The changing world of independent music


The realities of being an independent musician have changed dramatically just over the past decade. With the advent of music streaming and the downslide in purchases of physical media and album downloads, musicians can no longer rely on selling albums to make money and spread their fanbase. Because of this, artists looking to make a name for themselves have had to figure out new ways to make a living and promote their music.


With the sea change in consumption that the internet ignited, the music industry model has shifted from an emphasis on album purchases to money from touring and merch sales. Although the streaming of albums and singles on platforms like Spotify has become increasingly popular, the amount that an artist or band can make off of streaming sales is altogether quite low, and rarely amounts to making a living off of music. As a result, money from playing shows has become that much more important, as has selling merchandise such as t-shirts, posters, and more.


According to an article in Forbes, the most popular streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube also have the lowest payout rates. The highest payouts come from Napster and Tidal, though they aren’t as popular with listeners. For example, as listed in the Forbes article, Tidal is estimated as paying each artist $0.0110 per stream – a little over a cent. Spotify, on the other hand, pays a measly $0.0038 per stream – less than half a cent. I did the math and worked out that a million streams on Spotify works out to $3,800 dollars. Yes, that’s right. A million plays on a streaming service will barely pay two month’s rent in San Francisco.


So where can new, unsigned artists go to make money? Shows. Live concerts have become increasingly popular, often selling out in major cities, and the festival circuit is booming. Artists taking advantage of this can leverage their music to gain popularity in different parts of North America, Europe, and beyond. With cheap plane flights and the ease of spreading music over the internet, even up-and-coming artists can play to eager fans on different continents.


Though the world is more connected than ever before, there are pluses and minuses to the new music scene. Artists can be discovered and listened to at the click of a button all across the world, though that same technology has undercut the record sales they used to rely on. And if an artist fails to make an impact on the touring scene, their fate is essentially sealed. With the oversaturation of free music and media, it’s easier than ever to slide into listless anonymity.


Only time will tell how independent artists will adjust to the future of music distribution. As the programs that run streaming services become more sophisticated, how will consumers be led to discover and listen to new music? Already, the Music Genome Project that Pandora developed is getting smarter due to machine learning. Spotify and other streaming platforms use similar programs to make their playlists for customers more dynamic and adaptable, which will only get more finely tuned in years to come.


Will this help new artists get discovered? Possibly, though the age of buying music seems to be coming to an end.


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