Islands in the Stream

In 1990 I brought a copy of my first record, Coming of Age, to the offices of a small radio network in Sudbury. The music director saw me right away and we listened to the album in his office. He liked what he heard and so we strolled down the hall to the studio where he made a carte (1/4 tape cartridge) of a cut he thought would fit their format. He later put the song “Heaven on Earth” into light rotation which meant the record would be "spun" from five to fifteen times per week. For every time the song was heard on either of the network's FM and AM stations I received $0.70 from PROCAN (now SOCAN), the performing rights association that sells public performance licences to radio stations on behalf of its members.* In one year, from a single song, I earned $555.84 for 800 performances on commercial radio. 

Radio, like much of the mainstream media, has been severely undercut by the digital revolution. Most people today consume music through streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. This has drastically reduced the amount of income artists receive from performances of their content. Every time my music is streamed, i.e. performed, I receive $0.0007. If one of my songs was streamed 800 times (the same amount of spins "Heaven on Earth" received in 1990) I would earn $0.56. In order to make $555.84 my music would have to be streamed 794,057 times. To put this into context, if commercial broadcasters paid the same ridiculously low rate as Spotify my song would have to be in light rotation on every radio station on the planet (approximately 44,000 of them) for eighteen years to earn me the same amount. 

The Internet age has turned out to be an incredible time for independent artists. It has never been easier to create fully realized works then distribute them to an audience. But information technology has also made it nearly impossible for a creative person to earn a living. Whereas radio and television broadcasters used to represent an opportunity for professional musicians to earn a moderate income, now streaming has rendered our products essentially valueless. Streaming one of my songs amounts to 7/10000 of a dollar being transferred into my Paypal account. Even the most egregiously ripped-off blues artists from the early days of the record business got a better deal than that.  

A traditional broadcaster's use of creative content is governed by long-standing and legally binding agreements with organizations like SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. Public performances of music owned by individual members are logged into a database. Four times a year rights holders, through licence fees, receive a share of the revenues earned by the broadcasters that use their content. In Canada the common interests of more than 135,000 individuals are represented by SOCAN who in 2015 collected over $300,000,000 on behalf of rights holders worldwide. 

Income from digital streaming on the other hand is based solely on a lengthy legalistic “artist agreement” between each individual rights holder and a digital music middleman like CD Baby. Content is uploaded to a database then the rights holder simply decides, by checking boxes on their computer screen, which streaming services will be allowed to use their content. Most artists scroll past the 20,000 word contract, select the box beside "anything that pays,” and hope for the best. After the artist clicks “I agree” they have minimal control over how their content is propagated. They have little say in how they will be compensated neither do they have any practical relationship with the corporate entities that use their music. There are no collective agreements between the individual owners of digital content and Apple or Pandora or Spotify. A rights holder either agree to the terms and conditions or their content is not distributed.  

The difference between these two models is obvious. One depends on the work of an organization that advocates on behalf of its members all of whom share a common interest namely to be paid fairly for the use of their work. The other pits several large corporations against millions of individual rights holders who all wish their CD Baby accounts had a balance of more than a few pennies. 

When I first heard my music on CHNO in 1990 I took a great deal of pride in the fact that I had (with the help of a small circle of musical friends) produced something beautiful from almost nothing. The satisfaction of connecting with people through my music was the fulfilment of my aspirations as a creative person. But it wasn't until I received my first payment of royalties collected on my behalf by SOCAN that I realized that my livelihood was based not on my own individual efforts but the collective will of thousands of people with the same interests as me. As I developed as an independent arts professional I found that while my creative endeavours remained intimate my livelihood was wholly dependent upon being widely engaged with thousands of other people with the same goals. 

The digital download horse fled the barn never to return when Napster opened the door in 1999. Merely complaining about the pittance we receive from streaming is futile. Engaging with other arts professionals and rights holders remains the wisest approach to protecting our interests. The days of the gruff but friendly radio man programming music solely on a whim are gone. More than ever and regardless of our position in the music industry it is important that we support the organizations that are working to meet the challenges of the digital age through political action. It is only after we come together as an organized and articulate group that we will cease to be islands in the stream. 

*(“SOCAN obtains 100% census performance data from approximately 160 radio stations, which provides approximately 65% of SOCAN’s domestic radio revenue. SOCAN uses Digital Audio Identification technology, or DAI, which uses pattern recognition to identify musical works aired on radio by comparing them against a BDS library of known works. SOCAN conducts an extensive survey of non-census commercial radio stations representing different music formats, regions and languages. Stations are surveyed 3 or 4 days each quarter of the year for a total of 28 days per year (only performances reported in these surveys are paid). Stations broadcasting less than 12 hours of local programming are not included in SOCAN's survey.This survey system benefits those members having more widespread airplay of their songs over a longer period of time. College and Community radio is also subject to a survey four times annually (3 or 4 day periods.”

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