There never was an easy time to be a musician, but for many in and around the industry, the 21st century has presented one calamity after another for those hoping to make a living from music. The turn of the century saw record labels implode at a staggering rate, and it would be some time before salvation came in the form of streaming services, which finally offered an effective method of monetizing music listening. music.
Examined in broad daylight, however, a major question arises: who exactly benefits from these services? According to the Record Industry Association of America, streaming accounted for 83% of all recorded music revenue in the United States, in 2020. Calculating how much revenue an artist makes per stream can be a complex task.
Different rights holders make different deals, and you have plenty of cooks vying for that money, including publishers, distributors, and labels. The commonly accepted figure for Spotify is that between $0.003 and $0.005 are paid to artists for each stream. The figure varies greatly from service to service, although it is usually fractions of a penny. Apple, notably, revealed last April that it pays around a penny per stream – a generous figure by streaming industry standards.
Earnings rates have, of course, been a common complaint among musicians for over a decade, but like so many other labor issues, things have come to a head during the pandemic. More than two years of limited or non-existent touring highlighted the concerns. In late 2020, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched the Justice at Spotify campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
“With the entire live music ecosystem under threat due to the coronavirus pandemic, music workers are more reliant than ever on streaming revenue,” the organization noted at the time. “We’re calling on Spotify to increase royalty payments, transparency in their practices, and stop fighting artists.”
The union would eventually find a sympathetic ear in Congress in the form of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Last week, reports surfaced that the congresswoman was preparing a resolution to establish a royalty program to provide musicians with adequate compensation through per-stream royalties. “It was a meeting with the Musicians and Allied Workers Union,” Tlaib told TechCrunch. “One of the things that kept coming up was what Congress could do to support their efforts to be protected and also to ensure that musicians are fairly compensated for their work. To have respect in this area, especially from so many of people in the industry who continue to monopolize and so on. They did an incredible job, came to us with this proposal and taught my team and myself a lot about the ins and outs of how which it currently works.
Tlaib says his team worked closely with UMAW to craft a draft resolution. “We are doing the same with our housing bills, trying to close the economic gap in our country. We let them guide us. I work for them, I help them and I defend their cause. They teach me so much about industry monopolization and how Spotify specifically acts in bad faith in so many ways.
Musician and UMAW member/organizer (and musician/newsletter writer) Damon Krukowski said in a statement to TechCrunch:
Currently, music streaming creates wealth for streaming platforms at the expense of musicians. UMAW strives to correct this imbalance. Rep. Tlaib’s proposed legislation would guarantee a minimum payment from platforms directly to musicians who perform on streaming recordings. The infrastructure for such payments already exists, as they are already required in satellite radio. This same principle must be applied to streaming, for the fairness and durability of recorded music.
Tlaib’s resolution would employ the nonprofit royalty group SoundExchange, along with the Copyright Royalty Board, to calculate and distribute the royalties. Both organizations already perform a similar function for webcasting and satellite radio. This would indeed work as part of a complementary, streaming-friendly model.
With news of the resolution surfacing in late July, word has spread through the industry. Tlaib said she has yet to speak directly with Spotify, explaining, “I understand they are aware.” She adds: “My priority is not businesses. It probably never will. They’ve got their lawyers, they’ve got their lobbyists, they’ve got their resources to run ads and gas people up to say whatever they say will happen when we keep pushing this file forward. My priority is to do everything right and not be traded fairly in this market.
TechCrunch has contacted Spotify for the story, but has yet to receive a comment. CEO Daniel Ek has made waves in the past for suggesting that the simple streaming model couldn’t — or wouldn’t — support musicians the way record sales had in the past. “Some artists who did well in the past might not do well in this future landscape,” he said in a July 2019 interview, “where you can’t record music once every three or four years and think that’s going to be enough.”
Tlaib’s resolve began to gain momentum among House colleagues. More recently, New York Rep. — and Squad team member — Jamaal Bowman lent his support to the bill, which is still awaiting review by House legislative counsel.
Tlaib tells TechCrunch that she thinks such legislation could also garner bipartisan support in Congress.
“I think what’s happening is people don’t realize that many of the people affected by what’s happening are in every congressional district. I don’t think you can go to a district that isn’t affected by this or understand how incredibly unfair it is. I know we will be able — especially through the work the Musicians and Allied Workers Union is doing outside of Congress — to make this legislation workable.
Tlaib’s own district — which includes western Detroit — can certainly claim that impact.
“Detroit is a world capital of music in the world: Motown, techno, jazz, gospel. I wanted to honor that and respect this incredible work, which has played a huge role in the work of the movement,” she said. “Music was a big part of my growth in the social justice movement. It was a way of bringing people together to try to understand not just human pain, but the possibility of ‘better’. When I think of these incredible musicians coming together like this is incredibly inspiring. And why not? Why don’t they deserve to have Spotify and other big names in the industry pay them what they deserve?”