Against the stream

What Spotify does and doesn’t do for local musicians

If you’re a local musician looking for a living wage for your music, you won’t find it on Spotify. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled about the abysmally low rate that the music streaming giant shells out per play—approximately $0.003 to $0.005—meaning that only the biggest of big-time acts stand to cut a large check from Spotify or its competitors like Apple Music or Google Play, and many independent or smaller acts are left with crumbs.

But today’s music industry is complicated—especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the touring and live concert market that many smaller artists depend on. Spotify users can still find many Reno-based bands with profiles and even entire catalogs on the site. And while none of our hometown heroes are getting rich from the streaming biz, at least a few have found benefits beyond the comically small compensation. It starts, as any shady music promoter will tell you, with getting your name out there.  

The Problem

“I think that the whole selling point of Spotify for a band is that you could theoretically get on a playlist, and that would be like radio play, or something where you’re exposed to a bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise have found you,” said Fil Corbitt, a longtime Reno musician and current member of the genre-fluid band People With Bodies.

Fil Corbitt, right, from the band People With Bodies, likens Spotify’s consolidation of music to Walmart or Amazon’s consolidation of goods. Photo – courtesy Fil Corbitt.

There’s a joke in the music industry that stingy promoters and clubs pay bands in “exposure bucks,” or the promise of “exposure” in lieu of actual cash. Spotify remains the most heavily trafficked streaming site, with approximately 320 million monthly listeners (according to Spotify’s own promotional material) in dozens of countries. While paying out hundredths of a cent per stream in real money, streaming services essentially offer digital exposure bucks on a massive scale—but bands looking to expand their reach know they might be signing up for a raw deal.

“As we started to release music, we kind of had to make that decision: Is it worth it to put it on Spotify?” said Corbitt. “And slowly we just realized that so many people are listening there that it was better to be heard by people than to just be not heard. Even though we would make significantly more money if we were selling albums than streams.”

People With Bodies started in 2015 and is made up of Corbitt on drums, Emily Pratt on guitar and vocals and Mark Nesbitt on bass. They currently have two albums and a few EPs on their Spotify profile with several thousand plays. Corbitt said the band members realized they needed a streaming presence when they would play shows, some as far as away as Brazil and Argentina. Listeners inquired whether they were on Spotify—even if they had bought a physical album as well. 

“Something we were really focused on early in the band was retaining listeners,” Corbitt said. Live shows worked better than, say, emailed links.

Corbitt believes that Spotify’s real utility for local bands comes from their willingness to eat the cost of lost album sales in exchange for building a fan base to support live shows or merchandise sales. Other local acts have been betting on that model as well.

“It’s more important for people to have access to your catalog, and then the option is there—if someone likes you enough to buy something, they can always buy it on your site,” said Greg Gilmore, frontman of Reno-based rock band Silver and co-founder of the Loud as Folk artists showcase.

Gilmore and his bandmates—Brendan Lund, Jeffrey Knight, Adam Landis, and Joshua Kisor—released their EP “Let’s Talk Tomorrow About Last Night” on Spotify and other streaming platforms last year. Ironically, putting music on a streaming service also costs money, with most bands using third party services to properly package their tracks and album art to Spotify and other platforms’ standards. It’s another cost that, while not huge in most cases, bands must also foot themselves.

“You have to have .WAV files. They have to be a certain bit rate,” Gilmore said. And different streaming services have different fee structures. “CD Baby will do a $50 one-time fee. And then DistroKid is like $20 a year for as many things as you want to upload. So, it depends on how frequently you tend to release stuff.”

Gilmore said that Silver made the majority of their money playing live shows around the state and touring the West Coast. In years prior, they could have absorbed the minute costs and lost sales associated with the streaming business model, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band has been without any real revenue for most of the year.

“We have probably $10,000 worth of shows canceled this year,” Gilmore said. “There’s the expectation from a consumer standpoint that when something comes out, it’s available to stream. … I don’t know how that’s going to work out now that everyone expects free music and there’s no money to be made anywhere else.”

The Perks

Even though Spotify might only promise a payday to artists with millions of streams, at least some Reno musicians see it as helpful, even necessary, to their business goals—even artists who’ve found success on other platforms.

Singer and actor Grace Hayes relies on Spotify for brand-building and audience metrics, but not for income. Photo – courtesy Grace Hayes.

Reno-based singer and actor Grace Hayes has amassed 169,000 followers on her TikTok page, where her short, often hilarious, 1-minute videos are accompanied by her own original music. Her videos have a collective 4 million likes, but earlier this year she prioritized putting her most famous TikTok songs, as well as some of her more “serious” work, on Spotify.

“TikTok, really, God bless them, but they don’t pay me,” Hayes said—even with her sizeable audience. For artists with even larger TikTok audiences, income comes from sponsorship deals, not the platform itself. 

Hayes sees Spotify as a more of an expansion of her overall brand than a bid for financial support, and since many of her followers are from places other than northern Nevada, she values the accessibility that streaming provides—as well as some helpful metrics built into the platform.

“It’s my preferred streaming app,” Hayes said. “I also do like that you can kind of keep track. They have the ‘Spotify for Artists’ shindig where you can see, ‘Oh, OK, my listeners are from these countries, and they’ve been listening on repeat.

Another Reno artist who’s been making waves through his digital presence is hip-hop and trap artist Lil Traffic, who got his start on SoundCloud—a free, user-driven online platform—in 2015. Since moving to Spotify in 2018, Lil Traffic now boasts over 27,000 monthly listeners.

Looking back, though, he wishes he’d switched sooner. “I feel like I could be probably a step or two ahead right now,” he said.

Lil Traffic joined Spotify at the suggestion of his manager and believes that, while free-to-use platforms like SoundCloud are good incubators for an online presence due to their supportive grassroots community and ease of use, Spotify and other streaming giants are simply the current industry standards. And having a team of promoters and managers behind him definitely helps.

“That’s why a lot of the bigger artists get their songs out there so much,” he said. “Because their labels are spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on them to get their music promoted. It doesn’t really all go on just the artists’ popularity. … It’s hard as an independent artist to keep up and be able to spend money when you’re not really making it back like that.”

Any money that Lil Traffic makes from Spotify and other streaming sites through his thousands of plays (which isn’t much, he said) is split between himself, his producer, management and the third party distribution company. 

Regardless of the payout though, he also said that Spotify—and pretty much any other platform—provides something more intangible than cash, but something that can be almost more important to a local musician: simple reassurance that people are still listening. 

“I had a kid from South Africa message me and be like, ‘Yo, I just want to let you know, I’m like one of your biggest fans, you inspired me to make music,’ and all this,” Lil Traffic said. “… And stuff like that, I feel like, is the most rewarding part about being an artist. … You really can make people’s day and inspire people. … That would keep me going a lot more than just money.”

Hip-hop artist Lil Traffic has heard from fans as far away as South Africa via Spotify. Interactions like those help him keep up his momentum. Photo – courtesy Lil Traffic.

The Solution

In the months since the onset of the pandemic, as local venues have shuttered and even in-person practice sessions have become a liability for musicians, the need for a digital system that protects the livelihoods of local bands has never been more starkly highlighted.

For independent musicians, Spotify and its contemporaries are, at their best, a global arena that puts your music a finger’s width away from that of some of the biggest artists of all time—an easy way for up-and-comers to share their music with an audience beyond their home scene. At their worst, these platforms are the digital extension of a greed-soaked industry that has always exploited musicians for corporate gain, while raising a very select few to the heights of global fame at the expense of smaller acts. 

To its credit, Spotify pledged up to $10 million dollars in matching donations to music-relief charities in March of 2020—a commendable amount, although one that loses some of its luster in the news that the platform gained 6 million new paying subscribers in the first few months of 2020, and expects to rake in over $8 billion dollars in revenue this year.

“Spotify is very similar to the way like Walmart or Amazon work, where basically what it is, is an aggregate that is able to source everything for crazy cheap and sell it for crazy cheap,” said Fil Corbitt.

Much like with Amazon and Walmart, the ease and convenience of finding everything you want in one place means that smaller businesses suffer in their wake. Similarly to saving small businesses, supporting local acts requires consumers to do part of the work and buy either music or merch directly from them—or at the very least, research other streaming sites with a more ethical business practice.

“It’s going to come down to the consumers and people making the change rather than the people on top making a change,” said Greg Gilmore. “You kind of have to take it upon yourself to, if you do appreciate an artist and want them to continue making stuff, to go on their website or check out their Bandcamp and purchase something.”

Bandcamp is a competing platform that has been touted as one of the few online music marketplaces that operates with musicians’ best interests in mind. The site keeps a running counter on its front page declaring how much money has gone directly to artists from fans. (As of this writing, the count stands at $643 million.) The platform implemented a pandemic relief strategy in March called Bandcamp Fridays, where it waives its usual transaction fee for any music purchased on Fridays—meaning 100% of all proceeds go directly to artists.

“I feel like we have an allegiance to Bandcamp for sure,” said Corbitt. “The difference is it works more like a merch table than, like, an on-demand radio station. People can click on your page and stream your songs. Like they can stream a whole album off your Bandcamp page, but it’s definitely more focused on selling music.”

Corbitt also recommends using Spotify more like a research tool than a one-stop shop. Instead of streaming the same songs and albums over and over again, if you enjoy them, use Spotify’s astounding reach to discover music that you enjoy, and then go buy directly from the bands.

Other digital strategies include subscription services like Patreon, where fans can pay a monthly fee to an artist to support their endeavors. Grace Hayes has used Patreon in the past, but now even Spotify has started allowing for direct donation links on artist profiles. Hayes recommends fans make use of them.

“You can donate to me or … you can put a charity up there, which is really cool,” Hayes said. “So, I guess actually what I would refer people to is Spotify. My Cashapp link is on my Graceorsomething profile.”

But to hardcore Spotify users or music fans with a budget that can only support Spotify’s $10 per month fee: if you’re going to stream, at least stream a lot. Anyone without a major record deal is going to need it.

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.

This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.


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