Supporting Musicians: A Practical Guide

10 Mar

I have this conversation at least 3 times a week. I lament with fellow musicians about the discouraging trend of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars recording a track or an album only to see…well, not very much back. I listen as frustrated fans try to figure out how to support artists the best way they can with all the changes in music delivery. I read articles on tech blogs about the inevitability of streaming and the death of the download (yes, the CD is already, as a music sharing mechanism…dead. More on that in a minute).

I don’t have all the answers but I have thoughts and I HAVE A BLOG! These things work together!

Some Figures, Presented in Scattershot Fashion:

Apple will stop selling downloads in 2019

Big box retail has no use for selling CDs anymore

Digital stream revenues are increasing yearly

Overall, music revenue is down

Overall music consumption is UP

Some Opinions I Think Are Facts, Presented by Jana:

1) Technology will always steer how people consume music. When the phonograph was invented, people could play music in their homes without having the musicians be there in person. When radios were put in cars, recorded music became mobile. When Sony released the Walkman and Apple released the iPod, music became MORE mobile and more personal. Now, as everything moves to the cloud, downloaded files are being replaced by streams, meaning you are not limited to the songs you yourself have in your personal library. Cool beans.

2) There is inherently nothing wrong with streaming as a music delivery mechanism. In an age when storage space on our personal mobile devices is at a premium (if you want the iPhone X with the most storage, it’ll set you back $1200 bucks) and accessibility to just about everything ever recorded is in the cloud…it makes sense to use it.

3) Since the music industry slept on this whole change for a few years while the tech sector ran with it, the tech folks set the rules, including how artists get paid. A combination of the big labels playing catch up by making back end deals with the streaming companies coupled with antiquated laws for intellectual property compensation basically means…musicians don’t get paid well.

4) In THEORY (not in practice, yet)…streaming DOES pay more than CD sales or downloads. I am pretty sure I listened to Taylor Swift’s 1989 album once a day for 3 years (on average…don’t judge). Let’s say I paid Taylor/Big Machine $15 for the privilege. (Oh god, I’m going to try to do math here)…with 13 tracks I paid $1.15 per song, and I get to listen to those songs as much as I want forever and ever. 13 tracks times once a day for 3 years is something like 14,000 song plays for Taylor…that’s me paying about $0.001 per play (at $1.15 per song paid from a CD purchase). If I KEEP playing 1989, my per play cost goes down every time on that fixed CD purchase price.

I have also bought CDs for $15 that I have listened to once. That means (assuming the same 13 tracks) I paid $1.15 per song for the privilege of the listen. Oddly we end up paying more per play on something we like less in this scenario.

Now…obviously…artists and writers receive so little off streaming rates now that it’s pathetic. (Sorry, Pharrell). But in THEORY…compensation for streaming music is infinite versus the one-time payment model of a CD or a download. Will intellectual rights laws and the big streaming companies start paying artists and songwriters more per stream? I hope so.

5) This issue of fair streaming compensation SHOULD get fixed. I don’t know if it will. Supporting organizations like NARAS and MusicFIRST are working to change the system from the inside out via legislation. This will take a lot of time, and in the meantime…independent artists and music fans need to figure out other ways to make and support music.

In order to so something positive, we gotta step into the 21st century, put on our yoga pants and breathe deeply, and stop screaming about CDs coming back. It’s also not really useful to deny that technology exists, and is actually quite handy and fun to use. I don’t wanna carry around a Boombox to listen to my jams, yo.

What’s a Music Fan To Do?

Here is, in my opinion, the best way to consume music in a manner that supports your artist on as many levels as possible.

  1. Buy The Thing. CDs might be dead as music delivery device but they’re still kinda cool souvenirs. So is a vinyl. Heck, Apple is still selling downloads so get on it. Bandcamp is great for buying files, too. Soak in the liner notes if they’re there, get it signed, all the things.
  2. Now that you own your own personal right to play the music…don’t pop the CD in every time you want to listen. STREAM IT. Spotify has free and paid accounts, and it’s kinda fun to play around in there. The benefits: the artist will now make MORE money every time you stream it after your initial investment on their physical/digital product and, in the case of Spotify, it’ll start getting to know what you like and send you recommendations on more stuff you might like (this is a neat feature of streaming tech, too…they know things).
  3. SHARE IT. Talk about your favorite artists. Post their links on your social media. Recommend them to friends. Word of mouth is still one of the most trusted, valuable ways to market in our over-saturated, algorithm-based world. YOUR OPINION AS A FAN MATTERS.
  4. Say a friend tells you about something cool, or Spotify gives you a recommendation of an artist you might dig. You stream it. This is called the free sample. If you like it, head to the artist’s store/iTunes/Bandcamp and buy it! If I LOVE it, I tell people. Repeat this process all over again. Somewhere along the line we decided as a culture not to treat intellectual property like other goods and services. If I sample ice cream at the store and I like it, I don’t get to take 3 gallons home and keep eating it for free. I have to buy it. Same with music.
  5. To go the extra fan mile…buy the extras. Get the t-shirt, buy the sticker, buy the concert ticket. Have a little cadre of artists you will support no matter what and buy everything they make. Encourage them to keep making.

So What’s a Musician To Do?

I’m gonna preach to myself here and say all of us music makers are obligated to learn more and become activists in the realm of copyright law and compensation. Join an organization and keep up to date on laws that affect how artists get paid. Contact representatives. All that stuff. It sounds kinda dry but it’s way more fruitful than just griping about how CD sales are down.

Encourage that cycle of buying+streaming above. It’s a pretty negative place to live in all the time to think about how streaming is sucking away your livelihood, or to rail against Spotify on social media. Don’t yell at streamers, educate them! Have your online presence together so it’s easy to support you and buy your music as a physical or digital product.

I won’t lie…this is a hard one. We’re coming off a bubble where CDs were $19.99 and that was how you sold music. Reclaiming music and art as valuable and not just free consumables is our new challenge. The shift begins with people willingly paying for it, and artists educating with good intentions. The good/scary news is we have seen public opinion shift to this “art is free I guess” trend over the course of 10-15 years, so we can shift it toward something positive again if we start now. It’s not a lost cause.

I am leaving out a lot of other nuances of this issue like live performance, hardware issues, promotion costs, patronage, and whatnot (don’t yell at me)…it’s vast and hard to cover, and every level of artist has another point of view on it. As a musician and a nerd, these are simply a few thoughts on how we can continue to progress and embrace both the inevitability of evolving tech and the human need for art and those who make it.

P.S.: I wrote a folk rap about this very thing…

3 Responses to Supporting Musicians: A Practical Guide



March 14th, 2018 at 6:27 pm

Jana that is brilliant. You are brilliant. Much love to you!!!


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March 23rd, 2018 at 10:59 am

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March 24th, 2018 at 7:09 am

can you please explain how streaming works if you dont have an internet connection?

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