YEAR IN MUSIC 2012: Bottom line

The majors, streaming sites, and independent artists dance to the tune of economic decline

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Amanda Palmer and independent arists of her ilk battled it out to set their own terms in 2012
PHOTO BY SHERVIN LAINEZ

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN MUSIC If you wanna rob a bank you must be aware. You gotta use the computer upstairs.

Back in June, Bob Boilen, the host of NPR's All Songs Considered, posted "I Just Deleted All My Music." It was a gee-how-the-times-they-are-a-changin' sort of article detailing how Boilen had begun using Apple's iTunes based cloud service for storing his music collection. It likely would have been shortly forgotten by everyone (including the author) if not for a follow-up response a couple weeks later by the show's new intern, Emily White. With "I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With," White — whose 11,000+ song library was largely ripped from her college radio station — confessed to having "never supported physical music as a consumer," adding, "I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums."

The subsequent fallout (Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery had a long response in which he rebuked "Congratulations, your generation is the first in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to weirdo freak musicians!") became part of an ongoing debate over the state of the record industry. For more than a decade since Napster, the industry has been looking for a new bottom line as physical sales decline, and in keeping with tradition, it seems musicians have been getting shorted.

In a September cover story for New York Magazine, indie rockers Grizzly Bear revealed that despite debuting high on the shrinking Billboard Charts and selling out shows, the band was not exactly living the rockstar lifestyle of years past. Whereas it's previously been taboo or damaging to integrity to air out money issues (::cough:: Metallica ::cough::), artists in 2012 were increasingly candid about the financial stakes.

Most candid, perhaps, was Damon Krukowski, who gave explicit numbers — in an opinion piece on Pitchfork — for how much his Galaxie 500 bandmates made from online music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. As the remaining major labels — there are, with EMI finally being acquired by Universal late this year, now three majors, including Sony and Warner Music — attempt to leverage their catalogs online, free streaming services are a major part.

When Pandora founder Tim Westergren — in a refreshing bit of transparency — detailed some financials in October, notably that "Drake and Lil Wayne are fast approaching a $3 million annual rate each," it was an obvious boon for parent company Universal. For artists in the long-tail though, the rates are not so promising. By Krukowski's calculations, Galaxie 500's entire 64-song catalog earned $64.17 from Pandora in a quarter. Spotify in turn has an indie rate of paying $.005 per play, with the hope of scaling up as more people use the service and bring in revenue through either ads or subscription. For a small artist it amounts to a little more than the value of a handful of physical CD sold in the past. (To make matters worse, at the same time he announced large payments to labels, Westergren ironically sought to pass the Internet Radio Fairness Act, which would greatly reduce the royalties streaming sites like Pandora would have to pay artists.)

When you reach the bottom line. The only thing to do is climb.

Krukowski didn't just suggest people go back to buying CDs or records; at the end of his article he pointed in the direction of Bandcamp, an online distribution platform that allows bands to stream and market their own downloads and merchandise. Bandcamp still takes a cut, but it's an inversion of the royalty scheme artists traditionally have had with labels and now streaming sites.