Thank You Taylor, But Independent Musicians Are Still Fucked

I play guitar in avant-garde music circles, but I have a confession: I love Taylor Swift and other pop music. Some people might turn their nose up at her hooky melodies, but I dig them, and even use “Shake it off” to teach my students about syncopation.

 As a guitar player, I’ve spent my adult life cobbling together different income sources so that I could make my art. I taught music to kindergarteners. I was lucky enough to tour extensively with Lou Reed and jazz singer Diana Krall, and in between tours I would help people rent apartments as a real estate broker in NYC’s competitive real estate market. Now I teach at-risk youth part-time and do a few small tours a year. My wife and our two little girls manage to have a simple but happy lifestyle.

I also sell a small number of albums of my original music. I’ve released the albums independently, as even with my experience as an artist, I found that few labels were willing to make the investment to sign a non-established act, especially one that is playing non-mainstream music.  

Releasing my albums on my own has been a challenging but rewarding experience. Despite receiving great critical response, I’ve only sold a few hundred copies of each album, not thousands of copies. But I’ve still managed to sell enough to keep producing more music.

While most of my sales are directly though my website or Bandcamp, iTunes also provides a portion of my sales.

This is why I got freaked out when I read that Apple was launching their own streaming service. I’ve purposefully kept my albums off of Spotify and other streaming sites. I believe that there are enough ways for people to sample my music and if they want to listen to the whole album, they can pay $7 and purchase it.

Now with iTunes music streaming, when someone goes to purchase my record, they will be given a choice – they can either buy my album for $9.99, or stream my album and the ENTIRE ITUNES CATALOGUE for $9.99 a month.

What do you think most people are going to choose to do?

Apple is betting that the person who buys less than 12 albums a year will sign up for the streaming service and they’ll make more money. But it’s the independent artists and labels like me that are going to get fucked over by this.

I’m not selling 10s of thousands of records, and I understand the reality that music like mine most likely never will. But, I CAN sell a few hundred records, and each one of those sales makes a difference to me. It means the difference between whether or not I can afford to make a new album or not. It means the difference between whether or not I can continue to support the music economy by hiring sound engineers to mix my record, or mastering engineers to master it. It effects how much I can afford to pay my musician colleague when they play on my albums.

If artists like me are now facing an income stream of a few micro cents per play from iTunes Streaming vs. the $6 we’d receive from an iTunes album sale, we’re going to face a significant cut in our incomes.

For major acts, this will certainly have impact, but they’ll make up for it in touring. But with small acts that make non-conforming music, these few sales can make the difference between producing a new album or not. 

I’m very grateful that Taylor Swift spoke up against Apple and their decision to not pay artists during their 3 month sign up period, and I hope that more established  artists will start speaking out and following her lead. In one weekend she effectively won pay for 100s of thousands of artists when they wouldn't have gotten paid. That's wonderful. 

But also, let's keep going and fighting the fight!

If streaming is going to become a viable alternative to traditional sales and downloads, it needs to become sustainable for the creators of content. In the same way we sign up for Farm Shares so that we can support sustainable agriculture, we need to start thinking about the arts in terms of how the creators are being supported and compensated.

So again - Thank You Taylor! I sincerely give you a heartfelt thanks!

But let's keep up the fight!

If you're interested in learning more about Creator's rights in the digital age, check out the Content Creators Organization: I write this blog independently of their views and policies, but am actively involved in the organization.