Music

In the Spotify era, many musicians struggle to make a living

If you ever find yourself cruising around Los Angeles, you might see Erika Nuri Taylor’s signs announcing a house for sale in Simi Valley or a condo listing in Van Nuys.

What you might not know is that the Realtor is also a Grammy-nominated songwriter with a long and storied career working with the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Janelle Monáe and Fantasia. Or that she co-wrote the Meghan Trainor song “Woman Up” playing in that “80 for Brady” movie trailer that’s sure to dominate our televisions during the Super Bowl.

So, you might wonder, why on earth is she selling houses?

The 65th Grammy Awards ceremony, that annual celebration of (mostly mainstream, American, Top 40) radio, arrives once again on Sunday, with performances from the industry’s top earners, including Lizzo, Harry Styles and Luke Combs. The glitzy gathering can obscure the fact that making a living in the industry is increasingly hard for most songwriters and musicians in the streaming era. Royalties tend to be meager, while many say concerts produce less revenue, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic led to the shuttering of smaller venues throughout the country.

Conversations about these disparities have long taken place within the music industry, but last year, they spilled out into the public. In January 2022, Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify to protest Joe Rogan spreading misinformation about coronavirus vaccines on his podcast. Joni Mitchell and other musicians followed suit. Many used the opportunity to cite how the rise of streaming led to much smaller royalty checks.

“It’s my hope that whatever side of the culture war, the Rogan-Neil Young thing, a person may land, that people can be sympathetic to the struggle of working artists trying to get fair pay,” Eve 6 frontman Max Collins said at the time.

[Grammys, you have one job on Sunday: Give Beyoncé album of the year]

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In the ensuing year, there have been a few slight changes to give more streaming revenue to artists. But even for some Grammy-nominated songwriters such as Nuri Taylor and so many beloved touring musicians, a music career in the 2020s is unsustainable.

Nuri Taylor became a professional writer as an 18-year-old in 1992. When “you wanted to buy music, you had to go to the record store,” she said.

Then came Napster, the file-sharing app that disrupted the music industry. ITunes soon followed. It wasn’t perfect, but users still needed to purchase songs, which translated into somewhat traditional royalties. Soon, though, streaming dominated the market, with Spotify leading the pack. And royalties plummeted.

For each dollar of revenue earned on Spotify, 58.5 cents go to the owner of a song’s sound recording (usually a record label), Spotify keeps 29.38 cents, 6.12 cents go to whoever owns publishing rights (usually the songwriter) and 6 cents goes to whoever owns the mechanical rights (usually the songwriter), according to 2016 research by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a professional services firm.

For various complicated reasons - including Spotify’s cut, and the large number of streams it takes to get to that dollar - this scheme leads to less money for musicians, experts say. (A Spotify spokesperson said the figures in the 2016 study are roughly correct but did not respond when asked for further comment.)

Things worsened for all creatives, but they grew particularly dire for songwriters, who have long missed out on some potential sources of revenue available to performers, such as touring and merchandise. Then there’s the lag time between doing the work and getting paid for it. “If I write a song, it may take a year for that song to come out on an artist’s album,” Nuri Taylor said. Even then, the royalty payment isn’t instantaneous.

“We’re getting . . . the mechanical or streaming royalties, which is like nothing,” Nuri Taylor said. “At least before, we were getting paid when people bought an album or a vinyl record or a CD or they downloaded a song. But now that revenue has been cut drastically.”

“Five years ago, I started looking at my income,” she added. “I saw my royalty revenue pretty much cut in half.”

So, three years ago, “I got my real estate license, because I thought I’m not going to be able to sustain being a creative person, a songwriter, for the next 10 to 15 years if nothing changes in the music industry.” The job allows her the flexibility to write songs, which she does, but at this point, “I’m pretty much a full-time real estate agent.”

There’s a commonly held perception that “once you get the one [hit song], then life is good for you,” said songwriter Courtney Harrell. “As someone like Erika and myself know, that’s just not how it goes. I don’t think that’s ever how it went, completely.” Certainly not now.

The Boston-born Harrell grew interested in music at a young age, given that her parents were pastors and singers, her father working as a songwriter to boot. She enrolled in an apprenticeship program at the Berklee College of Music at 15 years old, sights set on becoming a singer, and soon earned a scholarship to become a full-time student.

She faced a question when she got pregnant at 17 years old: how to make a living in music and “maintain the most important job I could ever have: being a mom?”

“While I was a singer first, I thought, ‘You know what? Let me be responsible and pursue the songwriting thing, because at least that’s where the money is,’” Harrell said. About 2010, she finally broke into the business penning tunes with Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige and other pop stars. But, she said, “it was also the same time that Spotify was becoming popular.”

The arrangement seemed to work for a few years. But one day, a day Harrell will never forget, Chris Brown was on the American Music Awards “singing a song that I had co-written. My son and I were watching it, and he goes to the refrigerator and there’s nothing in there.”

“He looks at me and says, ‘Mom, this doesn’t make any sense.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? It doesn’t.’”

In 2015, Harrell lost her home. A friend took her son for about nine months while she tried figuring out what to do next. “Do I keep writing?” she remembers wondering. “It made no literal sense - no money - and it made no figurative sense. It was like, ‘This is stupid.’”

Once again, like a chorus: simply unsustainable.

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“The thing that I thought I was going to be able to provide a life for my son absolutely did not do that,” Harrell said. “And the credits that I have, you would think there’s money in the bank. If there is, it isn’t from the songwriting.”

The next chapter of Harrell’s story, thankfully, is a happy one. She became a contestant on Season 11 of “The Voice” and now works as a casting producer on “America’s Got Talent,” sifting through a staggering amount of recorded music to help decide what to use on the show. More and more often, she notices that “a lot of modern-day music is not great because people can’t afford to do it anymore.”

Los Angeles-based songwriter Heidi Rojas is trying to combat that potential dearth, using her experience in the industry to coach aspiring songwriters and singers and help develop promising careers. She spent years writing music, scoring some No. 1 hits in Britain, before deciding that she wanted a family - and began considering both the hours and the pay from songwriting alone. The math didn’t add up.

Part of the issue was how the actual pay structure works. A songwriter can spend time in a session with an artist, creating music, but if the tunes are never purchased by a label, there’s no money. If a song does poorly, there’s not much money. “There’s a small group of people who have significant success as a songwriter,” Rojas said. “And then they have to do something with that money to create a longevity, because they’re not necessarily going to have that same kind of a year next year.”

Shifting to coaching and development has helped her fulfill a purpose of “helping young female artists navigate a mostly male-dominated industry.” And it’s been lucrative. “I’m working 10 hours a week, and it’s over six figures, which was not easy to do when I was getting cuts as a writer. I’m getting paid like the moment I get on my Zoom session, instead of having to wait a year and a half to find out how much it’s actually going to be.”

Some small inroads have been made during the past few years, particularly for songwriters. A 2018 law created the Mechanical Licensing Collective, which helps songwriters and musicians register their music to make sure they get paid from streaming services.

Just this past year, the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and the Digital Media Association (DiMA) announced that from 2023 to 2027, mechanical streaming rates will slowly rise.

“I don’t think an agreement like that could have happened without the activism of songwriters speaking out and talking about the challenges they face and making a living and what a struggle it is,” said Todd Dupler, acting chief advocacy and public policy officer of the Recording Academy, the body that produces the Grammys.

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Two years ago, the Recording Academy created the songwriters and composers wing, which in part helps advocate for greater royalties. On Sunday, the Grammys will give its first Songwriter of the Year award.

Songwriters aren’t the only ones hurting in the digital age. A few performers in the top 1 percent can make a good living selling out stadiums and selling merch. But not most touring musicians.

Will Sheff - himself a 2010 Grammy nominee for best liner notes - serves as the frontman for the indie rock band Okkervil River, which he founded in Austin in 1998.

“I don’t know who the hell is making money off Spotify,” he said. “I’m told that when you’re a really big artist, and you’re doing that kind of volume, you start making money.”

For a while, touring remained lucrative. But, Sheff said, musicians needed to spend more time on the road to make up for the revenue lost to streaming, creating a supersaturation of supply. Demand, meanwhile, began to shrink thanks to more corporate influence on many venues.

Live Nation, an event promoter and venue operator, and Ticketmaster merged in 2010 to create Live Nation Entertainment. Many consider the resulting behemoth - which the Justice Department is investigating - a monopoly and argue that they book fewer smaller acts while taking larger chucks of the generated revenue. See: Ticketmaster’s notorious service fees. (The company has said in a statement it “does not engage in behaviors that could justify antitrust litigation.”)

“Around 2011, the bottom fell out,” Sheff said. It was the beginning of the end of a “musical middle class.”

Finally, in the past few years - exacerbated by the pandemic, rising gas prices, inflation and a number of other untold factors - tours stopped being profitable altogether for Sheff and legions of other indie bands.

“I’m not unique in this,” he said. “I think most of the indie bands out there right now are fulfilling tours they thought were going to be profitable, and they’re doing it because they already signed on the dotted line and won’t be doing it again.”

Those dynamics are increasingly clear. Years ago, the Hold Steady swapped the traditional touring model for a series of residencies in various cities. Last summer, Animal Collective canceled a European tour, citing in a statement “an economic reality that simply does not work and is not sustainable.” Santigold did the same, noting that she was ready to tour after spending two years making little to no income, but “gas, tour buses, hotels and flight costs skyrocketed.” Sampa the Great postponed her European shows, citing exhaustion and financial risks.

Sheff is touring in support of his first solo album, “Nothing Special.” On his last tour, he said, he lost about $5,000. He’s predicting he’ll lose triple that on his upcoming European stint. But if he doesn’t tour to help the album, he’d be basically “signing a death warrant for my whole solo career.”

And those numbers take into account his ticket and merch sales. “If I got covid at the beginning of the tour, it would just destroy me. It would really be like time to move back in with your parents,” he said.

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Thanks to a good contract with his record label, earlier in his career he made “really very good money,” despite never being “a super successful artist.” But “now I’m just clinging to the last scraps of that money.”

The takeaway, yet again: This career might be unsustainable. “I’ve given up a lot for this life and it means everything to me, and I consider it a spiritual calling,” Sheff said. “And then I have to try to reconcile that with like how to pay Larry’s vet bills” - referring to his dog.

He added, “I’m never sure when it’s just going to be all over for me.”

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