On the surface, Spotify’s new interactive "Year in Music" feature is a pretty fun way to look back at your 2015 listening habits. Your most-streamed artist might remind you of those weird couple of months you spent staring at the ceiling listening to Kate Bush. Your most-streamed track might make you reconsider your choice to put that Rae Sremmurd song on every playlist. But Year in Music’s quantitative breakdown inherently raises questions about what your stream count really means for artists, i.e., how much money you’re actually paying them. With Year in Music, Spotify has unintentionally given users a tool for determining their monetary value as a fan — at least when it comes to streaming.
Earlier this year when The Verge obtained a copy of Sony’s Spotify contract, we noted that Spotify uses a complex formula to determine the royalties artists earn from streams. Major labels likely receive a sizable sum from Spotify, but not all of that money is going to artists. And not all artists get the same cut of Spotify revenue either: depending on their contracts with the label, some musicians might only recoup 15 to 20 percent of the streaming revenue they brought in. Other factors also come into play, like the country in which a song was streamed and the currency value in that country. Still, Spotify admits the average "per stream" payout to rights holders lands somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084.
I paid $2.24 for a year of Built to Spill
Here’s what that means for me. My top artist of the year was Built to Spill, whose songs (mostly from There's Nothing Wrong with Love) I streamed 267 times over the course of 2015. Using the upper limit of Spotify’s estimated payout, that would be 267 x .0084, which means I paid Built to Spill somewhere around $2.24 for an entire year of music. And that $2.24 is distributed among the music's "rights holders," which includes labels and publishers. So the band is getting even less than that. My most-streamed track of the year was The-Dream’s "That’s My Shit," and I’m sure Terius Nash appreciated the 27 pennies that earned him. I listened to 13,000 minutes of music on Spotify this year, which means I paid around one-tenth of a cent per minute. And I'm paying Spotify's $10 per month subscription fee; if I were relying on its free, ad-supported tier, the payout for artists would be even smaller.
It's not just me either. Here's about how much some other Verge staffers paid their favorite artists (technically, the rights holders) this year. Micah Singleton paid Kendrick Lamar $2.94. Russell Brandom paid Donald Byrd $3.03. Leah Christians paid The Wombats $3.25. Dan Seifert paid Family of the Year $1.05. And Kaitlyn Tiffany, the only person on staff who streamed enough of one artist to almost pay for a full album, earned One Direction $9.95.
Of course, we're just individual people with limited listening power. The most popular artists on Spotify are racking up millions of streams worldwide, which actually does translate into a lot of money. Drake was Spotify’s most-streamed artistthis year, with around 1.8 billion streams. That means Drake earned somewhere in the ballpark of $15 million from Spotify. Rihanna, with over 1 billion streams, earned around $8 million. 2015’s most-streamed song, Major Lazer’s "Lean On" (ft. MØ and DJ Snake) brought in around $4.5 million for the artists behind it.
Imagine if all these fans had actually purchased an album
But even these massive numbers are paltry when you consider what fans might've spent if they had purchased a full album. In order for the rights holders of an album to earn $10 (the cost of most digital downloads) from Spotify, an individual user would need to stream the tracks on it 1,190 times. And in my small sample size of Verge staffers, most capped out at a few hundred streams per artist.
Much has already been said about how little Spotify pays artists and how unsustainable the current streaming model is for artists. Unless this model changes, or labels take a smaller cut of the profits, the numbers will remain minuscule for smaller artists. But Year in Music makes that talking point clear on a personal level. It inadvertently gives users everything they need to figure out much of their money is going to the musicians that soundtracked most of their year. Still, I don't think any of us will cancel our Spotify subscriptions over this, so artist support will need to come in other forms. I hear Built to Spill has some live shows coming up.
Spotify did not respond to a request to comment.
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