Only Beyoncé could make a three-year-old album the subject of new excitement. On Tuesday, she finally made 2016’s Lemonade available to subscribers of the streaming platforms Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer. The news dominated music publications and social media all day.
Before that, anyone who wanted to stream the album had to sign up for Tidal, the service co-owned by her husband, rapper Jay-Z. The world’s 1.2 million most dedicated Beyoncé fans complied, while everyone else just hoped she’d come around.
It was clear that if the groundbreaking, Grammy album-of-the-year-robbed album ever got wide release, it would be a gift to listeners, not a money move. “My success can’t be quantified,” the music titan rapped last year, expressing with an expletive her disdain for streaming numbers.
I, on the other hand, love music streaming. Signing up for the Swedish platform Spotify ended a lost decade in between the end of CDs and the beginning of streaming, during which I listened to old albums while feeling left out and sad.
The early days of digital music were overly complicated. The honest option was to pay for albums and songs on Apple’s iTunes, with its annoying software and inability to easily transfer music between devices. Or you could steal it, which meant learning how to use torrents and also feeling guilty. I gave that up around the time I downloaded a virus onto my husband’s computer.
Recorded music sales plummeted between 2003 and 2014. If I couldn’t figure out how to listen to music, the industry also couldn’t figure out how to sell it to me. Streaming has solved both problems.
Listeners love it: Globally, there were 255 million paid subscribers to a streaming service last year, the fourth consecutive year of growth for the music industry. In Canada, Nielsen reported a 47-per-cent increase in song streams in 2018.
The industry loves that profits are finally going up. In 2017, streaming became the single biggest revenue source, and last year, it brought in almost half of the US$19.1-billion for the recorded music industry.
Musicians don’t share the enthusiasm. Witness Beyoncé’s disinterest, or Taylor Swift’s three-year boycott of Spotify, which she began in 2014 with a Wall Street Journal op-ed that lumped streaming in with piracy and file-sharing as robbing music of its value.
She’s back, but the money still isn’t as good as when people bought albums. Rolling Stone estimates that average per-song-payout rates for musicians on Spotify, the world’s biggest service with 96 million paid subscribers, at between US$0.006 and US$0.0084.
That actually works out all right for superstars. On release day, songs from Drake’s Scorpion were streamed 302 million times on either Spotify or Apple Music, which Rolling Stone estimates netted him between US$1-million and US$2.5-million.
For musicians who do have an audience but don’t sell out stadiums, the payout amounts to peanuts.
“I personally don’t think about streaming at all,” Toronto soul singer Tanika Charles told me this week. Her income comes from live shows, merchandise and licensing her songs. Her last album earned more from KFC ads and the CBC show Workin’ Moms than streaming. “I don’t have my stats. It’s fractions of a penny.”
Streaming does bring new audiences – it’s how she became big in Japan, where a dance group performed to one of her songs on a competition show.
“That’s a beautiful thing to see,” said Ms. Charles, who’s figuring out her touring schedule for an upcoming album, The Gumption. “Now the question is, can we afford to go there?”
The lack of trickle-down to artists is controversial: Last year, Spotify and Amazon legally objected to a U.S. copyright-law change that would have seen them increase payments to songwriters. Apple Music then made a big deal about its respect for artists, but mostly, it’s just coming for Spotify: It now has more U.S. subscribers.
Amazon and Google are launching free streaming services that will cut into ad money Spotify makes from its own free tier. Which is a big reason why Spotify actually paid labels 1.1 per cent less in 2018 than 2016, pleading that it needed a break as it fends off competitors.
With so much profit to be made off music, it seems like more of it could end up with musicians. The industry may have been reinvigorated by streaming, but still make sure to buy concert tickets, and maybe a T-shirt.