Over the course of the 20th century, from the British jazz acts of the interwar years (like Spike Hughes) to Smash Mouth and Eminem in the 90s, the number of different ways that musicians could earn money increased. Door receipts became album sales and, by the turn of the millennium, the internet began to hint at more possibilities, including advertising and stream royalties.
Of course, it’s possible for anyone’s creative output to earn money. On the big business side of things, studios routinely re-package songs, characters, and stories for sale as merchandise. At times a little eccentric, the outcome of this process can be seen at the online casino for cash at Paddy’s, where franchises like James Cameron’s The Terminator and Deal or No Deal are found alongside original IPs made just for casinos.
Despite the boom to artists provided by the internet, the average musician is worse off today than they would have been even a decade ago. Bands have always had to share their earnings with personnel involved in recordings, a topic that Rolling Stone has gone into detail about before, but more and more businesses now need their cut of a songwriter’s paycheck.
In a comparison of streaming services, the Headphonesty website claims that there are two different types of royalties in the music industry, namely, mechanical, and performance. These simply refer to monies paid every time a song is played and every time a song is played in public, respectively. However, this cash is usually bundled together and sent to the rights owner, i.e. the record company, who divides it up.
Ultimately, the featured artist will probably receive 45-50% of the money they made on Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, or Amazon Music. By far the friendliest of these services is the lesser-known Qobuz, which requires just 23,255 listens to reach $1,000, compared to the 250,000 needed on Amazon Music.
We can spin that another way. Unless an artist can pull in a Taylor Swift or Metallica-sized audience, streaming services aren’t paying.
What about Bandcamp though? German EDM band Dune recently enjoyed some viral popularity on Facebook when they suggested that Bandcamp has a much more benevolent revenue-sharing policy, taking just 15% of purchases. This figure is half the industry standard of 30% that’s taken by places like Google Play, the Apple Store, Amazon, and Steam, all of which offer music in some capacity.
Bandcamp is also (mostly) free of the overbearing influence of top artists, who tend to steal the limelight of smaller acts simply by attracting the lion’s share of publicity. While this doesn’t mean that it’s an open bank vault for up-and-coming artists, Bandcamp does provide a middle ground between low-value ‘listens’ on streaming sites and the much more rewarding CD and merch sales.
The music industry has been commercialised in such a way that the artist is almost removed from the equation. Unfortunately, with corporations in charge, it’s not easy to see a way back.