The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Streaming, Unwrapped

[Editor’s note: Mr Alec Bowman not only creates amazing music, he has written some brilliant stuff on his blog in recent months on the music industry and the relationship between artists and streaming services. We got in touch asking him if we could publish his next piece as it generates such a good conversation around this really important issue. Over to you Alec…]  It’s nearly Christmas! Time to put the tree up & get the turkey ordered! But more importantly, it’s the time for music fans & artists alike share their end of year statistics from streaming services! Listeners can showboat their broad, eclectic taste & celebrate their wonderful support for the artists they love. Artists can crow about rising listenership, deeper market penetration & wider geographical reach, because we live in a wonderful utopian future with full democratisation of music! Finally, we have the access-all-areas meritocracy that music always should have been, but bloated business dregs kept artists poor because it served their cause & bought them coke & hookers! Streaming levels all that & ensures talent wins the day and the best music rises to the top.

Or, is it the time for people to sardonically doctor their wrapped graphics to share messages of derision & protest at the terrible deal artists get from streaming services, ridicule & patronise anyone sharing actual statistics, either as an artist or a music fan, to guilt colleagues & friends alike into, like, duh, actually buying music. Boycott the evil streaming services altogether, whoever you are, or feel shame that you refuse!

The truth is, like with so many things, more complicated than either of those extremes. If you polarise people, you’ll alienate and offend and all that does is isolate people & we end up fighting down here in the dirt on the ground for the scraps from the table at the feet of Daniel Ek & his cadre of label cartels. This situation calls for something big to make it right, and isolated individuals can’t do that alone, only a large group of organised & focussed & powerful individuals can do that.

Killer Mike from Run The Jewels put it best: ‘Plot. Plan. Strategise. Organise. Mobilise.’

I’m a music fan, so the streaming model works perfectly for me. I pay £9.99 to Spotify each month to listen to the entire body of recorded music. It’s a great deal. The algorithm recommends loads of great music that I then go and buy. Why wouldn’t I do that, if I could? I also buy vinyl – I have thousands of records. I buy them if I love them, if I can afford it, which isn’t always, but I try. I love Bandcamp for being able to buy vinyl from smaller artists who make physical records, and I do buy MP3 albums, but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to them! But that’s ok, because I’m happy to throw a tenner at someone who made a great album then stream it.

I’m an artist, too. I self-released an album in May 2020 that I made myself by saving up about five grand. I had no label support; I couldn’t get it, because nobody had heard of me, which is fine, same with everyone at some point. I put my album on Spotify with Distrokid, then paid to promote it onto playlists for me. I didn’t really know how to break into the big bad world of professional music; nobody does, really. It’s a closed book, if you aren’t part of the label world, then it’s deliberately impenetrable, but I tried. Turns out, someone like me can’t do that, and Distrokid & Spotify kicked me off for using that digital promotion service because it breached their terms, so I had to pay a different distributor more money to list my album again and then not promote it. Only labels (who own the platform) are allowed to do that. Of course they are.

So, there’s a few problems here. If, as an artist, I ask for more money for streaming plays, it sounds like I’m asking my listeners to pay more. If I share my statement of paltry royalty payments from them, I’m just whining. Now, full disclosure, I have other jobs. I get paid by doing other things, but some people depend on royalties to live. Nadine Shah can’t pay the rent and she’s hugely celebrated & made one of the great albums of 2020. Is she whining & demanding, or is it reasonable to think that someone who has millions of plays should be able to pay the rent from that? I reckon it is. I don’t think many would disagree, unless they thought Nadine wanted £100 a month from listeners instead of £9.99 but she absolutely doesn’t. She deserves her fair share of the revenue that streaming services make.

Boycotting streaming doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t want to do that. If I’m not on it, it feels like I don’t exist as an artist. When I wasn’t on it, lots of people asked me to put it back. I don’t want to be left out & I do want those people to hear my music. I like seeing where people are listening, and I like the idea of being put on playlists by people who like my songs. That’s legitimate. I’m not a hypocrite. If it does sabotage my sales, and I see no evidence for that, then so be it. Streaming got me tens of thousands of plays and would all ten thousand people have gone and bought my CD from Bandcamp if I wasn’t on Spotify, would they fuck. I intend to stop complaining about the small people, blaming fans for using it and other artists for ‘protesting it wrong’ and aim my vitriol at the people in charge of it. Some artists have enough reach, enough existing fans, don’t mind the feeling of being left behind, or like the feeling of standing against streaming, so they can justify their stance & remove their music from the platform & cancel their listener subscription. I take my hat off to them, but it isn’t what I’m doing.

Only putting a few key singles or putting a record on streaming only after a few months makes more sense to me, but I wake up excited on a Friday morning and keenly hit play on my release radar, and if you’re missing that, then you’re missing it & I don’t want to miss things. I feel like it sidesteps the problem. But, as with all the other ways to cope with the scourge of streaming revenue model, I support everyone’s right to do whatever feels right to them. What I don’t support is attempts to shame others into doing the same as you.

Because all any of this does is put the weight of fixing this on the shoulders of the artist and the listener, and neither of those people can do that.

It’s like plastic straws. You used to find them in MacDonalds. Came free with a drink, then chuck them away and they go and kill sea animals & fuck up the oceans. And somehow, the trick of capitalism is that it made the scourge of plastic straws my fault for using them, guilted individuals into trying to drink watery coke out of a huge cup without one (which doesn’t even work) instead of it being on MacDonalds for supplying them. So now, in 2020, MacDonalds use paper straws, and they’re a bit shitter, not properly recyclable, so it’s not perfect, but they get the job done and it’s better for the environment. I’m not advocating a nanny state approach but consider that MacDonalds were compelled to make a change because public demand, legislation & some kind of sense of what was right, won the day. It was a bigger change than any one individual could make on their own. Streaming is the same. It’s not up to me or you. This has to be a collective will that influences high level corporate change.

Mr Alec Bowman’s Bandcamp data including revenue

The game is set up to make us in-fight, guilt & blame each other. What we should be doing is asking bigger questions of more powerful people. They want us dogfighting, shaming listeners & other artists. None of those people are wrong & none of those people can fix it the problem. Streaming is a closed system, a greenhouse owned by the music industry, kept warm & humid to grow music that it can harvest & sell. Kept deliberately complicated to obfuscate the truth of it. Kept secret; you can’t understand or use any of the stats or numbers. Kept locked down, with industry shareholders, telling everyone ‘Spotify doesn’t even make a profit!’ from their Farringdon studio apartments, while Nadine Shah can’t even pay her rent.

Nah, mate, but someone does make a profit, don’t they? The folks on a salary at the labels get paid somehow! Spotify say that music industry revenues are growing for their 5th consecutive year! Cool, but that money isn’t put back in the soil, it goes into the bosses 2nd home. That’s just how capitalism works.

Streaming was built by businessmen to make money for other businessmen, it’s obvious & that simple. It was not designed to sustain cultural innovation & it is accordingly choking the life out of grassroots recording artists, who now simply use recorded music as a business card to get gigs & that is unsustainable, because people like listening to music.

The #BrokenRecord & #FixStreaming hashtags, supported by the Musicians Union & The Ivors Academy, are catalysing this change. The Government has set up the DCMS Select Committee to examine streaming revenue. People with the power to force change are listening to people like me, and that’s extraordinary, but there are powerful people who would be hurt if streaming revenue became fairer, so it won’t be an easy fight.

Music fans – artists aren’t asking you to pay more. We love listening to streaming music, too. We just can’t afford to live & it isn’t right. We aren’t asking you to stop. Look at my numbers. Some of you will say ‘fuck you, alec, you don’t deserve more money’ and fine, you’re entitled to that, but most people looking at those numbers would say I should at least be able to buy a bargain bucket. Understand that the change we are asking for is not going to hurt or cost you. Use Bandcamp, if you can. Support the DCMS Select Committee & the people who speak to it. If this committee thing does nothing? Well, then, we’re stuck with this until someone else comes along & disrupts everything and takes streaming to a place we can’t even imagine, I suppose. Until then, we must accept the reality of the world as it is, not how we wish it to be, and each operate according to our own moral compass. Best of luck with that.

Artists – other artists & music fans aren’t the enemy. We must each find our own way through this, support each other, lift each other up. Some people will share their stats & others won’t. It’s all the same shite, nobody but Tay-Tay is getting a decent wage & she’s not fixing this. Look for voices calling for the change you want to see, if you care about it, amplify those voices. And don’t blame your listeners! That just doesn’t sit right with me.

Mr Alec Bowman’s streaming revenue from May-November 2020

And to everyone who says, ‘it’s complicated, there are lots of factors to consider, Spotify don’t even make a profit’, You have a stake in the game, you’re a snake in the grass. You have an interest in keeping revenue where it is. Declare it. If you don’t believe that the people who write, play & sing deserve more than £12 for 30k streams then you are part of the problem & I will speak against you with my tiny voice at every chance I get.

The rest of you? Thanks for your support! Fixing streaming revenue will make the beautiful, profitable, discipline of recorded music better for everyone involved & if it can’t be done, fuck it, we aren’t stopping making it, whatever happens, are we?

Find out more about Alec’s music and other things he does over at  ‘I Used To Be Sad, Then I Forgot’ is out now.

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[…] in December Mr Alec Bowman wrote a piece for AUK exposing the shameful state of payments to artists from the streaming services. He said then “I love Bandcamp for being able to buy vinyl […]