The final panel of the day at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam saw a pair of musicians – Sam Lee from the UK and Melissa Bel, originally from Canada but now based in the UK – have their say on the music industry’s future.
They were interviewed by freelance journalist Rhian Jones, who started by asking about the realities of being a working musician in 2017.
“I’ve considered quitting music at least once a year, pretty much every year of my career!” joked Bel. “Most of my income comes from gigging. I don’t sustain my full-time living just from music. I work part-time at a gym,” she explained. “I’ve made a decent profit from selling CDs off the stage, actually, over the years. And I get a small income from radio play and streaming and online downloads. But definitely live performances is the majority of my income.”
“Like all artists it’s feast and famine,” said Lee. “I have drip-drip income streams coming from the digital environment, from live. I work as a curator… the money that I earn comes from so many different places. We have to be entrepreneurial and very adaptable to the environments that we traverse… I’ve learned to be opportunistic and be good at seeing places where I can involve myself.”
Lee added that it’s still vital to “store up reserves so you can go into creative cycles… stop touring, stop working because you’ve got to make some music”.
Jones asked the pair about streaming, and their experiences of payouts from those services. “I can see exactly how much I make per stream of my songs, and by God, it’s bleak!” said Bel. “It’s not going to be your sole revenue stream. For example, over the course of just under a year, my royalties online, which is a few thousand streams and some album and track downloads, it’s $129. So I love selling CDs at shows!”
“I own my own label, it was the best decision I made, to self-release. It was the only decision to make at first, then it became the best decision,” he said. “From Spotify? It’s negligible. I don’t see that as something that’s going to help me record the next album at all. But that is a given for most artists… But the important thing is how you can use services like that – information, metrics that come from that – to guide your career.”
He went on to say that Spotify is a wonderful resource for him to find artists to book to play on his radio show on Resonance FM: “so it’s a powerful weapon that gives as much as it takes”.
“If there is one devil in this industry, I think it is Apple. That’s the real blood-draining life-sucking institution. I see the profit they’re making and where the investment goes back into music… I see the ecosystem that is the music industry: the importance of fostering talent,” he said.
“I’m very into the supporting of new generations of music. Music is our huge export, so the investment into new musicians is vital. And it’s happening great in certain areas. But in terms of where the money is going out of the system and coming into the system, it’s just not fair.”
The conversation turned to the prospect of a technology company striking some kind of a deal with an artist that involves promotion over payments.
“There will always be entrepreneurial ways of people seeing how they can squeeze more money out of artists! Or ways of creating services. It’s all about seeing how there can be new financial models of promoting careers,” he said. “If there’s exploitation at its heart, hopefully it won’t last. The industry is hopefully too robust and savvy to see those things happen.”
Bel talked about the joys of data, using her digital distributor’s dashboard to dig in to analytics about where her listeners and buyers are. Lee said he doesn’t use those features so much yet: he tends to play arts centres and other cultural venues rather than the music circuit, so his touring plans are governed more by the location of the former, rather than looking at where his listenership is.
“It’s all very well saying ‘I’ve got lots of listening there’ but it’s about finding the promoters. It’s all very well having the numbers and figures and maps, and the grey areas and red areas. But actually it’s about having the people in place to go and do it,” he said. “Some of my best gigs in the UK have been where there’s an amazing promoter that’s built a community… That I think’s more important for artists more often, because that’s where you’re going to have a turnout.”
The artists were asked about Spotify playlists, and whether they’ve ever had a song placed on one of the service’s internal playlists. Bel said yes. “Immediately I saw a bit of a spike in followers and daily listeners. If that could happen all the time, that would be awesome,” she said.
“There is a definite lack of well-curated playlists within the folk/traditional world, and in the more peripheral areas of the alternative scene. So I haven’t had that many plays,” said Lee. “But I got somehow put on to [film director] Guy Ritchie’s playlist: he’s really into his folk music. And subsequently I have become the musical advisor and singer on his next film, which is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword… It’s not had a huge amount of listens, that playlist, but it’s all about who’s listening.”
Jones asked about technologies like virtual reality. “Sitting round a campfire listening to a storyteller is really much more wonderful for me than the virtual reality world… I just like the smell of woodsmoke too much! There’s your next challenge, VR-makers,” said Lee.
Does life get easier or harder for artists from here on in?
“I’d really like to think it gets easier,” said Bel. “I can’t even say if it’s gotten easier or harder in the last five years. I’ve gone from this starry-eyed young girl thinking I’m going to be famous in two years, to okay, no this is actually the real deal. And it’s going to be years of just hard work. It’s hard doing it on your own as a DIY artist: maybe if I had a team in place it would be easier. So I’m just going to go with yes, it’s going to get easier!”
“It depends on so many things. The political climate cannot be ignored at the moment. Who knows whats’ going to happen to live music with dreaded Brexit? Arts funding has been cut dreadfully already,” said Lee.
“We live in a funding environment where it’s really looking slightly bleak in some ways for a lot of musicians… So I’m not saying I’m pessimistic, but I think what needs to be encouraged is a culture of mutual support: to educate artists into how to do the right thing. Where the hardship is is the mis-expenditure of energy in areas that won’t help your work.”
He also called for more investment in “the encouragement of people to go and see live music, and take risks on seeing artists early in their career… we really have a duty to be working down on the grassroots level as much as possible.”
Bel was asked about the role of record labels in the future. “There’s so many different versions of a record deal nowadays, and so many different alternatives to having a label… I think we’ll need them for a while,” she said. “Do I need one? Probably, just the resource they can offer. Will that change? I don’t know.”
“They will always be there,” said Lee. “I think we’re reaching a point where the change is not going to be quite as massive as it has been, perhaps. But I think the DIY cottage industry is getting easier and easier, particularly with label services… setting up a record so you’re earning as much from it as you possibly can. Record labels are diversifying in all the ways that they are a label. There’ll always be the major labels and the homegrown stuff. But what I think we’ll start to see is the independent artist realm growing and growing.”
He also called for successful artists to think more about mentoring emerging artists: “recognising where they came from, and looking to be mentors, be teachers and be supporters of those behind them. Because it’s a bleak picture without that possibility. And there are too many artists who can’t afford to make music because they haven’t had the lucky strikes at the start.”