Friday, December 22, 2023

To Scott: You Won’t Get Paid Next Year For Your “Art”. Merry Christmas! (From Spotify)

The Inevitable Return Of Music Gatekeeping And Long-Tail Culling Will Cause My Demise As A Solo Artist

I sometimes read articles about the music industry, since I consider myself somewhat of a musician.  I'm a pretender, I admit it.  As someone who writes and records songs at home, I've been releasing albums for many years now as if I'm a real solo artist.  As a result, I'm always curious to learn about how I could get more people interested in my music, how to increase the chances people will find it online and stream it and enjoy it.  I would like fair compensation for my creative works, like we all would.

Most people are probably aware that in recent years it has become increasingly easy to do what I do.  Inexpensive recording equipment and music distribution services have allowed nearly anyone to get their music on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music, right there alongside the likes of popular megastars like The Beatles or Taylor Swift, whether signed to a record label or not.

I am a huge fan of YouTube Music myself, but am glad my music is available on all of the major ones.  If you cared to, you could find information online that would show labels, distributors, publishers, and audio streaming services arguably don't want to have to pay artists.  The labels seem to have lost the most power, and want it back, so naturally want to convince the streaming service providers to make changes that benefit them.  Like politicians, they seem to say one thing and do another.  Make promises they don't intend to keep.  They want to cut costs wherever possible, and if they can devalue the creators along the way, and get away with paying them less, they will.  

The whole music business is full of companies that claim they don't make enough money, and they're constantly laying off employees and trying to find ways to pay artists less, while claiming to want to pay them more.  Somehow, artist-friendly companies like Spotify claim I wasn't going to meet the royalty threshold by the distributor to get paid anyway, so might as well make a policy to give my pennies to the artists with the 1,000+/yr streamed songs.  Doesn't seem very friendly.

Such companies probably don't consider me an artist to begin with.  They might call what I make "noise".  My music might not be "art" depending on who is judging it.  It's probably amateurish and not high-quality to most.  Poor singing voice, sloppy instrument playing, lo-fi production.  Anyway, it was already practically impossible to get noticed, and the powers that be are now making it even harder.  

Not long ago I read there are 100,000 new songs uploaded to those types of services every day.  As a result, the record labels don't make as much money as they used to, and so now they are going to propose increased "gatekeeping" (more control over whose music gets released) and get the aforementioned music streaming platforms to agree to it.

Their pitch will include a focus on improving the music streaming experience for the consumers.  Fewer choices, higher quality music to choose from, more consumer satisfaction.  It's really about getting a bigger slice of the pie for the superstars they've signed, and I doubt they care that there's a moral dilemma in kicking and keeping people like me out.

Gatekeepers at Spotify have already returned, and others are likely to follow suit.  They dominate music streaming.  They’re like the government if you want people to hear your song nowadays.  This isn’t China, where you can’t criticize the government, and it seems they’re wielding a bit too much power while constantly complaining they’re not profitable.  As a solo artist who also claims I’m not profitable, their recent changes aren’t helping.

On Spotify in 2024, if I release a song and it doesn't get streamed 1,000 times in a year, I don't get paid.  Rewarding popularity is fine, but not paying for creative works is not fine.  Everyone wants everything to be free.  Everyone has a cousin who downloaded all the music ever recorded back in the Napster days who will put them on a USB drive for you.  I'd rather pay.  

Music streaming services, like any tech company, can just change their terms whenever they want and you can choose to play by their new rules or not.  Whether it’s an artist’s first release or not, until they achieve a certain amount of popularity, they are basically distributing their songs for free streaming, just like they would on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, or Free Music Archive.  

Tracks must have reached at least 1,000 streams in the previous 12 months in order to generate recorded royalties.  Less than that don't reach artists because they supposedly do not surpass distributor's minimum payout thresholds.  The reason is to increase the payments to tracks that do reach at least 1,000 streams in 12 months and deter artists from gaming the system with more tracks per album and more frequent track and album releases, I guess.

The powers that be in the “professional” music business probably freak out any time a DIY artist does well without them.  The bar to music creation and distribution has been lowered for a long time now, and record company executives are probably having meetings about devising methods to separate the wheat from the chaff, but at the same time discussing their fear of missing out on signing talent that they could have “nurtured”.

Who says I need nurturing by a record company?  With their lemming mentalities of copying whatever the latest successful trends are, their “support” would turn me into a cookie-cutter mainstream artist.  They would preach that I should respond to every social media comment about my music to “engage” with the fanbase.  They’d have me lip-syncing for sure, doing short tik-tok videos and AI remixes of my own songs, or whatever they think is the next new cool thing.

Everyone with a computer – or even just a smartphone nowadays – can create their own beats and tracks and rap profanity over them and then submit them for streaming on Spotify, but that doesn’t mean they are skilled in the craft of songwriting.  The record company “experts” say they are not deserving, legitimate creators because they threaten their slice of the royalty revenue.  They complain about a wasteland of vapid garbage tracks uploaded by novices who do not possess innate talent. 

They probably don’t like a lesser-known DIY artist like me who writes emotional music from the heart not caring how many streams I get or how many playlists I’m on.  I don’t pay any attention to what is popular at all because I don’t care.  I contribute to what they see as over-saturation by hobbyist amateurs and they’re trying to find a way to weed me out and regain their industry gatekeeper status and giant profits.

The funny thing is, today’s record companies seem lazy, never taking chances, and simply waiting for artists to create their own buzz before pouncing.  If they can’t sign up the next viral sensation like that average Joe guy with the beard who wrote a song complaining about the rich men controlling his county in Virginia or wherever, they’re going to criticize him.  Then if they do sign him to a deal, they’re going to ruin his appeal.

I would hereby like to criticize them.  The major labels are the biggest contributors to the deluge of watered-down music in the world.  Ever since the 1970s, music has seemed to go downhill.  The fake drum loops of the BeeGees and polished perfection of ABBA in the disco era led to the use of drum machines and synthesizers and rap in the 80s, on through to today where virtual instruments, quantization and auto-tuned vocals are the norm.

Music tastes are subjective, and advances in music technology have always happened and will never stop.  Generally, it makes music more palatable, but too much of it makes you wish you could transport yourself back in time to enjoy music live and acoustic and real.  Pop music today is drastically different from pop music when I was a kid.  People used to play real instruments and write songs with melodies.  Not as much anymore.

It's easy to complain, easy to say each generation is worse than before, easy to be an old nostalgic person yearning for the way things used to be.  Hits are hits, unless manufactured by marketers manipulating the system.  Payola has always existed, paying for fake streams, appearance of popularity causing more actual popularity.  You like what you like, and that’s okay.  Music was fed to me by radio, and that shaped what young people liked, and shaped my tastes.

For an enthusiast/hobbyist like me, the streaming royalties are nominal anyway.  Although I've sold some physical CDs, there's no demand for them anymore.  Streaming is so convenient.  By now I am possibly what they call a more established "long-tail" artist, having released 11 albums so far, but the more of me there are out there, the less we all get.

As a self-releasing singer/songwriter "niche" artist, mainstream popularity was never going to be in the cards for me, nor was getting signed to a record deal even at an independent label.  Lets face it:  even in the pre-digital music world, the middlemen gatekeepers would not have let me in.  AI curation in the future will limit exposure to artists like me somehow.  They'll make sure I don't get suggested or recommended in those "you may also like..." lists.

Inevitably, the music streaming services will have more quality control in the future, using algorithms to weed out the really bad music, and they'll also probably hire young people to be music screeners.  It is highly likely my music will not suit their taste in music.  They'll probably start charging way more to get your songs on the services as well.  The nominal pennies I would've made next year will go to those who get (or purchase) more streams than me.  Merry Christmas more popular artists, from Scott.

What young 20-something kid Music Screener / Curator / Sounds Like Recommendation Programmer is going to like an artist who primarily strums an acoustic guitar, doesn't have a great singing voice, and is an old white guy with obviously home-recorded music?  I see my future, and as a pretend musician in the first place, I won't survive.  It will be increasingly difficult for people to find my music online, so there will not be any lasting impact at all.

I'm not giving up yet, but I'm realizing the end is near.  The writing is on the wall. The beginning of the powers that be weeding me out, not letting me in the gate.  It was fun for a while to have my music be "out there" and discoverable, and to know that a few people did discover some of it, and a few of them liked some of it, and a few of those looked for more and looked forward to more.  It's a strange industry that has been through significant changes, and at least I can say I was a part of it for a while, on the fringes anyway.

I recently thought I’d check my popularity on Spotify.  For song streams, they say they have (suspiciously) ended support for data leading up to the year 2020.  When I check my “all time” stats, here’s my top ten:

#         Title                             Streams

1. Mackinac Island                25,884

2. The River of No Return             281

3. I Did a Bad Thing                     251

4. Puttin' Up a Pole Barn             125

5. Whatever Floats Your Boat     101

6. Smitten With the Mitten              89

7. Shred Betty                              66

8. Algoma Central Blues              52

9. Cherchez La Femme              51

10. In My El Camino                      43

Looks like unless I become a 2-hit wonder next year, I’ll only get paid for one song, and not the other 140 Scott Cooley songs you can stream on Spotify.  Maybe my “hit” Mackinac Island will continue to bring in a few fractions of pennies for a while, but the writing is on the wall.  Thanks Spotify.  Merry Christmas.  They tell you that you likely won’t get paid at all except for that one song probably, but then they send you a “wrapped” gift link thing to make you feel great about it with a bunch of other meaningless stats that don’t monetarily amount to anything.  Hit play to watch me click through it: