One-third of a penny. That’s how much artists on Spotify are paid on average each time their song is streamed, according to a 2020 Business Insider report. Other platform’s rates are not much better.
Berkeley High School senior musician Dexter Griffin makes a cross between R&B and pop music, and has been producing music since freshman year. In that time, “I’ve made one hundred or two hundred dollars total, and that’s about 150,000 streams,” Griffin said.
Griffin and other independent musicians at BHS use the distribution platform DistroKid to release music online to sites such as Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes. DistroKid costs $19.99 per year for unlimited uploads per band, making it one of the cheapest distributors out there for unsigned artists. Even so, money made by streaming often doesn’t make up the money paid to release it.
“Spotify, Apple Music, and streaming services in general are notoriously known for not paying artists much of anything,” said Vivien Silas, an independent BHS musician. Silas makes bedroom pop music, a genre of alternative music made by artists who often don’t have a record label. As a small artist, Silas does not bring in an income from music platforms, and instead plans to begin doing shows in the future to increase her earnings.
“When it comes to money, the venue usually decides how much you’re going to make, their cut, and the amount that they’re going to charge for tickets,” said sophomore Wyatt Fortner, singer and guitarist for the band Cascade.
Cascade, an alternative rock band made up of BHS sophomores, has been performing at shows since last year. Cascade performs at free shows at skate parks and other venues, but also play at venues where tickets are priced between five dollars and $15.
“Usually, it’s either a 40/60 or 50/50 cut between the venue and the band, and the money that goes to the band is divided up among everyone,” said Eo Garcia-Freedman, the band’s drummer and songwriter. Money that Cascade makes from ticket sales goes back into the band itself.
However, putting on shows can be a balancing act between making a profit and having a meaningful show experience.
“I would always rather have a bigger crowd and not charge money than charge a lot of money, but not very many people come,” said Cormac Foreman, a guitarist and singer for Cascade.
Making money while pursuing a career in music is top of mind for many independent musicians at BHS. Working artists often have multiple sources of income, as well as different music-oriented jobs, such as being a songwriter, producer, session musician, or managing tours.
“A lot of people end up (doing) music that isn’t for their passion, but it’s stuff they have to do for work. … To be financially doing well isn’t easy,” Griffin said. “In all different realms of art, you’re probably going to be broke.”
Through interactions with other bands, members of Cascade have observed that financial struggles in the music scene are widespread and very serious in some cases.
“We’re definitely lucky that we’re all kids, so we don’t have to pay for gas money or even pay for housing and that sort of thing, which some bands do,” Fortner said. “(Being) a band that’s trying to live off what their music is playing is very difficult, but a band that’s just trying to make some extra cash is quite easy.”
More than anything, being a young independent musician builds important skills.
“Knowing that I’m creating the skill set of knowing how to produce young, I think that that is going to help me in college and being a good producer by the time I have to make money on my own,” Silas said.
Garcia-Freedman and Foreman both agree that although it poses challenges, music is definitely something they want to pursue in their future careers.
“I wouldn’t pursue fame in music, (but) I think I’ll keep making music for pretty much all my life,” Foreman said. On the whole, it is more important to focus on passion than profit.
“The most important thing is to make stuff that you’re proud of and not really worry about being received, but make sure that it’s something you can stand behind and feel proud of,” Griffin said.
“You never know what’s gonna blow up and even if it doesn’t, I’ve found that I cannot seek validation from that because it’s all a game of luck, really,” Silas said.
Regardless of what is yet to come, Garcia-Freedman is certain of one thing: “Music is my favorite thing,” he said, “and will always be something that I do.”