Zoe Keating: The Battle Over Piracy Doesn’t Really Include Artists

Why is it that every major label and publisher supported SOPA, yet so many artists rallied against it?

Why was one of the biggest hip-hop producers accepting a CEO position at MegaUpload, and still getting support from Busta Rhymes, Diddy, and other rappers?

Part of the reason, according to edgy cellist Zoë Keating, is that the battle over piracy is really one between corporations, not artists.   “There are huge amounts of money involved on both sides of this fight, extremely little of it earmarked for artists,” Keating commented on Digital Music News last week.  “Neither side has my best interests in mind.”

Especially the interests of a successful, indie artist like Keating, who has never been signed to a major label, and has never known a musical career without file-sharing in the background.  Her interests are completely misaligned from that of say, Universal Music Group.  “In that model, file-sharing is a huge threat,” Keating told Digital Music News in a subsequent interview.  “But in my universe, it’s just me and Paypal.”

So what is a threat?  Keating is actually chasing copyright offenders, just not file-swappers and rogue foreign websites.  Instead, she focuses her lawyers on offenders like major broadcasters that swipe her music (and will pay if you pressure them.)  “I’m willing to spend the money to send nastygrams,” Keating shared.  “Because it’s not exposure if they don’t know it’s you.”

The rest is all about giving music away and making up the rest in other areas, right?  Wrong: Keating actually doesn’t sell merch, and makes more than half of her income from recordings, according to breakdowns shared with us.  And, before she found a good booking agent, recordings comprised more than 70 percent of income.  Here’s what the current breakdown looks like, based on her running spreadsheet.

Online Sales: 44%
Physical (sold offline): 8%
Licensing: 22%
Concert Performance Fees: 26%
Merchandise: 0%

So why not get a merch-machine going, and get that diversified cash?  The answer isn’t complicated: she doesn’t want to, and can get away with it.  “I’m an environmentalist and felt I didn’t want to create any more junk,” Keating told us.  “When I went down the route of playing music, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to sell music and not t-shirts.'”

But why not expand the touring revenues, and the potentially higher margins that come with it?  The answer, once again, is that she simply doesn’t want to leave the house for that long, especially with a toddler in the house.  “I’m a mother, I can’t tour all the time,” she said.

Which means a large percentage of her sustaining income comes from recordings, with die-hard fans keeping the lights on.  It’s a totally different approach to piracy that works for Keating, and one that bucks most DIY prognostication. “I make a living ‘selling music,'” Keating told us.  “And I know I’m not the only one.”