This is a story without bold names, or at least not the kind you usually read about in Vanity Fair.
And yet it is a story of more than 28,000 musicians and music industry workers, and some of the biggest corporations in the world.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when live music was shut down, a group of independent musicians and musicians began meeting weekly on Zoom to share ideas on what we could do to improve the difficult situation we faced. From these meetings grew a new advocacy organization, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). And among the actions UMAW undertook was a reexamination of the fluid music economy. From the bottom, you could say – what it looks like for real working musicians.
Streaming dominates the recorded music industry — it now accounts for 83% of all recorded music revenue in the United States, according to the music publishing association RIAA. The remaining 17% includes every other use of recorded music you can think of: not just physical sales and digital downloads, but soundtracks for movies and TV, and licensing to commercials and brands. There simply isn’t much of a recorded music business left outside of streaming.
Problem is, streaming barely pays recording artists. Currently, there is no direct payment from streaming platforms to musicians themselves, as there is, for example, from satellite radio. The average streaming royalty paid by platforms to rights holders (ie, record labels) is $0.007, gross, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and record labels generally keep between 50% and 85% of those receipts. As a result, it takes tens of millions if not hundreds or thousands of millions of streams for artists to make anything like a living wage online from their streaming work. Many artists no longer see income from their recordings.
Meanwhile, the streaming platforms themselves are thriving – their revenue grew by 24.3% in 2021, to a total of $16.9 billion. Paid streaming is controlled by only a few corporations. According to market researcher MIDIA, Spotify is by far the most important player with 31% of the market, more than double that of its closest rivals, Apple (15%) and Amazon (13%). Add in Chinese media giant Tencent (13%) and Alphabet/Google’s YouTube subscription service (8%), and you have 80% of all global subscription revenue handled by just five corporations, including several of the richest in the world
Note that only one of these corporations would even call itself a music business—and that’s probably only temporary. Here’s Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek speaking to his investors earlier this year, as quoted by Variety:
“The best companies—think names you’re all familiar with—are vastly different today than when they started,” Ek said. “They made their initial mark in one specific category: books [Amazon], search [Google], desktop computers [Apple]. And they then redefined the way we think about those categories by expanding their potential through innovation… And this it’s exactly the same journey we’re on.”
Ek’s comparison points are not random. They are his closest competitors in American and European music streaming. Spotify’s recent investments in podcasting, sports and gaming make it clear how little music ultimately concerns the company – its corporate statements now refer to “audio” rather than “music”.
In other words, recording musicians have become completely dependent on corporations that seem to have little or no interest in the future of recorded music. Those businesses grow while musicians hurt.