How did you listen to music during the first lockdown? If you streamed music online, you’re not alone. One billion people visited YouTube every month, with Spotify reaching 130 million subscribers during the first lockdown.

But how much money do you think that music was worth? According to Spotify, artists are currently worth £0.002 to £0.0038 per stream, with Apple Music artists worth £0.0059 per stream. That’s only if you listen to the full track. To say that this is shockingly poor pay is an understatement.

The debate over how much musicians are worth to streaming services is not new. In 2014, Taylor Swift famously removed her entire back catalogue from Spotify, stating that “artists should value their art and make sure that people are paying enough money for it”. Earlier this year, musician Tom Gray launched the #BrokenRecord campaign, calling for an inquiry into streaming services. Now the Commons Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee are looking into streaming services and whether “the economics of streaming could in future limit the range of artists and music that we’re all able to enjoy today”. So why are artists being paid so little and how do we change this?

To earn money from Spotify a track must be played in its entirety. Following this, every month Spotify uses an algorithm to calculate the artists’ payment. 70% of the income generated from streaming a track goes to the master and publishing owners, usually the record label. That money is then divided by the artists’ number of Spotify streams over the total number of Spotify streams. This means that if you listen to an independent or emerging artist, the money from the track doesn’t go to them but is divided among them as well as established artists. At this point, artists are earning as little as 13% of the income from that track. To put this into context, an established artist such as Tasmin Little, one of the country’s leading violinists, who had 5-6 million streams in the first six months of this year, earned just £12.34 from Spotify. The system is rigged.

Consider the hours of practice that goes into a recording. Consider the years of training required to have a career as a musician. Consider the vast number of people who have used music to process the pain of the pandemic and escape from the constraints of lockdown. That music was not hobbled together and performed out of ideal curiosity. It was put together by skilled musicians who care about their audiences and know how music can transform a moment in time and lead to lasting change. Then consider someone valuing that work being worth £0.002.

This comes at a time when musicians are once again unable to perform live. Whilst a few contracted players are still able to work, the freelancers that make up the majority of the industry are now reliant on the limited teaching and outreach work they can do. Royalties have been severely cut due to shops, cafes, and businesses being closed and unable to play their music. Many musicians are leaving the industry entirely, unable to make ends meet in an industry in which they have spent a lifetime. If streaming services were to alter their business model and pay artists fairly, streaming services could turn from being the service that destroyed the music industry to the service that saved it.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards a more ethical business model. Dice TV allows audiences to pay for virtual tickets and buy merchandise. DIUO reverses Spotify’s business model, with artists staging their own concerts, 10% of the revenue going to road crews, sound engineers, and other professionals and audiences can buy one-off tickets. Patreon, which has been running since 2013, allows supporters to pay a monthly membership. These businesses show that there is an appetite to support artists fairly and that ethical business models can succeed.

In an experiment last week, violinist Fenella Humphreys played a one minute track by Stuart McRae on a loop for four and half hours, with an option for audience members to donate, later shared with Help Musicians UK. When it was played on Spotify for 48 hours, McRae earned 87p. In four and a half hours, Humphrey’s raised £671. This difference is absurd. Audiences want to support artists. They’re actively supporting platforms that fairly support artists. A YouGov poll showed 77% of people believe that artists deserved a greater share of the revenue from streaming services.

Spotify is in a unique position to be able to actively help musicians. The business model can change. It can be successful. Can Spotify see the value of its own artists?

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance...