seems like the ideal, right? Very low initial costs for the artist, but you can charge around the same amount as the CD, meaning more profit. Plus it’s convenient for the listener, who can put it on their phone, tablet, iPod, computer, smart TV, whatever. But where’s the best place to buy digitally?
Most independent artists nowadays have a bandcamp page, which is usually the best place monetarily for the artist. Bandcamp keeps 15% of the revenue, and the artist can enable “Pay what you want” style pricing, which allows fans to overpay for the album if they really want to support the artist. More than half of the people who have bought my music through my bandcamp page have paid twice the asking cost. Not to mention I receive the money immediately, which is very different from the several month waiting period of most digital distributors. Not only that, but audiophile listeners can choose the fidelity of the tracks they download, instead of being restricted to low quality audio found in most digital music stores.
So what’s the downside? Why isn’t bandcamp the new iTunes, if it’s so good for artists? Well…I don’t know, to be honest. It just hasn’t caught on in the public eye. Maybe it’s the lack of high profile artists. Maybe it’s not user-friendly enough. Whatever the reason, bandcamp remains the ideal place for artists, but not necessarily for listeners.
The most convenient digital music store for listeners is probably iTunes, followed by Amazon and Google Play. iTunes takes about 36% of revenue (plus usually a fee to upload). Not sure about Amazon and Google Play, because honestly, nobody has ever bought my album through those channels. I would assume it’s comparable. Keeping 64% of your revenue is not bad, and very similar to the profit made from selling CDs. It’s not as good as the 85% from bandcamp, but if it’s more convenient for the listener, great. But the golden oasis that used to be digital sales was quickly overcome by…
Streaming. AKA the death of income for independent artists. I fought the streaming craze for a long time, but I’ve finally given in and come to accept it. There’s no stopping it at this point. Music has been devalued, and people expect it for free now. It beats piracy…barely. So if you are going to stream, here are some tips.
Use Apple Music. Look, I know they’re the biggest tech corporation in the world, but as far as I can tell, they pay the best. Spotify on average last year paid me an average of .6 cents per stream. For free users, that got as low as .1 cent per stream. That is nothing. After 1000 plays, that adds up to $6, just barely over the cost of one sale of my album.
Now, the stats on Apple Music are hazy at this point, but all signs point to the pricing structure being the same as it was for Beats Music, which Apple bought to convert to Apple Music. The amazing thing about Beats Music was that it paid independent artists exactly the same as major label artists, which for me averaged out to 1.3 cents per song, more than TWICE what Spotify paid. Not only that, but because it integrates directly into iOS devices and iTunes libraries, it’s amazingly convenient for a huge portion of the population, which means more plays and more payments to the artists. I won’t know for probably another few months if Apple Music has maintained this pricing structure, but so far it’s looking like the clear winner.
Here’s another tip: Pay for your streaming service. If you can’t afford 10 bucks a month for literally ALL of the music online, you can’t afford new music. Making music costs money, a LOT of money, and as I pointed out above, these bullshit free ad-supported tiers of service don’t pay shit. Respect the artists.
And lastly, if you’re going to stream, support the artists in other ways. Go to shows, buy merch, follow them on social media (you may not realize this, but “likes” and “followers” go a LONG way towards getting better gigs and better paychecks), and tell your friends about them. I’ve seen too many up-and-coming promising bands quit way too soon just because they couldn’t support themselves anymore. If you want to keep hearing good music, you have to invest in it.
And MY promise to you in return is to not waste your investment. I’m not asking for more money so I can buy an Xbox, I’m asking it so I can spend more time making music. So I can make more recordings, and music videos, and fucking…comic books, or whatever other expressive idea I can think of. So we have time to tour more, and better equipment, and better recording quality. So we can come to your town that’s really out of the way for us but we know there will be people there to see us when we get there. This is what you’re investing in. I want to make art that speaks to people in many ways, and I have so many ideas on how to communicate it, but it all takes time and money. There’s a lot of artists who cross this barrier by having rich parents and trust funds that get them to indie darling status almost immediately, but the rest of us have to work for it. The less we support hard-working artists, the closer to we get towards an artistic monoculture run by rich 1%-ers.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I know it’s rambly, and over-long, and probably sloppy and not exactly eloquent. I’ve had a lot of coffee and not much sleep. But if you’ve gotten this far, and you’re still asking how you can best support the artists, I’ll leave you with one final idea. This is purely a way to monetarily support artists, if that’s what you’re determined to do. I don’t expect everyone to do it, but this would maximize your monetary support without draining your checking account any more than necessary.
As I said above, if you love an artist you should buy the album, because it’s the best way to support them monetarily, and it also gives you a sense of ownership over the artwork. It’s yours now, and that builds a special kind of connection between you and me that streaming services don’t offer. But once you have it…why not stream it when you listen to it? If you already have a streaming subscription, it doesn’t cost you any more than the initial purchase, but the artist will get paid every single time you hit play. Hell, why not hit play and repeat on the laptop before you go to bed, and mute the speakers? You may remember the band who put an album of silent tracks on Spotify and asked their fans to play it overnight while they slept. There’s no reason you can’t do that with any band that you want to support. I know it’s ridiculous and asking a lot, but like I said, this idea is purely reserved for the people determined to support artists to their fullest extent.
Alright, I think that does it. Now I’m going out to see a great New York band, The Grasping Straws, release their album. I think I’ll buy it…and then see if it’s on Apple Music.