After nearly thirty years of refusing their music to be digitally streamed, experimental rock group Tool have allowed streaming of all their albums on Spotify. This wasn’t something fans expected to see anytime soon. Or like, ever. But, yes, in the days leading up to their first album in 13 years, the band has had a change of heart.
Tool aren’t the first artists to think maybe streaming isn’t the best way to do business as musicians, either. Neither are they the first to change their minds. In fact, there are pretty long lists of artists who have held out against the streaming era, lists which get shorter all the time.
We’ll talk about the reasons some artists have for refusing to stream and why they change their minds later. First, let’s look at how one of the biggest holdouts handled the decision to stream.
Tool is a perfect example of how many artists feel about streaming and/or downloading music online. They’d love to sell albums the old-fashioned way, but they’d also like to sell albums on Spotify.
“I don’t know, I feel like I’m kind of torn,” singer Maynard James Keenan said back in 2013. “There’s two sides of my brain fighting with each other. There’s something about connecting with that physical piece of property, and also things you don’t know about. When you download the song, there’s nothing … It’s just this disconnected thing that you can’t touch and feel and experience.”
Six years later, Keenan and the rest of Tool have finally decided that fans can pay to hear their records via Spotify. That’s obviously great news for listeners. But how did it shake out for Tool?
“How did things work out?” writes Alan Cross for A Journal of Musical Things. “Quite well, thank you. When I checked the iTunes around dinner last night, Tool had 12 songs in the Canadian Top 100 of most-purchased songs … Moving to Spotify, the playlist called Tool Top Tracks has 51,904 followers. I’d say they’re doing fine.”
That’s the same week Tool started streaming. At the time of this writing just two days later, Tool Top Tracks now has 67k followers and will certainly break 100k by this time next week.
And Metal Injection notes that not only is every one of Tool’s albums in the iTunes Top 10, but also that the iTunes chart only tracks downloads. It doesn’t even count people who just stream.
But it’d be silly to say that pros like Tool had no good reason to hold off. As mentioned, they’re far from the only ones to do so. So let’s have a look at the reasons artists have for not streaming their music and why many finally decide to do so.
…And let’s remember while we do so that every artist owns their creative works. The right thing to do is what the artist feels best doing. In the end, it’s always up to the artist.
Streaming Doesn’t Pay Enough
This is the biggest complaint by far, and it’s a fair one.
In case you weren’t aware, Spotify still pays artists very little per stream. Artists wanting to make minimum wage in the United States will need about 337,000 streams every month. Had each of those streams been a traditional sale of a single, that’d be more like 337,000 dollars that month, or about four-million bucks a year.
Yeah, there’s lots to say about that, but let’s stick to the profit margin for now.
Radar Radio writes, “To indie artists: I understand you feel stuck, because Spotify is where the majority of music listeners congregate, and you want to be in front of people. If all you care about is exposure, then keep using and promoting your Spotify channel, but just know that you can’t put gas in the car with ‘exposure.’”
And Radar is correct on that score. Making .004 dollars per stream is much less than $1 USD per purchased single.
But times are changing. In January 2018, US courts ordered streaming companies to pay more: 15 percent to music publishers, the largest portion in history and a 43% jump.
That was followed later that year by the American President signing the Music Modernization Act into law. The MMA moves music money back toward the people who make it, signalling again that courts and politicians agree artists should be paid more.
Not to mention, since labels have a stranglehold on radio they take more of artists’ money when playing on air. Independent artists can get on streaming services just fine, though, so even if they’re making less per stream, those artists still get to take the lion’s share home.
So yes, today artists would still make more selling albums and singles at a merch table. But both the law and world leaders are on the artists’ side, and that’s a great indicator of change.
Streaming Is Oversaturated
Artists also worry that streaming is oversaturated. There are just too many artists online for an indie musician to ever stand out. It’s staggering to think of the challenge — one creative mind versus all the music on the Internet.
This view is a totally sane and sober one. …Aaaand it’s a sobering one, too.
There’s a bright side, however. The same streaming services offering artists that challenge also offer them the opportunity to succeed in spite of it.
Streaming accounted for 75% of all music profits in 2018 with 1 million new subscribers each month. That’s more growth than every other category of recorded music business.
Not to mention, it’s not like many artists are being heard on radio stations and record players around the world the way they were thirty years ago. Their songs may not be heard as often, but at least they’re being heard.
Just as Radar Radio said above, “Spotify is where the majority of music listeners congregate, and you want to be in front of people.” While it’s true that there are a ton of people on the stage, streaming is the largest stage by far. And it’s growing. And while it’s growing, the others are shrinking. So, yeah, you’ve got that stage practically to yourself without Spotify — but unless you’ve got a really healthy fan base, you might be playing to an empty room.
Oh, and by the way: superstars are being streamed less all the time. That means more of that stage belongs to indie artists than ever.
Streaming Asks Artists to Make Worse Music
Many critics have suggested that Spotify is ruining music.
The Guardian carefully weighed the pros and cons of Spotify in fall 2018. Commenting on the idea that Spotify actually creates worse music overall, they wrote —
“[Spotify] limits music discovery and the sound of music itself. Singles are tailored to beat the skip-rate that hinders a song’s chances of making it on to a popular playlist: hooks and choruses hit more quickly. Homogenous mid-tempo pop … has become dominant: New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica regularly disparages this sound as ‘Spotifycore’.”
But science has known for years that simplified music sells better across all genres anyway. As Mic.com writes, “in nearly every case, as genres increase in popularity, they also become more generic.”
In other words, people like what they like, they buy what they like, and artists make what people like. That’s not streaming’s fault, let alone Spotify’s. It’s hard to say it’s even a fault. Who wants to play to a booing crowd? “Good music” is a subjective idea, and Spotify lets public opinion decide rather than a label exec, A&R rep or music supervisor in an office somewhere.
In any case, there’s no question that some of the crowd is still booing. That’s why writer Thoughty2’s “The Truth Why Modern Music Is Awful” has about nine million views in just two years. And what does he blame? Music getting more generic and homogenous, of course.
So the jury’s still out.
The Playlist Is the New Album
It’s not too important for many of today’s artists, but artists who write full-length albums don’t like them busted up into singles, and that has kept some legacy artists from allowing songs to be streamed. They’re worried that “B-sides” will be forgotten, their whole catalog shrunk down to just title tracks and radio edits.
Artists who refused to sign streaming contracts for years for this reason include AC/DC, Garth Brooks, Bob Seger, and yes, Tool. All four of these now have music available for streaming.
While this gripe is included because many legends have felt this way, the truth is that the album as a work of art is dying. And that’s putting it nicely.
The new album is the Spotify playlist. While artists may not have as many of their tracks played back-to-back, they are much more likely to have single tracks played as inclusions in a playlist they fit best. It’s at least a fair trade.
But artists still release tracks and catalog them according to EP and full-length albums all the time. Listeners definitely have the option of hearing streaming whole records instead of playlists. So it’s a little unfair to say artists shouldn’t allow their music to be streamed because they prefer their music as part of an album. People can if they like.
Only a crazy person would force someone to hear “all or none” of an album anyway.
Streaming Isn’t Personal Enough
Some artists want more of a relationship with their audience than they think Spotify can deliver.
That was Thom Yorke’s big issue for many years, why he wouldn’t let fans stream Radiohead.
Spotify is “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse,” said Yorke, famously. “It’s all about how we change the way we listen to music, it’s all about what happens next in terms of technology, in terms of how people talk to each other about music, and a lot of it could be really f—–g bad.”
Radiohead have fought hard to keep close to their fans. They even released their “In Rainbows” record online under a successful pay-what-you-want model from themselves directly into the hands (ears) of their audience. Explaining why they did this, Thom Yorke specifically pointed to streaming services as the target of their attack.
“The major [labels] are all over it because they see a way of re-selling all their old stuff for free, make a fortune, and not die. That’s why to me, Spotify, the whole thing, is such a massive battle, because it’s about the future of all music. It’s about whether we believe there’s a future in music.”
Spotify’s not taking that lying down, though.
In the last couple years, Spotify has introduced new services to bring artists closer to their fans. One is Fans First, which tells artists which fans interact with them most and lets them send email directly to them with special offers or statements. Even more recently is Spotify for Artists, which doesn’t so much bring fans to artists as bring artists to the fans, which is much cooler.
With just these two services alone, artists can reach fans on levels specific to listeners much more personal than a blanket offering.
But Thom’s solution is definitely cool, too. No getting around that.
So Tool’s on Spotify Now — Should You Be?
Remember Tool? How singer Maynard couldn’t make up his mind about music streaming? Check out what made him think streaming might be worth it.
“However, as an independent project,” he said in the same interview quoted above, “no funding, no record label, no underwriters, nothing — the whole digital route is a lot more sustainable … You’re able to get that music out there and have a direct connection to who you’re selling it to — and actually fund your project.”
So again we find that it’s a totally personal question with a totally personal answer. Only the artist can decide whether or not to distribute their music to Spotify and other streaming services.
But there’s no doubt that there’s opportunity there. The question is whether or not it’s one that’s right for you.