Some famous legacy artists recently removed their music from Spotify. Their boycott generated a lot of media noise.
Then some independent artists wanted to follow suit.
But should they?
TLDR: No, independent artists should NOT remove their music from streaming.
Sure, CD Baby makes it easy for you to remove your music from any platform; because ultimately, we want YOU to be in control of your own career. Ideally you know what’s best for you and your audience.
Your decision should NOT be knee-jerk. Many of the complaints that famous artists level against streaming platforms are regurgitated without all the facts. Like comparing apples and oranges. So before you think about removing your music, there are some important details you should understand.
The first half of this article will discuss more conceptual questions. Then we’ll dive into the MONEY and how current streaming economics may be fairer than casual critics assume. My point throughout isn’t to say everything’s perfect, or even that we should acquiesce to the status quo.
But I am suggesting the debate around streaming royalties is oversimplified. Blame feels misdirected. Scapegoats abound.
You may be punishing your fans
If you only read one section of this article, read this:
The last payout report CD Baby published showed that more than 40% of our total streaming payments were driven by Spotify. Let’s assume this average applies to YOUR music: If you remove your catalog from Spotify, you’re inconveniencing nearly HALF of your audience.
And worse, if you’re a lesser-known act, you probably haven’t made your music indispensable. To put that more simply: Your listeners won’t follow you to another paid platform. I mean, I wouldn’t even do that for some of my favorite artists.
Lessons from big artists don’t apply to you
Famous artists play by different rules. Copying what established acts do might actually be counterproductive for your music.
Beyoncé can drop a secret album overnight and have millions of streams the next day. If you do the exact same thing with no advance promotion, it might flop.
Ray LaMontagne can play a lackluster show and be aloof to his audience; the entire crowd eats it up because they adore his songs and they’re psyched to be in the same room with him. You play a lackluster show with zero stage banter? Your next gig will be empty.
Different levels of success, different lessons. Same goes with making your music available (or not) on streaming platforms.
Ever since the rise of digital music — going all the way back to Napster — huge artists (like Metallica, Don Henley, etc.) have wrestled with the idea of a music ecosystem that, at face value, seemed to be less financially viable for creators. With hindsight though, the contours of the debate are more clear: ownership was arguing with access. Two very different models, and there was no putting access back in the bottle.
The digital music trends that threatened legacy artists and labels were the very things that supercharged the growth in the independent music sector through the early 21st Century. DIY artists were exploiting the exact same tech shifts to build careers that would’ve been far less likely just a few years earlier.
Now we’re in a cultural moment where the idea of removing music from streaming platforms is front-and-center, even when that move probably HURTS independent artists.
This is not a unified protest; there are mixed messages
The boycott du jour seems to be based on two main narratives, one involving speech and one involving payments.
Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, India.Arie, CSN — they’ve all protested. But not necessarily about the same thing. Some artists protested over what they perceive as unfair payments (I have a LOT to say about that further below). Others objected to content on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The Rogan boycott meant to hold Spotify accountable for providing a platform and sizable paycheck to a media star they saw spreading misinformation.
Now I’m not here to question the effectiveness of one form of speech being used to counter another; but when it comes to a single platform drawing all the heat, I have to ask: Do we remember that Rogan’s career was built on a different major platform? And literally EVERY social platform from TikTok to Reddit to Twitter to Pinterest to Discord to YouTube contains SOME KIND OF content that MANY will find objectionable. It’s the internet! Did you cancel with your cable service? Do you want to boycott every platform at once?
Again, you have the right to take whatever stance you wish, but there seems to be an inconsistent application of standards when one platform comes under fire without zooming out a bit.
A legacy artist’s level of commitment isn’t always clear
What I mean is, do these legends even OWN their own catalogs? Do they have the right to remove their work? Sure, Neil Young does. But it’s not a given that famous artists can even make blanket decisions for their music. ‘Cuz labels!
So it’s worth investigating: Is the entire catalog removed, or was it merely a recent self-released single (which also means it’s the type of content that likely has a lot less streaming engagement, and a lot less impact when it’s removed).
This affects the severity of their boycott, but also the conditions of their protest (meaning: how much money they stand to lose).
I’m not suggesting these artists lack conviction. Many of them probably would remove their entire catalog if they could, but we should still examine the scope of the protest.
The impact of the boycott may be minimal
When considering the impact, does the average user care about these boycotts?
Avid fans of older artists have already had five chances to pay up: vinyl, tape, CD, downloads, then streaming. That means the legends have made their money many times over, and created a situation where lots of their fans can RETURN to a former mode of consumption with minor inconvenience. Their audiences are the least likely to be on streaming platforms, and the most likely to still have turntables, CD players, or hard drives with FLAC files.
So let’s be real, these aren’t artists that young listeners are DEMANDING.
Even if we agree that catalog listening accounts for the majority of consumption on streaming platforms, “catalog” is a pretty loose word — and a pretty enormous chunk of music. No disrespect to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (I deeply admire both of them), but they’re not the type of artist whose absence will truly be felt amongst the core demographic Spotify needs to lure and keep.
Plus, remember when all these same types of artists were holdouts from streaming platforms? Then when they saw all the success indies were having on Spotify, they changed their tune. What’s different now? The same payment model that brought them to streaming (and reversed the long downward trajectory of music industry earnings) suddenly isn’t good enough?
To say nothing of the fact that these “catalog” legends (and their labels) are the ones who benefit MOST from the traditional streaming model.
What you need to know about streaming payments
These are the things artists should absolutely understand before forming an opinion about streaming music revenues:
Most platforms share a similar payment model
It’s important to know a stream earns a different amount based on when, how, and where it happened. There are different rates across different subscription tiers, territories, and modes of listening. But at the end of the day (or month), the streaming platform will pool all this activity together and pay out subscription and ad revenue by market share. So an artist or label’s earnings are based on aggregate volume of consumption.
If that’s true for almost every music service, why is everyone angry at only one platform?
This isn’t to say it’s a perfect model, and I’m excited to see platforms experiment with user-centric options, but… those are still experiments. The traditional model described above is the standard.
Most famous artists don’t control their rights
When you hear a big act complain about getting hardly any money from ten million streams, a lot is going unsaid.
Their label may be collecting more than 50% of the streaming revenue — and who knows how that is accounted for, especially if the label is keeping the lion’s share as recoupment. The artist may be splitting their publishing 10 different ways if they have collaborators, assuming they wrote the song at all. Or they may’ve just signed a terrible deal.
We don’t always know the facts. But I do know that when you own your own recordings and all your own publishing, it’s easier to understand what Spotify is actually paying you for streams.
Spotify has BARELY been profitable by certain measurements
It took ages for Spotify to make money.
This point is even more interesting when you consider that Spotify is actually at a competitive disadvantage.
Apple, Amazon, and YouTube have the option to use streaming as a loss-leader. They sell devices, ads, and — in Amazon’s case — everything (including the infrastructure upon which much of the web exists)!
Spotify? Well they’re just an audio platform. They sell… access to audio. And they’ve sold that ONE thing so well that streaming has actually driven enormous passive-listening revenue via Spotify playlists. In the old 20th Century industry model, that didn’t happen.
First, sound-recording rights holders didn’t make money from terrestrial radio. And NO independent artists made ANY money from passive listening, because they didn’t get any spins!
Spotify ushered in the age of user-generated (MONETIZED) plays that actually benefit unknown and emerging artists.
Spotify pays out 70% of all revenue to artists, songwriters, and labels
The current pay breakdown sees Spotify keeping 30%, publishers get 15%, and the rest goes to sound-recording owners.
Keep 30% and pay the rest to rights holders? That’s the SAME cut as iTunes in the download days! If you thought that was a reasonable percentage then, why not now?
To pay MORE, where is the money going to come from? Not from Spotify’s cut, because they’re already operating with slim margins.
If it comes from the label side, you don’t gain anything if you’re both the label AND the songwriter. In other words, I don’t give a damn HOW you split up the 70%, because as an independent artist and songwriter, I already get ALL of it.
Think LISTENERS should pay more? Great! I’ll bet Spotify does too, since it’d raise their revenue. If they still kept 30% of an increasing subscription fee, they’d be more profitable AND could pay out more in royalties at the same time. Wouldn’t everyone love that?
BUT… there are market pressures. As I mentioned above, Spotify competes with services that can operate at a loss. They also contend with a user-base accustomed to a certain ceiling in monthly subscription prices.
So I guess I’ll ask again, do you think LISTENERS should pay more? If so, blame yourself. Blame society. Blame the platforms. Blame everyone. Because perhaps, just perhaps, the problem is a lot bigger than a single popular music platform.
A lot of indie artists make good money from Spotify
Maybe this should’ve been the starting point of this article, but let’s not forget: Spotify has been really good for many thousands of emerging artists’ careers.
They’ve earned good money, they’ve gained notoriety, and they’ve parlayed success on one of the most important platforms into other opportunities.
Why don’t we hear those artists complaining? Are they wrong to feel happy about their Spotify success?
Spotify is a powerful discovery engine
Removing your music from streaming is like turning the faucet off at the top of your funnel.
Do what you feel is best for you, which is exactly what CD Baby enables
Again, you CAN remove your music from any platform you like. But before you do, think through all the facts. And know that it’s NOT easy to put your music BACK onto those platforms later on.
Also, Spotify — or any streaming platform — is just one component of your overall career and revenue picture. It’s ALWAYS been true that your greatest source of income will be your most dedicated fans in the form of merch sales, tickets, etc.
Passive listening on streaming can generate new attention AND revenue at the same time. Why would you want to close off that faucet when it could be driving a significant portion of your discovery?
Diversify your revenue sources, make it easy for your music to be found, don’t punish fans.
For deeper discussion about this topic, watch or listen to the DIY Musician Podcast episode below: