Lydia Jenkin's New Zealand Herald feature on the paltry earnings of New Zealand musical artists in the age of streaming services is a story you should read if you care about having music made here. To say it's sobering is an understatement.
The key point is that streaming is killing retail music sales but coming nowhere near replacing the revenue from such sales. That's hardly a revelation, but actually looking at the numbers shared with the writer by Jeremy Toy of She's So Rad for the band's current album, Tango, underlines the reality in a very stark way:
... they've sold 20 CDs, 20 digital copies through Bandcamp, and 30 digital copies through iTunes since they released the album in May. They had 300 people at their album release gig at the Kings Arms, and sold 1 CD.
But when you look at their streaming data, they've had 90,000 streams on Spotify in the last month, and something in the realm of 80,000 individual song streams on Soundcloud.
The projected revenue for their online streaming was $130, though their distributor has since said it's likely to be higher, probably equal to 25 album sales.
This isn't some numpties complaining because no one likes them. They've had reasonable radioplay (including two songs on A-rotate on Radio Hauraki), a string of great reviews and one of the singles from the album has a place on the longlist for the Silver Scrolls.
I also led with the album, one of my favourites of the year, here in the week of its release back in May. I checked with Jeremy and 15 of you clicked through from that blog post to the album page on Bandcamp. You presumably didn't all buy the album, but even if, say, 10 of you did, that would account for half their sales through Bandcamp.
I heard from the other artist quoted in Jenkin's story, Anthonie Tonnon, that when I raved about his new album, Successor, back in April (for the second time), that provided a nice little bump in Bandcamp traffic, which made me happy. He seems to be doing a bit better with his album, telling Jenkin:
"The numbers I've experienced with this album release aren't bad - I'm doing well enough selling CDs, vinyl, and digital downloads. But I play a lot of live shows, and I sit on the merch desk every night because that's the difference between selling two CDs and ten CDs for me."
That's a really interesting observation. It's not just having a merch desk that's important at gigs, it's making the time to personally sell your stuff, before and after you play: to always be hustling. Anthonie also played a launch show for the vinyl release of the album – it was at a tiny venue (Frieda Margolis in Grey Lynn) but it sold out and there were enough people there to make a material difference to sales.
But streaming? Not a way to support a career. Anthonie:
"I got off stage in Australia, I was playing to 300 people, and as I was running to the merch desk, a guy stopped me halfway to say "Are you on Spotify? I've got a premium account!", and I just thought, 'Dude, that's great for you, but that's not the same thing as buying my record" Tonnon laughs.
Jeremy concludes the story:
"The idea of owning a digital file is not appealing to anyone and fair enough" Toy adds. "I pay for digital content not because I want to own a digital file, but because I want to show support to the artist which in turn helps make their art sustainable ... Streaming doesn't help to keep music a sustainable resource.
"It's tricky to work out what that means in the future. It just seems a pity that music can't thrive because it's an important part of our culture. I mean, I guess everyone could just be making it for free, which is essentially what a lot of us are doing, but everyone will burn out I think."
There's a reason I link you a Bandcamp sale wherever possible. Actually, two reasons. The first is that Bandcamp offers the best deal by far to the artist. The second is for me: Bandcamp is often the only way to buy music in lossless formats – that is, at a quality as good as (or in some cases, better than) CDs. If I'm going to own a file, I want one that I can convert to another format without a loss of quality and 256k AAC from iTunes are not like that.
There's a third reason. Bandcamp is often really cheap. Anthonie's album is only $12.50 (vs. $15.99 on iTunes) and the She's So Rad album is name-your-price on download, and the limited-edition CD in special packaging is at any price from $1 upwards.
The question occurs: is Jeremy too generous? After all, She's So Rad had nearly as many streams on Soundcloud, which pays nothing, as on Spotify, which pays a pittance. It's a tricky one. Artists want to get their music in front of audiences – both consumers and the likes of booking agents, who may take Soundcloud popularity as evidence of a live act's viability. And I love being able to present a free Soundcloud download as much as any other blogger.
Of course, the same technological and social changes that have made it hard for music to pay its way have also made it easier to record and distribute. It's also much easier for New Zealand artists to work with overseas labels, as the Phoenix Foundation have in becoming part of the excellent roster at London's Memphis Industries and Anthonie Tonnon has in signing to Pittsburgh's Wild Kindness Records. Even in deepest indie-land, the scale of larger markets is valuable.
There's a comparison case in Jenkin's story, and again it's someone I've written about here. Thomston, the unorthodox young pop-R&B singer, has enjoyed more than 10 million plays across his two EPs on Spotify, which is somewhat more viable. Ironically, Thomston isn't even looking to turn a dollar yet. He's managed by Scott Maclachlan, the man who helped guide Lorde to stardom, and he's yet to release anything via the recording deal he signed recently in Australia. But Maclachlan has been able to get him through to some kind of meaningful international scale. He even has a Twitter fan crew.
The theory is that at some point streaming services will reach a critical mass, where there are enough people paying their $13 a month that it becomes a viable substitute for sales. How and when that would change the harsh equation of streaming revenue – which currently really only works for big stars and (more so) companies that can aggregate thousands of separate copyrights – is open to question.
For composers, publishing income remains important, but its blessings are unevenly shared. For performance rights revenue, radioplay is massively important, but New Zealand music's share of the schedules has been tanking. That matters double because performance rights revenue from businesses that use recorded music (from cafes to bars, gyms and hairdressers) is allocated on the basis of radioplay. (This needs to change, but that's a whole other blog post.)
As things stand, people who licence music – looking at you right now, advertising creatives – hold the ability to deliver artists chunks of income that are basically inconceivable from any other source. Sean James Donnelly probably made more from licensing two tunes from Songs from a Dictaphone to big advertising campaigns than he has from career sales and streaming put together.
The irony here is that in some ways things were better when I was 20, no one had a clue about publishing and Chris Knox was lugging boxes of Flying Nun platters between Auckland record shops in his shorts and jandals. Back then, any bunch of kids could do a run of 300 copies and stand a decent chance of selling them all. When a band pressed a hundred singles it seemed paltry. These days a hundred sales would be just fine.
To make it worse, some of the money from live gigs has drained away too. It bugs the hell out of me when people shy away from paying 10 bucks at the door of a show. That's one drink, or a quarter of what you'll spend on taxis, and it's meant to be the whole purpose of your evening.
What we're dealing with here, on all fronts, is the war for attention, where a wonderful short film like Hamish Bennett's Loading Docs story about Tihei, a very special rapper, competes with a million clips of of cats and babies – and where the price for music is set by piracy.
So here's my advice. If you're streaming a local record and loving it, take five minutes and go and dump some money into Bandcamp, or buy the CD or the vinyl, especially at a gig, where the margins are better for the artist. I know it feels counterintuitive – Apple Music has a "buy in the iTunes Store" option that always makes me think "why would I do that?" – but it's best thought of as patronage, without the social pressure of crowdfunding.
And maybe if we want to keep on having a culture we need to think of ourselves not just as consumers, but as patrons too.
A reminder to book your place for LATE at the Museum: Songs of the City on Tuesday, August 11. I'm chairing the discussion and doing a fair bit of the creative work on this event, and it's going to be special. Not least in that it's the first time Simon Grigg will talk publicly about his book How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the song that stormed the world. My advance copy of the book arrived last Saturday and (even though I'd been cleaning up the debris of a very late, loud and fun birthday party) I literally could not go to bed until I'd finished it. It is one hell of a story, frankly told.
Speaking of Simon's endeavours, Audioculture has an intriguing new entry from David Maclennan on Wellington's alternative music venues in the late 1970s and early 80s, which functions in some ways as a social and political history of the capital.
Mark the date: Friday September 4, for The Others Way Festival, a multi-venue party on K Road, featuring a reformed Garageland, Silicon, The Bats and many more.
Since we last communed via blog, there have been a number of great local videos released.
Firstly, the clip for Anthonie Tonnon's 'Railway Lines'. As with 'Water Underground' (a song about indignities committed on democracy in Canterbury), Delphine Avril Planqueel's video has little to do with the text (the story of an ageing lefty seeing things he's fought for so long taking shape in Super City Auckland), but it looks lovely:
The strange digital conjuring of 'God Emoji' by Silicon, aka Kody Nielson:
Some crazy, imaginative work for Kody's brother Ruban's band Unknown Mortal Orchestra by Indian director Manoj Leonel Jahson:
The occulist kook of Sam Kristofski's video for The Phoenix Foundation's teeming, tumbling 'Mountain':
And, finally, something completely different. On Wednesday last week, Sile Hartung's 'Freak the Sheep' show on 95bFM took the form of a live video stream of of 20 acts (including Tami Nielson, Tama Waipara and Anthonie Tonnon) playing in the station's scruffy little on-air studio over two hours. It' was a pretty amazing live viewing experience and it's still available to view here:
It was nice this week to catch a bit of bFM play for Schips, the new EP from Blair Parkes' solo project Saturations. I think it's one of the stronger things the prolific Parkes has done in a while, and I particularly fancy the LEDs-like 'Other Side':
The Chills have offered another peek of Silver Bullets, their first new album in, gulp, 19 years, which is out in October. 'America Says Hello', a meditation on the quest for success, is a great song:
Australia's Chet Faker got together with Banks and made this. It's pretty cool:
If you love Jamie Xx's 'Loud Places', you might want to grab a free download of this Leftside Wobble rework of the classic track that provides that tune's key sample (hat-tip Pete Darlington!):
I cannot wait for the forthcoming Funky Taxi album if the rest of it is like this cover of 'Chain of Fools', set to 'The Message' rhythm "relicked" by Sly & Robbie and mixed by John Morales. Wowzers.
And finally, not a track but some dudes talking about all kinds of shit. Tom Scott and Lui Tuiasau finally take their turn on the How Not To Be An Asshole podcast, stuff ensues ...