Magical Streams from Bullshit Mountain

I just wanted to add some actual mathematics, courtesy of The Trichordist, to an aside I made in What Makes Hereit Different?:

The digital types sure love to talk about streams–music streams, revenue streams–that will somehow, some way, someday benefit artists. In the meantime, these magical streams just trickle off majestic Bullshit Mountain and form limpid pools of money in scenic Silicon Valley.

This is what that spitball from the back of the class looks like with numbers attached, courtesy of a post from last March titled “The Internet Empowered Artist? What 1 Million Streams Means to You!” (It is well worth reading in its entirety, so click through to it.)

Keep in mind that 1 million plays in a year equals 2,740 plays every single day; 114 plays every hour; two full plays every minute.

If you and your band manage to pull that off, here is the financial windfall you can anticipate. Don’t spend it all in one place.

From information in that Trichordist post:

Spotify pays $0.00521 per stream, payable to the master rights holder only. (Whoever owns the actual sound recordings. Many times, when bands sign with a label they are expected to relinquish the rights to the masters to the label. It is easy to see why it is smart to hold onto them. More on that here.)

That comes out to $5,210 for 1 million streams.

Spotify pays $0.00052 per stream (notice there is an extra zero after the decimal point in this one) to the song’s writer or writers, which they then split, and also each split 50/50 with their publisher, if they have one.

That is $521 for 1 million streams. (So if you and a friend manage to write a song that gets streamed a million times on Spotify, and you each have a modest publishing deal, you are going to make $130.25.)

For 1 million streams on Spotify, the royalty payments–total–are $5,731.

That is what a solo artist will make with no bandmates, no other songwriters, no label, no publisher, and no management. As soon as you have even one of those additional factors, what the artist earns drops to a mere fraction of the total.

And just how realistic is 1 million Spotify streams in the first place?

According to Spotify, there are 20 million songs on the service, of which, 80 percent have been streamed at least once. (Perhaps that one play was by the guy who paid TuneCore or ReverbNation 50 bucks to put it there. Just 999,999 more plays and he will earn the equivalent of a few months of pre-tax minimum-wage paychecks.)

But if 80 percent of 20 million songs have been played at least once, that means 4 million songs on Spotify have not been played at all. Ever. What percentage of songs on Spotify actually manage to rack up 1 million streams? Who knows.

On to YouTube.

YouTube pays $0.00175 per view, total, for all rights–video, master and publishing combined. That comes out to $1,750 for 1 million views. Which, again, will be split at least between whoever owns the masters, whoever wrote the song, any publishers involved, and the synchronization license holder and service.

YouTube pays $0.00032 to the master rights holder only for videos with ads, tracked by a company like Audiam (“Get Paid When Your Music Is Used on YouTube”), for a 25 percent commission, or AdRev (“Our white glove services allow you to focus on what you do best – making amazing music”), for a 20 percent commission.

That equals $321 for 1 million views. (Minus the 25 percent commission, it is $240.)

But how many videos on YouTube manage to get 1 million views? Just .33 percent. About 53 percent of YouTube videos have fewer than 500 views and about 30 percent have less than 100 views.

So the grand total for all these streams on these leading platforms for artists in the new digital economy?

$7,802. For 3 million streams on Spotify and YouTube.

Now, the argument leveled by the digital defenders is that these streaming platforms are tools for music discovery, not revenue. They help people find out about you so that they can come to your live shows because–as every musician knows–there are tons of great paying, seven-day weekend gigs being handed out left and right by totally ethical promoters and bar owners who would never dream of ripping you off on the door, if you even get anything from the door after the sound guy and everybody else is paid out of it, or any supposed guarantee just because you are alone and a hundred miles from home and there are a couple of bouncers hanging around waiting to see if you complain, you little ingrate, when you should be too tired from counting all the sweat-drenched 20s from the throngs of ecstatic new super fans who got all your music for free on Spotify but mobbed the merch table to buy a CD or a t-shirt anyway. So leave poor YouTube and Spotify alone–they are just trying to help you innovate. Get with the now, Luddite!

Back here on Earth, though, what those numbers show is that while everybody seems to accept that the streaming sites pay absurdly negligible royalty rates, Spotify and YouTube are actually pretty awful for music discovery too.

The Trichordist blog goes on to show that on iTunes, you would only need to sell 1,125 albums at $10 each to gross the same amount, taking into account the 30 percent cut from iTunes. Again, this is with the no band, no other songwriters, no label, no publisher, no manager scenario.

But there are now 37 million songs on iTunes. Of those 37 millions songs, which ones get bought?

The Trichordist post points out:

“In 2013 only 4.8% of new album releases sold 2,000 units or more. So if only 4.8% of artists can sell 2,000 units or more, how many artists can realistically generate over four million streams from the same album of material?…

Each 10,000 albums sold on iTunes (or 100,000 song downloads) generates $70,000 in revenue for the solo artist or band. To achieve the same revenue per 10,000 fans in streams, the band has to generate 30 million streaming plays (as detailed above) if they are distributing their music across the most common streaming services including Spotify and YouTube.

In 2013 the top 1% of new releases (which happen to be those 620 titles selling 20k units or more) totaled over 77% of the new release market share leaving the remaining 99% of new releases to divide up the remaining 23% of sales.”

Once again: 99 percent of all new releases must compete for just 23 percent of sales. And the discovery process for new music is so bad that only 620 new releases account for 77 percent of the sales.

What does this mean?

It means that the current most popular systems that are in place for finding, hearing and buying music are not working. They aren’t working for listeners. They aren’t even working for most of the biggest artists–the 1 percent, not the .01 percent. And they are especially not working for independent, local, traditional, experimental and eclectic artists.

The rates are too low, the cuts are too big and the platforms are too crowded.

But they must be working for somebody right?

Right.

Because, clearly, streaming is a total racket. It wouldn’t require so much convoluted logic, wishful thinking and corporate public relations digital echo chamber think tank double-talk to make its case if it wasn’t. But who is running the scam?

Oh, you know, the usual suspects.

The music industry tearfully bemoans the insidious harm of piracy:

It’s commonly known as “piracy,” but that’s too benign of a term to adequately describe the toll that music theft takes on the enormous cast of industry players working behind the scenes to bring music to your ears. That cast includes songwriters, recording artists, audio engineers, computer technicians, talent scouts and marketing specialists, producers, publishers and countless others.   

While downloading one song may not feel that serious of a crime, the accumulative impact of millions of songs downloaded illegally – and without any compensation to all the people who helped to create that song and bring it to fans – is devastating.

But since the major labels–including Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group–own 20 percent of Spotify, where they work in partnership with those music loving champions of creativity at Goldman Sachs (you just knew they couldn’t be too far away, didn’t you?), the difference between devastation and innovation is apparently just $0.00052 per stream.

The RIAA sued 12-year-old girls for file sharing, leveling thousands of dollars of fines against them and their grandparents, for crying out loud, in order for them to avoid prosecution. They said they wanted to send a strong message that the “distribution of copyrighted works has consequences.”

It sure does. If you are willing to give the conglomerates their cut, it makes you extremely wealthy.

Forbes claims Spotify has a “quick and dirty” valuation of $8.3 billion. How encouraging that Spotify CEO Daniel Elk, former CEO of uTorrent, owned by BitTorrent, has seen the error of his ways: You have to be a true starry-eyed digital utopian to not realize that you can rip off artists all you want, and treat listeners as mere repositories of personal information and receptacles for crappy targeted advertising, but you have to let the big companies in on the con first. Learning that little lesson has made all the difference. Maybe he can spring for a better prop guitar now.

And what about all those artists that the music industry used as talking points, red herrings and human shields in the piracy debate? Uh… did you read that part about playing live and selling t-shirts?

I know what you are thinking: This is a bummer, man. It’s a bummer.

In some ways, yeah. But beware the professional problem-havers. There are lots of them out there these days. Some people love a bit of bad news, and you can get a lot of attention from having these problems. Because making the wholesale, wide scale exploitation of artists seem drearily inevitable directly benefits those companies and organizations that are doing the exploiting.

There has been an enormous amount of defeatism injected into this debate, and into the minds of musicians everywhere. I hear it constantly. “It’s just the way it is. There is nothing you can do.” As if this ridiculous, and relatively new, streaming Ponzi scheme is some foregone conclusion. The more people start thinking this way, the closer it gets to really being so.

But it’s like an Irish bar owner I once knew used to always tell me whenever I griped about some romantic double-cross or traumatic temporary setback. “Cheer up. Now you know what you already knew.”

If you play music, or like music enough to even remotely care about where it comes from and who makes it, it is obvious that all the fake innovation and alleged “disruption” created by powerful digital, media and financial industry nation states was going to be totally exploitive–for artists and listeners–and that the phony ruse math of streaming rates is never going to add up to anything meaningful for the vast majority of artists. We can all collectively disavow ourselves of our suspension of disbelief, and stop wasting breath on the elaborate charade that any of these entities really care about working musicians.

And if you don’t really care about any of this stuff–about artists, or music, or, you know, the basic human right to not have your work and effort exploited by powerful organizations (seriously, where’s the taxation is slavery crowd in all of this?), great news for you! You have lots of options for entertainment these days. From Spotify and Pandora, to corporate consolidated radio, to game shows, there is a veritable all-you-can-eat Sizzler buffet of auto tuned, bleached teeth, choreographed, consumerist, market researched, fictionalized and photoshopped corporate music to gorge on. Some of it is kinda catchy.

And if you are an artist who aspires to win the lottery that lets you be the scrapple in that sausage maker, I truly and sincerely wish you the best of luck. Everybody’s dream is their own, and if that’s what you want, go for it. (But oh how great it would be to show up at an American Idol audition with ten thousand copies of the first Ramones record…. “You don’t need to stand in this stupid line! You just need this!”)

On the other hand, if you happen to not be someone who hopes to be either the Twinkee or the Twinkee eater, the solutions are all around you and they could not be easier.

Got a dollar in your pocket? Congratulations. There’s one solution–and a ballot too.

I suspect that one of the reasons why all these digital platforms are trying to convince everybody that music should be “free” is because the way you choose to spend your money is like a vote. And by creating outlets where entertainment should be free, they are able to simultaneously take away your power to vote, while making sure you don’t spend money on anything but their devices, their platforms and their data plans.

It is a two-step process: First they limit your role to that of solely a passive consumer. Then they eliminate the consumer ability to affect any kind of influence or change, by removing basic purchasing power. Or by siphoning off the majority of your purchase’s impact and benefit through fees so that it doesn’t really matter where you spend your money.

In the big digital Vegas, the house always wins.

So stay out of the casinos. It is remarkably easy. And it can drive pretty astounding changes.

In the 1970s, thanks to consolidation and the influence of a small handful of powerful corporations (sound familiar?), two breweries–Anheuser-Busch and Coors–dominated the manufacture of beer in the United States. With large-scale industrial processes and low-cost ingredients like corn and rice, they created a watery, flavorless, uniform product designed for mass consumption and easy distribution (sound familiar? If not, turn on the radio.)

By 1983, the number of breweries in the U.S. had dropped to just 80 and American beer was synonymous with bad beer.

But beginning in California, as part of the California cuisine trend, the craft beer movement began to catch on, emphasizing quality and craftsmanship, and championing local brewers and regional styles.

Relatively quickly, the number of breweries exploded. Today, there are more than 2800 breweries operating in the U.S., providing more than 110,000 jobs and driving $14.3 billion in annual sales–an 11 percent growth in just a decade. And you can still find Coors Light in the supermarket just fine–it’s just right next to Yazoo’s Dos Perros, locally made in Nashville, which only costs a buck or two more. People have a choice.

And they increased that choice by making it with their dollars, by buying from local, non-corporate, independently owned and operated businesses. It wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t have to be endlessly debated. Some people just made a simple easy choice because they wanted something different and they wanted something better. So every time you buy a six-pack of craft beer, you are proving there is hope for independent music.

You can find more examples in the local food movement, in the rise of community supported agriculture programs and farmer’s markets–all sorts of systems that have been set up at the local level to directly benefit the independent producers and consumers of goods equally.

Equally. Imagine that.

There is no reason at all why the production and consumption of music should be any different–in fact, there are lots of reasons why it is even more possible with local music. It just comes down to a decision, made by artists and listeners alike, that there is a better way.

And if some people don’t want to make that choice or love the big streaming sites, that’s fine. If they think that everything should be free and they want to be foot soldiers in the wealth transfers of income from people making less than $18,000 per year to executives making $30 million dollars per year, hey, that’s on them. You still have a choice, and you can easily choose not to experience music that way and to support independent music instead.

That’s the decision that Hereit has been designed to encourage and support and, hopefully, make possible. Organizing songs and artists by locations and genres brings not only coherence, but relevance, to music discovery. It puts artists in front of the audiences that are actively looking for them–and hopefully, looking to support them.

That’s why it is so important that Hereit doesn’t take cuts from song sales. There are lots of services for independent musicians that take 20, 30, 40 percent cuts or more from the artists’ sales. They are like indie rock payday lenders.

But if a listener wants to support an artist, they should be empowered and allowed to actually buy music without having just half of their money or less go to the musician, and the other half or more go to some website.

This isn’t some anti-digital rant. Hereit is a website, after all. It just uses these amazing and powerful digital tools, technologies and principles–streaming, downloads, e-commerce, faceted classification–and tries to harness them to give artists and listeners basic tools for self-determination. And at least advance the possibility of the once-championed promise of the Internet, and digital distribution, to actually empower creativity and strengthen an artistic middle class.

Will it catch on? We shall see. Hereit is very small, independent and totally grassroots. But at least it exists.

If a band wants a pay as you go e-commerce tool that’s cheap and easy to use that doesn’t take any cuts from their song sales, it’s there. And if a listener wants to find music local to them, or find the particular type of independent music they like from other parts of the world, it’s there.

But most importantly, when those two people find each other–the independent artist and the person who wants to buy music–they are able to equitably exchange songs and payment without any predatory disintermediation. No cuts to the sales, no seizure of personal data. It is just a balanced, consensual and equitable transaction, a fair deal between two parties, who are able to buy and sell songs to each other if they happen to want to.

So there you have it. If you are a musician and you want to be a part of that, go to www.hereit.org and sign up. It costs $3.40 per month to have three songs on the site, and if you are one of those artists making less than $18,000 per year, like in the Sweet Home New Orleans report linked above (and again here)–especially if you are from New Orleans–write to info@hereit.org and I’ll see what I can do to help out.

And if you care about music, and you want to be a part of the solution that Hereit is hoping to offer, go buy some songs from the independent, local musicians who are joining Hereit. Or go buy some records from your local independent record store. The people who work there love music. Go talk to them. Ask them what independent artists and labels they like and buy some stuff you’ve never heard before. Go see a local band, hang around, buy a CD if they have one. If you liked them, let them know. Sometimes all it takes is a compliment to help someone keep going.

But whatever you do, don’t start thinking that the exploitation of musicians, and all artists, is some foregone conclusion, or prerequisite to innovation. Because the companies and entities promoting that line of thinking really aren’t all that innovative and they really aren’t all that powerful. All it takes is people deciding they want to be a part of something different, and a better, stronger and fairer alternative for artists and listeners will continue to grow.

So cheer up. Now you know what you already knew. And now there’s something you can do about it.

What Makes Hereit Different?

I have held off on posting a comparison between Hereit and other digital music sites for awhile, but a few people have been asking what makes Hereit different, so I figured I’d better get one together.

Before jumping into it, though, I should say that I like to think that my critiques of other music services are best expressed by what Hereit is, what it does, and why it does it. Hereit is the best solution I could come up with, and the way I think things should be. (Pay as you go, no cuts to artists sales, no ads or data capture, organized by locations and genres so playlists are coherent and relevant.)

But if other sites work for you, that’s great. And I mean that sincerely. Different artists need different things. Hereit is young, small and grassroots; it is just getting going. There is some functionality I still want to build out and build on. As the site grows, with more artists and locations, the more it will be able to do what it has been designed to do. Go with whatever you think is best for you.

The last thing I would ever want to be is some guy with a website who tells artists what they should do. Those types just love telling musicians how to do things, and what their “business model” should be. Even though, if you take away the venture capital and the Wall Street valuation that is far more central to these companies than music, some of the big music sites are less profitable than the average busker on the corner with an acoustic guitar and a fedora in front of him.

My advice is to get legal advice from lawyers, medical advice from doctors, and avoid taking business advice from companies that manage to lose $12 million a quarter even when they are barely paying for their core product. But I am old fashioned that way.

Think about that, though: Pandora and Spotify–data mining operations masquerading as music platforms–each lose more than a $100,000 a day.

A friend of mine used to earn about $100 a day playing Neil Young songs on subway platforms. And he only paid about half a penny less than the streaming sites. And if he played a song from before 1972 (like anything from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or After the Gold Rush), he actually paid Neil Young the same: Nothing. Because Pandora exploits a tenuous legal loophole to dodge paying royalties on pre-1972 recordings. Stay classy, Pandora.

But, as usual, I digress. Suffice to say, don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters.

There is a longer description of Hereit pricing for artists in this blog post, but here is a quick overview, followed by some information on other music services for independent artists to sell music. (Soundcloud, for instance, is more a service for hosting and streaming your music than selling it, though you can do it by integrating other services. And I’m not going to even dignify the streaming rates paid by sites like YouTube, Spotify and Pandora by including them. [Edit: Well, actually, I guess I am.] You can read about them in detail on the Trichordist.)

Hopefully some of this will help you make an informed decision. The choice, and the music, is yours.

Hereit
(sell direct to listeners)

Costs: A buck a song a month.

A Hereit profile costs $3 per month and comes with space for three songs ($3.40 total; 40 cents goes to cover the e-commerce provider’s service fee). Each additional published song is $1 per month ($1.03 with the service fee).

Hereit has been built to give the musicians who use it maximum control over their work. Artists set their own prices for songs and keep 100 percent. You can swap songs out as often as you like and all charges are prorated for actual time the songs are on the site, to the second. If songs are on the site for less than a full month, credit is given on the next month’s charges.

What it does: Hereit is a site to discover and support independent local music.

…(And if I might take a moment to expand on that: At a certain point, “support” means “support financially.” Seriously, just buy songs. It is ridiculously easy. Most are only a dollar, and you get to keep them forever and not be dependent on a monthly data plan just to hear ’em. And you actually help another human being, one who theoretically created something that you actually enjoy. Trust me, you have a lot more in common with an independent artist than the kinds of people who own and run the companies that tell you music can’t be devalued because it is priceless, and then pay artists 1/10th of a penny or less for use of their song, which they tack an ad in front of with a cpm rate of $7.60, keeping 45 percent. That’s some pretty specific “valuation,” there, Google.  And last year, Brian McAndrews, CEO of Pandora, made $29 million dollars–not bad for a guy whose company is losing a hundred grand every day–while Pandora lobbies aggressively to lower royalty rates to artists. For cryin’ out loud, forget these clowns. Just give your dollar to the kid who needs guitar strings.)…

Hereit is organized by locations and genres, and it dynamically generates a playlist of songs by artists on the site when selections are made. If you want to listen to alternative rock, acoustic blues, garage rock and folk music from Calgary, San Jose, Memphis, Portland and New York, you make those selections and the site builds a playlist of songs by artists on the site, ranked by the most liked songs for that day. Listeners can buy and download individual songs on the homepage, or click through to an artist’s profile page to buy whole albums. The e-commerce fee for the purchase is paid by the listener. So if an artist sets the song price at $1, it has a total cost of $1.34. The e-com provider gets the 34 cents and the artist gets the whole dollar direct deposited into his or her bank account in 48 hours. Hereit doesn’t add any additional fees or make any money off sales of the artists’ music.

Here is a little more detail:

  • $1 per published song per month, $3 minimum plus actual service fees for Stripe, the e-commerce provider (2.9 percent, plus 30 cents per transaction). Three songs costs $3.40 per month; four songs costs $4.43; five songs costs $5.46; six songs costs $6.49, etc. This covers the hosting and bandwidth costs. All charges are prorated to actual time a song is published on the site, to the second, with credit given on the following month’s bill. No contacts or commitments. Artists can stop or start at any time and can swap out their songs as often as they like.
  • Artists set their own prices for songs and receive 100 percent of the sales. The site sets artists up with their own private e-commerce account with Stripe, and they receive payments by direct deposit into their bank account within 48 hours. The site doesn’t tack on any additional fees or take any cuts from the sales. Hereit adamantly believe that artists’ sales should be theirs entirely, 100 percent. And that listeners have a right to support the artists they like, directly, without having a percentage of their money siphoned off by the platform.
  • There is no advertising or data capture of any kind. Here’s why. And here too. And because, short answer, I hate it. Hereit is totally artist supported and pay-as-you-go, and free and completely private for listeners.
  • Here is what Hereit does not do: The site doesn’t help sell merch, or write bios, or solicit tips, or fundraise in exchange for home-cooked meals and handmade thank you cards, or offer press kits, or charge you to pretend to market your band, or give social media strategy, or let you give away music in exchange for listeners’ personal information, or “connect you with today’s hottest brands to forge deeper engagement with prominent online influencers!,” or help you “discover alternative sources of revenue in the digital music ecosystem,” or show you how to “move stakeholders up the pyramid of engagement” by giving your songs away for free to people who don’t know, like or care about you which will somehow make some of them then want to pay you for the music you just gave them for free and–ta da!–new revenue streams appear. (Guffaw all you want, this is actually what Google tells artists to do. The digital types sure love to talk about streams–music streams, revenue streams–that will somehow, some way, someday benefit artists. In the meantime, these magical streams just trickle off majestic Bullshit Mountain and form limpid pools of money in scenic Silicon Valley.)
  • There are also no featured artists or staff picks or tiered levels of service, or upsells of any kind. The site has been designed to be simple, equitable, transparent and affordable. All Hereit does is coherently organize artists and songs by locations and genres for better music discovery and give artists an affordable e-commerce platform that lets them sell songs without taking any cuts. That’s it.

Here are some of the other services and sites for musicians. Now, keep in mind, I flunked 10th grade math. But as you’ll see, with some of them, you could be selling music on Hereit, keeping 100 percent, for nearly two years for the cost it takes you to recoup the money you spend on some of these sites. And–just a heads-up–whenever a digital service claims to be be free, consider it a huge red flag.

Bandcamp
(sell direct to listeners)

Costs: Free for basic service, $10 per month for “pro” service; plus 15 percent of sales.

Bandcamp is a popular, much used service for independent music that also enables artists to sell directly to listeners. It is not awful by any means. It has a tagging system for locations, which is jumbled and only seems to allow one selection (you can search by location, or genre, but it doesn’t seem like you can look by both or by multiples of either). If you try browsing “blues” or searching by “Nashville,” you’re gonna find pages and pages of thumbnails of different artists. Some will be blues artists or bands from Nashville, but lots of it will just be stuff that has those words in the title or music that has that tag. Still, better than not having it at all. There are many, much worse sites for sure.

It is free to post music on Bandcamp (though, of course, there is a Bandcamp Pro version that costs $10 per month) and the site takes a 15 percent cut of music sales up to $5000, and then lowers to a 10 percent cut. But they also pass along their Paypal fee to artists–2.9 percent plus 30 cents per transaction. On a $1 download, that equals 48 cents in fees, though how they calculate and distribute those payments is a little confusing.

This is how Bandcamp details their revenue sharing process:

For simplicity, let’s say the revenue share rate is 10%, and you sell an album for $10. All $10 of that sale would go straight to you, but your revenue share balance (the amount you owe Bandcamp) would now be $1. Then you sell another album for $10. All $10 of that sale would again go straight to you, and your balance would now be $2. As more orders come in, the payments continue to go to you and your balance continues to grow by 10% of each sale. Upon the sale of your tenth $10 album, your balance would have reached $10, so that $10 sale, and only that sale, would go to Bandcamp, and the balance you owe Bandcamp would be reduced by $10. You can view your current balance at any time by exporting your sales history from the Sales section of your Tools page.

Got that? (Though, like an insurance company premium, the math they use depends on you having already sold $5,000 of music. And they don’t mention the additional Paypal fees.)

So here is how that math breaks down if you sell $5,000 worth of songs for a buck each, individually, on Bandcamp in one year:

5,000 transactions x 18 percent (15 percent for Bandcamp, 2.9 percent for Paypal): $900
5,000 x 30 percent per transaction (Paypal’s additional 30 cents per transaction): $1500

So it would cost you $2400 to sell $5000 worth of songs directly to fans on Bandcamp. That’s a 48 percent cut for an allegedly “free” service.

On Hereit those same sales would cost you $40.80 if it took you a year to sell them (less if you sold them more quickly). That is less than 1 percent (.82 percent, to be exact).

Digital Distributors

While Bandcamp, like Hereit, allows artists to sell directly to listeners, many sites are actually distribution platforms. You pay them and they get your music onto iTunes, Amazon, etc.

Giant digital music outlet malls like iTunes and Amazon certainly offer listeners a lot of convenience. (I once bought about 200 Ray Charles songs for around $5, which, as a musician, is awfully discouraging.)

Once you pay the fees to these distribution services, though–some of which then take additional commissions on your sales–they deposit you into incredibly convoluted and glutted marketplaces. There are more than 37 million songs on iTunes. Independent releases are buried, and receive limited attention. So you are on your own. The only way someone will find you is if you deliver them directly to your music.

And here is what happens when songs are bought on iTunes, which takes a 30 percent cut off the top.

From Rolling Stone:

Adele, who is signed to Sony Music, sells “Rolling in the Deep” for $1.29. Apple, as the retailer, keeps 30 percent, or roughly 40 cents. The rest, 90 cents, goes to Sony. From that, the major record label must deduct 9.1 cents as a “mechanical royalty,” paid to Adele and her co-writer, Paul Epworth (although they might split it with their respective publishing companies). That leaves about 81 cents.

Typical record contracts give artists 12 to 20 percent of sales, depending on the hugeness of the star, so let’s split the difference and say Adele’s percent is 16. That comes out of the original $1.29 price – so the artist’s cut for sale of the master recording is about 20 cents. (This is assuming Adele has made enough to “recoup” the expenses for her album – otherwise, it just contributes to paying off her debt to her record company.) And the remainder, a grand total of 60 cents, goes to Sony to pay for marketing, publicity, videos, executive salaries and obviously, profit.

Of course, many artists don’t want to share nearly half of their revenues with a major label like Sony, which is essentially a middleman. Before the Internet, and stuff like ProTools, an artist had to sign with a label even to be heard. That’s obviously no longer true. Today, an artist can pay a service like TuneCore to be included in the iTunes Store. At that point, after Apple takes its cut, the entire 90 cents goes to the artist.

Well, theoretically. Here are the fees for the companies that deliver you into a retail environment like that.

TuneCore

TuneCore does not take cuts from artists sales, though they do take a 10 percent cut of publishing if you use their publishing service. They also have a host of additional services you can buy, like TuneCore Track Smarts: “Get reviews and ratings from music fans, plus insights and analytics on your track to help you improve your music and advance your career.” (That’s what is so frustrating about the Internet–it is so difficult to hear people’s opinions. Thank goodness there is now the option to pay TuneCore $15 to hear what strangers online think of you.)

Here are their basic service costs. Like many of the digital distributors, you pay to have each release, album or single, distributed for an entire year, making it very difficult to do any kind of content strategy or limited-exclusivity to encourage sales.

Cost per album: $29.99 first year; $49.99 each following year
Cost per single song: $9.99 per year
Ringtone: $19.99 per year [Time travel to and from 2006 not included.]
Publishing: $75 one-time fee, 10% of publishing royalties.

CD Baby

CD Baby charges a one-time fee to distribute music to digital retailers. They also take an additional 9 percent commission off the purchase price. (They also distribute CDs & vinyl, and take $4 per unit sold.) So, with the cuts for iTunes and CD Baby, that’s 40 percent taken from each sale. Plus their fees:

Standard: $13 single, $49 per album.
Pro: $39 per single, $99 per album.

ReverbNation 

In addition to digital distribution, ReverbNation also offers a morass of other services, with tiered pricing levels. There is Basic ($0, “For All Artists”); Pro ($19.95/month, “For Emerging Artists”) and Max ($41.67 “For Rock Stars”–that’s right, for rock stars.)

ReverbNation is fairly notorious for how aggressively they upsell their services, and that upselling is woven pretty tightly into their fuctionality. Some users who don’t read the fine print of the site’s terms and conditions of the distribution package are surprised to find themselves charged to remove their songs. The takedown fees are $30 for those on the Essentials Package and $45 for the Pro Package–but hey, those people are rock stars, right? If you don’t pay the fees, your songs are considered “abandoned releases.” ReverbNation can take down your music, with or without notifying you. When they do, “aggregator will earn all royalties from sales of your music” until you pay the fee. That means that if you sign up for ReverbNation and don’t like it, you have to pay to stop using it. And if you don’t, they continue to sell your songs and keep all the money.

Here are their prices for digital distribution:

Cost per year per single song: $9.95
Cost per year per album: $19.95 first year, $49.95 each additional year

ReverbNation also has location functionality and some type of “trending” system to help discover scrappy independent artists like this. She’s only 22 and just got her first kitchen, but she’s doing pretty well–she’s got 145 video plays and 40 widget impressions on her page. (To be fair, lots of independent artists use ReverbNation, of course.)

DistroKid

Now, for digital distribution, DistroKid looks interesting, and a lot cooler than the other options. It is a lot newer as well.

For a yearly fee of $19.99, they will upload unlimited albums and songs to iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Amazon, Beats, Rdio and Deezer. DistroKid takes zero cuts to royalties, and while some of the other services appear to take weeks to get music into these online retailers, DistroKid does it in a matter of hours.

Like I said, there are many downsides to being on those platforms–from the cuts they take, to the set pricing and discounting, to the challenges of being found on them. But there are conveniences as well. If you choose to distribute your music through the platforms, DistroKid looks like a pretty logical choice when compared to all the others. I like that it is a simple, flat and transparent rate and that they don’t take cuts from artists sales.

So there you have it: the long and winding competitive analysis. If you are an artist, double check everything, do your own research, read all the fine print and then go with whatever best helps you get paid and make a living from the sale and use of your work.

If you are a listener, think about foregoing the cheapest route and spend a couple more cents on something that best benefits the people who made the music you are buying. Look around and find local music, made by bands and artists who live and work all around you, or independent artists from other cities or countries.

But, whatever you do, buy the songs–don’t just stream them. Streaming is far from free and you’ll probably like the songs a lot more if you actually buy and own them. More on that in How Much Does It Cost If It’s Free, in case you haven’t read that one yet.

In the end, none of the problems that artists are now experiencing can really be solved by a website. They can only be solved by musicians and people who love and care about music working together. Hopefully, more and more listeners will get tired of being forced into the passive, unsatisfying role of music consumers (and all the exploitation of their personal information that comes with it) and find ways to be more active participants, even citizens, in their own music communities. And that artists will find ways to help and encourage them do that. Because being a part of something is so much more rewarding than having thousands and thousands of audio files you got for free and never listen to clogging up your hard drive, or being able to stream any song you think to type into a search field. Music can be totally meaningless or deeply meaningful, and a lot of the time, that just depends on how you come to it and what you put into it.

The best thing a website can do is bring musicians and music lovers together and then just stay out of the way. That’s what Hereit hopes to do. If there are other sites or tools or platforms that do that better for you, that’s cool too. Whatever helps.

Thanks for slogging through all this. I hope to hear you on Hereit. And if I don’t see you there, in a long, long while, I’ll try to find you left of the dial. Best of luck and no hard feelings. Get out there and give ’em hell.