Music News: An Independent Artist's View on Apple Music

Independent ArtistApple Music is great for listeners, not so much for artists

As a music fan, I’m delighted that Apple Music is finally here. The thought of being able to access most of Apple’s iTunes catalog for a low monthly fee is a mouth-watering prospect. Before services like this were available, I would routinely spend two or three times as much every month on buying new music to feed my addiction. Therein lies the problem for independent artists, but also all artists at large, as streaming services move from being marginal, secondary sources of income to something increasingly material.

Musicians have a right to make a living from the fruits of their labor, just as much as anyone else deserves to be compensated for their efforts in the workplace. Making music is not easy, despite the way music reviewers are sometimes quick to write off the hard work of artists in their reviews. A song might last 3-5 minutes, or an album around an hour, but they take a lot of effort — and often a lot of money — to put together.
I recently read that Dave Jerden, a well-known rock producer, typically spends between 500 and 1,000 hours on each album he has worked on. I recently spent between 25-30 hours on the my second independently-released single, and the first from my forthcoming debut album. The album has about 12 songs on it, so I can expect to have spent upwards of 360 hours on it, at a minimum. It would be nice to see some sort of financial return on it, even though I am doing it for my own enjoyment as much as anything.


Shameless plug of the artwork for my new single

The recent publicity surrounding Taylor Swift and Apple’s Apple Music service raised some interesting issues. Swift had refused to allow her hugely successful 1989 album on Apple Music for streaming, although it is available for purchase on iTunes. Apple is offering a free three month trial of Apple Music to all users, which is again, great news for music fans.
The grim truth for artists though, was that Apple was not planning to compensate artists, via their labels or services, for the time their music was streamed during the free trial period. Although it is standard industry practice during the launch phase of a new service, the difference with the Apple Music trial period is that it is three times as long at three months, rather than the more standard one month trial period. As we know, Apple rightly reversed course on this policy, and is now ensuring that artists are compensated during the trial period. However, Apple’s initial policy position speaks to a couple of things that need to be examined.
While there is little doubt that paid streaming services offering high-quality, virus-free, legal music is preferable to people widely stealing the work of artists, musicians and rights holders are not making much money out of them. The advent of broadband Internet, and the comparatively small file sizes of music files, has made music piracy very easy. Yet although Apple likes to say that “we love music,” to quote Eddy Cue at WWDC, it doesn’t appear to love the people that make it quite as much; except perhaps for a select few high-profile figures.


Taylor Swift, fighting the good fight

The initial policy position on the compensation of artists was totally unacceptable for a company that purports to love music as much as it does, and is very reminiscent of an attitude that the work of artists should be free, or very cheap. Apple’s stance has further devalued the hard work of artists. For a company with as much cash and bargaining power as Apple, it is a very easy position to adopt.
Could you imagine the outcry if Apple, for example, offered a similar “all-you-can-eat” service for the apps on its App Store and did not compensate developers for three months while people were free to download their apps as much as they liked? It just wouldn’t happen. Why should the work of an app developer be worth more, or valued more, than the work of a musician? Both are types of content that provide users with endless hours of entertainment and have helped Apple make a lot of money. Yet one is valued inherently less than the other.
It is widely accepted that in many ways the work of app developers has played a large role in the incredible success of the iPhone and the iPad. Just as apps are the lifeblood of the iPhone and iPad, music was the lifeblood that helped Apple dramatically turn around Apple’s fortunes with the runaway success of its iPods. It is also true that, equally, the arrival of the iTunes store also helped to put a brake of music piracy, which was a win for artists. It is also true that artists and rights holders will be offered slightly more in payments than is the, current, industry norm for these types of services.
What the Taylor Swift episode highlighted, albeit briefly, is just how poorly artists are compensated for each time their song is streamed. During the free trial period for Apple Music, rights holders will be paid at a rate of $0.002 per track stream. Yes, you read that right. Apple adds that it will return over 70% of its streaming music revenue to the labels, but while that sounds like a large slice of the pie, the pie is not very big to begin with. As a point of comparison, Spotify pays a rate of $0.006 to $0.0084 per track. Apple Music is reported to be offering a slightly better rate, although as Recode reports, Apple is not willing to disclose the exact amount. Even if this is for commercial reasons, you can bet it’s not something to which Apple wants to draw attention.
An infographic produced by Information is Beautiful takes an interesting approach to highlighting just how poorly music streaming services compensate rights holders and artists — although the figures are from 2010, they are still in line with the figures being quoted around Apple Music. Using the US minimum monthly wage of US$1,160 as a yardstick, the infographic highlights the difference between how many sales or streams of various formats an artist would need to make the minimum monthly wage. For example, just 154 CD sales at $9.99 will net an artist the minimum monthly wage. However, depending on music streaming service, an artist may have to have over 4 million track streams to make the same amount, which is simply ridiculous.
This is an issue that affects the streaming music industry at large, and is not a matter for which Apple bears the solely responsibility. How poorly artists are compensated for streaming music services was underlined when it was revealed that Pharrell on received $2,700 in roughly $87,000 in royalties paid to the song’s rights holders from 43 million streams of “Happy” on Pandora – I can’t imagine that made him too happy. It is not surprising then that not all major artists have openly embraced streaming music services as you will find gaps in the Apple Music catalog, with Prince among those who are notable holdouts.
Prince wasn’t especially critical about the Apple Music, or streaming music services themselves, but rather, chose to direct his frustration at the record labels. According to Prince, in signing up to streaming services, “[Record companies] pay themselves twice while reducing what is owed to artists from pennies on the dollar to fractions of pennies on the dollar.” Streaming deals of the sort that Apple has now signed with most of the labels are reflect similar terms to those original struck with the first streaming services. The problem is that music sales of CDs and digital downloads have still been relatively strong overall, so the streaming deals have been treated like secondary revenue sources.


Prince, a rebel with a cause

However, the arrival of Apple Music could change all of that. Already, digital sales of music are down by 13-14 percent over the past year on iTunes. I think we can expect that to taper furthur. It is not inconceivable that iTunes, as the leading digital download sales leader, will see an even further, perhaps more dramatic downturn in digital music sales with the launch of Apple Music. Let’s not forget how wide the reach of Apple Music will be, as it will also be offered to Android users later this year. We could be at that tipping point where streaming music subscription services become the norm, while buying an album or track outright becomes a thing of the past.
As a music consumer, I still buy copies of my favorite albums on CD – I might often download them for offline listening on a streaming service, but still go out and buy it. Part of the reason for this is that I would also prefer to rip my own lossless files from the CD. That said, there are still albums that I really enjoy on streaming services that I don’t go out and buy as, like most people, I have a limited budget. Many people, if not most, will just download an album or single for offline listening until they are tired of it, and then delete. An artist might be lucky to make a single dollar per customer for their hundreds of hours of work.


Apple Music app

As an independent recording artist, streaming music services like Apple Music offer me little hope of getting much out of my endeavors financially. If I am to make anything out of it, I am going to have to hope that people are willing to buy singles or albums that I release. That is where the top artists still make the bulk of their living, along with live shows — it’s no coincidence that artists are touring to more countries more often as this is still a unique commodity “the live performance experience” that cannot be completely replicated through piracy. Major artists and labels can often “afford” to have their music on streaming services, but they are certainly not much better off for their existence.
Compounding things somewhat, the Apple Music app has not made it particularly easy for people to purchase a song or album through the app — in fact, users are forced to jump out of the app altogether, and go to the iTunes app; but not before having to dig into a menu to look for the iTunes app store link in the first instance. It might help the cause of artists if Apple made this function more readily available. Yes, it might complicate the UI, but the UI is already more complicated than I have seen from Apple in one of its own mobile apps.
While Apple Music is great for the fans, I do wonder how good it will be for music in the longer term. For independent artists like myself, the rise of Apple Music may have put paid to any hopes of making any sort of living out of music if streaming music becomes the norm. The answer is to more fairly compensate artists and rights holders, but this will lead to higher upfront costs for music fans, and there is probably a fine line between how much people are willing to pay before they would sooner steal it.
The way things are heading though, there might be a lot less music to steal in the future.
–Sanjiv Sathiah
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