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How to Be an Ethical Music Fan in the Age of Streaming

Being an ethical music fan in this age of streaming can feel bewildering. We have almost all of the music ever recorded (though not necessarily the best-sounding versions of it) at our fingertips at any given time. But we have no idea how much clicking “play” will benefit the artists who created it.

In fact, many musicians—popular or not—make very little from streaming. But why? Simply put, all the money created by streaming mostly goes into the platforms and the labels, not the artists. This has made it difficult for even moderately popular artists to eke out a middle-class living.

In 2012, musician and writer Damon Krukowski had written a piece about the literal cents he received for getting mere thousands of plays on Spotify. His band, Galaxie 500, was barely starting to become a dominant force in the music industry, and Spotify had sent songwriting royalties of $1.05 for the 5,960 times their single “Tugboat” was played that quarter. But keep in mind, this $1.05 would be split between the three band members, which meant that each member only made 35 cents. Now, if you ask me, that’s not exactly a promising new source of income.

As David Byrne wrote in an insightful 2014 essay, “If consumers and corporation owners are benefiting from this technology — which seems to be the case — but artists, the people who actually create the stuff, are losing out — then the current model wouldn’t seem to be sustainable: the content will run out eventually.”

So what’s the ethical thing to do as a music fan?

Given that streaming is here to stay, a good first step is selecting the service that pays artists best. And it’s no surprise that the biggest player in the streaming industry, Spotify, is among one of the worst offenders when it comes to underpaying artists. By most accounts, Qobuz pays artists the highest rates per stream.  

Beyond choosing the best service, fans can support artist-led organizations, like the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. This union’s purpose is to push for higher streaming royalty rates and more equitable models of divvying up streaming revenues. At first glance, it might seem like buying music could be the solution to the economics of streaming, but it’s not as simple as that because only about six percent of the average musician’s income comes from streams and sales of their recordings. 

So when it comes to supporting artists, the reality is that fans need to find more direct ways than streaming or buying music through common retailers. One way is to purchase music through Bandcamp and other outlets that give much larger shares of sales to musicians. But be aware, if the music on Bandcamp was put out by a label — as opposed to artists themselves — then the artist might not get much of that revenue, either. 

As a matter of fact, touring has been the most dependable source of revenue for artists. According to a 2018 Citigroup report, total “consumer outlays” on music reached an all-time high of $20 billion in 2017. Artists made just one-fourth of that total, and the “bulk” of that came from touring. So, while you can be confident that (most of the time) the artist is getting a larger percentage of your ticket purchase than your album purchase or stream, live performance isn’t a certain moneymaker for every artist. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this.

That leaves one more big way to support artists you love: merchandise. Merch tables at concerts have always had the potential to make or break the profitability of a tour for an artist. But, particularly during COVID, online merch sales have become an even more central revenue stream for artists. 

In the end, music fans should be mindful of the real economic struggles most artists can face and work to contribute what they can and when they can, by the most direct means possible. 

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