Streaming Platforms and Indie Artists: The Challenges of Digital Music

Streaming Platforms and Indie Artists: The Challenges of Digital Music

By Alec Parr

February 27, 2021

From cassettes to compact discs and wax to web players, music consumption has been co-evolving with technology since the invention of the radio in 1899. Tangible music had been dominant for the past century with records and CDs dominating the market until the iTunes music store was introduced in 2003. This rendered analog archaic as people went from store-bought albums to having the world’s music library at their fingertips.

With services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play and Pandora, today’s consumers have multiple means of accessing different soundscapes from across the globe. These platforms curate an individual experience for every listener without forcing them to find new sounds by delving through radio channels. With thousands of new artists to discover and hundreds of genres to explore, exciting music is more abundant and accessible than ever.

But in the eyes of an artist, online streaming services aren’t exactly an ocean of equal opportunity. With only a handful of the 50 million songs on Spotify earning a high number of streams, many smaller artists are left drowning in competition. And while small artists are struggling, top-charting artists like Drake dominate online music with records of nearly 50 billion streams.

On a micro scale, Spotify and other major streaming services do not provide artists with a stable source of revenue. It would take roughly 314,250 streams a month on Spotify to earn minimum wage in the U.S. Not only is this unachievable for most, but it also requires artists to maintain a steady flow of creative, ear-catching content to keep their fan base alive. With millions of songs available for listening, Spotify’s streaming platform and algorithm resembles more of a narrow chasm than a prosperous ocean. 

This issue with variety and competition leads to a contemporary music industry that doesn’t support its creators in a sustainable way. And Spotify is not the only culprit. While platforms like Apple Music and Google Play Music are statistically more supportive of musicians, the underlying problem still remains: small musicians cannot support themselves from streaming yoalone.

However, not all online music services are structured with small payouts to artists. Labeled as the “heroes of streaming” by The Guardian, Bandcamp’s unique approach to streaming has been a saving grace to the indie scene. Their method is different: Bandcamp offers the consumer a few streams of new songs, albums or EPs before introducing a paywall to further access the content. This culture of support allows newer artists to set the prices for their content and break free of the streaming industry’s murky waters.

And as the world adjusted for the COVID-19 pandemic, “Bandcamp Fridays” became a beacon for struggling independent musicians. On the first friday of every month, the company waives its fees on all purchases—maximizing the payout that goes to artists. The first nine of these promotions collectively raised $40 million for artists and labels.

Bandcamp also provides artists with their own digital space to advertise their merchandise and tangible music options. While this gives artists the freedom to promote their creation, it also acts as a gateway for truly supporting musicians. These direct music sales cut out the intricacies of record labels and distributors, funding the artist directly through the purchase. And this phenomenon is not exclusive to analog music. Purchasing a T-shirt or a piece of art has the same effect, allowing fans to embody the music while ensuring their purchase wholly supports the artist.

There is a difference between buying directly from an artist and purchasing tangible music through Amazon or Walmart. In these cases, musicians are only getting a meek 13% of the sale cost. That’s $2.60 from a $20 record or CD. And while this is better than an artist’s earnings from streaming, it still demonstrates the core issue of misrepresentation in a musician’s compensation for their work.

So how can artists be supported by individual listeners? What means does one person have to support a musician they love? The answer lies in direct artist support. Buy a T-shirt at a concert. Buy an artist’s CD or vinyl directly from their label or website. Musicians are being done an injustice by having their financial means controlled by an external organization. And in typical American fashion, the solution lies with the consumer. 

Alec Parr is a junior studying professional and public writing. He works as a writing and communications intern at the College of Arts & Letters and acted as an editor for MSU’s VIM Magazine. When he is not at school or at work, Alec enjoys playing guitar, listening to all kinds of music and spending time with his housemates at Bower, one of MSU’s student cooperative homes.