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US musicians group calls for cent-per-stream payouts in Justice At Spotify campaign

By | Published on Tuesday 27 October 2020

Justice At Spotify

A coalition of American music-makers called the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers has launched a new campaign headlined Justice At Spotify, which makes a number demands of the market-leading streaming service, many of them echoing demands made by the #brokenrecord and #fixstreaming campaigns in the UK.

However, the focus is much more on Spotify itself, rather than what happens to streaming monies as they flow through the record industry. The UK campaigns have tended to talk about the latter as much as the perceived problems with the streaming services themselves.

The UMAW formed earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on live music and the music community. Although initially focussed on lobbying US Congress for better COVID support for freelancers in general and music-makers in particular, the group said from the start that it would address various issues facing musicians including “streaming payments, mechanical royalties, relationships between musicians and venues and record labels, and more”.

Launching its new Spotify-centric campaign this weekend, UMAW wrote: “Spotify is the most dominant platform on the music streaming market. The company behind the streaming platform continues to accrue value, yet music workers everywhere see little more than pennies in compensation for the work they make. With the entire live music ecosystem in jeopardy due to the coronavirus pandemic, music workers are more reliant on streaming income than ever”.

The campaign then makes a number of demands, including that Spotify pay at least one cent per stream; that it adopt a user-centric system for royalty distribution; that it make “closed-door contracts” public; that it tackle any payola – so payment for playlist placement – on its platform; that it credit all the people involved in making any one recording; and that it end legal battles “intended to further impoverish artists”.

The latter point mainly relates to the ongoing appeal against the most recent Copyright Royalty Board ruling in the US, which – among other things – increased the total payout due to songwriters under the compulsory licence that covers the mechanical copying of songs Stateside.

On the cent-per-stream point, the campaign points to the commonly cited stats about how many streams are required for an artist to generate a dollar in royalties, or to buy a cup of coffee, or to earn minimum wage – all based on the approximate average payout-per-Spotify-stream rate that regularly does the rounds online.

“We are asking Spotify to raise the average streaming royalty from $.0038 to a penny per stream”, it says. “Doing so would give artists a better chance at making a living from their art, and begin to restore the public valuation of music”.

Of course, one complication with demands like that is that there isn’t actually a set per-stream rate on services like Spotify, all of which operate on revenue share models. The per-stream rates that do the rounds are always approximations based on relatively small data sets. Actual average per-stream payouts will vary month to month, country to country, and depending on whether the stream is initiated by someone on a premium, free, discounted or bundled subscription.

Given that streaming services generally pay over 65-70% of their revenues to the music industry, even if they were to give up their 30-35% share entirely, it is unlikely the average rate would increase to a cent per stream.

Some would argue that the real problem is that subscription rates are currently too low, meaning there is too little revenue to share. Though even if you added a couple of dollars/pounds/euros a month to the current subscription price, that is also unlikely to result in average payouts of a cent per stream.

Despite those complexities, more than 5000 artists have put their name to UMAW’s demands, including Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez, Zola Jesus, Deerhoof, Frankie Cosmos, Why?, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and Ezra Furman.

You can read more about the campaign and see the artists who have signed up here.