How to Make an Independent Musician Broke

I’ve been selling my music on iTunes since 2008, and while I don’t get anywhere near a notable number of sales, the sales count.

When somebody buys a song for $0.99 on iTunes, I make roughly $0.637. This number is similar to what a developer in the App Store, selling a $0.99 app, would make. It’s about a 70/30 split.

In my opinion, this is incredibly reasonable. The artist gets most of the money, and Apple gets some funds to help them run the store. When somebody chooses to buy an entire album, I get $6.37. Also incredibly reasonable.

But in the past couple of years, streaming music services like Spotify and Rdio have become increasingly popular, even to the point where I’m seeing more and more people using Spotify instead of iTunes to listen to their music. For my argument, I’ll be talking about Spotify, but all of this applies to the other services, too.

With Spotify, you can listen to ad-supported music on demand for free on a desktop computer. Spotify also offers an unlimited plan with no ads for $4.99 a month and a premium plan, with the ability to listen on all of your devices, ad-free, for $9.99 a month.

When somebody listens to a song on Spotify, I make $0.0034117. I make less than a penny per listen.

This might be a sustainable model for the major labels and their artists because of the sheer volume of listens that these artists get, but this model completely overlooks the independent musician. And that’s a huge mistake.

The Internet has given so many opportunities to independent musicians. And the way that the industry has moved in the past decade has shown that the playing field is being leveled dramatically.

Social media has made artists and their work more relatable and accessible to listeners, computers have made home studios affordable, and companies specializing in artist services have made it easier to get independent music onto the same digital shelves as all of the big boys and girls.

It’s clear: we don’t need the big labels anymore.

Until we step back into the real world. The world where streaming music exists and listeners have been taught that music isn’t something you pay for. Which means that artists have to try to make a living through relentless touring, sleazy merchandizing, and an ever-present tip bucket.

I’d much rather sell an album.

The fact of the matter is that touring isn’t for everyone, merchandizing gets old, and putting a tip bucket out at a show simply makes me feel dirty. A lot of people just don’t realize that these aren’t traits that come along with being a musician.

These are traits that have been tacked onto the job description because it’s gotten so hard to make a living. So we end up with a mainstream where artists all make the same music, do the same dirty things, and make the definition of “musician” have as little to do with music as the definition of “sandwich”.

The music industry is so messed up because everyone seems to have forgotten that it’s about making music. And whether that’s Spotify’s fault or not, and I don’t think it completely is, offering music in a way that creates an indirect relationship between the listener and the artist means that the industry can only become even more disconnected than it already is.

When listeners buy music, there is an honest connection between them and the artist. It doesn’t have to be questionable whether or not the artist is making what he/she deserves. It doesn’t have to feel wrong or dishonest in anyway. The listener knows that the money is going where it should be.

But as soon as you start to offer something for free, people are going to start to expect it for free. And that’s already happened.