Why Older (and Younger) Musicians Should Embrace Streaming

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while and, given the current brouhaha over Spotify’s embrace of Joe Rogan and the subsequent exit of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (and perhaps more by the time this is published) from the platform, my timing is probably not great. It seldom is.

I have been trying to make a go of a solo music career, off and on, for about thirty years now. I recently came back to it for songwriting, although I still perform occasionally (when the pandemic allows it and perhaps more often if it ever ends).

When I came back to music in 2016, after about a ten-year hiatus, the music world had changed so much. Sales of physical CDs were a thing of the past, unless you sold them at concerts and superfans wanted one as a souvenir. Streaming had become the most dominant force, even more so than radio, on such paying sites as Amazon Music, Apple, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal and others, as well as free streaming on YouTube. Even iTunes, where one could pay about ninety-nice cents to download a song, has faded from popularity.

Musicians who are over fifty, or even forty, mostly decry this trend, for a couple of reasons:

1) It takes a lot of the artwork out of the equation. Many of us have a fondness for the actual visual artwork on a CD or vinyl album cover, and that is pretty much nullified in the digital world. Also, it was nice to have liner notes so that the fans can geek out on who the musicians are on the track, and who wrote the songs themselves.

2) It is a well-known fact that streaming services pay a paltry amount for each stream, on average about $0.0038 per stream. So, it would take 10,000 streams to make $38.00. However, if you are a popular mainstream artist who gets 100,000,000 streams, you would get $380,000 — provided you own the master, but most likely your record company does.

3) In the old days, an album was a concept, where an artist could really express her vision, her story, over a dozen songs that were meant to flow together to create a mood. Nowadays, the single is king; only the most ardent fans have time to sit for an hour and intently listen to a dozen songs by their favorite artist. But for the musicians, this new focus on the single robs them of their creativity.

4) Selling an actual physical CD or vinyl record can bring an instant $10 or $15, which would take months to earn through streaming for most artists — and there are millions of us out there who are not famous and will never get a million streams.

But here’s the thing I noticed when I re-entered the music world in my fifties. I still have boxes of unsold CDs from twenty years ago. If I did ten shows a year (and for someone like me, a show might mean anywhere from 20–100 people), I’d be lucky to sell ten CDs, for a grand total of $100 for the year.

Now, I don’t do better than that in digital sales — in the last couple of years since I digitalized my old stuff and released a few new singles, I’ve averaged about $60 annually in streams. However, I get that without having to carry around those boxes of CDs and setting up a merchandise table (always a good idea anyway).

It has always been the case, for both famous and journeyman musicians, that the live show is where we make the money. One need not be a genius to recognize how they have been devastated by the pandemic in the last two years. Very little live show money (although some did okay with streaming living room concerts), and no merchandise to sell at those shows.

But the streaming of songs continued.

And here’s the other thing. Since my music has been online, I’ve been able to see where the streams are coming from. And I’ve had people from all over the world listen to my music — Taiwan, Finland, Mexico, United Kingdom, and many more.

I was hesitant to re-release a spiritual I recorded twenty years ago called “If I Can Help Somebody.” I felt the production was out of date. But I did release it and it has become my most-streamed song. I have some fans in the Dominican Republic, where that song seems to be most popular. Who knew? I did seem to be at my vocal best on that song, and I guess they are responding to that.

If I were only selling physical CDs, how would people around the world ever hear my music? And most people who buy a CD listen to it once in a while, but keep it on a shelf — it’s rarely shared. Streaming allows for instant access to music at a party or just dancing around the kitchen with a couple of loved ones. Or, if you are lucky, on a playlist at a bar, restaurant, or store.

Listen, I have no illusions about this business. At my age, I’m not going to be the next pop superstar. I am working on my legacy. I want to leave music behind for my family, friends, and beyond. Digital allows for it to be heard around the world for years to come.

Recently, in my college Voice and Diction class, I gave an assignment where the students had to do a short report on a great singer they’ve discovered. Then, in class, they said a little bit about them and presented a YouTube clip, so the rest of us could discover and appreciate them.

One student found a singer named Bettye Swann on Spotify. I didn’t even know her. She was an R&B singer who had two Top Forty hits in the ‘60s — “Make Me Yours” and “Don’t Touch Me,” which went to #21 and #38, respectively. When the student played a clip of her, we were all stunned by her talent.

I had to look up Bettye when I got home. On Spotify, she had over 200,000 monthly listeners! Obviously, her online listeners were most likely not old geezers who remembered her when she had her brief brush with frame. Incidentally, she’s still alive and 77 years old.

That is the beauty of streaming. We can build a legacy. We may never see the true fruits of our labor, but then that has been the history of all kinds of artists for centuries.

So, fellow musicians: Stop complaining. It’s all good. Be heard in as many ways as you can. You never know what might be appreciated and where your next superfan may be.

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