What is the best way to support musicians?
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Listener Jesse Murphy asks:
Given the changing landscape of the music industry, what is the best way to support a musical artist nowadays so they gain the most profit or support from how I pay for or invest in my music? Is it going to live shows, merchandise, buy the album online, etc.? How can I be sure they are getting what they deserve from my dollars spent on music? What do the artists prefer?
The streaming economy is booming, with the industry raking in a massive $13.4 billion globally in 2020, according to the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization.
But as it grows, artists have been expressing concerns about the paltry returns they’ve received.
“This is not a struggling industry,” said musician Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, an organizer and co-founder of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. “But artists aren’t getting that money.”
Although some artists have preferences for where you buy their music or merchandise, union organizers say the real change needs to come from the top. That includes more regulation, less corporate consolidation, greater profit-sharing.
“There’s limited capacity in which individual changes and fan behavior are actually going to move the needle,” DeFrancesco said.
“A more equitable music industry”
The best-known musicians can rake in millions of dollars, but they are a small minority. DeFrancesco said in some ways, musicians are like any other workers — Uber drivers, adjunct instructors or others in precarious positions.
“Many, many, many artists just simply don’t have access to good health care, don’t have access to mental health services, to addiction services — these sorts of things,” DeFrancesco said.
After all, they’re living in the same economy as everyone else.
“One of the huge things fans can do is support the efforts that we are taking, and other artists’ groups are taking, to create a more equitable music industry,” he added.
Those efforts include UMAW’s Justice at Spotify campaign, which calls on the streaming service to pay artists at least 1 cent per stream, maintain transparency with its finances and end legal battles with artists that the campaign says undercuts their “economic well-being.” More than 28,400 artists have signed on to these demands.
A single Spotify stream in 2020 netted artists an average of $0.00307 — less than a third of a cent, according to WIPO. Meanwhile, artists earned $0.00402 at Amazon, $0.00735 at Apple Music, $0.00133 on Pandora Premium and $0.00069 through YouTube.
“The streaming economy is not working for the vast, vast majority of musicians,” DeFrancesco said.
UMAW has also signed on to a campaign calling on the Justice Department to investigate and potentially break up the 2010 merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, which received renewed attention this week after Taylor Swift fans couldn’t get tickets for her upcoming tour and saw prices surge to exorbitant levels. Some ticket resale prices have reached $28,000 and beyond.
Live Nation, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, Pandora and YouTube’s parent company, Google, did not respond to requests for comment as of publication time.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment, the owner of Ticketmaster.
What could help right now
Los Angeles-based folk-pop artist Kris Angelis said a great way to support artists is to go to their shows and buy both their merchandise and album — not just stream it — when it comes out. She said at some shows, she might net 70% of the sales at the door, although it depends on the venue.
“I really like to play in listening rooms where it is a music venue, first and foremost, and people are there to listen to music,” Angelis said. “It makes it a lot more enjoyable for me to feel like I’m really connecting with the audience.”
She also thinks it is helpful if people do stream an artist’s music on top of purchasing an album. She said Apple Music and Spotify don’t generate a lot of money for her, but it’s “not nothing,” either. She ends up making $150 to $200 a month through Spotify.
Angelis added that just genuinely sharing the artist’s music — thereby creating word of mouth — is another form of support.
Generally, independent as well as major artists will make the most profit from live shows and merchandise sales, although each artist is unique and has their own business arrangements in place, according to Benom Plumb, program director for music industry studies and music management at the University of the Pacific.
Plumb, who has experience in merchandising sales, said artists can get good margins with T-shirts, for instance. They might cost $5 or $10 to make while selling for $30 or $35. If the artist sells merchandise at their show, the venue may or may not take a cut. He’s seen some get 25%, which is considered high.
Angelis said she generally gets 100% of the sales revenue from merchandise at her shows, although bigger venues may take a percentage, and 100% through her website, where she sells most of it.
Selling merchandise at the venue itself is “always great,” she said, because you immediately get the money and don’t have to spend on shipping.
Unfortunately, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for artists like Angelis, forcing them to halt their tours. That also affected their ability to rake in cash through merchandise sales.
DeFrancesco noted that while live shows may be the way a lot of artists make most of their money, performing may not be feasible due to the costs involved. He said that even well-established artists, like Animal Collective, are finding it unaffordable. The band canceled a European tour that was set to start this month, citing inflation, currency devaluation and high transportation costs.
Buying their music
Buying an artist’s music will generally net them more profit, Plumb said, because they earn dollars with each album sale vs. a fraction of a penny per stream.
But that income depends on the business deal they’ve set up, which could yield them anywhere from 13% to 85% of the sales revenue.
DeFrancesco said one platform artists have had good experiences with is Bandcamp, where fans can purchase digital files of their favorite music.
He pointed out that during the pandemic, the company began waiving the revenue it took through its ongoing Bandcamp Friday initiative, which takes place on the first Friday of each month. Normally, an average of 82% of your money reaches the artist/label through Bandcamp after payment-processor fees. But on Bandcamp Fridays, they receive an average of 93%, according to the Bandcamp website.
Listen to their interviews
Because of how different each artist’s business arrangements might be, Plumb said one of the best things fans can do is to research how they make money, which could include paying attention to what they say in interviews.
He pointed to Swift’s decision to re-record her old albums after Big Machine Label Group was sold to Ithaca Holdings, owned by music executive Scooter Braun. The deal included the master rights to Swift’s first six albums. “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in,” Swift wrote.
The master recordings were then sold, again, to a private equity firm for $300 million in late 2020. Swift explained her plan to re-record her old albums in interviews, going on talk shows like “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” where she noted that the titles of her new music would say “Taylor’s Version” in parentheses.
“She gets a higher profit margin because she’s the owner of it,” Plumb explained.
Marketplace’s Kristin Schwab said that most artists don’t own their music. The record labels, which paid for the recordings, have control.
So if you find out an artist owns their recordings, Plumb said, you’ll know they get more money if you buy their songs or albums.
“It could be fun homework to see what you can learn about their particular business arrangements,” he said.
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