How to Support Independent Music

Posted on Jan 27, 2019
How to Support Independent Music

As The burden of Irrational Optimism inches toward release on March 19th, 2019, I have the privilege of wondering how I want to promote myself. Do I want to push Spotify? iTunes? Bandcamp? Soundcloud? Something else? What are the factors that come into play when determining how one pushes an album? Do I want money? Exposure? Both?

These days I’m pretty broke, my time is becoming increasingly more limited, and frankly, I need more sleep. I know that I’ve got to make some decisions about how I’m going to put myself out there and that to be successful, I’ve likely got to focus my energy into a subset of the available music platforms.

If I say to you Check out my Spotify!  are you also informed as to how your actions there affect me… or don’t? Same question, but Bandcamp? The simple fact of the matter is, if anyone is going to survive as a musician, then both musicians and their listeners will have to understand how to “work the system.” So rebellious!

In this article, we will explore what musicians want, some of the available online platforms, and how your interactions affect everyone in the music community. This is about existence, we aim to thrive.

For your listening pleasure, Lemurian Dance Party is an improvised live set. Enjoy.

What do the musicians want?

What do musicians want? Fame and tons of money? Likely, but let’s put this into tangible terms that folks are more likely to understand. As musicians, we tend to want:

  • Value – To create the understanding that what we do is worth money
  • Exposure – To increase our musics reach.
  • Engagement – Our fans to interact with our music and us (because we both love and hate attention, like cats).

These three elements create what I call, The Tangible Career Pyramid:

You see, Exposure, Engagement, and Value all rely upon one another. A symbiotic relationships where each of these elements, while measurable on their own, combine to become a musician’s career. Pretty hard to have a career as a musician, or at least, as a composer, without the pyramid firing on all points.

Don’t understand? We’ll explore the details below, but think about it like this. When more listeners are engaging with your music, you’ll get more exposure. That is, through those actions, more people will start hearing about you. This then, fuels engagement (more people to be engaged) and with a broader and deeper audience, your value goes up (people start buying more records).

As we explore the different platforms, we’ll talk about how each of these career factors is affected by your actions within the platform.

Online Music Listening Platforms

All ‘platform’ means is the music service – or ‘the app you use to listen to stuff’. There are many, and they have different qualities. These qualities embrace the career-pyramid above, and highlight different relationships between its core qualities. That is, how value relates to engagement (or exposure) will differ from one service to the next. Likewise, how engagement and exposure relate will change as well. Despite having the core-principles in place, I think we will find that each platform affects musicians in very different ways.

We will look at these online music platforms through the eyes of independent musicians:

  • Soundcloud
  • Spotify
  • Bandcamp

What they all offer is music. Where they differ is how they offer that music and the types of interactions that are available for listeners of that music. Each of these platforms, in their own way, offers its own monetization and social interaction schemes. These are usually fitted around some kind of data that they’re gathering, the very data that makes features like automated musical suggestions work. You know, those playlists that just know what you want to hear?

By examining each of these, and how their monetization and social interaction features directly impact the musician’s tangible career triangle, we’ll understand just how local music can thrive online.

Soundcloud

Soundcloud is a streaming platform designed around creating communities of people that share and interact with music and musicians. Musicians, like me, put music onto soundclound. That music is broadcast to my ‘followers’ and folks might see it in their own stream.

Then, while I listen to other people’s music, any music I really like I share or I comment on. I also flag which songs I like and soundcloud keeps tracking, building me an ever growing playlists.

Soundcloud does offer monetization though I’m not entirely sure how it works. There’s a way your music’s included in radio and supposedly they pay you for those streams. Alternatively, you can add “buy” links to your own tracks, in efforts to steer people to a place where they can pay for your music. My incoming web data shows me that no one has ever clicked my buy links on Soundcloud.

Soundcloud, is best served as a tool for creating and interacting with a community of similar musical tastes. Without that community and those interactions, that is, shares, playlists, and comments – soundcloud isn’t even good for an ego boost as far as your music is concerned. Even with an engaged community, I tend to find that soundclouders are more than happy to stay in that environment and avoid paying for music.

To get the most out of soundcloud: I should add, that the engagements that people tend to interact with on Soundcloud are short. A track is posted, a comment is left, and that’s the end of the interaction. This isn’t as good for getting your music heard by new people nor is it good for feeding the algorithms that make suggestions. If you really want to support your artists friends on Soundcloud, the best thing you can do is create playlists that include their music, listen to them, and share those playlists to your friends.

Summary:

  • Good for building community but requires a lot of interaction from listeners and musicians alike. Most interactions are trivial and short lived.
  • Value: None at all really
  • Engagement: While fun, isn’t as helpful to your career. Including music in playlists are the most effective way to support independent musicians on soundcloud.
  • Exposure – only really through communities of active music sharers will you gain any exposure on Soundcloud.

As a final personal note – I don’t dislike Soundcloud, quite the opposite. I love soundcloud, it’s just not a very good platform for my music. I listen to tons of the latest stuff and find so many gems. After this article though, I’ll definitely be working on sharing more music with my followers there.

Spotify

Spotify is the online repository of almost every record ever created. You can stream, in high quality, entire albums. In addition, Spotify creates playlists for you based on your own tastes.

Spotify creates lots of playlists, actually, and many of those are based on everyone’s data. Things like, “best songs of the 80’s” come from folks playing well, songs from the 80’s. Spotify takes note of what you listen to, how long you listen before you skip, how regularly you skip some songs, and so on. Spotify is truly big data’s musical juggernaut. If there’s one service that can provide exemplary exposure to an artist, it would definitely be Spotify.

Unlike Soundcloud which does not pay most artists for the content they stream, Spotify does pay for content. They take some giant pool of money and distribute it amongst the various artists proportionately. That means if you get played more by people, as an artist you make more money. Simple right? Well, yes, but you have to get a metric fuckton of plays to get paid.

From my recent cd-baby publishing data a single stream can pay out anywhere between 0.0022 and 00.005275 dollars. Yep, it’s not a flat rate per song. Now, let’s say I want to make as much money in a month as selling 1 cd, what do the numbers look like? It takes between 1809 and 4545 streams to make the same money as a single album sale (10 dollars).  To give you context, I get less than a 100 streams a month – nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s hard to live off of 5 cents a month.

From an engagement perspective, Spotify doesn’t have a lot of social features. The main music engagement feature Spotify does provide are playlists. Much like Soundcloud, playlists provide useful data in Spotify that directly influence its exposure engine (those automated playlists and other music suggestions).

The Best thing you can do to support independent musicians on Spotify: Much like Soundcloud, it’s fairly difficult to make any money on Spotify unless you’re becoming really popular. However, unlike Soundcloud, Spotify’s automated playlisting is a huge opportunity to get local music heard by a larger audience. The best thing you can do for artists on Spotify, is to build playlists and share them with your friends. Surprised? I was a little too, but Spotify offers a much better potential payoff than Soundcloud for the same kind of interaction. Interesting, no?

Summary:

  • Spotify sure is convenient
  • Artists get paid at the rate of 1/6 of a cent a stream, maybe.
  • Automaticly generated playlists and radio stations make Spotify a tremendous tool for improving exposure
  • While engagement is somewhat lacking in spotify, by creating playlists Spotify can do much more for independent artists who want thriving careers

I love Spotify too. I have to say, I go between it and Soundcloud a lot. Lately I have been shifting a little bit away from Soundcloud as I want my subscription fees to support artists. I think this is a fantastic service to have, however if you enjoy my music on it… please consider adding my music to a playlist.

Bandcamp

Many folks around me of late have heard me promoting bandcamp. Bandcamp is a digital music retailer of sorts, but not really. What bandcamp provides is a service that allows musicians to open their own online music stores. In stores musicians can sell digital music in up to 24 bit quality, CDs and other merchandise, and build communities around their music.

Bandcamp, of all online music retailers, has the least cost. Whereas iTunes may take 30 cents on the dollar, Bandcamp’s fees are much less (2-3% depending on how the music is paid for). When it comes to buying whole albums of music (not individual songs), Bandcamp gives the artist the greatest share. A digital download of The burden of Irrational Optimism goes for about 7.00 dollars, and so a single sale will yield be usually about 5 dollars (or about 2250 listens on Spotify).

Bandcamp also offers a subscription service. Unlike Patreon, where volunteers pay per release, Bandcamp subscriptions are monthly. Subscribing members are greeted with a special vip community, all of the music an artist has ever released, and special subscriber-only music releases. Subscriptions are very cheap, like 3 bucks a month, are are the single greatest way listeners can support the value aspect the career triangle.

When it comes to exposure, Bandcamp mostly keeps to itself, that is bandcamp likes bandcamp. Within the bandcamp community, there’s most certainly an algorithm and a few folks manipulating certain recommendations at a large scale. However, I find the reach of the bandcamp community to be much smaller than that of Spotify (and perhaps of Soundcloud depending on how you look at it). Musicians are really on their own when it comes to promoting their bandcamp, and exposure solely via bandcamp may be something difficult. I certainly do enjoy the bandcamp community, but bandcamp is more about what’s within, than what’s without.

Bandcamp’s subscription and general interface allow for basic engagement with your audience. People can leave comments on your music, or your subscribers can get exclusive artist news and direct communication with the artist. The engagement features in bandcamp, sadly, do more for your ego and the look of your page, than the manipulation of any algorithms. Your music will look more popular sure, but that’s about it.

The best way to support musicians via bandcamp is to subscribe to musicians who’s music you enjoy and post that music to your social media.

Summary:

  • Bandcamp Subscriptions are the best way to financially and emotionally support independent musicians
  • Buying albums is the next best way to financially support independent musicians. Streams just don’t pay.
  • Bandcamp pages thrive if people are sharing them on sites likes twitter and facebook on your behalf. Consider engaging with your favorite artists as exposing bandcamp requires more community effort.
  • Bandcamp offers a more intimate and connected community and musical connection than other platforms.

For me, I love what Bandcamp represents. Listening to albums, talking about them with your friends. It reminds me a lot of when we would buy cds and drive around just to listen to them. By focusing on the music, it embraces a tighter community of music lovers than other services. I’ve even bought a handful of albums lately myself (like some from Hello World) and listen to them via the bandcamp app. And, if we’re talking about the career triangle then Bandcamp is a way for musicians to earn money with much less engagement.

Other Services

What about services like iTunes and Apple Music? What about Last.FM? Google Play? About a billion other ones? Well, I think you’ll find they all borrow characteristics from one of the three we’ve already spoken of.

iTunes is a music store much like bandcamp – the artist makes a sale and gets a cut, it just might be a little bit more than bandcamp. Still not a bad way to buy music, and it is quite a bit easier to get at than bandcamp. Apple Music is the streaming service and it works similarly to Spotify; remember those playlists! To keep the conversation brief, let’s rope Google Play in with Apple Music and Spotify too.

Last.Fm is a little different – it’s like a big data mining engine. It’s fed through your last.fm account which may include whatever’s on your iPod. It can also connect to your spotify. All that data is pooled and last.fm wraps a little shell around it to make it accessible and foster community. In terms of paying musicians, it’s a lot like Spotify, and likewise, in terms of algorithmic manipulation.

Even services like Pandora receive your input (those thumbs) and then make decisions for you. However you receive your music I think it goes without saying, your interactions with the music make a difference for musicians. So please, consider what you’re ingesting and how you can keep independent music alive.

Wrapping Up

Damn, that was a lot of information, wasn’t it? Yep, getting the internet to work for you is quite the undertaking. However, if you want to support local music, if you want independent music, truly independent music, to thrive, we as the musical community must come to understand just how to bend the universe to our will.

In thinking about how I might succinctly wrap themes up, I’d like to point out a couple of important themes:

  1. Streaming services don’t pay much but your playlists where you listen to our music along with your other favorite musicians is quite helpful for musicians.
  2. Subscribing is the best way to support artists on all levels.
  3. Soundcloud sure is really fun… but is it helping the musical community thrive?
  4. Likes aren’t really that valuable, but you the ways in which you listen and actively share our music are extremely valuable to musicians.
  5. Albums are still our bread and butter. Consider buying music you enjoy.

And, for whatever theme, I find that there’s an approach we’ve already taken that merely needs minor manipulation. Engage with local music, promote local music, and please include us on your playlists, too.