I stand alone behind a merch table. I wear a warm smile. I look friendly, but not too hopeful. Not desperate. I am realistic. I know that regardless of how well I perform, some nights I will sell a ton of merch. Some nights I sell nothing. It's usually not about me. Tonight, I sang for a young crowd-so I know I probably won’t sell much. A twenty-something white woman approaches my table with a fancy cocktail in hand. She looks down at the array of CDs, flash drives, custom bandanas. “Shiiiit! I don't think I can afford these!” She pouts, then suddenly perks up- “...But are you on Spotify?” She smiles as she asks. In her mind, this is a happy medium. “Yes you can find my music there.” I reply. My smile changes. “Also, do you know that spotify is a pimp?” She frowns again. She knows. She feels guilty. She tries to explain how tragic it all is, trailing off wistfully… And suddenly neither of us want to have this conversation anymore. I’ve experienced this exchange a dozen times. Most folks know how predatory streaming services can be. But the details are unclear. Though I’d love for this young white woman to look my music up online- she doesn't know that if she streamed my song 230 times, I might make $1.00. She doesn’t know that she could listen to my music fanatically for months, yet she just paid more for that cocktail than I’d ever make from her hours of streaming. Math!
Your music is from Walmart. Consider the reasons why folks boycott Walmart. Inhumane labor laws and corporate greed may be at the top of the list. Internet exchanges are much more veiled and difficult to track, but-streaming services commit the same crimes. You may think, “But making music is FUN, you’re LUCKY to do it!” Music is fun! I’m grateful for every second I get to do this work. ...But it is just also that- work. It’s financially and emotionally expensive work. If music is free, that's a ton of free labor. And free labor sounds a bit like slavery. Fun, creative, musical. But if a corporation is making good money and the majority of their labor force isn't making a living wage- it's not fun anymore.
Next month, I’m releasing my new album, Succulent. This album has six tracks on it. I love the album! It’s a blast. It sounds great, it’s fun, it’s goofy and it’s all about sex. I’m really excited to release it. I wrote about sixteen tracks for a full album, but I could only afford to professionally record six. Still a gorgeous piece-but a good deal shorter than I intended. In the past, I’ve self-produced lower cost and lower-quality productions of my work. DIY in the basement-type music. Which I still love, and I still do. But I decided the majority of my music should be produced and mixed with more care. I wanted my tunes to be industry grade. So for this project, I recorded in and out of professional recording studios. Over the course of one year, I spent about $13k on this project. That number includes studio fees, session musicians, producers, mixing and mastering. If I’m lucky, I’ll earn between $1-3k per year on Spotify. A bit more when you add the other streaming services. So how do I afford to pay to record albums and pay rent? Gigs, grants and merch. Once I cover living expenses, I invest everything else into my art. That’s it. I have been lucky enough to make it work. But it is terrifying and exhausting.
I would never ask folks to boycott spotify or any other streaming service. Music lovers will inevitably find the simplest way to listen to music, regardless of the implications. A couple years ago, I didn’t renew one of my albums on Spotify. It cost $50 to renew for a year and I wasn’t sure I wanted any of my music to exist on that platform. When the album disappeared, I at least received two notes a week for a year. “Where is your song, witch? I can’t find it!” Folks don’t follow artists like me from platform to platform. They stick. And whatever is available on the platform they recognize- that’s what they listen to. I do it too. I listen to Youtube music and youtube is literally the worst when it comes to artist payouts. I understand the importance of convenience. I am also old enough to know what it was like to actually have to BUY music. It was magical to buy music and cherish it. Remember when singles had the English and the Spanish version? I memorized Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart in English and Spanish because of the discount single tape I bought. I listened to the tape for weeks. I saved up, I chose it, I bought it. There was a commitment and pride in your music. I loved that feeling.
On the other side of the coin-I was still a teenager when Napster and Limewire emerged. When I discovered downloading- my catalog exploded with a wild rainbow of genres, eras and sounds. I found my parent’s music. Joni, Nina, Sarah Vaughan, James Taylor, Andres Segovia, Ravi Shankar. Then I found my older sibling's tunes. Bone Thugs, Snoop, Nirvana, young Mariah, Nick Drake, Backyard Band. I don’t know what it was like for yall, but it was like a renaissance for me. I developed my own style from this wide range of music. I think the online music movement really inspired the whole “I listen to everything” era. I usually roll my eyes when folks say that. It feels lazy and vague. But streaming music online actually allowed us to realistically listen to EVERYTHING. It allowed us to dabble, and try new things. My influences were so rich and varied, and I know that wouldn’t have been the case without music streaming. Old timers and millennials could probably argue for hours about quality and quantity, which time was better for true music lovers. I have feet on both sides of the line and I see the value and beauty in both.
So if boycotting is out, what can folks do? I suggest two things: educate yourself, and find ways to invest in the music you love. The education bit is tough. For me anyway. The more I learn about the music industry, the more jaded I become. But if you love music like I do- you’ll want to know. It is empowering to know. For example, do you know that some of your Spotify subscription money could go to artists you never listened to? Here’s an excerpt from QZ: https://qz.com/1660465/the-way-spotify-and-apple-music-pays-artists-isnt-fair/
“Anna, a fictional Spotify subscriber, is a big jazz fan. She recently fell in love with a jazz trio called The Expressionists (also fictional). The Expressionist’s new album accounted for 100% of her time listening to music last month on Spotify. Anna might reasonably assume that of the money that went to artists from her $10 monthly subscription, nearly all of it went to The Expressionists. She would be wrong.
The way Spotify and Apple Music pay artists is simple. They take all of the money generated from users, whether by advertisements or subscriptions, and put in a big pot. They then divide that pot by the total share of streams each artist received. So, if Apple Music gave $100 million of their revenues to artists in a month, and Drake songs accounted 1% of all streams that month, then Drake (and the writers of Drake’s songs) would receive $1 million. Essentially, 1% of Anna’s money is going to Drake. (About 70% of Spotify and Apple Music’s revenues go to music labels and artists.)”
It’s Borders books shutting down that great bookstore down the road. It’s Starbucks on every corner. Macdonald’s on every corner. It’s Walmart. That sprint toward all-corporate-everything and sameness makes me so sad. And the implications are that without some really serious money or connections- folks like me won’t make it. A ton of the music I want to hear won’t make it to my ears. As consumers, we can consider the independent artists we love, and find ways to invest in their work. If you listen to an artist who is not rich and famous, they need you. Don’t believe the instagram stunting. We need you. So. I’m going to list some of the most helpful ways folks have supported me in the past. Yes, this entire stream of thoughts was motivated by my hope that folks will better understand what my work is like and what I need. But it’s sincerely not all about me. If you never do any of these things for me-I hope it inspires you to consider supporting SOMEONE’s art. This is not about individuals keeping independent musicians afloat. It’s simple. If you want to hear more music from an artist- you invest in them. If you don’t invest in them- they may not make more music.
Showing Love for Independent Musicians
1. Direct donations via Patreon or paypal. That is the most effective because it goes directly to the artist. Most platforms take a generous cut (Kickstarter, Eventbrite, tickets to concerts).
2. Go to shows. If an artist is in your town, go! Venues book artists with reliable fans. The more folks show up consistently, the bigger, better the venues get. If you’re friends with the artist, get tickets early! Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t ask for comps. Every ticket is a vote for that artist, and it likely contributes to the amount of money the artist receives. So if you’re friends with a performing musician-it’s actually more kickass and friend-ly to buy a ticket. I have to turn my phone off on the day of shows because folks usually call me when a show is sold out and they decide they want to go the day of. Do you have comps? Is there a way I can still get in? Haha. My POC, late ass friends.
3. Buy merch. Venues do often take up to 25% of merch sales (I think this is tacky, but apparently it’s standard-especially for bigger venues). But merch is SO helpful! When I tour music venues- I usually make enough to cover travel, accompaniment and airbnb. Merch allows me to actually pay myself. Usually if you’re low on funds, I’ll work something out with you. I’d rather you walk away with music than not, and even $5 goes a long way!
4. If you’re broke and financial support is absolutely out of the question- share share share share. Spread the word. Tell folks in a city about the upcoming show! Send an email, post a screenshot, take a video of yourself dancing to the song! I ALWAYS thank folks when they post about my music. An article in a fancy publication would be amazing. A great review would be so cool! Anything! But again, unless you’re already famous or viral- you essentially need to pay a publicist to make that happen. A couple weeks ago-I had a really fun conversation with a boutique marketing agency. They quoted me $20k for six months of marketing. I politely thanked them for their pitch, and hung up the phone. Marketing is yet another example of how folks with money have a much better chance of getting ahead in the music business. Truly gross and sad, but again-good stuff to know as a musician and/or consumer.
5. Dig. Look for music. Don’t stay on cruise control. Don’t let streaming services choose everything you listen to. Sometimes they get it SO so right. But I promise. They do not know you. Streaming services will not put you on to smaller acts. The algorithms always favor artists that are already popular. So if you listen to Be Steadwell radio, they will most likely steer you toward folks who are much more fancy and famous than I. You’ll be led to folks like Erykah Badu, Halsey, Yuna. Streaming services RARELY play a musician I haven’t heard of already. Why would they? There is no advantage for them to take risks. “Recommendation algorithms also have the habit of creating musical echo chambers, because they’re reinforcing tastes rather than broadening them.”
*(This article also recommends streaming services like Bandcamp that strive to humanize music streaming and sharing.)
I don’t know where these next generations will take music. I have no clue what will be cool. Maybe folks will frame cd cases like art. Maybe someday folks will be excited and proud to listen to music no one has heard of. Maybe specificity and sincerity will become more valued. Or maybe indie musicians will go the way of the independent bookstore. I’m a pessimist so I’ve already decided I’ll have to marry rich or die penniless. I’m going to keep making music either way, it’s fine. It brings me joy to create from my heart and touching the hearts of fellow weirdos like me. It gets very difficult and painful sometimes. But it is all I can do. I get angry. I feel an uncomfortable burden of self pity often. But it is my purpose. And I am definitely not a saint. A small shred of optimist in me believes I can make this business profitable. I dream of fancy things. SHIT. I want to buy a house with a big kitchen and fancy kitchen knives and a fine pair of shoes. I want to pay off my student loans. I want that for my fellow poc and queer artists too. I want to figure out a way for us to make that happen. Not working against the tide of streaming and digital music. I want to know how to harness it.
I’m curious what yall think. What you feel and see for the future of music. As a consumer, as an artist, whatever. My email is Bookbsteady@gmail.com . Feel free to write a note with the subject “walmart.”
Love, snuggles and good music to you all.