In the late 00s, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn were a music and YouTuber duo with handsome online audience and revenues to match. In 2013, they found themselves with a $10,000 music video, 100,000 subscribers to show it to – and $100 in ad revenue.
Their videos were just as good as ever; they had just as many viewers. But suddenly they had a whole lot of extra work to do, just to land a fair payday.
Jack’s drastic solution was to create an international subscription-based platform where fans had the chance to reach into their pockets and pay them directly. (Yes, he founded Patreon just for himself and his girlfriend, and they were the only people on it along with Jack’s flatmate.)
And the fans paid up. But they shouldn’t have. It wasn’t their job. Those same fans were already listening Jack & Nataly’s music, watching their videos, and sitting through adverts*.
Patreon should never have existed. It was created to fill a gap which should not have been left empty. It’s the equivalent of Harry Potter’s terrible adoptive family, the Dursleys: I’m glad they were there at all, but that doesn’t let Voldemort off the hook for killing the Potters. Album crowdfunders are a Dursley. State art grants are a Dursley.
A system out of balance
People often talk about the change from downloads to streams as if the evilness of it was self-evident, but it’s not. True, streaming is inherently a cheaper model for the fan. I think that’s right, too, if it worked in a normal, ‘sales’ kind of way. If I could sell you one stream for a cent, or a download for a dollar, then I’d be happy.
But here’s the point with streaming: whether fans pay in money or attention, the price set by the streaming provider has very little to do with the revenues of the artist.
That was true for Jack & Nataly’s YouTube channel, which has always been free to watch but was only briefly affordable to produce, for no apparent reason other than YouTube taking a greedier cut of ad revenues. That has been true throughout a decade of the streaming revolution, when venture capital-funded tech firms could afford to set low prices and run at a loss, pouring money into major label portfolios and softening their losses by annihilating royalties for independents.
And that’s true now, during Covid-19 lockdown, when some platforms are seeing steady or increasing subscriber numbers. Translation: higher revenues for the platform, lower revenues for the artists.
“They don’t actually have to make money off of music to make money. It doesn’t matter if they lose money. As a matter of fact, they all lose money.”
-Jeff Price, CEO of Audiam (streaming royalty collection agency)
This is the fatal flaw at the core of this system’s design. The success of the streaming platforms is not tied to the prosperity of its creators. Fans, charities and state funds are taking up responsibility for artists’ wellbeing where streaming giants are letting it drop. Patreon, GoFundMe campaigns, donation appeals are all very worthy but they are like duct tape on a crumbling building. Live music shouldn’t have been the only remaining pillar of our livelihood because recorded music is still making a pretty penny, just not for us.
At the beginning of last century, recording technology helped musicians out of a life in which they had “perform, beg, sign on, or starve”. After all this time, our live revenues are swept away and we find ourselves living on donations and dole money** – if we’re lucky. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The money that we need to support a sustainable livelihood is there It’s a rare example of consumer interests aligning with political ones: if streaming giants share out their royalties properly and fairly, fans and state art funds will no longer have to pick up the bill.
Today, the Musician’s Union began a campaign to “call on Government to urgently undertake a review of streaming.” I strongly believe that wherever it begins, other governments will soon take the lead. And it must begin somewhere.
*Enduring advertisements was an acceptable form of currency long before YouTube (see private TV & radio). Maybe this attitude is part of the problem, but as long as my attention is being commodified, I at least want some spending power.
**To sign on is to receive employment benefits or “dole” from the State.