What Do Indie Musicians Really Think About Music Streaming?

Spotify
Artists and streaming services are playing tug-of-war over access to tunes. Jason Katzenstein for Newsweek

Who's afraid of the big, bad music streaming services?

Billionaires, mostly. Multimillionaires, at the least. The great irony of the shouting match over Spotify compensation and Apple Music's trial-period pay scale is that it's being led by A-list artists who can't possibly need the money. Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke have been among the loudest voices against Spotify; Prince and Neil Young are some of the latest anti-streaming converts

Indie artists are more conflicted and less empowered. They're ambivalent about the revenue but like the exposure and can't imagine cutting themselves off from it. Since the conversation is generally dominated by superstars, we asked 12 different indie artists what they think about the streaming debate. Those answers appear below.

Two notes: First, it's worth pointing out that the majority of artists we reached out to with this query declined to comment. The very subject seems to make musicians nervous. "It makes interesting people clam up because they're terrified of saying something that other musicians are going to be mad at them for," singer-producer John Vanderslice tells Newsweek. Tim Kasher, of the band Cursive, says his label tells him to "play nice" with the streaming sites.

Second, the word "indie" in this context is meant very, very broadly. Think of it as a blanket term for any artist who isn't a household name, isn't routinely headlining stadiums and isn't already wealthy enough from music to retire to an island tomorrow.

These statements were all provided to Newsweek in the context of phone or in-person interviews, or via email. Many of them were condensed for length.

Dan Bejar (frontman of Destroyer, member of New Pornographers and Swan Lake)

It seems like a young person’s war. I don’t listen to records like that. So I’m not sure what the payment scheme should be for someone from it. This isn’t a defense of streaming at all, because mainly I think it sounds bad. But I don’t know. The 20th century is so chockablock full of musicians getting fucked left, right and center. It’s hubris to think that this century should be any different.... Musicians are the first ones to sign everything away for a buck. There’s too much momentum behind them doing that. I hope it changes. I hope something’s figured out. It’d be good to buy food and have shelter all from the earnings of people listening to your music. It’s the dream.

MC Lars (rapper, producer)

Fifty percent of my monthly digital income is literally from Spotify. People complain about streaming, but the thing is, if you own your own masters, it's beneficial financially because you get a little bit each time someone listens to you. It's super convenient and well-curated, and so many fans on the Warped Tour say they heard of me from Spotify. If you want to make money as an artist these days, you have to be on the road and sell merch and tickets. People who whine about streaming hurting the music industry don't understand the DIY/live music/club hustle side of things. No one is going to hand you anything.

Catey Shaw (singer-songwriter, best known for 2014 viral hit "Brooklyn Girls")

Streaming services have been a very valuable tool for me. I don’t know what's gonna happen with Apple Music, but if I end up seeing numbers close to what I've got on Spotify, that could end up becoming another great way for me to get my music to fresh ears and another strong stream of revenue. I feel like the main problem that people have with these services is the way profit is distributed. But to me, that has more to do with the people releasing the song and less to do with who's streaming it. Who owns the master? Who owns the publishing? I'm in a great position because the money isn't being split too many ways. My label is me and one other person. So when the money comes in, it goes straight to us. I just feel like this is the future of music consumption, and I can either hop on board or fall behind. And if hopping on board can pay my rent (which it amazingly is right now), then I'm all for it.

Spotify Spotify CEO Daniel Ek speaks during a press event in New York on May 20. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

John Vanderslice (solo artist, producer, founder of Tiny Telephone recording studio)

Taylor Swift should be more upset about the horrible interface of Apple Music than anything else. The deep, profound irony of all this is that musicians have been getting screwed on publishing and streaming and royalties since the beginning of time. The inside joke with musicians is that one festival play is 10 years' worth of streaming. So it's kind of ridiculous to be focusing on such a small percentage of your revenue stream. Honestly, Taylor Swift probably makes more selling T-shirts and tote bags for her summer festival run. I don't have any problem with Taylor Swift. When you have power, you use it. But the average independent band, their eyes will literally glaze over when you talk about Spotify. Including myself. I've been asked so many times to chime in on this debate, and there's absolutely nothing to say because it's literally the most boring conversation we could have. 

Why are streaming rates so low? It doesn't matter! It's always been live performance revenue. Do you want to make money if you're an artist? Print up 200-gram vinyl records and go on tour and sell at the merch table, and you will make money. It's always been that way. I don't begrudge the Taylor Swift crew for beating down. You gotta love when these people go to battle against each other. It's fun! It's definitely meaningless downstream. I remember getting my first royalty check from Spotify and Pandora and all the streaming stuff. It's small, and you're like: Throw it into the other ASCAP and BMI small checks you get. That's the deep irony. Musicians pretend that this was a sea change. 

It's interesting, because the disparity is shocking. You could be played on commercial radio in the states and earn like $5.31. You could get played once on Spotify and get point-zero-zero-whatever, and you could be played once on Japanese radio and get like $71. It's almost comical and totally random. We know that the game's been fixed forever. It's not like the BMI or ASCAP are accurate when they're collecting radio revenues. The way that money revenue is divvied up is famously corrupt. This is an old tune. We might as well be listening to "Take the A Train." It is fucking old. There's famous stories of Queen or producers that have three points on a Michael Jackson record that never get money from it. There has been stolen revenue in the performing arts forever.

From the beginning, I was a rare bird. I remember emailing Napster maybe six months after that stuff hit and becoming friends with people in Napster when basically they were in a military bunker hiding out from the world. I always encouraged people to BitTorrent my records. I always made money from touring, and I always made money from selling hard, collectible copies. So for me, the idea of a low-resolution digital stream or download, putting a valuation on that is comical. It's kind of overstepping the boundary of what it's actually worth for me. Another thing is that my income rose in this time. When it should have fallen, it went up. That happened to a lot of artists who dug in and devoted themselves to making interesting albums that were true to their own vision! You're not gonna fail! You put on a good live show and you tour your ass off, and all of the sudden you're in Australia and you're in Europe and you're making shit happen! You just don't care about these small and historically irrelevant shifts. In 10 years, the landscape is going to be totally different again. 

When you see what the haves get paid for playing a private party, playing a sweet 16 party that's off the books... I just hear from the people I know at booking agencies, when they tell me [about] some of these bands that are definitely very vocal complaining what they make to play one private party in Hollywood or whatever. It's totally funny to me. Part of the story of Spotify is that it resonates with everyone when someone can say, "When you stream one of my songs, I only make point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one-seven." Everyone is kind of phonily aghast, like, "Oh, how dare they!" Yet these bands are making 100 times more—even if they were being paid correctly from these streaming services—from one show.

Even if they recalculated the revenue models, the percentage would still be the same—that it's statistically irrelevant compared to what they're making. If they just accepted one more private party in the next 10 years, they could actually make up that revenue! It's just a moan that resonates with the average person more than, "Oh my god, it's so much to rent four buses. And the drivers union now—they're restricting drivers to eight hours. What a drag.…" You can't say that in an interview with Pitchfork and have people feel for you. But everyone can complain about Spotify and it feels right.

Spotify The logo of online music streaming service Spotify is reflected in an audio music CD in this illustration picture taken in Strasbourg, France, February 18, 2014. Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Mackenzie Scott (artist who records as Torres, from our May Q&A)

I never expected to make money off of streaming or off of album sales, necessarily. The only world I've ever known is the one where people pirate music. Or the one where only the 1 percent of musicians actually make a lot of money doing this. I'm of the LimeWire generation.… I think that avenues such as licensing, having songs placed in TV and film and all of that [are necessary to make money from music]. And I think that expectations just have to be readjusted for people in this industry. Obviously I wish that everyone would pay for the art that they enjoy. But that was never an expectation for me, and I'm not naive enough to believe that selling a few thousand copies of my record is going to be enough to sustain myself in this industry.

Tim Kasher (singer for Cursive and The Good Life)

When Spotify first hit the scene, I was furious, incensed! It felt as though any would-be lobbyist for the music industry merely shrugged their shoulders after a decade of internet pillaging with a whimper: "Eh, have at it—music is worthless now, anyway." But who am I to cry foul, especially considering how Lars Ulrich was put in his place for coming off as too greedy? Sure, perhaps Lars wasn't the best spokesperson for the job, but it still felt like his lashings were a warning to all musicians—"less talk, more rock"—as it's so aptly shouted from countless audiences.

A few years later, I've found myself shrugging my shoulders as well. I mean, you can't win, right? The fight was over before it started with Internet pirating, and it felt that no one from our side was swinging (OK, besides Lars). So we've been beaten into submission, and now even my label stresses that I should "play nice" with the streaming sites, because at least they are trying to find some money for us, and sadly, they are coming off as the best option these days.

I don't feel greedy when I air my grievances about these sites, because it's really not about money; it's about that intangible, intrinsic value of intellectual property. And for anybody who cares to make the newly cliché argument of "Oh, boohoo, you make money on the road, go sell some T-shirts," well, what about the recording engineers and producers? Aren't they artists? (Believe me, they're the craziest people I know—definitely artists.) What about the year that goes into writing and recording those albums? Sure, we can "offset" those costs with tour, but that doesn't change the fact that the time spent is still devalued. Speaking of those engineers and producers, they are being phased out, because why on earth should musicians burn money on a "nice recording" when it's just given away for pennies anyway? May as well record it on a boom box.

But alas, as said musicians are beaten into submission, I've pricked up my ears to the potential of Apple Music. I've used Netflix for years now and don't feel as though the value of movies and TV shows has diminished, so hopefully Apple will help re-instill that same sense of value into all of us consumers, to the tune of 10 bucks a month. I can live with that, I suppose. (Cringe!)

Sadie Dupuis Sadie Dupuis of the band Speedy Ortiz performs at The Mohawk, at South by Southwest, in Austin. March 18, 2015. Zach Schonfeld/Newsweek

Sadie Dupuis (singer and guitarist for Speedy Ortiz)

Even if it weren't most labels' status quo practice to make their catalogs streamable (apart from Drag City—kudos), we'd want our records available on streaming services. I find out about and get into new records through streaming services more often than not—I'd say 75 percent of the new records I've bought in the past year have been because I listened to them ad nauseam on Spotify, and 25 percent because I heard the band at a show and thought they were killer.

I'm happy to let these established artists lobby on behalf of those of us who make most of our money from touring. But I think as a young artist, you're much likelier to gain a following by making your music available. If people weren't streaming our album on Spotify, they'd be torrenting it. Even worse, they'd be ignoring it. I guess I'd rather someone check out our record for free and later decide to buy it or not than to never hear it at all. Like a CD listening station in the Virgin Megastore (RIP).

I guess our expectations were always low enough that we never expected to make money off music and always assumed it would be something we did as a passion project. We're stoked to get paid well enough from shows to make a living, and it's great to show up at shows and have people know the words, and I doubt that would happen without streaming. I mean, it'd be great to make money off all that streaming! But I have to assume that a lot of our record sales are a direct result of streaming, so I think it balances out.

Shane Cody (drummer for Houndmouth)

It's a catch-22.  Our music is available to be discovered and heard by anyone all over the world, which is amazing and would have been impossible before. But at what point is it OK to give your work away for free? I still buy records both physical and on iTunes, but I also use Spotify. I can't stress enough that if you want to support a band, go see them live or buy a shirt. Music sales are dead for now.

Matt Whipple (bassist for Cymbals Eat Guitars)

As a music consumer, I think Spotify is an amazing product because of the convenience it offers. I live in a very small apartment and I don't have room for a large music collection. Having a hard drive full of MP3s as a stand-in for music "ownership" never felt real to me, and downloading album after album was a pretty joyless experience. As soon as Spotify presented an opportunity to cut the chord from an iTunes library, I was all about it, and more than happy to pay $9 per month for it. As a consumer, I think that price is an absolute steal and more than worth it.

On the other hand, as someone who would like to be paid a fair amount for the work that goes into creating music that people connect with and enjoy, streaming poses a problem because these business models do not put these companies in a position to offer most artists anything close to fair compensation. This is a huge problem for the vast majority of artists on these services whose music is being essentially co-opted by tech companies to sell access to it. We really can't afford to pass up on any amount of exposure on the scale something like Spotify offers, even if the price we pay is the devaluation of our main product. I would love to see a headline about someone who is not Taylor Swift or Neil Young, someone who is not a millionaire who is taking a very real risk by pulling their catalog from streaming. It would really take everybody at the level of our band doing it en masse to have any kind of impact.

Apple Customers enter the Apple store on Fifth Avenue beneath an Apple logo in the borough of Manhattan in New York City on July 21. Mike Segar/Reuters

Chris Carrabba (lead singer/guitarist for Dashboard Confessional)

It's a new world for music, and it isn't going back. I do not think artists are compensated fairly for streaming (if at all, in some cases). However, streaming services provide exposure to bands, and hopefully that results in a true and deep connection to a fan base. If that occurs, then the band may be able to make a living from ticket and T-shirt sales. In short, I can't speak to the experience of other bands, but I am glad our music is on these sites. I've seen the result firsthand, and it has helped.

Andy Nelson (guitarist for Ceremony)

We're in a much different position than Jay Z or Daft Punk or some of the luminaries who are touting Tidal. We come from the punk scene, where accessibility in music is one of the more important things—more so than profit. I really like the idea that our music is available and accessible to anyone who wants it. I think that subscription-based or paywall-based things are, to me personally, a bit favorable to a model like YouTube, where anyone can take your music and upload it without your consent and then couch it in advertising for corporations we may not wish our music to appear next to. We come out of the DIY movement where complete control and ownership of your music and control over where it appears just goes hand-in-hand with making it. These services do seem to me to be a better option than trying to convince people that buying CDs is a really good idea.

If I had my way of it, I would much prefer to have my music on private streaming services than on Google or Facebook or some of the other giant corporations that are insanely profitable and maybe have some business practices or ethical standpoints that we don't agree with. In the '90s, people were always talking about bands selling out and being on major labels. That's not as much a thing anymore, but what you haven't said is any band that's able to record their own music in a basement can have their demo distributed by the most profitable corporation that has ever existed in the history of man.

Jackson Phillips (solo artist who records as Day Wave)

For me, the whole streaming thing has been super beneficial. Especially Spotify and SoundCloud, which is where I launched my project from. Spotify really helped out with their playlists and their charts that they have integrated into the platform. The viral chart—that was a huge thing for the band. I'm not super concerned about [compensation] at the moment. I've never made lots of money off of music. It's farfetched to me still that I would make a lot of money off of music. Because I'm very new to this. That doesn't bother me because I'm just so excited about the fact that people are listening to my music. This is the way things have been going for years, and it's super beneficial to new artists like me.