There never was easy time to be a musician, but for many in and around the industry, the 21st century has presented one disaster after another for those hoping to make a living through music. At the turn of the century, record companies were collapsing at a staggering rate, and it would be some time before some salvation arrived in the form of streaming services, which finally offered an effective method of monetizing music listening.
Seen in the harsh light of day, however, a fundamental question arises: Who exactly benefits from these services? According to the Recording Industry Association of America, streaming accounts for 83% of all recorded music revenue in the US, by 2020. Calculating the amount of revenue an artist makes per stream can be a complex task.
Different rights holders make different deals and you have a lot of chefs fighting for that money, including publishers, distributors and labels. The generally accepted figure for Spotify is this somewhere between $0.003 and $0.005 is paid to artists for each stream. The figure varies greatly from service to service, though it’s usually fractions of a cent. Apple, in particular, revealed last April that it pays about a penny per stream — a generous amount by streaming industry standards.
Income levels have, of course, been a common complaint among musicians for more than a decade, but like so many other labor issues, things came to a head during the pandemic. Two-plus years of little or no touring brought the apprehensions into stark relief. In late 2020, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched Justice in the Spotify campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
“With the entire live music ecosystem at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic, music workers are more dependent on streaming revenue than ever,” the organization noted at the time. “We call on Spotify to provide increased royalty payments, transparency in their practices and to stop fighting artists.”
The union would eventually find a sympathetic ear in Congress in the form of Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib. Last week, reports have emerged that the congresswoman is drafting a resolution aimed at creating a rewards program to ensure musicians are adequately compensated through stream-based royalties. “It was a meeting with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers,” Tlaib tells TechCrunch. “One of the things that kept coming up was what Congress could do to support their efforts to be protected as well as musicians to be fairly compensated for their work.” To have respect in this area, especially from so many people in the industry who continue to monopolize and so on. They did an amazing job coming to us with this proposal and taught my team and I so much about the ins and outs of how it works right now.”
Tlaib says her team worked closely with UMAW in drafting the resolution. “We’re doing the same with our housing bills, trying to address the economic divide in our country. We let them guide us. I work for them, help them and advocate on their behalf. They are teaching me so much about monopolization in the industry and how Spotify specifically acts in bad faith in many ways.”
Currently, music streaming creates wealth for the streaming platforms at the expense of the musicians. UMAW is working to correct this imbalance. Legislation proposed by Rep. Tlaib would guarantee a minimum payment from platforms directly to musicians who perform on streamed recordings. The infrastructure for such payments already exists, as they are already required by satellite radio. The same principle should be applied to streaming, for fairness and for the sustainability of recorded music.
Tlaib’s resolution would use the nonprofit royalties group SoundExchange, as well as the Copyright Board, to calculate and distribute royalties. The two bodies already perform a similar function for webcasting and satellite radio. This will effectively work on an additional model tailored to streaming.
With news of the resolution breaking in late July, the industry was buzzing. Tlaib said she has yet to speak directly to Spotify, explaining, “I understand they’re aware.” She adds, “My priority is not corporations. It probably never will be. They have their lawyers, they have their lobbyists, they have their resources to run ads and push people to say all the things that they say will happen as we continue to push this thing forward. My priority is to do everything right and not trade fairly in this market.”
TechCrunch has reached out to Spotify for the story, but has not yet received a comment. CEO Daniel Eck has made waves in the past by arguing that the simple streaming model can’t or wouldn’t support musicians the way record sales did in the past. “Some artists who have done well in the past may not do well in this future landscape,” he said interview from July 2019“where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”
Tlaib’s resolution began to gain momentum among House colleagues. Most recently, New York Rep. — and fellow staffer — Jamal Bowman backed the bill, which is still awaiting review by the House Legislative Council.
Tlaib tells TechCrunch he believes similar legislation could also win bipartisan support in Congress.
“I think what’s happening is that people don’t realize that a lot of the people affected by what’s going on are in all congressional districts. I don’t think you could go to any area that either isn’t affected by this or doesn’t understand how incredibly unfair it is. I know that we will be able – especially with the work that the Musicians and Allied Workers Union is doing outside of Congress – to make this a viable piece of legislation.
Tlaib’s own district — which includes West Detroit — can certainly lay claim to that impact.
“Detroit is the global music capital of the world: Motown, techno, jazz, gospel. I wanted to honor that and honor this incredible work that played a huge part in the movement,” she said. “Music was a huge part of me growing up in the social justice movement. It was a way to bring people together in an effort to understand not only human pain, but the possibility of “better.” When I think about these amazing musicians coming together like this, it’s incredibly inspiring. And why not? Why don’t they deserve Spotify and other industry bigwigs to pay them what they deserve?”