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​Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images, Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi.

Slow Money: Artist Pay in the Streaming Era

With music streaming revenue firmly in the hands of big tech and major industry labels watching their pockets more than ever, artist are increasingly looking for new ways to get out from under the financial restraints of the streaming era.

Not long ago, music was a lot less accessible. You had to get off the couch, go outside, head to your favorite music store, buy that album or single, and give it a spin. Now that we’re fully entrenched in the digital era, listening to and downloading music has become way more convenient, and as a result, the ecosystem of music has changed. One of the more notable aspects of that change is less money for artists. From iTunes (where you can purchase music) to Spotify (where you can pay to stream music), the creators themselves are the ones getting the short end of the stick. Treated as just another mouth to feed amongst many, artists were making as low as $0.0033 for each stream. More and more artists have spoken out about this discrepancy, and their voices are only becoming louder.

James Blake took to Twitter a month ago to share his frustration with how musicians are paid. In one of the tweets about the subject, Blake said, “Streaming services don’t pay properly, labels want a bigger cut than ever and just sit and wait for you to go viral, TikTok doesn’t pay properly, and touring is getting prohibitively expensive for most artists.” Every word he said is a reality of making music in 2024, with so many avenues for pay being difficult to excel in. In streaming, labels get the lion’s share of the payout, which is really at the core of the problem.

Just a week ago, James Blake announced he’s teaming up with Vault, a music platform subscription service that gives you access to an artist's unreleased songs for a fee. Blake’s vault costs $5 a month and currently has six songs. A clever way to get paid more for music, while also establishing a more direct connection to fans through exclusivity, James Blake may truly be onto something.

Increasing the monetary value of music doesn’t have to come from totally new ideas; there is also previously laid groundwork out there. Rapsody, whose forthcoming album, Please Don’t Cry, releases on May 17th, will put Nipsey Hussle’s #Proud2Pay movement to use. In late March, the North Carolina rapper announced that she would have an option to pay $100 (or up to $500) for the vinyl version of her new album. In 2013, Nipsey sold his Crenshaw mixtape for $100 dollars, and famously caught the attention of Jay-Z, who bought 100 copies. Considering Rapsody is a Roc Nation artist, this feels like a full circle moment, where one rapper stepping out on faith in the past, helps another.

The solution to getting more money to artists isn’t simple, nor is there one foolproof solution that’s a silver bullet. As more artists figure out their own route and continue to raise the issue, more fans will take notice. For all that artists do, they shouldn’t feel they need to find additional routes to get paid; they should be paid more fairly out of the gate. The direction that streaming has sent everything has surely taken value out of music, but there is a way to improve the balance. Artists like James Blake and Rapsody are both brave and wise, forging their own path in an industry that should understand its heart is the music, not the business.