The music industry is notoriously unfair to artists. It’s become a tragic love story: slimy executive meets young, hopeful artist – someone is bound to get hurt. Without direct industry experience, the general public suspects that record labels are greedy and take unfair portions of artist revenues. Over the years, the music industry has attempted to rectify these inequalities by offering modified major record label deals for commercial distribution. Additionally, the emergence of digital streaming has allowed for less – truthfully almost zero – barriers to entry for artists. Although the modern shift to digital music consumption allows more artists to enter the industry without label assistance, the process of ‘breaking’ is still surprisingly anti-democratic.
Any prospective recording artist, no matter what size, can upload their music onto Spotify, AppleMusic, Tidal, etc. Sadly, although more baby artists – or new, independent artists – are entering the market, the financial disparity between small artists and large artists is greater.
Ben Sisario, a music industry writer for the New York Times, offers coverage on the music streaming discrepancies from all perspectives. Sisario’s most expository piece on the streaming war, “After Driving Streaming Music’s Rise, Spotify Aims to Cash In”, includes commentary from Blake Morgan, an independent musician and label owner, who claims that “ninety percent of the revenue is going to 1 percent of the artists” (Sisario). Unfortunately, his outspoken criticism is nearly on par with industry statistics. According to Music Business Worldwide, “the top 2.5% of global artists [take] home nearly 90% of streaming revenues” (Ingham). This
situation can be loosely compared to the pattern of wealth disparity in America; alluding to a systemic inequality within the infrastructure of the music industry. Record companies, the advantaged party, have direct relationships with digital service providers such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Amazon to ensure that their clients’ music will algorithmically appear more frequently on a user’s interface. Zach Bellas, a professional musician and founder of SMB records, explains that “if an artist’s song gets some attention in its beginning, the algorithms will suggest it to others, and as the view and play counts rise, it will gain more authority and social proof in people’s minds, creating a cycle that pushes the song further into the top searches and
suggested tracks” (Business Insider). DSPs are incentivized, or rather blackmailed, with the
knowledge that the major labels own the dominant market share of popular music content. This arrangement defeats the initial mission of digital streaming services: a democratic transaction between artist and fan. Major label leverage dilutes these organic intentions by artificially driving music consumption habits.
The emergence of Napster in 2001 catalyzed the shift to digital streaming and has morphed the conceptual meaning of a song for both artist and consumer. Persistent major record label bias in music discovery, even through the shift to streaming, has left upcoming artists in the same position as they were pre-Napster; weighing the value of originality versus its ability to be commercializable. Should they conform to formulaic musical norms in hopes of breaking through the noise? The lack of barriers to entry on digital streaming platforms (DSPs) has created over-saturation of content and – ironically – made it actually more difficult to be noticed for the average artist. Furthermore, unsigned artists must promotionally compete with major label artists. The realization of their obstacles is the point at which an artist reaches an ethical
crossroad. In order to sell more records, they may have to adapt their artistic direction to accommodate its ability to be commercialized; it’s the starving artist’s worst nightmare and record label exec’s sweetest dream. As stated earlier, there is truth in the statement that “art-less” and less experimental music charts more successfully because it’s relatable and digestible. However, the definition of art becomes relevant when making the ethical decision of whether or not to alter an artistic identity for commerciality. The Miriam-Webster definition of art is that it’s “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. When taking the side of musical artists, this definition is disrespected by external influences that modify their sound.
On the other hand, claiming that all hit songs are art-less is a vast generalization. Not only are some top charting songs simply great music, many top tier artists have perfected the craft of writing a relatable song. This inherently means that there is a formula for success. Most music listeners can infer what this would sound like – a catchy beat, simple lyrics (probably about an ex-lover), and a melody you can repeat. An interpretation of what makes a “hit song” then begs the question: will an artist only succeed by releasing songs that are amalgams of popular trends? There’s no clear answer as musical commercialism requires a combination of many elements. However, this question elevates the age-old discussion of art versus business. Is this discrete barrier to entry for an aspiring artist anti-democratic? Or is altering creativity on behalf of commercialism fair because it reflects market demands? While the value of art is subjective, the value of maintaining originality is not.
When approaching the concept of artistry from a creator’s perspective, the idea of artists creating music as an amalgam of what is popular/selling is sacrilege. On a deeper level, this desecration of a “song” contributes to the demise of quality in the music industry. A lack of originality and, thus, impressionability has increased the general disposability of music. Since it all sounds the same, there’s no reason to linger on any one track. This new-found sentiment has widened the gap between baby artists attempting to win with original music and major player artists churning out carbon-copies to make an extra dollar.
Chance the Rapper, a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning artist, was a zealous leader of the movement against label-driven consumption in the music industry. Chance began as an independent artist collaborating with friends in the Chicago music scene. After he released his first mixtape in 2012, he “immediately piqued label interest but held off in the interest of pursuing the buzz around his burgeoning career” (Billboard). Chance built an artistic empire in good faith around his anti-label success story; he was an industry anomaly. He emerged through the noise democratically and fans supported his organic rise to stardom; Chance didn’t feel force-fed to his listeners. His most streamed track – at 350,000,000 on Spotify alone – features the hook: “If one more label try to stop me, it’s gon’ be some dread head ***** in ya lobby”. Chance the Rappercreated his own pedestal as a means to precipitate change within the power dynamics of the music industry.
Chance the Rapper’s message was loudly received by major record labels and the music community. Artists began to first reconsider the benefits of major record label power versus independent labels; many artists that were once shoe-in’s for majors began signing to independent labels. As a result, major labels began to restructure their web of sub-labels to offer outwardly-appearing “independent labels” that were just extensions within the major itself. The hypocrisy is hard to ignore. However, this seemingly strategic move by the record labels may be indicative of an industry shift towards supporting artists like Chance the Rapper. By offering a
smaller, more autonomous major label deals for artists, record labels have the ultimate advantage when paired with major distribution power. This has the appearance of just a new way for unsigned artists to be disadvantaged; it seems to be another false attempt to create democracy within the stratified music industry.
Streaming compensation has further disadvantaged creators (including producers, songwriters, and composers) by following a ‘pro rata’ structure. Royalties are paid to rights-holders based on market share and thus the people who hold the majority of the rights to a highly streamed track, generally the record label, will make the most money (Mejiia). In other words, even when a song does well commercially, artists are compensated disproportionately less than other commercial parties involved. David Turner, a music critic who now works for Soundcloud, shares that “if you’re signed to a major label, for every stream you get you’re probably getting maybe 12 or 15% from that if you’re an artist” (Mejiia). For example, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up!” has over 1 billion streams on Spotify and is the 13th most played song on Pandora since 2013. Shockingly, “Aloe Blacc, who co-wrote “Wake Me Up,” made less than
$4,000 domestically for the hit song” (McKinney & Zeeshan). Despite high play counts, the pro rata compensation structure leaves thousands of artists and songwriters disadvantaged.
Through Spotify, unsigned, baby artists retain more compensation per individual stream than a major-label signed artist (Collins). However, when calculated on a macro level, the volume of streams as a result of major label distribution trumps the lower royalty per stream. These facts amplify an artist’s desire for major label representation and thus potential loss of creative autonomy; if they’re already at a disadvantage through distribution, shouldn’t they better their chances of success by making their music more commercial? The music industry has responded internally by opening different avenues for music discovery within digital service providers (Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, etc.). “With the cost barrier to listening removed, consumer behavior began to change. Independent labels said their music was being listened to more. Playlists, programmed with a mixture of editorial supervision and machine learning, began to influence what people heard; according to Spotify, 31 percent of its listening now happens through its playlists” (Sisario). In a 2018 speech, Daniel Ek told Investor Day that “this would mean more great artists “would find success on Spotify and he predicted that Spotify’s software could do this job more efficiently and fairly than any industry structure from the past” (Ingham). Listeners now have potential to discover more artists; music outside of the Top 40 and major-label driven charts. This increased activity for likely smaller artists also presents an opportunity to capitalize on related income streams. So while Katy Perry may forever have the streaming advantage over an independent pop artist, the baby artist now has a stronger foundation to compete with Katy in other facets of the industry. In the long run, independent artists are better off participating in the anti-democratic industry structure than not.
The music industry’s technologically induced free market does give disadvantaged, up and coming artists the opportunity to enter the market. The executives who control the industry (and in turn the content) have not changed. The current economic model of the music business suggests that the path to success is through formulaic, algorithmic success. The open dialogue regarding whether or not record labels are simply adding a commercial, necessary flair to artistry or degrading the actual creation is the first movement for change within the music industry. The actual commercial value of a piece of music may be unquantifiable but the market demand for original, unbiased content is rapidly increasing.
Billboard. “The Evolution of Chance the Rapper.” Billboard, 6 Oct. 2016,
Delfino, Devon. “How Musicians Really Make Their Money – and It Has Nothing to Do with HowMany Times People Listen to Their Songs.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 Oct. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/how-do-musicians-make-money-2018-10.
Collins, Keith. “How $1 Flows from Spotify to Recording Artists.” New York Times, 31 March 2018, https://nyti.ms/2GobkE2.
Ingham, Tim. “The Odds of an Artist Becoming a ‘Top Tier’ Earner on Spotify Today? Less than 1%.” Music Business Worldwide, 26 Mar. 2018,
Mejia, Paula. “The Success Of Streaming Has Been Great For Some, But Is There A Better Way?” NPR, NPR, 22 July 2019,
McKinney, Kelsey, and Zeeshan Aleem. “Is Streaming Bad for Artists? Yes and No. The Future of Music, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 24 Nov. 2014,
Sisario, Ben. “After Driving Streaming Music’s Rise, Spotify Aims to Cash In.” New York Times,
31 March 2018, http
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