Penny for your songs: Columbus musicians struggle with streaming services like Spotify

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

As recently as last year, the members of instrumental post-rock band the End of the Ocean wondered if it was worth the sacrifice to continue making music.

In 2013, the band struggled through a disastrous tour where it found itself playing to ever dwindling crowds. Additionally, in October 2013 band members (and husband/wife) Bryan and Tara Yost relocated from Columbus to Seattle to be closer to her family — a distance that placed further strain on the collective.

“There was a point … where it was like, ‘[The band] has been awesome … but where’s the line?’” bassist Bryan Yost said in a July interview. “When does it become like, ‘OK, this is hurting us?’”

Now, following an extended period of inactivity, there’s been a renewed interest in both the band and its music. In May, the group will launch its first European trek, a two-week tour highlighted by an appearance at Belgium’s Dunk Festival — a post-rock gathering headlined by the likes of Mono and Caspian — and including stops in France, Germany and Spain, among other locales. The musicians also plan to resume work on the long-in-the-works follow-up to their 2012 full-length In Excelsis, a process that should receive an added jolt from the Yosts’ recent decision to move back to Columbus (the two returned in early March, due at least in part to the End of the Ocean’s new beginning).

This unexpected revival is taking place without the aid of a commercial radio hit, and in spite of the fact the crew hasn’t released any new material since 2012. Rather, the resurgence started when the streaming service Spotify added the song “Worth Everything Ever Wished For,” off the band’s 2011 album Pacific.Atlantic, to a pair of company-curated playlists (Deep Focus and An Instrumental Sunday) in June 2014. In the ensuing months, streams of the tune increased from roughly 10,000 to more than 2.8 million as of December — a dramatic spike that has netted the band in excess of $10,000 in revenue thus far.

“It’s definitely like a random lottery ticket we found,” said Bryan, who joins his bandmates for a concert at Spacebar on Thursday, March 19. “Literally we uploaded the music [to Spotify], forgot it was there and then it was like, ‘Oh, here’s a check.’”

The End of the Ocean’s experience is obviously unique, arriving at a time when streaming services are under increasing fire from major label acts like Taylor Swift, who pulled her back catalog from Spotify in November, dismissing the service as a “grand experiment.”

“I'm not willing to contribute my life's work to an experiment that I don't feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music,” she said in an interview with Yahoo. “And I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

To this point, much of the streaming debate has focused on big-name acts, and the effect of digital streams on overall album sales. In an interview with Time, Swift directly attributed declining sales figures to the increased popularity of streaming services like Spotify, Beats Music, Rdio, Rhapsody and Google Play Music.

For local and independent musicians, however, the tone of the debate takes on increased complexity, since few, if any, are likely to generate enough streams for the platform to become a reliable source of revenue. Spotify, for one, pays artists anywhere from $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, so even thousands of plays are unlikely to have an appreciable influence on band finances.

“The fact of the matter is if they raised the streaming rates by 30 percent it might help a bigger name quite a bit, but it’s not going to be the thing that makes an independent or local musician self-sufficient with their music,” said Columbus export Andrew Choi, who records as St. Lenox and recently released the excellent Ten Songs About Memory and Hope on local label Anyway Records. “To give you an example, I talked to [Anyway co-founder] Bela [Koe-Krompecher] and asked for the recent numbers, and he said I’ve had about 10,000 streams and it’s made [the label] maybe $0.33.”

Similar stories emerged in discussions with local musicians spanning a range of genres and experience.

In January, Angela Perley & the Howlin’ Moons’ song “Athens” received 1,161 Spotify streams, netting the group a payout of $.20018, according to its official ASCAP statement. Indeed, the band’s entire catalog received 5,381 Spotify plays for the month, earning the musicians $0.92774. Divided between the bandmates and their record label, the meager amount conjured images of Mickey, Donald and Goofy carefully slicing a single bean for a shared meal in Disney’s “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

“There are a lot of zeros [on the ASCAP statement],” a laughing Perley said, reached by phone in early March hours before the group entered the studio to continue work on a new full-length album. “As a band, we don’t depend on Spotify for income.”

Similarly, streams stretching across multiple platforms earned electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren all of $0.03 in January. Rapper Blueprint, who’s readying for the April release of his new album King No Crown, said he’s received more than a dollar from Spotify just once, with most checks landing somewhere in the neighborhood of $0.14, which helps explain why he’s yet to deposit a single one.

“I just laugh when I get [the Spotify check each month],” said Blueprint, seated in an Olde Towne East coffee shop for a late February interview. “There are success stories out there, but it’s hard to see deliberate success for those artists that aren’t at the highest levels. And even then I don’t think the money is proportional to what artists should be paid.”

It’s a point echoed by Philip Cogley of one-man band The Saturday Giant.

“I really think the revenue sharing model for streaming services — at least the prominent ones like Pandora and Spotify — is grotesquely unfair,” said Cogley, who has refrained from adding his music to the services, limiting its release to BandCamp, a site where streams can be monitored and restricted, requiring listeners to purchase a track after a set number of plays. “I’m probably going to come off as a Luddite in this article, but I do think this stuff has value, and I do think it’s a damn shame Angela got paid $0.20 for 1,000 streams of [‘Athens’]. It’s a great song, and it just doesn’t seem right to me.”

The harsh reality, however, is that, at least for the time being, there isn’t a lot of money swimming around in these digital streams. Take Spotify. The company, which started in Sweden in 2008 and has steadily evolved into a global symbol for music streaming, has yet to turn a profit, posting a net loss of $80 million in 2013 — an improvement from 2012, when it lost in excess of $115 million. Additionally, as of January, only 15 million of the company’s 60 million subscribers are paid users, with the remainder utilizing the service free with advertising. In the most simplified terms, the long-term health of the company largely hinges on its ability to convert more of these free users into subscribers, while continuing to grow its reach.

Though the financial benefits are largely non-existent for local and independent artists, musicians interviewed cited everything from increased exposure to the sense of legitimacy that comes with appearing on Spotify as reasons for utilizing the streaming platform.

“In this day and age I think it’s detrimental to an artist to not make your music available through as many services as you possibly can,” said Nathan Photos of Damn the Witch Siren in an early March phone interview. “You shouldn’t make a listener feel like, ‘Oh, I have to go here or jump through this hoop.’ I get annoyed when I go to listen to an artist’s song and I can’t find a stream. I don’t think that’s helping anyone. I love music, and I love creating and sharing, and that’s always going to outweigh my desire to make money off of it.”

Perley agreed, adding there were multiple occasions when a new fan turned out for one of the band’s concerts after sampling its music via digital stream.

“We’ve had people say, ‘Yeah, I listened to your album on Spotify, and that’s why I’m here,’” said Perley, who performed more than 120 shows alongside the Howlin’ Moons in 2014. “They buy a ticket, which ends up helping us, and then maybe they buy a T-shirt or the physical CD. It’s a good promotional tool because everyone knows of or has Spotify. It’s like handing out a business card: ‘Check us out on Spotify.’”

Even those artists who have adopted more of a wait-and-see approach to the technology are unwilling to completely ignore streaming’s expanding reach.

Blueprint, who noted digital sales via platforms like iTunes and Amazon generate enough revenue to cover his mortgage each month, said he’s still gathering data and weighing the pros and cons of streaming. With King No Crown, he’s considering releasing the album to streaming services following a six-month window where it would be available exclusively via digital download sites and in physical form on CD/LP.

“Then I can compare it with the last record,” he said. “Am I losing impact? Am I missing out on listeners? Are there complaints? Do people even notice if I’m not on Spotify?”

The digital current is even starting to wear down staunch anti-streamers like Philip Cogley, who admitted he’ll likely make the new Saturday Giant album available to streaming services after completing recording later this year.

“I’m more than likely going to put my next record up on Spotify, but I’m going to feel really conflicted about it,” said Cogley, who has carved out a life as a working musician through relentless, exhaustive touring, logging 206 shows in 2014. “I’m going to feel like people are listening to it [for free] that might otherwise buy it, and that’s going to be sad for me, but I’ll still want to have as many ears on it as possible.”

The End of the Ocean

Spacebar

9 p.m. Thursday, March 19

2590 N. High St., Old North

facebook.com/spacebarcolumbus

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