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Do Streaming Services Underpay Artists?

Illustration by Siena Laws

In October 2014. Taylor Swift shocked the masses when she removed her entire catalogue of music from Spotify. She argued that her compensation was unfair. This started a wave of artists taking a similar chance. More streaming services like Apple Music and Tidal began to take power. Tidal has been especially notable as it was advertised under the ideology of actually supporting artists economically. As of now, Taylor Swift has returned to streaming services but the landscape hasn’t gotten much better.

Certain albums and artists are remaining exclusive to some platforms, creating a bad market for consumers. All of this begs the question: are streaming services fair to artists, especially new ones?

Spotify pays its artists somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream of every song.  While it might not sound like a lot, it does eventually add up. Even estimating that each stream only makes $0.006, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” would’ve made $2,075,670.

However, Taylor Swift really isn’t the problem here. Even when she left Spotify, she was such a big name that people were willing to actually buy her album if they weren’t able to stream it. The real people this hurts are newer artists, who need streaming services for the exposure, but don’t feel that they’re adequately compensated.

Let’s take one of my recent favorites, Lizzo. At $0.006 a stream, Lizzo’s most popular song would only make her $78,000. Even if this seems like a lot of money, the amount it takes to make music including producers, managers, etc. also adds up. Her other songs also make much less money, so how is she supposed to feel properly compensated for her work, especially compared to the $1.29 iTunes would pay her?

The consumer is an important reason that artists stay on Spotify — people can’t imagine a world in which they would have to buy every song they want to listen to. Streaming services are a great way for people to become more educated in the art of music. It also helps newer artists as people don’t have to commit to buying new things, but they can try out a broader range of music.

“I don’t think streaming services are fair to artists, but if they were fair we’d have to pay a lot more money so I like it how it is right now,” said Hayley Martin, a Berkeley High School sophomore. Consumers won’t be willing to give up the convenience that they get now from streaming services.

However, the current wave of artist exclusivity towards streaming services is bad for consumers too. When a company offers to  pay more money for an artist to have their work exclusively on their streaming service, it totally limits the reach of their music. Chance the Rapper released his third mixtape Coloring Book exclusively on Apple Music as it was the only way to recoup the money, since a label wasn’t paying him. Only big artists are able to do this, so it doesn’t even help the people who are actually facing problems of undercompenstion. Even Lizzo, who doesn’t earn much, still has the added privilege of being part of a label who is able to promote her music — a luxury independent artists don’t have.

There is no real solution to this problem. People aren’t willing to give up their comfortable ten dollar a month fee in exchange for all the music in the world and artists won’t be able to leave because if people don’t listen to their music, they won’t be able to get money or grow their fan bases.

Luckily, some streaming services are better. Tidal on average pays their artists more money than Spotify and Apple Music. Most likely, the best streaming service for new artists is Soundcloud due to the artist friendly nature of it , but it doesn’t give the exposure that artists would get from the other services.