To stream or not to stream?
Everyone is telling us that streaming is essential but as independent artists we are unsure. I look into our particular situation and investigate the facts. The results will shock you.
The artistic landscape for musicians has changed since the heady days of the 80s when record company money flowed like water and I signed to a major label.
I am not saying it was easy to secure a record contract back then, the competition was fierce and unless you found the ear of a record company executive, or managed to get into one of the four weekly music newspapers, you were screwed. There were a lot more recording studios and live venues around then so it was possible to make a living, but always with the hope that you would be ‘discovered’.
When you did secure a deal and could live with the control and general interference, life was pretty good until the realisation that everything spent on your career by the label came out of your repayable advance, including the mounds of Bolivian marching powder and lakes of vintage Château Margaux.
Besides the record companies, sharks were never too far away in the business waters and many fell foul of bad contracts and the unscrupulous.
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” - Hunter S. Thompson
Today I am looking into the future; if you are interested in stories from my early career, mosey over to my website and check it out.
Chasing the money
When starting out, almost every artist ‘stands on the shoulders of giants’, building upon work that inspires them.
This was the case with me, but in my late 20s, I was tired and became guilty of trying to make music that was ‘in style’, hoping to get a ‘deal’ hanging on the coat-tails of others. Now, 40 years later and provided I can pay the bills, this is no longer important.
The independent artist
Starting again as an independent artist following a long hiatus, without the support of a record company, was tough.
Suzy and I do everything; from marketing to tour management, booking to website design and maintenance, social media to accounts, running our own online shop and label - even repairing and maintaining our gear.
Most importantly, we write, play, record and produce our music in our own analogue studio.
Apart from an array of superb session musicians, we work with three professionals: Barry Kinder (graphic design), Miles Showell, (who cuts our vinyl at Abbey Road) and Jon Astley (mastering) who fulfil roles outside of our expertise and comfort zone. That’s it.
I released my first solo record ‘ThirtySix’ in 2011 on CD and iTunes. It did remarkably well and reignited my creativity and sparked an acoustic / Americana-based second solo project ‘The Knife’ in 2014 - which contained the first collaboration with my new wife Suzy Starlite - followed in 2017 by our joint Electronica project ‘Electrolite’, working with analogue synth guru Mark Cleator.
Following our move to Spain, we wrote and released ‘Blueberry Pie’ (2017) in the genre of British Blues, tipping our hats to the bands that stimulated me to pick up a guitar at the tender age of 16. Our next, ‘The Language of Curiosity’ (2021), was a genre step forward from ‘Blueberry Pie’ moving in a different musical direction.
Our next project - Starlite.One - is firmly based in Art Rock with associated multimedia - but more of this later.
So, who are we as artists?
Many bands stick to a relatively specific formula: can you imagine ‘Guns and Roses’ making a Hop Hop album or Ozzy as a Bluegrass artist?
Others do not, releasing diverse ranges of music but usually identifiable by a common thread such as a distinctive vocalist or instrumentalist, lyrical style or production aesthetic. You always know it’s the Flaming Lips when you hear the strained and otherworldly vocals of Wayne Coyne.
Both Suzy and I write music, not genres and wouldn’t put ourselves in the same universe, never mind ballpark, as the likes of Thom Yorke, Low, the Flaming Lips and David Bowie, who create magnificent and sometimes difficult, cross-genre work.
But regardless of success, or the lack of it, we all have one thing in common, we do it regardless of what fans may think, or are prepared for.
The concept of the album (as opposed to the concept album)
We make albums with tracks placed in a specific order, telling a story. This is the way we prefer people to listen to our music and the reason we always produce vinyl and CDs.
To us, it’s vastly more satisfying to visit an art gallery and see a coherent body of work together, rather than one piece stuck on a wall out of context.
One of the best collections we have seen recently was that of Mark Bradford at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal.
It was an extensive display, taking you on a journey of his work and was truly inspiring: hats off to the curators of the gallery.
At home we listen to vinyl, even when eating and getting up to change the side is an excellent opportunity to grab another bottle of wine or the black pepper grinder.
So to contextualise these references in terms of the subject matter of this article, we liken the exhibition to the album and the solitary, out-of-context piece as a track on a streaming service.
Making a living
Even though we live in Portugal, where the cost of living is dramatically less than in the UK, we still have to eat and pay the rent.
Pre-pandemic income was generated from live gigs, live streams, downloads, tips, subscriptions and ‘merchandise’ (FUCK I hate that ‘m’ word, but it has become somewhat of a standard term), which covers apparel, CDs, vinyl and other physical products.
“What?” you say. “Where is the income from Spotify, YouTube and the other plethora of streaming services?” Well, there’s the rub, but more of that later.
During the pandemic, the live music scene throughout the UK and Europe was decimated and since then, venues and promotors that managed to survive have been catching up with all the gigs that were cancelled during that torrid time.
Will it ever come back? I don’t know, but we do know that artist fees have remained constant (or less, as audience numbers have dwindled) whilst the costs of touring have skyrocketed.
After many dark nights and litres of wine, we decided to take a new direction with a fresh approach and mapped out our new multimedia project - Starlite.One. With the art of storytelling at its core, this side-project encompasses everything Starlite & Campbell, but with bigger wings, higher skies and wider horizons.
As a part of this enlarged artistic canvas, we have created VIBES (this very blog) to share thoughts and ideas with you, plus a brand new series of the Supertone Show podcast, featuring inspirational music from all genres and decades, but mainly what is inspiring us right now.
Books are being written, artwork created and fixed art installations designed - all tied together by music.
Most of this new work involves a physical product or experience. Something you can hold, touch, feel, smell and cherish - a long, relaxed, love-making session as opposed to a quick fuck behind the bike sheds.
We love talking with our friends, fans and supporters but have made a decision to move away from the algorithmic world of ‘Big Tech’ knowing that our ‘content’ (I also hate that word) posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram et al is selectively served to those who are most likely to read advertisements and fit the appropriate demographic. Artists and businesses are constantly pushed to pay for the ‘boosting’ of posts to reach more of their ‘target audience’.
Take six minutes to read a recent article about this very subject.
This of course applies to streaming services…
The streaming scandal
Access to almost every piece of music that has ever been created for a few 'groats' per month is not sustainable.
There has been a multitude of blogs, industry reports and recently, an in-depth British Government enquiry1 into the financial model.
Regardless if you pay for streaming services or not, small independent artists or labels make virtually no money from these services.
The big labels and major artists take the lion’s share, the likes of Spotify relying on major artists with extensive back catalogues to attract customers to their service and in return, give them massively greater royalty payments.
Music is presented to you based on what you have played and liked. Over time, the algorithm knows more about the music you like than you do, lessening your likelihood to discover new artists unless, of course, a big label’s marketing team want you to hear it…
Take a look at these figures based on royalties received by an independent artist - data courtesy of the Producer Hive website published in 2022.
Music is suffering
It’s my opinion that the streaming culture is also destroying creativity, driving the upsurge of electronic music created in bedrooms.
I am not saying that music created in this way is bad - listen to James Blake and Billie Eilish - but in the 2020s this production methodology favours solo artists and financially squeezes musicians playing traditional instruments out of the scene.
Recording real drums, acoustic instruments and guitars require expensive equipment and generally speaking, the use of recording studios. Bands are expensive to run.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), such as Ableton Live, has made it a cinch to grab hold of the original samples and sounds from successful songs, which in turn has led to sonic homogenisation, so much so that its difficult to differentiate one artist from another.
The big record labels have always been about money, but now more than ever as it’s cheap and easy to sign artists such as these and is limiting mainstream musical diversity.
Compare a top 20 chart from the mid 70s to this week’s offerings and you will get what I mean.
As with everything, there are exceptions and there are a few cool companies that still invest in more eclectic artists such as 4AD (led by my old bandmate Edward Horrocks), XL Recordings, Sub Pop Creation and Rough Trade amongst others - but they are few and far between.
YouTube is the best of the bunch
This is an interesting one as even though YouTube Music and YouTube Video pay almost nothing per stream, it is actually possible to make money from this platform once you have reached a certain threshold based on ‘numbers of subscribers’ and ‘listener hours’.
Of course, to pay for the privilege we are confronted with a barrage of very annoying advertisements - often without warning.
If you enjoy this platform and want to make a difference, I cannot stress how important it is to ‘subscribe’ to the channel of the artist(s) you like and want to support. It costs you nothing, but it can mean the difference between monetisation or not for an artist’s work.
Soundcloud has made moves to make the distribution of royalties fairer2, but you also need to subscribe to their premium service and the site is more favoured by Rappers and the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) fraternity.
Most streaming services have 'curated playlists' where ‘taste makers’ select tracks from the astounding quantity of music uploaded: Lucian Grange, head of Universal Music, stated it was over 100,000 tracks per day3.
To make it into a ‘curated playlist’ is a big thing and can certainly jump-start your career, but it takes literally millions of streams and a very healthy marketing budget to take advantage of the exposure, cross-promoted with social/digital/printed media, radio and TV plus live tours.
The hope is that the people who listen to the music will build a relationship with the artist then go and see them play live and buy merchandise (there’s that bastard word again).
We are deluged with companies offering ‘access’ to these playlists, but of course for a substantial fee.
The reality is that curated playlists destroy the concept of the artist delivering a series of songs as a complete piece of work, relying on these ‘tastemakers’ to make decisions for you - remember what I said about art galleries?
On a positive note, personal playlists allow music lovers total freedom to create their own ‘digital’ compilations but I don’t think it’s as much fun as selecting from a pile of vinyl singles and albums where each record has its own story.
So finally to the point - To stream or not to stream?
All the music I have released as a solo artist or in partnership with Suzy is available to stream across the board. The question is, in light of everything I have discussed so far, do we continue on this path?
Suzy and I have a small but loyal fan base that buys everything we put out and we communicate through our regular newsletter.
Our online shop provides access to our vinyl, CDs, apparel and other physical products. Bandcamp provides access to those who want to download and then stream.
The question is, do we need the exposure?
Every industry publication tells you yes, but bearing in mind the sale of one t-shirt, vinyl or CD makes more money than tens of thousands of streams, is it better to share small snippets of video and audio, hoping that if people like what they hear they will actually BUY music or subscribe as a regular supporter?
The upshot is we are going to experiment by only releasing digital versions of our work on streaming services which pay us fairly.
This will include tasters on YouTube shorts, art videos on Vimeo (the quality being vastly superior to YouTube) and downloads on Bandcamp to see what happens. Physical products will of course still be available direct from our online shop.
We really hope that this will be a great way forward for us, you and our wonderful fans.
Thank you so much for reading this article. We really value your input and being a part of the conversation.
What do you think? Are we right or are we wrong? Please feel free to comment below.
Much love from Portugal and see you in a couple of weeks - Suzy is up for the next post.
VIBES is a reader-supported guide to life, culture, music and current affairs. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
HM Government: Music and streaming market study: final report (worth reading the executive summary)