It’s time for big-name artists to join music’s New Labor movement

This is a story with no names in bold, or at least not the way you usually read about it vanity fair.

And yet it’s a story about more than 28,000 musicians and employees in the music industry and some of the largest companies in the world.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when live music was shut down, a group of independent musicians and music creators began meeting weekly on Zoom to share ideas about what we could do to improve the difficult situation we were in . A new advocacy group emerged from these meetings, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). And among the actions UMAW undertook was a review of the streaming music economy. From the ground up, you could say – as it looks for actual working musicians.

Streaming dominates the recorded music industry – it accounts for 83% of all recorded revenue in the US today, according to the RIAA. The remaining 17% includes every other use of recorded music you can think of: not just physical sales and digital downloads, but also soundtracks for movies and TV, and commercial and branding licenses. There just isn’t much of a recorded music business left outside of streaming.

The problem is that streaming artists hardly get paid. There is currently no direct payment from streaming platforms to the musicians themselves, such as with satellite radio. The average per-stream royalty paid by platforms to rightsholders (ie, record labels) is $0.007 gross, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and record labels generally retain between 50% and 85% of that revenue. As a result, artists need tens of millions, if not hundreds or thousands of millions of streams to earn anything close to a living wage from their streaming work. Many artists see virtually no income from their recordings.

Meanwhile, the streaming platforms themselves are booming — their revenues soared 24.3% in 2021 to a total of $16.9 billion. Paid streaming is only dominated by a few corporations. According to market researcher MIDIA, Spotify is by far the largest player with a 31% market share, more than double its closest competitors Apple (15%) and Amazon (13%). Add in Chinese media giant Tencent (13%) and Alphabet/Google’s YouTube subscription service (8%) and you’ve got 80% of all global streaming subscription revenue managed by just five companies, including several of the richest World.

Note that only one of these companies would even call themselves a music company — and likely only temporarily. Here’s Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek speaking to his investors earlier this year, as quoted by diversity:

“The best companies — think of names you’re all very familiar with — are very different today than they were when they started,” Ek said. “You first made a name for yourself in a specific category: books [Amazon]Seek [Google]desktop computer [Apple]. And they then redefined the way we think about those categories by expanding their potential through innovation…. And that is exactly the same journey that we are on.”

Ek’s points of comparison are not accidental. They are its closest competitors in American and European music streaming. Spotify’s recent investments in podcasting, sports, and gaming highlight how little music the company ultimately cares about — its corporate statements now refer to “audio” rather than “music.”

In other words, recording musicians have become totally dependent on companies that seem to have little to no interest in the future of recorded music. These companies grow while musicians suffer.

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