John Davis has an interesting résumé for an elementary school teacher. The New England-born son of two educators who now presides over third graders in Durham has the expected master's degree and experience in school settings, but Davis spent the good part of a decade with the indie rock band Folk Implosion. Cofounded with Lou Barlow of Sebadoh, the band scored an unlikely hit with "Natural One" when it was featured on the soundtrack of Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film, Kids.
Built around a skeletal trip-hop groove, a slinky, malevolent bass line, and a harpsichord sample from a song by The Left Banke (of "Walk Away Renee" fame), "Natural One" is all dark vibe and smoky atmosphere, and not an obvious hit. But its success brought the band major-label attention and an eventual deal with Interscope in 1997. With the likes of Beck and Massive Attack ascendant, Davis entertained modest hopes.
"I didn't necessarily think we'd get really big, but we were very disappointed when One Part Lullaby  didn't sell well," he says. "Our relationship fell apart at that point."
Davis left Folk Implosion a year later and retreated from the music business for several years, eventually deciding to go into teaching. Davis has just finished recording an ambitious, self-financed record, El Pulpo, which is out in early August. It's his second solo LP, but the first that he consciously shopped around to bigger indie labels—for those labels' promotional arms, if nothing else, he says. With the boom of streaming and digital platforms, the music industry game has changed significantly since Davis first started playing, and he's found himself trying to keep up with navigating a strange new landscape. He's not the only one who's gotten frustrated with its ever-shifting rules of play.
Back in January, fellow musician James Jackson Toth tweeted his quarterly earnings from Spotify, Apple, Groove Music, Pandora, Rhapsody, YouTube, and other platforms. His songs were streamed more than 40,000 times, but all told he made about $156. On Spotify Premium, 117 songs by Toth were streamed almost 25,000 times. He came away with a total of $10.93.
Toth made his first record in 1996, the same year "Natural One" peaked at No. 29 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Since 2005 he's worked and recorded steadily as Wooden Wand, on his own, with a band, or in one-off collaborations; he's both issued albums on respected indie labels and self-released CD-Rs. He's part of a strong camp of critics who think that Spotify is a terrible deal for artists. He points to his top-streaming song on Spotify, "Spitting at the Cameras," which has been streamed more than a half million times. "If "Spitting at the Cameras" was the only song I ever released," he wrote in a January email, "and everyone who listened to it (maybe even those who didn't especially like it) donated less than half of what a gumball currently costs, I'd be making a living wage."
If a half million people stream a song, shouldn't that be worth something beyond pocket change to the artist? Rates vary according to so many factors, from subscriber status to publishing rights, that it's difficult to pinpoint the "average" stream rate. But a single stream often earns fractions of a penny for the musicians, and ample anecdotal evidence indicates that even millions of streams don't guarantee thousands of dollars.
A significant part of streaming's payout problems may not even lie with the platforms themselves, but with the music industry's own tangled webs, according to Alex Maiolo. He's the owner and operator of Seriously Adequate Studio in Carrboro and a member of several bands; he's written for music publications like Tape Op and has long done consultation work with the Future Music Coalition. He's the kind of person who turns up at state-of-the-industry panels at SXSW.
"We keep thinking that streaming and things should be a revenue stream. I don't think of them that way," he says "You're conflating a free listen with a lost sale."
Davis experienced some of the music industry's difficulty adapting to shifting consumer preferences as he struggled to get a label to pick up El Pulpo. He acknowledges with a laugh that he's now forty-six and gray, and that the ambitiously produced, heavily percussive record goes against the lo-fi essence of the song he's best known for, a sound Davis points out was arrived at by necessity and not a contrivance.
"Lo-fi in that era was not a middle-class rich kid in Brooklyn thing; we recorded on cassette because that's all we had access to," says Davis.
But Davis says he encountered a depressingly narrow kind of thinking among major labels. The hip-hop influence, he learned, isn't necessarily an asset in indie rock circles. One industry person advised him, "Send it to Sub Pop—they're not afraid of rhythm." Some of the rejections intimated that the audience wants something familiar: an introverted singer-songwriter, a trashy rock band, or some other easily digestible cliché. In the end, he found no takers and opted to release the record on cassette via Shrimper in the U.S., a respected indie label that put out Davis's first solo LP, Spare Parts, in 2013, and Arbouse Recordings in France on CD—a situation he says he's quite happy with. If Davis is bitter about anything, it's "the perception that my music wouldn't be popular because it's messy and challenging."
Maiolo, meanwhile, contends that industry consolidation—Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music are the only remaining major labels—and the attendant narrowing of taste among its gatekeepers is responsible for its current state. File sharing and streaming, he says, are merely symptoms of an industry that has repeatedly failed musicians and music buyers alike.
"All of the things people felt good about the music industry just started going away. The price of [manufacturing] a CD went down to a buck, but the consumer saw no savings," Maiolo says. "The record industry is glad people blame this [decline] on Napster and now on Spotify, because it lets them off the hook. They killed the goose that lays the golden egg."