Thanks to streaming, recording industry revenues are back up to pre-internet levels, but musicians are poorer than ever

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Pretty much what they wanted - a bunch of underpaid artists. The money continues to spiral upward.

Probably time for conscientious indie labels to explore new alternative structures for their artists.


This was how United Artists were started. Time to begin again one century later with artists joining up to form their own company.


One of the artists I follow has refused to put up her new music on streaming services, or join a label. She does quite a bit herself, seems like a lot of work but I admire her fiercely independent nature and unique music so I’m happy to buy her records directly from her (it’s Raputina if you’re curious). Some artists can’t afford the luxury of operating like this with a small audience though.


They did. It was called punk. But time to do it again.


I’m not so sure there’s a cause and effect there.

For instance, major music labels have always been all about screwing over the artists, even back in the ancient days before merger mania when there were far more major labels, and they all strove and competed to see who could screw over artists the most. Whereas small indie music publishers were by and large significantly less evil.

In contrast, major book publishers have always been more or less honest and offered a reasonable deal for authors, while indie book publishing has always been burdened with more than its share of crooks and thieves out to fleece inexperienced authors of their rights and money.

In short, sometimes real competition forces an industry to clean up its act and not behave in such an evil manner (contrast wireless phone service in North America with wireless service in Europe). Other times, it’s not lack of competition that creates asshole companies, it’s the cultural climate inside that particular industry that creates norms of assholedom that all the new entrants in the field copy because that’s how it’s always been done.


And that’s the problem with the mass production of music - how do you recoop costs for the performers and songwriters (which aren’t always one and the same, but more often than not is true now). There is the Kevin Kelly argument (1000 True Fans), that you build up a solid core of fans, and sell directly to them (Rasputina isn’t the only example - Amanda Palmer and the Swans also come to mind of making this model work for them). But in that case, more traditional forms of engagement with the public helps - AFP was on a larger indie for the Dresden Dolls and toured with NIN, the Swans have been around for ages and had a short period (1 album) on a major, and Rasputina tours with Marilyn Manson in the 90s, all of which helped open them up to bigger audiences in the first place. Indie audiences seem more willing to let their music be licensed for other things - advertising or to be put in films/tv shows, etc, in order to reach a larger audience. The old college radio track still seems to help - I heard Courtney Barnett first on my school’s station.

So I don’t know - new technologies help artists to reach a bigger audience, but there is so much competition for the consumer’s attention now a days. Maybe Rza had the right of it when he said that music has been incredibly devalued in the modern, streaming marketplace that most artists can’t make a decent living making music.


Which one? There has been several!

But even in the age of competition, you can get serious collusion. I’m sure that the majors are aware that most true music fans will buy records from a variety of artists across a variety of genres and labels. I mean, wasn’t the 1950s payola scandal just such an example of collusion, but from smaller independent rock labels that were growing at that time? The recording industry has always had a pretty strong reputation for having one foot in some kind of corruption.


Back before Reagan gutted antitrust enforcement. AFAIK, since the beginning of recorded music, major record labels have always treated artists like garbage. Whether it’s because of collusion as you suggest, or because of community groupthink, or some of each.

Anyway, Cory’s blaming the ill treatment of music artists on the merger mania that has granted us a mere 4 big music labels is off-base.

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True, because they are privately held corporations who care more about profit than art. But there have been waves of independence and consolidation in the industry - prior to and during the depression, in the 50s/60s and into the 70s, and then the punk wave, followed by the most recent post-Reagan consolidation (which is fracturing again, as artists are seeking out alternatives).

I do think it’s some of each.

I don’t think it’s the only explanation, but it’s certainly part of it, though. Mergers don’t help, and artists got better deals from labels when alternatives exist and when they are informed about how the industry functions. Being a high profile artist helps, because then you do have more options than an unknown band.


OK, four major labels. Universal, Sony, EMI and Warner control most of the market, but not all. There is also Concord Music (who now owns a lot of other formerly independent labels like Rounder and Vanguard), plus plenty of small independents and artist-owned labels.

It has always been the case that on a major label you need to have multiple hit records to really escape the debt they foist on you (and they will charge everything they can to your ledger.) Most musicians never make it, major label or indy label. It’s a lot of work, and many years of unreliable income before you can be secure, assuming that even comes. Advice to musicians: get a good lawyer, file the paperwork to establish your own publishing, don’t sign the first thing they give you, and maintain control over your recordings.

“If I only had a dollar for every song I’ve sung, for every time I had to play while people sat there drunk.” --John Fogerty


All solid advice.


I’m not in the music industry, I’m a self-published author. It is my full-time job and I earn a middle class / upper middle class income.

I’m wondering, how are the incomes of musicians gathered? Who is included? The media is full of articles on how little authors earn, but a big part of that is how the data is collected. Self-published author data combines authors who have one book they published with only the intent of distributing it to family (“The Smiths Visit The Grand Canyon”) with self published authors who have 50 titles. The trad publishing industry only collects data on books that have purchased ISBNs (which most indies don’t have.) Both ways of collecting data hide people like me.

I’ve been hearing about Tycho, Pomplamoose, and Will Dailey and wondering if the facts are selective or just don’t tell the whole story?

Thanks -

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I’d start with Steve Albini’s famous missive about the recording industry from the 90s -tells the story from an indie, artist-centric perspective:


Thank you. This is the sort of thing I’ve seen on the trad publishing side of my industry. A lot of authors are getting advances of $5,000 for a book that perhaps took them a half year to write (or longer.) But the indie picture is much more promising. How much do you need a label now?

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Also want to add–that on top of low advances, some of my friends have been treated like dirt by trad pub contracts. They’re expected to do a lot of marketing. Sometimes editors sit on manuscripts. They can’t get their rights back even when things are taken out of print.

There are a lot of broken dreams on the indie side, too. But some of the broken dreams were never realistic to begin with: I’ll write a book and quit my day job!


Much less than you used to? It helps to have a label in terms of doing business with other businesses, of course. And it can confer some gravitas, if you get picked up by one of the more recognizable indies (Matador, 4AD, K records, Alternative Tentacles, etc).

But many artists have just started selling directly to the public. The big problem is getting eyeballs on your work in the first place - like radio used to be where many people were introduced to new music, now you have streaming (which, much like radio) is primarily dominated by the majors. Lots of indie artists are on either band camp or sound cloud, but you got to get people to click on your site, so that means touring or college radio play, or getting linked to by others. I’d say some of the more success fully indie artists started out with a label (a big indie of some variety) and it gave them a head start to building up a solid fan base - which is the goal, I think. Having enough supporters who will buy what you put out.

Yeah, I’ve heard similar. I don’t think book publishing and selling records are that far apart, honestly.

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I think with streaming services the key to really being profitable is having a huge number of paid subscribers (kind of like health care), and streaming services got away with paying artists tiny dividends early on when they were still building the platforms and growing the subscriber base, so they can continue to pay small dividends when they begin really raking in the money. (This is kind of another way of explaining what Cory says above.)

If you control your own recordings you can negotiate your own terms, or keep your music off streaming services completely. Robert Fripp has kept all of King Crimson’s music off Spotify, and good for him. I personally hate streaming.

“The phonographic copyright in these performances is operated by Discipline Global Mobile on behalf of the artists, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the record industry. Discipline accepts no reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to either record company or management by virtue of a ‘common practice’ which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible.” --Robert Fripp

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It sounds like the indie worlds of music and writing are far apart though. I know a lot of writers who are doing well as indies–but only tycho, Pomplamoose, and Will Dailey on the indie side of music. But I’m not that into the scene, so I could be wrong? Maybe there are lots of people making between $50k and $100k in the indie music scene, too?

There are thousands upon thousands of indie musicians, though. They aren’t the only ones going for it without a label - or with their own individual label (Amanda Palmer). And of course indie artists and labels have been around since the 1970s, with the punk wave of rock and the rise of hip hop.

Other artists I can think of who aren’t on a label of any kind include Chance the Rapper (who made it to SNL, sans label). And many people start labels in order to organize their business relationships - Odd Future has done that, and Amanda Palmer. Some independent labels will allow record to record contracts, instead of the typical 10 album deals the majors have. And some labels will split costs instead of charging the artists for recouped costs, and then split everything else 50/50 after recouping costs - or the artists provide the master, and split the costs of duplication/distribution of physical copies - and many artists forego physical copies, except in certain circumstances.

[ETA] OH! Thought of another - Zoe Keating! Jason Isbell (who used to be in Drive by Truckers, but has his own label now).

I would say probably not. There might be some who can eek out of a living, but given that the average renumeration for a recording artists sits at about $30,000 or so (and the upper end of that is going to be the super stars who are very wealthy), there probably isn’t a ton of folks who are making that as an average income.