The phrase “starving artist” had to originate somewhere. The Beatles began as a band of scrawny high-school Liverpoolians, led by then-sixteen-year-old John Lennon, known simply as “The Quarrymen.” The Beach Boys? Originally “The Pendletones,” a group of brothers and cousins playing high school dances in Southern California. Almost every iconic musician or music group can be traced back to their roots in run-down pubs, meager concert halls, and sweaty school gyms. The common thread in their rags-to-riches success? Auditioning for a major label.
Throughout the history of the music industry, it was an unspoken fact that artists had to be signed to a record label to be considered serious in any respect. Even today, it would be difficult to find an internationally renowned artist who continues to stay independent. But with the modern ease of music distribution to every major platform for as low as $10 a month, upstart musicians are finding more ways to build a reputation than simply auditioning for agencies.
“Personally, I think a record label is a great opportunity because of the [obvious] money and fame that comes along with it,” says London Shaw, better known as Planet Vertigo, on all major streaming platforms. “However, independent releases onto platforms allow me to make what I want to make when I want to make it. I’m never rushed to make new content or a certain amount.”
Where creative freedom begins on streaming platforms, however, is where fair profit ends. Companies such as Spotify, Youtube, Apple Music, and SoundCloud have been the subject of controversy for years over the paltry percentages of revenue from music streams given to the artists themselves. According to experimental pop musician Monikrr, “[t]he main offender is definitely Spotify, given the fact that they pay seven times less than some of their competition, and have the strongest grip on the market.”
On average, Monikrr is paid $0.0015 per stream from Spotify, compared to $0.0073 from TIDAL, another music streaming platform. “In order to make a livable wage, in my case, my music would need to be streamed 20,800,000 times per year on Spotify and 4,273,972 on TIDAL,” they said.
Without the support of a label, artists can find it a colossal feat to create music without any monetary hindrances. In addition to undercut wages, production costs bring in another variable. The base cost of a distribution service such as DistroKid comes in at around $100 a year. “Couple that with the various fees you need to pay in order to market, produce merchandise, purchase equipment ,and it suddenly becomes nearly impossible to make music a full-time job off of streaming services alone,” says Monikrr.
But for many artists, maintaining an independent status is not the end goal. While streaming platforms do not provide a livable income, what they do offer to status-seeking musicians is a chance to create interaction with listeners and garner attention to their work. This is especially true of Spotify, where users who pay for premium services receive a “Discover Weekly'' playlist, almost always containing musicians with less than 100,000 monthly listeners.
In addition to these services, a majority of small musicians and bands are able to find popularity through virality on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
“I’ve planned and booked an entire tour through Instagram and Facebook,” says Kameron Salek of Las Vegas-famous band Desert Bloom. “Everyone is [at this show] tonight because of Instagram.”
Major record labels have to compete more and more each day with the evermore streamlined independent distribution of music to streaming platforms. But another smaller opponent also poses a threat – local and independent labels.
Where local labels lack the reputation and allure of a major label, they can often bring fans cult-followings in certain regions, as well as a sense of a morally correct way to survive in the music industry. Smaller labels can also provide creative freedom over an artist’s sound, something often lost in major commercial deals. Contracts are usually shorter and less strict, and musicians are able to have a more intimate relationship with label staff.
However, just as with streaming platforms, independent labels are popping up every day with the ease of creating one for as low as $20,000. Being signed to an indie label, while giving musicians managerial and promotional benefits, still rarely guarantees a substantial amount of profit. “It’s kind of, would you rather be signed to a really small, local label that really can’t do anything for you anyways,” asks Salek, “or would you rather wait for a label to come to you?”
It’s clear that with companies like Apple and Capitol Records still dominating the markets, major labels aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. But with streaming platforms and the rising popularity of local labels and underground musicians, the music industry has left the one-track-mindset in the 20th century for good.
This diversity and liberation from traditional standards open up opportunities for thousands of musicians who may have otherwise been left in the record-store bargain bin. It also creates an insane, cutthroat level of competition that only grows with the approximately 60,000 songs uploaded to streaming services every day. The benefits and downfalls of this new terrain financially, creatively, and morally will always differ between each artist – but no amount of change will ever stop the creation of music. In Monikrr’s words, “I want the music I make to resonate with people and help them piece together and communicate their own feelings, to the point where it has some sort of positive impact on their life.”
About The Author
Stella Garner (she/her) (also known by stella marie) is a high-school student and writer based in Las Vegas. Her work focuses on the music industry, film and literature, and politics, and can be found in local projects such as For the Culture Las Vegas. She is inspired by authors such as Haruki Murakami, Richard Siken, Mary Oliver, and Kurt Vonnegut. In her free time, Stella writes poetry (and hopes to publish a collection one day), plays piano and accordion, and rollerskates. Her other indulgences include: crosswords, 80s synthpop, oversized shirts with ironic messages, Coke Zero, and the novel Norweigan Wood.