My first album was a cassette tape, recorded on a shoestring and released in a shopping centre in Grimsby. It was terrible, but you can get away with a lot when you’re young and cute.
At £5 a pop I sold enough to get my money back, so I made another one, and another, and another. I didn’t make any money, but each time I sold enough to break-even and fund the next one. As production costs got higher, so did my sales, so my business model worked nicely. I eventually settled on an average budget of £15-£20k per album which meant I had to sell about 2000 units at £10 a piece. Nice. Then along came Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora and all the other "free" ways to listen to music.
As music streaming sites have grown, CD sales have fallen. Many people, including myself, don’t even own a CD player anymore. Why bother when you can listen to just about anything ever recorded, for free, online? As a subscriber I pay just £10 a month for Spotify and I love it. It’s convenient, I can download tracks when I need to listen offline, and I enjoy discovering new music via their curated playlists. As a user it’s great but as a music maker, it’s a disaster.
Pay-out rates vary, but to give you an idea, when you listen to one of my tracks on Spotify I get the princely sum of about $0.004 less a commission from my distributor. So, 25,000 streams gets me $100. And that’s if you’re a paid subscriber. If you don’t pay, it’s worse. They call them "Ad Supported Audio Streams" and for those I get $0.0006 each! In that case, to recoup my usual £20,000 investment I need over 41 million streams! Read that again out loud. 41 million. Unless I change my name to Drake, Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran, that’s not going to happen.
You may have heard big acts saying they have to tour again to make money. This is why. Back in the day they’d record their album and then wait for all the cash to come rolling in, presumably directly to their luxury yachts moored off a tropical tax heaven. Not anymore. Albums used to be an end in themselves, now they are a means to do something else, like launch a tour, up your profile or dodge some tax.
With my old business model broken, these days to recoup money from an album I need to (a) find another way of paying for it, like Crowdfunding, (b) broaden my reach and get more streams, or (c) spend less money making it.
I’ve already successfully crowdfunded one album and I’m reluctant to go begging to my fans and friends again. Getting more streams would be great but for that to happen in a big way I need Spotify to include my music on one their curated playlists. This would be like winning the lottery (or maybe Spot the Ball) because overnight millions of their subscribers will play my music and the pennies would start to add up. It’s a numbers game and with their reach it can be profitable. And that leaves option ‘c’, recording the albums on a tighter budget. In September I’ll be in the studio for six hours where I hope to record about 16 songs. By working with really great musicians who don’t make mistakes, and making sure I’m prepared, I reckon we can record an album pretty much like a live gig. There will be no options to edit and tinker with the tracks once they’re done. Que será será.
Ideally I’ll combine options ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ by crowdfunding a budget album and persuading Spotify to add me to all their juiciest playlists. If that happens, maybe I’ll release my back catalogue cassette tape, just for old times’ sake.