Somewhere along the treacherous path towards streaming, artists decided to let Spotify win. They weren’t going to get paid properly, accounted to properly, or benefit from all the free, ad-supported streaming that has made investors and executives rich. But maybe they’d get some exposure that would fuel some other revenue avenues, like touring, sponsorships, or even merchandise.
Who knows, maybe they’d get onto a big playlist and score a survival payout like Perrin Lamb.
Artists like Ari Herstand told fellow musicians that they were compromising their careers if they didn’t go where the fans were; vitriolic pundit Bob Lefsetz called you an idiot for challenging the emerging status quo. And this of course goes beyond Spotify: YouTube, Soundcloud, Rdio, Pandora, Apple Music, and half-a-dozen other big platforms are woven into this stained fabric.
Amidst the endless cacophony, punditry and controversy, artists realized the depressing truth: there’s only so much time you can spend shaking your fist at the system before it starts to compromise your writing, touring, and ability to survive. There are only so many hours in a day, so many dollars to spend, so much energy to expend. And it became obvious that artists who decided to fight the system would die in obscurity trying. Better to dance with the devil then risk a total non-career.
Into this exhausted acquiescence enters Adele, who somehow sold an astounding 3.38 million copies of her latest album, 25, in just one week according to details now confirmed by Nielsen Soundscan. That is the biggest one-week sales tally ever recorded by Soundscan, which started in 1991, and represents a record that could last for decades, if not forever given the downward slide of the bundled album.
Most importantly, 100% of those sales were either album downloads, CDs, or vinyl, which deliver far superior payouts than streaming (and typically, far better transparency). All of which raises some very serious questions for Spotify and other streaming services, a group at the vanguard of music consumption but oftentimes perceived as the enemy by artists and creators.
So what’s an artist to do in these tumultuous times?
Lefsetz screams that artists who follow Adele’s lead are idiots; they’re simply not in the same league. Indeed, most artists never crawl out of scarcity; their biggest problem isn’t Spotify. But that doesn’t make it right, and perhaps deep down, we all know that ad-supported streaming is a raw deal for almost everyone except music fans, the streaming services themselves, and investors in those streaming services (which now includes the major recording labels).
Adele certainly knows that. And so does Taylor Swift, and both have taken action against the unfairness. But those catalog gaps haven’t slowed Spotify (or streaming) one bit; in fact, the recent Taylor Swift boycott actually added subscribers to Spotify (hey, no publicity is bad publicity). And fans don’t really care about complaining artists and compensation problems; that’s another thing we’ve learned along the way (just ask Tidal).
The question now is whether the vast remainder of artists, including a larger number of bigger names, decide to shift their strategies in the wake of Adele’s record-breaking success. 3.38 million albums is also 3.38 million fans, all of whom gladly steered past streaming and supported an artist they loved. So maybe this is all just another Taylor Swift moment, or maybe something far more serious.
Top image by Christopher Macsurak; middle image by Franklin Heijnen; both licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).