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Streaming Music Services & The New/Unknown Artist

How Does The Small Artist Fare?

In one single day the entire human race creates a combined total of 2.5 billion gigabytes of data. Part of this information is gathered to identify a listener’s musical taste. Its also used to develop algorithms which online streaming music use for services, features, and commerce. This information helps these streaming services obtain and retain consumers, while maintaining an increasing profit margin. Their subscribers are then able to discover new music which fits their musical taste profiles, and therefore continue paying their monthly subscription fees for the music. So how are these decisions being made behind the scenes? How do songs today get played on these services? And finally, can any artist, no matter how small, earn a decent living? It all began with Shazam.

The first company to ever leverage data collected to make better choices for their listeners was Pandora. Pandora created the Music Genome project which was the first data collecting program for classifying music. The MGP uses around 450 different criteria which are kept secret to the masses of music listeners. Genre, is just one example of a classification leaving the other 449 classification tags a mystery. Shazam was responsible for curating Apple’s playlists for the early part of the century. Many other companies are now becoming involved since the technology and bandwidth have increased ten-fold.

Another company called Echo Nest was also using a user predictability software to analyze users tastes. Echo Nest was acquired by Spotify in 2014 is used to help determine the probability of a user liking a new song. This music analytics firm “listens to the music” and uses criteria like language and other determining factors to send appropriate music to the listener’s playlist.

Before an artist’s music can be heard by a new listener, all music, no matter how big or how small the artist, is subjected to a strict computational analysis. This prevents problems and keeps listeners using the service. For example, a K-pop (Korean Pop) song will not play after a classical string quartet is played while listening on shuffle mode. If this ever occurred the streaming service would lose most likely be considered a failure, lose its subscription renewals and eventually go out of business. 

These streaming services use a feature called “shuffle mode” or discovery-based playlists which help artists connect with and develop new fans daily. Sadly, music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal, Napster, or Google Play are so concerned with profit that they choose to play only popular music and sadly don’t have the resources to assist a smaller artist in earning revenue. This is the catch 22. The problem is that any for profit business model to be successful, the criteria for these algorithms must be designed to achieve this goal. Thusly bringing only the most popular, top sellers into the spotlight while keeping the small artists lost in the dark reaches of the web. But how do these large streaming services interweave the familiar songs with the unfamiliar?

Spotify uses a feature in their App, appropriately named, which is called “Discover Weekly.” This feature connects the user with new music based on the following key factors: what other users are listening to, user personal taste preferences, and some in-house staff playlist editors. The list of streaming online music curation do not stop here. 

Apple Music is not new to the streaming services apps but they use a slightly more proprietary version of music curation to create a “For You” tab in which the listener will find access to new music previously unheard. Apple claims their method of music curation is hand-built by their own music editors and artists which use the service. As of January 22nd, 2018, Apple has joined the rest of the streaming services by adding an artist dashboard service for any artist who would like help expand their fanbase and keep an eye on their financials. Spotify also offers this service in the App Spotify for artists.

As of July 27th, 2017, there were a total of eight streaming music services available to stream and sell music. The sites are the following in order of payouts starting with the highest: Napster, Tidal, Apple Music, Google Play, Deezer, Spotify, Pandora, & YouTube. Since technology is ever-changing, the prices that were paid per stream were taken from an online article written by Forbes on July 27th, 2017. A small artist could expect to see the following examples of payouts for a certain number of songs streamed in the following chart: 

Service pps  # times played in 30 days Subtotal
Napster $0.0167 450 $7.52
Tidal $0.0110 380 $4.18
Apple Music $0.0064 833 $5.33
Google Play $0.0059 394 $2.32
Deezer $0.0056 383 $2.14
Spotify $0.0038 294 $1.12
Pandora $0.0011 3839 $4.22
Youtube (with minimum subs per month) $0.0006 0 $0.00
    Total Streams  TOTAL DUE
    6573 $26.84

After looking at the chart, it is easy to see how difficult it is to make even a proper minimum wage from streaming music sites payouts. This is at least better than nothing for the musician but a far cry from a living. Also, if the artist did not write and produce the music all themselves, then that money will have to be split according the split sheet and publisher contracts. Taking this into account, how can a small artist today leverage this information in order to maximize profits from their own uploaded music to these streaming sites? It seems that currently the answer is they cannot, and here’s why.

The more popular streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, make it extremely challenging to get played if you are not within the top 10 percent of music consumed. 

Simply put, why would anyone want to discover an artist without any clout in the market unless they were a music agent looking for the next big artist to sign? Understanding that streaming services are not democratic, for the less known artist, is the key to answering this question. 

Theses companies must balance its streaming technology costs and its income from subscribers or go out of business. In order to stay in business, the online music streaming services are forced to only play songs curated from the Top Billboard 100 streaming and Billboard Social 50. Furthermore, since these top 100 sites only list music superstars on them, it prevents any less known artist from making it into the rotation of the “Discover Weekly” playlists or Apple’s “For You” tab. Unless something drastically changes soon, the current streaming service business model prevents the unknown artists from getting enough streams to earn any more than a few dollars a month. And the listeners are generally from friends and families’ streams. A smart decision would be to make sure your friends and family, especially the older generation, has  and uses a streaming service that your on. Good luck with this one!

Currently, democracy is not the guiding factor for users to be introduced to the smaller artist. Sadly the algorithms of these large corporate conglomerates are based on earning profits and getting new subscribers. This is what is to be expected from a “for-profit” company. However, a company started by a musician Dr. Dre Tidal, is currently the only streaming service owned by musicians, for musicians. Because Tidal its owned by artists, there are slightly higher payouts and an algorithm in place that increases the chance of new users hearing smaller artists. While it seems reasonable to believe that for a small artist, selling music on the most popular service will result more earnings.

The harsh reality is that no one will be ever be introduced to any new music by smaller artists music through the discovery or shuffle method because the algorithm favors the most popular artists to maintain profit margins. To find a small artist a user would already have to know the artists name to seek out and find directly. This is completely counter-intuitive. Therefore, the smaller musician is best off not relying on these services for decent income. Is it possible for an artist to at least make minimum wage ? 

A professor at UC Irvine uncovered that to earn at least minimum wage, an artist would need to stream 4 million times in one month. Even with 60 billion subscribers, a small artist would find this practically impossible. Good news however is that recently the court system stepped in and changed this stark fact. In January of 2018, the US Copyright Royalty Board ruled that music publishers must be paid more for their songs. This comes as a wonderful boon to the smaller artist who is barely making ends meet. This increase will now force the big players in the streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, and Tidal to pay 15 percent to all music publishers. This is noted to be one of the largest overnight increases in royalty payouts in US history.

20 years have passed since the first musical curation algorithm by Pandora. This has led to many new advances in online streaming services. While it seems intriguing for a small artist to upload their next album, EP, or single to any of these streaming services, is it worth the time and effort? With the algorithms favoring the Billboard top 100 and The answer is that its better for a smaller artist’s music to be found in more places online that less. As the online music industry approaches its 20th year anniversary, currently there is hope for a better income for a small artist today, but no one, to this date, has yet to develop a successful business model which ensures the smaller artist music will not get lost in the shadows of the brightly shining media superstars of digital world.

Sources Cited

Moon, Brian. “From Spotify to Shazam: How Big-Data Remade the Music Industry One Algorithm at a Time.” May 27, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://

“About The Music Genome Project®.” Pandora – Music Genome Project ®. Accessed May 01, 2018.

Pasick, Adam. “The Magic That Makes Spotify’s Discover Weekly Playlists so Damn Good.” Quartz. December 21, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2018. 571007/the-magic-that-makes-spotifys-discover-weekly-playlists-so-damn-good/.

“About The Music Genome Project®.” Pandora – Music Genome Project ®. Accessed May 01, 2018.

Caldwell, Serenity. “Apple Music – Everything You Need to Know Right Now!” IMore. January 22, 2018. Accessed May 01, 2018.

Caldwell, Serenity. “Apple Music – Everything You Need to Know Right Now!” IMore. January 22, 2018. Accessed May 01, 2018.

Kaufman, Mark. “Will Spotify and Apple Music Soon Be Forced to Jack up Their Prices?” Mashable. January 31, 2018. Accessed May 02, 2018. more/#awyBp.rhHPq


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