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."
Still, the industry seems to have figured out a way to make money off streaming, enacting new plans on a regular basis. This past week, Universal Music Group made a deal with Spotify that would restrict the access of nonsubscribers to some of the more desirable portions of its music library, an effort aimed at enticing more people to get with the idea of paying a monthly fee for an almost-all-you-can-eat buffet. But even if the artists barely get a cut of the finances, the digital era has also bestowed considerable gifts to the music makers.
Foremost, it's no longer necessary to go into debt or sign a restrictive label contract to make a record. In the past, bands had to recoup their production costs, often at astronomical expense, which would have them out on grueling tours for months at a time. It is now feasible to record and distribute a professional sounding album for a few thousand dollars. A band can disseminate its work with unprecedented ease and precision and slowly build an audience without also taking on burdens of debt or embarking on interminable tours. A band or an artist can identify a strong market and pinpoint where and when to play there.
Al Riggs is one of a growing number of young musicians who have only known these newer models of music consumption and distribution and who are figuring out how to make the platforms work for them. Riggs hopes to one day live off music money, but for now he has a day job, plays shows, and releases music on Spotify, iTunes, and the more artist-friendly Bandcamp.
"In a perfect world people like James [Toth] would be millionaires, or at least would be making more money from it," he says. "But as a promotional tool, saying your record is on Spotify or iTunes has more of a professional ring than, 'I'll send you some WAV files via Dropbox.'"
Musicians like Toth and Davis, with their accrued experience, aren't as hungry for mere exposure and legitimacy as Riggs is. Though Davis has a job outside of the music world, he has the benefit of having summers off to tour and record as well as the financial padding of significant residual dividends from "Natural One"; he can make music as he pleases without relying on it for income.
For Riggs and many of his peers, online platforms enable them to get their music heard without any of the old-school hassles to go along with it. Further, these platforms provide an outlet to many who feel shut out of a mostly white, mostly male industry.
"The people that are most likely to be affected in a positive way are queer folk, women, people of color—those are the ones that are going to benefit from streaming and the accessibility of Bandcamp, and just cheap, easy ways to put their music out into the world where record labels wouldn't even touch them," Riggs says, adding, "People who would have even less of a platform have one on Spotify, and they have the freedom to put stuff out whenever they want."
That kind of freedom—to put out whatever you want, whenever you want it—sounds like a much better deal to young musicians like Riggs, who've grown up in a world where music is seen as something that is largely free, than to people like Toth or Davis, who remember a time when young people actually bought music. Maiolo doesn't buy the idea that today's youth are more blithe about theft than were their predecessors. Sure, they paid for music, he says, but only because they had no choice.
"If, back in 1975, you could have said, 'For five dollars you can listen to all the music you want,' Would they have said, 'I don't know, man, I'd be lettin' Led Zeppelin down if I did that'?" he posits.
"Nah, they'd be like, 'Fuck yeah, dude, give me that!' This whole idea that the bulk of music listeners have somehow lost their moral compass? No. They haven't. They never gave a shit."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- John Davis
The world has grown fond of the streaming option, and no one has yet developed a practical solution to the industry's many problems. Maybe it's friendlier to the newcomer or the disenfranchised musician who needs to make a name than to the many who have already made theirs.
But clearly, technology both giveth and taketh away. Streams don't exist in a vacuum; they help build fan bases so that artists can make money on merchandise and tours. Forty-six million streams of "Coffee" may not have directly made local synth poppers Sylvan Esso millions of dollars, but those streams have facilitated a global reach that's translated to the duo performing all over the world.
Maiolo's Lacy Jags is not a big name, but it nonetheless caught the ear of an Italian radio DJ, who asked them to release a new song on his show. The band complied, and is working out plans for tour dates in Europe this summer. It won't pay much, but they'll be guaranteed enough to live and get from one gig to the next. They may lose a little money, he says, but it'll be fun and worth it.
"Is it because we're really that good of a band? We're really not. I think we're OK," Maiolo admits. "But it's because we've managed to put something together that works for us, and I honestly believe the tools are there for people to do that."
Davis has his run of shows in Europe booked, too. And Toth has a new LP coming out next month on Three Lobed Records next month called Clipper Ship, while Riggs continues to issue his own songs online at a prolific pace. Their toolkits may have changed—and will surely continue to do so—but their creative missions, at least, remain undeterred.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Streams of Consciousness ."