Another year another Spotify Unwrapped where people share the stats on what they’ve been listening to all year.

I must admit I rather like it.

Aside from people connected to music – i.e. musicians, bloggers, photographers, promoters and so on, most people never post about music.

Listening to music has become quite a personal thing – listening to Spotify on your airpods going on your own personal music journey, without some music nerd going “You listen to shit!  It’s scientifically proven that my bands are better than yours”.

So I find it refreshing to get a little glimpse into what friends and social media acquaintances have been enjoying.

In the old days people who liked mainstream pop would generally listen to big hits, people into Indie/Alternative would listen to peelies favourites such as The Fall or The Wedding Present.

But in the streaming era, consistency has been torn to shreds – just take a look at people’s unwrapped or end of year blogger lists – although there are some common threads, the days of the BBC Radio 1 playlist committee and Peel deciding what we should be listening to are thankfully long gone.

My top 5 most listened to artists of 2023 were Skating Polly (USA) Glume (USA) Dlina Volny (Belarus) Violet Indiana (UK) and Emika (Czech/Germany/UK)

AFAIK my top 3 artists have never been played on 6 Music or any other major radio station.  They have been played on Internet stations and podcasts with relatively small audiences in the low hundreds, but the odds of me ever hearing any of those artists without streaming or airplay on a major station would have been very remote indeed.

Often friends with similar music taste will have a top listened to artist that I’ve never even heard of, so will go and check them out.

Spotify is the marmite of streaming services – people love it or hate it, but Attila The Stockbroker is one of the few who takes a more balanced view, pointing out the benefits of Spotify whilst calling out the elephant in the room.

In a nutshell, Spotify (and other streaming services) are great for bringing you new fans, but does nothing to help you pay the bills.

Song royalties are complex – every artist has a different royalty split agreed with their label if they have one, most don’t talk about their royalties any more than anybody else talks about how much they get paid – it’s private.

Streaming royalties for free tier subscriptions supported by advertising are much lower than from paid subscribers.

It all adds up to cloud the issue of how much artists actually get paid for their streams.

So rather than discuss what would be a fair royalty, people usually skirt around the issue.

Spotify’s latest wheeze seemingly is a plan to take royalties from emerging artists and give the money to bigger artists.  So I listen to Skating Polly but Beyonce gets their royalties?  Sod right off!

It’s a kind of inverse Robin Hood – a move so heartless and corrupt that it would probably even have made Thatcher blush!

But putting all that to one side, what I want to know is, let’s say Scrooge Spotify have too much to drink at the office party and get visited by the ghost of music past, present and future, they see the error of their ways and become a socialist cooperative dedicated to helping musicians make a living.  Hoorah!

My questions is – with a fair split, can the musicians I love make a living out of the royalties they can get from my £17.99 a month?

Well, Julianne Regan of All About Eve has shed some light on it.

She uses one of All About Eve’s biggest songs Martha’s Harbour as an example.

Over an 18 month period it got 32,295 streams on Spotify – a pretty decent number.

The agreement she had with her label BMG was that the songwriters get 50% of the royalty, and although it was written by her and Tim, she gave the 3rd member of the band a credit, meaning a 3 way split.  So she pockets 16.6% of what Spotify pay for the use of the song.

Now, the more contrary amongst you would probably suggest that, well I bought the CD single in 1988 for £3.49 out of HMV.  She got her 16.6p or whatever back then.  I can listen to that CD on repeat every day for the past 35 years and she wouldn’t get another cent, at least spotify are paying her something.

I’m not going to get sidetracked on that issue, but lets imagine she was a new artist with a new song, the word has spread about her music and she’s had a fairly decent 32K streams in the last 18 months.

How much did she get paid?

DRUMROLL…

(Sound effects of streamers going flat) £2.21.

Bloody ridiculous!

It’s crystal clear (if we didn’t already know) that streaming is ripping off artists.

What’s not so clear is, how much would be fair payment for 32K listens to a song?

Times the royalty by 10 – £22.10 is still a bad joke.  Times it by 100 £221.00.  For 18 months?

Times it by 1,000 – £2,210.00 – still sounds inadequate, but maybe with enough songs, plus royalties from other platforms, maybe, just maybe they could scrape a living.

So let’s look at what a subscription would cost that would cover such royalties.

If my maths are correct, then for Juliane to receive £2,210 from Martha’s Harbour on 32K streams, she would need 14p for each stream.  And as she gets 16.6% of the royalty, the total royalty that Spotify would need to pay out would be 87p per stream.

Unwrapped doesn’t say how many songs I listened to this year, I listened to Skating Polly’s corking new album on MP3 and Vinyl mainly, and also watch YouTube a lot, but looking at my Spotify minutes, I worked out that I roughly listened to 433 songs a month, about 14 a day, or one / one and a bit album.  Which is hardly excessive.

To cover an 87p royalty on each song I listened to in a month, would take £376.71 + VAT + Operating Costs + Profit + CEO’s new swimming pool.  PER MONTH.  And that doesn’t even take into account that I have a 5 user family subscription…

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be good value, music gives me a lot of pleasure and keeps me relatively sane.

But I couldn’t afford that every month, and would probably go back to buying a couple of CDs a month and listening to them.

Streaming works with the likes of Netflix – where all these £10+ a month add up and allow them to finance new shows costing millions, because there is a relatively limited selection of shows on the platform.

But there is an enormous amount of music on streaming platforms, which dilutes down the royalties available for each artist down to literally pennies unless you are a massive global artist.

When I started this research I had hoped to come up with a royalty rate that would allow listeners to keep enjoying access to pretty much every tune ever created for a pocket friendly price whilst artists can give up their day jobs and create even more music for us to enjoy.

We could start a campaign to raise royalties to that level.  Probably little chance of convincing the big streaming companies, but at least we’d all be campaigning for the same thing.

But unless my “back of a cigarette packet” maths are way out, and do let me know if I’m off-the-mark, but I don’t think the current “all you can eat” model of platforms such as Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, YouTube et all can ever be made to work, other than for a tiny elite of huge commercially successful artists.

So where does that leave us?

If I won the euro millions and bought Spotify, I think what I’d do is limit the number of times you can listen to  a song in a year.  Put the “Spot” back in Spotify, where it primarily becomes a tool to discover new (to you) music, but once you find something you like, you buy it to carry on listening.  As a “puppy-dog selling” sales tool, it would probably be very effective.

I think it’s the only way it can become sustainable for artists.

Of course, whilst we are waiting for me to win the euro millions (and it might take a while as i don’t do it very often) we can all do our best to help the musicians we love.

I’ve got all 6 of Skating Polly’s albums on vinyl, and I subscribe to their “Camp Ugly” Patreon, and I’ve co-promoted their 2 Liverpool shows and co-co-promoting their Manchester show on 25th January 2024.  I occasionally post about them on Facebook 😉

I bought tickets for me and my daughter to see Glume in Leeds, and was going to buy her new album “Main Character” at the gig, but sadly the tour was cancelled, but I’ll probably buy the album on vinyl from Rough Trade.

I’m promoting Dlina Volny’s Liverpool show on 24th January 2024.  I’m hoping they bring “Dazed” on vinyl to the merch stall, and I’ll skip the queue 😉

I interviewed Siobhan de Maré of Violet Indiana earlier this year, I really should buy the album on vinyl.

I’ve got all Emika’s albums on Vinyl, including her super-limited edition one, travelled on the overnight coach back from Brum on a school night to catch her live, when she does another UK tour will hopefully bring her to Liverpool.

So whilst we perhaps can’t afford to support all the artists we like, there’s lots of things we CAN do to support some, even if it’s just telling our friends about a new band we’ve discovered.

Because between increasing touring costs, diminishing audiences, wafer thin streaming royalties, and all the other challenges facing musicians who have to deal with the cost of living crisis as much as anyone else, our favourite bands might jack it all in.  Imagine if you’re favourite new album of the year hadn’t been made?

Doesn’t bear thinking about!

Let’s support musicians!