Will your music survive the Spotify era by guaranteeing 13,000 streams-per-year?

Music industry is rapidly changing and so are the possibilities for independent and underground artists to emerge in the black ocean of the music market. In order to respond to the need of making music available everywhere for potential listeners, tons of platforms are flourishing out there to do that almost for free. Business models of these platforms are different: “Free” platforms like Bandcamp are taking revenue share on digital or merchandise sales, while Soundcloud has recently started its own monetization plan. However when it comes to make their music available to everyone and everywhere underground artists know that the right choice is to upload their records in digital stores; which are cheap but not free. Publishing records via digital stores has become easy with platforms like Tunecore or CD Baby. Those can make your album available for listening on all digital stores potentially (including Youtube and now even Facebook) for a fee of $49.99* per-year with an average per-stream rate of $0.0038.

The question is: how many times should an artist be streamed to return over his/her investment of $49.00?

Here’s the math: $49.99 ÷$0.0038 =13,155 streams!

By reaching this target artists actually will get $0.00 from their music streams! The questions that artists are now asked to answer are:

Will you maintain and hopefully overtake a constant hype of 13,155 streams per year? How will your music perform during the next years, considering an hype curve pick during the first months of release followed by almost no streams?

Consequences related to these questions are very specific and connected to your ability as an artist to provide a constant hype in order to survive the Spotify era. (I speak on my experience as an underground artist below.)

In this article I’m not considering the world of physical copies, but what can we ask ourselves for the next 15–20 years is:

Will our digital music disappear without a trace?

Well, it depends. Generally speaking the answer is no. Bandcamp is still a way to make it survive and piracy is taking an important role, too. Since your music is copied on some russian/chinese torrent platforms it will survive somehow and it will be available for future listeners to come. The worst case scenario is that you fought piracy and after some years you can’t pay for your music to be still available on on-demands platforms like Spotify, because of the above mentioned reasons. They will be taking your music down no matter what, no chance to reverse it. Full stop.

In a few years you’ll probably come up with the idea to upload your tracks on youtube for free, and you’ll probably ask yourself why you didn’t do it before! In this perspective the best thing is to upload stuff on the above mentioned Soundcloud or Bandcamp, but what happen if they’ll take tracks down? What happen if these platforms will die? Probably there’s no chance for your music to survive freely on the internet.

If you want your music to survive, embrace the idea of music piracy or the only grave for your digital music will be your beloved hard-drives.

Striving to survive now

To make your music really available everywhere you’re paying 50 bucks a-year per-album and since you’re gaining almost zero now, you have that brilliant idea to listen to your album 24/7 repeatedly with your mother’s computer! A nice try but here’s why you shouldn’t. Assuming that a song length last for about 4 minutes, how much plays you can reach in a year?

Here’s the math:
60 seconds * 60 minutes * 24 hours * 365 days = 31,536,000 seconds a year
4 minutes * 60 seconds = 240 seconds for an average song
31,536,000 seconds / 240 seconds = 131,400 streams per year!

Nice! You now have easily overcome the edge of 13,155 songs per year and you’re gaining money revenues too!

Here’s the math:
131,400 streams -13,155 streams = 118,245 streams
118,245 streams * $0.0038 = $449.331 revenues a year!

In the end there’s always a but. How much is that Spotify account costing you per year? What about that computer power and that internet connection? …

Here’s the math:
$9.99 monthly Spotify * 12 months = $119.88 a year of Spotify account
Computer consumption = from 60 watt (laptop) to 650 watt (desktop pc) = 0.06 kWh to 0.650 kWh.
Energy price per hour (here in Italy at June 8th 2018) = €0.0509 = $0.06
Computer consumption * 24 hours * 365 days * energy price = from $31.536 (laptop) to $341.64 (desktop pc) energy costs a year!

Not considering internet costs, day&night or monthly energy costs oscillations, or whatever else we can easily say that this choice is unbearable and it can cost even more money too!

Here’s the math:
$119.88 a year of Spotify account + $341.64 energy consumption = $461.52 costs per year to stream 131.400 songs.
$449.331 revenues a year — $461.52 of costs =$ — 12 money lost!

But if you’re using a laptop and some Spotify family promotions you’ll can probably get some money. I’m guessing that so called digital labels do this trick to overcome costs of 3 or 7-years digital publishing plans. Actually they get discounts for multiple album publishing so the trick is easier and you probably will never know how many streams are real.

My experience as an artist

Together with my band (Sunpocrisy — a progressive post metal band based in Italy) I’m on digital stores since February 2012 with two records (the second album has been published on November 2015). Since than they are costing us:

1st album: $49.99 * 7 years = $349.93
2nd album: $49.99 * 4 years = $199.96
Total: $549.89

With the above mentioned per-stream rate of $0.0038 how many times should we be listened to return over this investment and still be available online?

Here’s the math:
$549.89 ÷$0.0038 =144,707 streams!

With an average of 9 songs per albums it means that we need for 16,078 streams for our records (1,461 streams per year) which seems quite reachable.

Unfortunately since February 2012 our music have been streamed 77,530 (with an average song length of 9 minutes 😅)

Streams per month by February 2012 to April 2018

Although things are getting better in the last 3 years we are paying 100 bucks per year in order to keep our records available. This means that from November 2015 we should guarantee 26,310 streams a year which are about 2,192 plays per month. Let us see the same chart: the green line shows the average plays to return over investment.

Streams per month by February 2012 to April 2018. Green line is the shows the number of plays to return over investment (1,096 streams from February 2012 — October 2015, 2,192 plays from November 2015 — today)

It’s crystal clear that unfortunately we are losing money!

Here’s the math:
77,530 streams — 144,707target = — 67,177 streams
67,177 streams * $0.0038 = -$255 losses!

This means that an artist should get $49.99÷12 months: about $4.16 a month with the first release and $8.32 a month with a second release and so on.

Things are actually better if we consider music sales on digital platform. After some personal doubts I’ve decided not to reveal our earnings but I can firmly say that music sales are saving the game even if, as an underground artist, we don’t know for how many years we can sustain these costs of $100 bucks per year or more. Things will get worse with our following records. Bandcamp is helping us with digital sales, pay-what-you-want and merchandise services but actually we don’t get any revenues from plays; and our streams on bandcamp are greater than those from digital stores. Furthermore the greatest part of our incomes is still lead by live concerts, self-published physical records and merchandise sold during the shows.

We still don’t know where the future of our digital presence will lead us but you can still listen to our full album on youtube. Since digital publishing is just a trace of this intangible and unrepeatable thing we call music I’ve decided not to take revenues from those and I’ve never tried to report or sue any illegal upload of our records.

*The article was written in April 2018. At the time of its publishing Tunecore introduced discounts for the first year as visible in their pricing page. The aim of the article isn’t the math showed but the thoughts that will lead to the future of digital music.

If you want to deepen how listener behavior impact musician compensation I suggest to read this article from Bobby Grasberger.

Professor at Politecnico di Milano, Creative director at The Visual Agency