Digressions – The future for independent music

image by Pixabay.com

Nothing sums up the brutal futility of the Israel/Gaza war more succinctly than Two Brothers, a folk song by UK songwriter Pete Morton. The lyric imagines a mother, fed up with the squabbling siblings, Israel and Palestine: “I don’t care who started it, just try and get along.”

Morton’s song has been criticised as ‘condescending,’ that it trivialises a complex Middle East conflict. But the central message – a call for peace – can’t be dismissed.

The song was on the set list of Irish singer/songwriter Enda Kenny when he performed at the Maleny Music Festival on November 10-12.

Kenny was born in Dublin, but knows a bit about conflict, as he spent a year volunteering at the Glencree Reconciliation Centre in County Wicklow. There he worked with kids from Northern Ireland (Glencree was where the Good Friday Agreement was signed).

Maleny poet Irish Joe Lynch took up the theme at the festival’s Peace concert held on Remembrance Day. He pointed to the peace accord struck in Ireland in 1998 as a message to Israel and Gaza that enemies can lay down their guns and make peace.

The Goodwills (our band), also performed at the Maleny festival, our fifth appearance in a decade, which got me musing about work and music and how so many people can’t see it as the same thing.

Men my age often ruminate about relevancy once they have decided to give away working for a living. Some, particularly those whose work gave them a public profile, or who had Very Important Work, struggle with the ‘Bob Who? Syndrome. I’d have to say that leaving behind a job where my name was in the State’s newspaper every day didn’t bother me much at all. Given the decline in quality and relevance in mainstream media since I quit in 2005, I definitely do not regret leaving daily newspapers when I did. It also gave us an opportunity to tour New South Wales and Queensland with Macca and the Gumboot band.

After the tour in 2005, we set up a media consultancy business. Contacts I’d made in my professional life started steering work my way. Unlike my day job as a journalist/editor, it was anonymous work. But it paid the bills and until the Global Financial Crisis came along it served us well.

We operated our cottage music business in tandem and this too involved a degree of public exposure. If you are going to write songs, record them, tour, perform and sell CDs, you need to create a public profile – a persona if you will.

The 10th Maleny Music Festival was our fourth major gig for 2023. Considering that some independent musicians play live at least twice a week, that’s not much to boast about. But I was reminded at the festival when in conversation with younger musicians, that not many of us persist with it into our mid-70s.

I could and will point you to legendary Australian folk jazz and blues singer Margret RoadKnight, who at 80 has just released a new CD of material recorded over the past 35 years. The splendid album, Long Time, is available online and on the ubiquitous download and streaming apps.

Roger Ilott and Penny Davies, who have been producing folk music albums from their Restless Music studio near Storm King Dam on the Granite Belt, are ‘contemporaries’ who are also still performing and recording. Roger has added his experience and polish to some of my later-life songs. Since I seem to be writing new material again, there is little reason not to continue recording and distributing heartfelt music.
Penny and Roger have produced 25 albums of mostly original material, some in collaboration with the late Bill Scott. As you will notice if you visit their website, they too have stopped producing new CDs, relying on the download model, although as Penny says, they will make one-off CDs ‘for luddites on request’.

These days you can order a physical CD or download the music from Bandcamp, currently the champion of independent musicians. If someone pays $10 to download an MP3 album, Bandcamp sends us $7, more or less. By contrast, Spotify and the like pay fractions of a cent per ‘stream.’

As a singer-songwriter duo of considerable vintage (45 years), it’s clear that people who like our music already have the albums. New punters, like our neighbours in the caravan park, point to their motor home and complain it does not have a CD player.

If I want to deliberately listen to music (as opposed to putting it on as background), I put five CDs in the refurbished Sony CD-changer I bought for $300 and crank up the volume. My new hearing aids have a ‘listen to music’ setting which enhances the experience.

After a long period in decline, CD sales are on the rise again, just as sales of vinyl albums had begun to outsell CDs. Tony Van Veen of discmakers.com wrote in a recent blog that physical music sales for the first half of 2022 were $781 million — up more than 10% from the prior year — and on track to be over $1.6 billion for the full year.

Self-funded independent musicians have no choice now but to produce music in a range of formats, including CDs. If you order a minimum of 500 copies (the industry yardstick), it’s an expensive business. A budget of between $5,000 and $10,000 is typical. Costs include time spent recording the tracks, paying musicians who contributed their talents, paying an artist to produce CD artwork and an engineer to mix and master the album. Then you have to order the CDs and pay for the replication of artwork and music.

As you have already realised, this leaves no money at all to spend on promotion and this is where most independent CDs fail..

Meanwhile, 574 million people are listening to music on Spotify every month. It’s free (with ad breaks) or subscribers pay $180 a year. That is about the price of seven independent CDs. We’re on Spotify too. But maybe not for much longer, given Spotify’s intention to stop paying royalties to musicians who tally fewer than 1000 streams in a year.

Spotify is a listed company, with its founding shareholders owning 27.30% of the company, which last traded at $US180. According to Yahoo Finance, some 800+ institutions own the rest. This Swedish audio streaming service made $12.356B in first half revenue, an 8.02% increase from 2021.

Spotify has 226 million paying subscribers. In the most recent quarter, Spotify made a $65 million euro profit.

The average royalty payment from Spotify is $0.003 to $0.005 cents per stream. It can take 280,000 streams for a musician to earn $1000 in royalties, according to industry estimates. Rival platforms like Napster or Apple Music are more generous, but even on Napster you’d need 60,000 streams to make $1000. On the fast-emerging YouTube music streaming platform, a couple of videos we made to highlight our songs have had more than 1,000 views. That’s technically not ‘streams’ but accounts for the cents and parts of cents detailed on my most recent royalty statement.

(free to view)

Seventy percent of the royalties paid by Spotify go to the major labels which place their artists’ music on the platform. As usual, the songwriters and the musicians who created the works are at the bottom of the food chain. (It rather astounds me that musicians have agreed to this egregious arrangement. Musicians- just say ‘no’! Ed)

It’s no surprise to learn that the Musicians Union is on Spotify’s case.

PS: Check out Enda Kenny’s home page for an insight into life on the road. He’s not on Spotify so this is the place to download or buy a CD.


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