May/June 2023

by Isaac McFarlane

Should You Put Your Music On Streaming Platforms?

by Isaac McFarlane

Should You Put Your Music On Streaming Platforms?

Regardless of what you think about the streaming platforms and what they have done to the economic stability of musicians – if you don’t put your music where the people are then it’s not going to be heard.

So what does an indie musician do?

We could choose to make an ethical or moral stand and deprive streamers of our music entirely. However, without mass adoption, this will not create enough momentum to affect platforms and will only serve to deprive artists of a chance to grow themselves.

Even if larger artists were to be involved – most recorded music is owned by the musicians’ labels, which have a stake in the streaming platforms themselves and would never deprive themselves of profit by biting the hand that feeds.

Putting all your music on streamers also seems like a bad idea.

You devalue everything you release instantly in a clear trade for relevancy or audience growth. Without a strong business sense, even with a growing audience most bands would be hard-pressed to funnel new fans into an existing revenue stream other than live shows which (at the time of writing) are limping onwards amidst an energy crisis and record inflation.

And let’s be blunt, most numbers on Spotify mean nothing. You get on New Music Friday and earn 80,000 streams of background ambience in workplaces, with no way of reaching a single one of those supposed listeners again unless they find you. Those initial streams earn you around $320 (using this royalty calculator) minus whatever percentage your distributor is taking and/or your manager. They impress certain pockets of the music industry who usually only offer services that point to more streams, impressing more people like themselves, offering more streams.

And if you’re not on a major label, or with one of a handful of connected managers or collaborating with a well-known name – you’re most likely not getting anywhere near a playlist. Even though you’ve thrown everything you have at them, played their game by delaying releases and putting out singles, made little canvas videos – all you get is 0.04 cents per 10 streams and burnout.

So what do we do?

#1 Only put your singles on streaming platforms.

I don’t know why we haven’t started doing this before now – it’s basically like treating your singles as loss leaders the way supermarkets do. Give away one product to draw people in and sell them the rest.

People really only stream singles anyway, the dropoff in numbers from singles to deep cuts is enormous.

Putting out only singles will help keep the streaming releases more consistent too. You’ve got a 5-song EP? Good job! Let’s schedule each one of those songs to come out six weeks apart starting from now. That’s the first half of the year covered.

Oh and two singles in you’ve actually written a batch of new songs that are even better? Cool, replace the old songs with new ones for the release and roll on. But we don’t want to waste the old songs right? And what about the people who hear the first single and want more?

#2 Put the entire project out on a monetised platform at the same time as the first single.

That’s right. Drop your lead single May 1 for NZ Music Month and put the entire EP on your Bandcamp page for $5 the same day.

What you’re selling is access. If someone enjoys your first single on Spotify they can wait for the next one to be released for no extra cash. But if someone instantly connects with you, why make them wait for more music that you have ready to give them?

I understand the justification of release strategies, radio rotations and playlist pitches delaying music that’s already done. It also translates into musicians choosing to deny fans the already finished music that fans want to hear, in favour of hypothetical new fans they hope to gain.

Hosting your discography immediately on a monetisable space – Bandcamp, a website or webstore – takes away nothing from audience fishing on streamers and rewards the fans who already like you, while also creating space for compensating yourself.

The added upside of this is the healthy creative pressure of working on the next batch of material without the unhealthy pressure of industry releases because you’ve still got the singles rolling out.

And as the demos, ideas and live versions start building up you can…

#3 Extra for experts: Create a subscription paywall for your super fans and share everything with them.

When people really connect to you and your art they will do anything to get as much of you as possible. They don’t need shiny polished mixes to be convinced, they are already on board and are always craving more.

As a functioning musician, you’re hopefully constantly working on music. Whether it’s humming melodies into your phone, making drum loops, writing lyrics or learning to play other people’s songs – it’s all part of the creative tapestry that results in a finished song.

All this material can be released and well received by the right people, your real fans. Creating a space for them to access that (and keeping it private and special) gives you a chance to deepen the artistic connection and gives them a chance to support you financially in return.

Bandcamp has a subscription option. Patreon is an entire platform built for this exact purpose. Your own website could work. Whatever makes the most sense for you to use will most likely also make the most sense for your super fans.

So when you drop your EP, they’ve already heard it coming together and can compare where it started to where it ended while also knowing they’ve contributed to the process of the project coming into being, financially and energetically.

I think this strategy is an improvement on our standard operating procedure for a few different reasons:

  1. It creates an incentive to focus on music creation and not content. Singles create the buzz for the bigger release which is already available. The available releases create a fanbase for your continuous creations. The system keeps moving and stays healthy as long as you keep creating music, which keeps you focused on music-making.
  2. It takes advantage of the aspects of streaming that can be helpful, without giving away the whole store to an ambivalent public, and without giving into the content demands that platforms demand for reach. You treat it as an advertisement, not the whole store.
  3. It prioritises and rewards fans in a progressive way. Current fans no longer pay the price for the music industry’s attempts at gaining new fans. Your audience gets access for money and the potential people who don’t know you yet have something to discover if your industry-approved single-release plan works.
  4. You control the monetisation of your work and your audience which creates stability, sustainability and confidence for almost no extra work.

This is my best answer to existing ethically and sustainably in the modern digital recording space for musicians and I hope more people give it a shot or build on it in their own ways!

Hahko is Ōtautahi-based musician Isaac McFarlane. The article was originally posted in his newsletter The Hahko Express, re-published with his permission. Sign up to The Hahko Express here.