I don’t buy CDs any more. And the reason why is simple: Spotify. Since deciding to part with £10 every month for the extraordinary privilege to be able to listen to vast chunks of rock history, or indeed new releases that tickle my fancy, the idea of hauling myself off the sofa to go down to a record store and spend moolah on a rotund lump of plastic just doesn’t really cut it for me anymore. It’s kind of sad, because I was the sort of kid who’d save up several weeks of pocket money just to buy one LP which I had ordered specifically, ten years in advance, from the local (and now-gone-bust) record shop. And besides which, I’m a musician – I’m meant to love limited-edition vinyl gatefold double albums made of gold bought from a hipster with a beard, man. In fact, I'm meant to be a hipster with a beard.
Anyway, from talking to my fellow music-lovers, it would appear that I’m not alone in my abandonment of the physical product. Just as the invention of the kettle seems to have done away with the quaint practice of boiling water on a stove, or the invention of Fox News did away with the truth, Spotify has made it just too easy to ‘consume’ music without actually buying a physical product, and the recent announcement of a streaming chart only confirms that the record industry’s journey from wax cylinder to a file that sits on a server in a cloud computing centre somewhere is nearly complete.
But where does this leave musicians, particularly independent musicians? It leaves them with a dilemma, that’s what. On the one hand, putting your music on Spotify makes your music instantly available to listeners all over the world; but it means that you won’t get much in the way of dosh any time somebody actually listens to your record – as far as I can tell from various internet perusals, artists get around 0.02p per play, meaning you’ll need something like 50 plays of a track to make a penny. On the other hand, deciding to avoid Spotify altogether and exclusively sell CDs and downloads means that you may generate revenue, but massively limit the number of potential listeners.
So which path should you choose? Well, my answer is probably ‘both’ – it’s a good idea to have some music on Spotify, but think very carefully before putting your brand new album on it the day it comes out. Here’s why: say you have 500 fans. If they can be persuaded to buy your new album from you for a tenner during the week of release, you’ll generate £5k. However, if these 500 fans can all access the record on Spotify, and consequently choose to stream it rather than buy it, here’s how the revenue will break down, if we assume (very generously) that 500 people stream your 10-track album 3 times a day, every day, during the week of release:
£0.0002 per play x 10 tracks x 3 plays of the album per day x 500 fans x 7 days = £21
I hope I’ve done my maths right there; but regardless, it’s £5000 versus a pittance. You’d need your fanbase to be playing the album an incredible number of times before you got anywhere close to squeezing £5000 from Spotify. You'd have to be an artist that wore very little in the way of clothing but excelled in autotuned squealing and good sex faces.
So the key thing to remember (particularly given the above rather unfortunate equation) is that for the independent musician, Spotify is absolutely not a revenue-raising tool; however, given its huge and increasing userbase, it is a powerful promotional tool – and that’s why you should have some of your music on there. Consider putting a sampler from your new album up: 3 or 4 tracks, and a podcast featuring new material. You could also use it to showcase any back catalogue – albums you put out a while ago that don’t sell any more but which still might be of interest to new or existing fans. If you really want your latest opus to be up on Spotify in its entirety, the best way to go about this is probably to do a ‘staggered release’ where you go with a conventional (i.e., physical, non-streaming) release initially and then gradually release the album onto Spotify, in chunks perhaps (via EP releases) and then finally, a few months or a year after the release date, in its entirety.
Finally, a very important point to remember is that regardless of to-stream-or-not-to-stream dilemmas, the physical aspect of your release should be very special – as highlighted above, streaming services have made people far more reluctant to bother with physical incarnations of music, so whatever you put out physically needs to extremely desirable for fans - don't just rely on a boring, bog-standard CD but get creative with your packaging (you might like to read our article on 'getting physical' for tips).
The irony is, of course, that whatever about Spoitfy, the digital revolution has brought us to a situation in which the only way to make money from selling music is to issue your latest album on signed, limited-edition wax cylinder...