How the streaming-music boom is screwing over recording artists

$0.000014 per song? Sign me up!

Musician David Lowrey, formerly of the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, has been on the warpath against the modern music industry – that of Spotify, Pandora and iTunes – for a while now. His blog, the Trichordist, catalogues the exploitation of artists by the new overlords, and acts as a call to arms.

But sometimes, that exploitation is less severe than it looks on first glance.

Yesterday, Lowrey posted a piece titled "My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!". It recounts Lowrey's quarterly earnings for the song "Low", a 1993 hit by Cracker which has had an unexpected renaissance due to being featured in the Emma Watson film The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

From Sirius, 179 plays netted him $181.94; FM/AM radio paid him $1373.78 for 18,797 plays; Spotify gave him $12.05 for 116,260 plays; YouTube gave him $1.95 for 152,900 plays; and Pandora paid $16.89 for 1,159,000 plays.

That's a massive difference for Pandora, and it's no wonder that Lowrey writes angrily that:

Right now Pandora plays one minute of commercials an hour on their free service. Here’s an idea! Play two minutes of commercials and double your revenue!

But the story is actually more complicated than that. For one thing, as Lowrey writes, he only owns 40 per cent of "Low", so the numbers are artificially, er, not-high. For another, the royalties schemes Lowrey is discussing only cover songwriting credits. The performance royalties come through a different channel, and can be quite a bit higher.

But the most important difference is that, although all those services are technically "radio" – which is why they are covered by blanket licensing schemes – they are used in very different ways.

Take a look at the price per play:

Sirius 101.6424
FM Radio 7.3085
Spotify 0.0104
Pandora 0.0014
YouTube 0.0012
Service Price per play (¢)

That runs the gamut alright; but there's three clear categories of service in there. The top end plays the same song to thousands of people at a time. Assuming the average commercial radio station has 5,000 listeners, then the price per listener is actually better than it is on Spotify. Sirius pays much more, but it's also national; and so requiring 73,000 listeners to equal Pandora's price-per-user isn't that big of a deal.

The next most valuable is Spotify. That only plays to one user at a time (theoretically), but lets them choose what they can hear. That leaves it more likely to cannibalise record sales, but also offers the chance for an artist to earn more from their die-hard fans.

After that comes Pandora, which is a real internet-radio service; you can't choose what songs play, nor can you skip through too many you don't like. You can, however, adjust the playlist by giving it an artist or genre to focus on, and it will play things like that.

With all of that considered, it's pretty clear who the real rip-off is: not Pandora, but YouTube. It pays less per play than Pandora, even though it lets you pre-select the songs that will be played. And if you spend enough time with children, you'll know that it's perfectly possible to use YouTube as a jukebox, with judicious use of the playlist function.

But the real problem for artists like Lowrey isn't really the exploitation by the music services at all. Instead, it's that it's getting ever harder to get the millions of listeners required to make a living. To get $1,400 for one song on terrestrial radio, Lowrey probably had to win over ten, maybe twenty people who set the playlists for nearly every commercial radio station in the country. To get that much from Spotify, he would have to get 100,000,000 plays – and even if people love the song, that still requires convincing a good million people to click play.

The economics are against him on that one.

Sirius 101.6424
FM Radio 7.3085
Spotify 0.0104
Pandora 0.0014
YouTube 0.0012
Service Price per play (¢)


Photograph: Spotify

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.