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Between conferences, emails, blog comments, and just hanging out with musician friends, I hear a lot of independent artists’ opinions about music streaming — both plus and minus.

Some of these opinions are well-informed while others seem like they’re based on myths. So let’s debunk a few!

1. There’s no money in it

There IS real money to be made from music streaming. For instance, the Grammy-nominated act Tycho now earns 53% of their income from Spotify.

In the major label world though, most songs are written by teams of people. If the artist is lucky enough to be credited as a writer, they’re still often splitting those publishing royalties three, or six, or twelve ways. As for the royalties generated by the streaming of a sound recording, well, let’s just say the labels have done a fine job keeping much of that dough for themselves. So when you hear Megastar X saying they had 100,000,000 streams on Spotify and only made sandwich money, you know to take it with a grain of salt. That money is going SOMEWHERE.

For artists who own 100% of their publishing and sound recording rights, all their streaming revenue flows to them. No label advances, catalog licensing deals, or complicated splits to contend with. From there, if you’re savvy and/or lucky enough to get a song placed in a prominent playlist, your year is made. The success of a single song on a streaming platform also creates interest in other songs or albums in your catalog, driving more revenue.

This will continue to be the case more and more as streaming now accounts for over 50% of music revenue and has driven the industry’s highest growth in two decades.

2. It killed the album

Wrong. Streaming didn’t kill the album. Downloads did. As soon as Napster was a thing, people stopped needing to buy the whole record just to hear one song they liked.

If anything, I’d argue that streaming might actually HELP albums.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, streaming playlists are clearly the organizing principle of the moment for tracks, but the fact that there’s no additional charge besides the subscription fee means that listeners are free to explore an artist’s catalog as they choose.

In the download days, you probably weren’t going to pay $10 to take a chance on something you were only mildly curious about. Today you can listen to that album worry-free. If you like it, keep listening. If not, next!

3. I can window or withhold to drive physical sales or downloads

Taylor Swift can withhold. Adele can window. You — most likely — can’t.

Windowing is the act of releasing a certain piece of music to different platforms/formats at different times so you can direct fans to whichever outlet benefits you most. Again, that might work if you’re Adele. Her fans will go where she commands. But ask yourself: am I Adele?

If your music isn’t on Spotify (or maybe YouTube), I’m not going to hear it, period. I won’t download it. I don’t want to manage the files on my computer. And I don’t care if you mail me a CD for free; I’m probably not going to open it. My only CD player is in my car and that’s my NPR time.

So… don’t window and don’t withhold. Be everywhere, because your fans need you to meet them where THEY hang out. Not visa versa.

4. All streaming services are pretty much the same

This is an easy assumption to make. Find digital music file. Stream it.

But there are real differences between the platforms, and it fosters a different experience with each:

  • YouTube Red comes with the whole video component (and ad-free access to everything on YouTube).
  • Pandora Premium taps into Pandora Radio’s past and your listening habits, to provide a particular kind of custom song selection.
  • Apple Music is heavy into human curation, featuring their own playlists and their Beats 1 radio service.
  • Spotify is a data-heavy system that has thrived because it encourages users to create their own playlists, further instructing its own algorithm.

And on and on. To varying degrees, the streaming platforms are different from one another.

5. It’s only a matter of time before people realize they miss having the tangible, physical record or CD

Yes. I actually hear this. Ah, nostalgia.

If you grew up with vinyl or CDs, I get it — you miss them (or some aspect of them, at least). But most people who were born in the past two decade don’t miss them, don’t need them, and won’t demand their return.

MUSIC is what’s important. Not how big the paper sleeve, not how shiny the object it’s delivered on, and not how easy it is to touch. It’s music. It goes in your ears, to your brain.

Bonus myth: If we boycott streaming, everyone will have to go back to [insert format: downloads, CD, cassette, vinyl, wax cylinder, concert hall, folk dance,…]

To which I say: try it! Usually I’m all for organization and action. Boycotts can be very effective.

But here’s the thing, Ed Sheeran isn’t boycotting streaming services. Know why? Because he’s making a boatload of money from them.

So whoever does get together to remove their music from, say, Spotify — it’s just not going to make that big a difference, because your music isn’t as in-demand as Ed Sheeran or Drake. And then you’re just left out of the party, because your potential fans will be dancing to another artist’s jams.

Besides, this impulse usually comes from believing myth #1. Should rights holders continue to pressure streaming services (and Congress) for higher royalty rates? Absolutely. But let’s not pretend there’s no money to be made.

Did I forget any common music streaming myths? If so, let me know below. And let us know why it’s not true.

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  • Mike Corcoran

    Nice article Chris…especially agree with #2, that streaming has helped, not hurt, the album….i’d also add to your bonus myth (let’s boycott), we’d all go back to pirating, and even less money would get passed to artists & songwriters..

    also, regarding your #4 myth (they’re all the same), i wasn’t aware of the differences you pointed out, but have you heard of anyone with multiple subscription services, or quit one for another? I know only of people that have just one service, and it seems to be enough..

    • So true. I almost forgot about pirating (thank god!). Thanks for commenting.

  • Thanks for commenting. I suppose windowing for a couple weeks isn’t bad, especially if you know your fans will buy the CD or vinyl in that time period. But if you wait too long, you’ll miss all the buzz/album drop excitement/Hype Machine impact that your release might’ve had otherwise if it was available on Spotify from Day 1 (because just like with the press, their editors aren’t interested in something that’s been out already for 3 months). They want in on the action 3 months in advance, and for it to go live on their platform on the drop date. All that being said, you absolutely know what works for your music better than I do. I have friends in the folk world who don’t even distribute all their music digitally. It’s pretty much just CDs and vinyl, and because they play packed house concerts with 40+ audiences, it works great for them. They’re meeting their fans’ needs and making the most they can per transaction. I think my advice or attempt to “myth-bust” here was more general.

    • Kylotan

      I guess the issue is whether you want buzz or revenue. Buzz today might become revenue tomorrow, but you need to see a specific path leading from the former to the latter. Building a big Spotify following is great but won’t pay the bills. 🙂

      There’s a wider issue here about places like Hype Machine, and about how movie blogs will rush to cover films showing exclusively at the theater for $9 a showing, while we let music blogs demand that they hear a whole album on Spotify giving us about $0.10 of revenue. I’m not sure how we fix that but I’m sure it’s worth trying.

  • Thanks, and thanks for commenting about your listening habits. Always interesting to hear about how people are “consuming” music.

  • Julian Angel

    It all depends on your key audience. If you play current pop music for anyone and noone, then streaming is probably a good option to get noticed and eventually drive revenue. If you are like most independent artists, though, and play “un-hip” music for real music lovers, then the physical format is your thing. Thus, you have to separate music lovers from music consumers. I play 1980s styled Hard Rock and my physical revenue accounts for 90% of my earnings.

    Ask yourself this question: If you have a potential fan on the hook, where are you going to direct her? To your Facebook page where no money is made? To your songs on Spotify where pennies are made? Or to your online store (or other shop carrying your music) where you can make between $6.00 and $12.00 from an album sale?

  • There are lots of indie musicians earning a living from streaming revenue: http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/music-rights/artist-earned-56k-from-spotify/

    As for profitability, I can see — at worst — Apple, Amazon, etc. approaching streaming as a loss leader.

  • Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Depending on the act and genre, streaming can hurt or help their placement. Great for Drake; bad for Metallica.

  • My streaming revenue is nothing to brag about, but I’m not a full-time musician anymore. Maybe that’ll happen again in the future, but for now parenting and CD Baby are on the front burner (time-wise). I’ve always got the creative stuff going, but I’m just not really out there pushing it. That being said, there are lots of artists on CD Baby who are seeing streaming revenue that’s sizeable enough to pay the bills.

  • Buying CDs at shows is definitely one of the best ways to support for the musicians you love, so it’s cool you’re doing that for sure.

    As for the art: The Return of Neptune, by John Singleton Copley.

    Follow me to the end of the rainbow on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Instagram, or subscribe to my newsletter and get a free PDF of my poetry chapbook: I Say Potato, You Say Apocalypse.