Islands in the Stream: Austin Artists Talk Spotify

By all accounts, one pumpkin spice-swilling, Instagram-addicted, Pennsylvania-born 24-year-old named Taylor Alison Swift had herself a hell of a year in 2014.

Gracing the covers of countless glossy magazines and officially jumping the shark to become a cultural touchpoint known as much for the minutiae of her earnest lifestyle and famous friendships as for her self-penned songs, the ever-present pop phenom gave the music industry its sole platinum album of the calendar year with 1989. The collection of tunes was, of course, released with a pitch-perfect display of marketing prowess, from obligatory press appearances and well-timed tweets to intimate house parties where fans breathlessly reveled in the star’s quartet of homes around the country. It also marked the largest sales week any new album release has been able to claim in more than a decade.

So, when the star also announced last year that she was pulling her music from the popular streaming service Spotify, eyebrows shot up among industry insiders and casual listeners alike. A quarter of the service’s 40 million listeners had streamed her songs at least once, securing her spot as one of its most popular musicians, popping up on more than 19 million user-generated playlists.

Think pieces flew in a flurry of speculation.

“What does it all mean?” the handwringers asked.

Well, for Austin’s indie music community, it meant a line in the sand: one drawn by, perhaps, the unlikeliest of champions.


Gina-Chavez-Austin-Citygram

“The music industry is constantly changing, and it’s important that indie artists be willing to move and grow with it,” says Gina Chavez, the Austin Music Award winner whose sophomore album Up.Rooted was released last February and whose voice has been lauded by the likes of NPR’s First Listen and All Songs Considered. “Choosing Spotify is about promotion because the payout is laughable. If you want exposure, you need to have your music available to fans where they are listening to music, and, just like with movies, there’s an undeniable trend of people moving away from owning music, to ‘renting’ music through subscription services like Spotify.”

Choosing Spotify is about promotion because the payout is laughable.
Gina Chavez

While her fan following is higher than it was prior to the release and promotion of Up.Rooted, Chavez says, she’s still only amassed 180 followers through the service. She admits to not engaging with fans very much through its platform, but adds, “It appears that Spotify is taking steps to connect fans to the artists they like by showing tour dates and artist merchandise-integrated widgets like Songkick and Bandpage. If more fans use Spotify to buy merchandise and go to shows, that can greatly help an artist’s revenue stream.”

But as for its financially problematic foundation, Lars Wolfshield — the manager of electro-punk band BLXPLTN and owner of Wolfshield Records, which released BLXPLTN’s debut album, Black Cop Down, last year — agrees with Chavez and offers an almost-verbatim echo of her sentiments: “We make almost no income off of Spotify,” she says. “The payout per stream is so nominal it’s laughable.”

Comparing it to iTunes, Wolfshield says, “Spotify’s effect on our sales and exposure is less quantifiable, but when I see a song has been streamed a thousand times but only purchased 20 times, that does feel like a success from an artistic standpoint of wanting to make the music accessible for everyone. Nevertheless, I really would like to see artists paid better for their music, and Spotify could pay a lot better.”

“It’s good to see famous artists like Taylor Swift take a stand against a company that profits heavily from other people’s work,” she adds. “That’s significant.”

BLXPLTN-Austin-Citygram
 

Artists need to be paid for their art,
and Spotify really doesn’t pay.
TaSzlin Muerte
Drummer for BLXPLTN

BLXPLTN’s drummer, TaSzlin Muerte, concurs. “Spotify has been useful for us getting our music more exposure when people may not be as willing to pay for a full album they have not yet heard,” he says. “For well-known musicians, it really doesn’t pay out. Artists need to be paid for their art, and Spotify really doesn’t pay.”

Emily-Wolfe-Austin-Citygram
 
When initially asked about the service’s pros and cons, Chavez had a suggestion: to contact fellow Austin musician Emily Wolfe, one of whose songs, “Accident,” has been streamed more than two million times thanks to its placement on a popular Spotify playlist. But again, the issue of royalties arises.

“Though it’s amazing for listeners who want to hear their favorite songs on the drop of a dime, not many dimes are dropped to the musicians,” Wolfe explains. “If Spotify paid $1 per play, I’d be set financially — but right now, pay per single play is a fraction of a penny. I love Spotify for many reasons, but there are definitely a couple of downsides. That’s just the nature of the music business, though — it’s constantly evolving.”


A November 2014 article called “The Shazam Effect,” written by Derek Thompson for The Atlantic, posits, “The Internet can connect us to an astonishing amount of music – some of it derivative, but much of it wildly experimental, even brilliant. Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora let us sample from music libraries that, decades ago, wouldn’t have fit inside the largest record store in the world. These services aren’t just vast; they’re also searchable and exquisitely personal.”

“But while fans can burrow deep into rabbit holes of esoterica,” it continues, “’Today’s Top Hits’ is still the No. 1 playlist on Spotify, and Pandora’s most popular station is ‘Today’s Hits.’ Even when offered a universe of music, most of us prefer to listen to what we think everyone else is hearing.”

Even when offered a universe of music, most of us prefer to listen to what we think everyone else is hearing.
Derek Thompson

The Octopus Project, for its part, doesn’t really fall into any of those categories. Its wildly experimental, albeit infectious, approach to music making is underscored by its prominent use of the theremin, the early electronic antennae-based instrument known for its use in the soundtracks of sci-fi classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Josh Lambert, one of the band’s founding members, takes a measured approach when relaying his impressions of Spotify, as well as its contemporaries. “For better or worse, streaming services seem like they will be around for a while,” he says, “and have completely slowed record sales for everyone — which is depressing when you think about it in the old model of making money from music, but I also feel like it has had a positive effect in some respects… I know it’s forced us as a band to re-think things and get more creative with how we get music to folks — like releasing music bundled with a handmade stuffed animal.”

The-Octopus-Project-Citygram-Austin
 

The best way to offset the drop in music sales is to make everything else surrounding your band as amazing as you can – crazy shows, unique merch, lots of direct fan interaction.
Josh Lambert
The Octopus Project

“I think Spotify (and all streaming services) is a double-edged sword for both up-and-coming as well as established artists,” he continues. “It’s definitely an easy way for people to hear your music, but also you are guaranteed to not make any money from it, and people using the service have no incentive to seek out your music to purchase if they can get it for free otherwise. It’s my hope that people will hear us there, but come to our shows, buy merch, et cetera.”

As for the band’s role in its own success, Lambert takes a hands-on stance, saying, “I think the best way to offset the drop in music sales is to make everything else surrounding your band as amazing as you can — crazy shows, unique merch, lots of direct fan interaction. You have to work harder to make people want to support you, but doesn’t that make us all better?”

Chaka Mpeanaji of hip hop group Riders Against the Storm echoes the notion that Spotify is better suited as a place for music to be accessed at will rather than discovered organically – a destination where potential fans can hear a band’s music after being tipped off to it by a friend or other source without financially committing to it first.

Riders-Against-the-Storm-Austin-Citygram
 
“Spotify hasn’t been incredibly useful for us in terms of developing our fan base,” says Mpeanaji, one-half of the husband-and-wife duo who were named Band of the Year and Best Hip Hop Band by The Austin Chronicle in 2013-14. “Since Spotify doesn’t have a page (like Facebook), it’s not something that we really promote that often. If our fans are on there, and they don’t have access to our music via download or physical copy, then they probably stream our EP. Since there’s no real way to interact with fans on Spotify, we don’t use it much as artists. We use it as fans to look for people’s albums. Nobody has come up to us and told us they discovered us on Spotify. We tend to get discovered by word of mouth (mostly) or social media.”

Likewise, Hugo de Saint-Quentin of the Paris-born, Austin-based rock band Hooka Hey feels the service is great for listeners but bad for new artists. Hooka Hey debuted its first album in 2011, played with The Black Keys in 2012 (who publicly oppose Spotify’s royalty structure and whose drummer called Spotify’s Sean Parker “an asshole” in a radio interview that same year), and most recently released a new single, “Nasty,” off its upcoming album. But don’t expect the band to look to Spotify to help listeners find it.

IMG_3702
 

Being on Spotify is like being lost in the cosmos. Nobody will find you unless they’re looking for you.
Hugo de Saint-Quentin
Hooka Hey

“To me, it serves no purpose,” he says plainly. “I don’t even think it’s a good way to be discovered because for a small artist, being on Spotify is like being lost in the cosmos. Nobody will find you unless they’re looking for you. So it serves the same purposes as a website or Bandcamp… you have to make people come to you. And the payoff is literally nothing… record companies signed this deal to sell their back catalogue again. They were not thinking of new artists who are paid nothing in this model.”

de Saint-Quentin cites Radiohead as an inspiring force in the music industry for having pulled its own music off of Spotify, which frontman Thom Yorke called “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” at the time. The rock legends are among the most prominent artists to have removed part or all of their catalogues from the streaming service, standing alongside AC/DC, The Beatles… and Swift.

Whether the service positions itself as a discovery tool for listeners, a repository where potential fans can sit with a band’s music before committing to a financial investment, or a critical marketing tool altogether, its detractors are aplenty, particularly among musicians on the way up who, like their predecessors, are playing small to moderately-sized gigs, selling CDs at merch tables, touring in cramped vans and paying their dues out of a love for the sounds they make. Many of them, it seems, still believe songs are best discovered not in an endless stream of more than 30 million of their kind, but rather, the way they always have: through word of mouth. While many would argue that services like Spotify now play an integral role in those transmissions, a broad swath of Austin’s working artists begs to differ.

When Philip Seymour Hoffman’s version of the legendary music journalist Lester Bangs is introduced in the film Almost Famous, he goes on something of a tangent while pacing around a radio station, speaking into a live mic.

“Music – you know, true music – not just rock & roll – it chooses you,” he raves. “You know, it lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones, with the vast, scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain, you know? It’s a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.”

[Spotify is] the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.
Tom Yorke
Radiohead

Bangs passed away in 1982, but if he were still here, one has to wonder if he might have agreed with Swift when she said in an op-ed last summer in The Wall Street Journal, “…the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” Or when she told fans during an acceptance speech at the American Music Awards, “…by going out and investing in music and albums… you are saying that you believe in the same thing that I believe in: that music is valuable, and music should be consumed in albums, and albums should be consumed as art and appreciated.”

In all honesty, “Shake It Off” probably wouldn’t have been the man’s jam, but perhaps over the topic at hand, he and that girl from Pennsylvania might have found some common ground.
 

Writing: Amy Lynch
Photos: Lead image & Octopus Project photo by Chris Perez
Gina Chavez photo – Jodi Granado
BLXPLTN photo – Roger Kisby/Getty Images 2014
Emily Wolfe photo- Steven Alcala
Riders Against the Storm- White Light Exposure


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