How do today’s musicians make money?

US digital store Bandcamp prides itself on paying a good rate of return to artists. Click on the first album listed on its bestsellers page and you’ll hear a woman’s breathy voice sing about dollar bills: “I’m gonna get paid, yeah, just gimme my moolah-la-la -the.”

The song is “Sad Girlz Luv Money” by Amaarae, a Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter. His cash-me-out message will resonate with fellow recording artists. “Just give me my moolah” is the cry of aggrieved musicians and songwriters, exasperated by what they perceive as underpayment by giant streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify. Music industry revenue rose nearly 20% to $25.9 billion last year, as did demands for a fairer distribution of the loot.

Complaints do not go unnoticed. Bandcamp, founded in 2008, has positioned itself as a fair alternative. It takes only a 10-15% cut from artists for downloads and sales of vinyl, CDs and merchandise. Among streaming services, Berlin-based music-sharing platform SoundCloud last year introduced a “fan-powered royalty” system, which funnels subscription fees directly to the acts they listen to. . He claims the result has been a 60% increase in artists’ average earnings. And new music distribution technologies are proliferating, from non-fungible tokens to Kanye West’s quixotic Stem Player audio device, with which he paired his 2021 album. donda.

But there is a big obstacle to all these different schemes. Can they make a difference next to the dominance of Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube Music, which together have over 560 million estimated subscribers and many other non-paying users?

A billboard for Billie Eilish on Apple Music in Los Angeles, 2017 © Kathy Dewitt/Alamy

“That’s how I see it,” says Amaarae, 27, whose real name is Ama Serwah Genfi. The Bandcamp hit artist speaks via video call from his home in Accra. “A lot of artists complain about the payments and the rates we receive, which I agree is unfair,” she says of the ongoing payments. “We are totally robbed. But music is an ever-changing landscape and we are all evolving to adapt to that landscape. I have to do what I have to do. I can’t fight the streaming giants.

Like a multi-dimensional chess game, Amaarae works across multiple different mediums and territories. The promotion involves international radio broadcasts and live performances, remixes and commercial links. Among the forces that made ‘Sad Girlz Luv Money’ her biggest hit is ‘the magic of TikTok’, as she calls it – the song went viral on the video-sharing service when it was released in 2020, and again the following a year after a remix was made with American singer Kali Uchis.

“Recorded music is pretty much the essence of any artist’s expression,” she says. “But as soon as it’s done, I have to take that hat off and consider it a product. How am I going to win this? How am I going to get it in front of people?

Amaarae was born in New York and raised in the United States and Ghana, and her recording experience began when she was a high school student making mixtapes of her songs. After leaving high school, she interned at a music studio in Accra where she learned to design and produce. She developed her sound and built a following by releasing singles. She uploaded her first songs to SoundCloud for free use in 2014. It’s a common entry point for newcomers. Billie Eilish is one of the stars whose career started by posting songs on the platform. In 2020, Amaarae made their first full album. The angel you don’t know. It was turned down by “every major record company”, in her own words, so she released it on her own label, with her mother as the business manager.

The angel you don’t knowThe mix of American R&B and Afropop was warmly received, including year-end picks from The New York Times and The New Yorker. A distribution deal followed with Apple-owned, London-based Platoon, which specializes in African pop. It invests in the work of independent artists in the style of venture capital rather than the traditional recording contract in which the label acquires copyright ownership of the recordings.

The singer prefers not to put precise figures on her income, but breaks them down into approximate shares. Although she is one of Bandcamp’s most popular artists, her income from digital store sales is negligible. The largest source of income, at around 50%, is money earned from live shows, both in person and online. About 35% comes from licensing deals for the use of his songs, such as in the soundtrack of the hit Netflix TV series Boy Top and a link with Ikea. The remaining 15% comes from streaming revenue: the remix of “Sad Girlz Luv Money” has been streamed 210 million times on Spotify alone.

A woman wearing a brightly colored headscarf and sunglasses holds wads of cash
Still from the video for Amaarae’s hit song “Sad Girlz Luv Money”

Earnings from recorded music involve a complex set of factors related to contracts, licensing fees and how the music is heard. As an all-rounder who performs, writes and produces her work, Amaarae owns the copyright in her sound recordings as well as the compositions themselves, the copyright in the musical work. But not having the backing of an established label also means she has to cover the upfront costs.

“The downside is that I take the majority of the financial hit that comes with distributing and releasing my music,” she explains. “Someone from a label who has partial or no ownership [over their music] doesn’t have worries like – “Oh man, I have to pay my managers this month”. Oh man, we are travelling, we need to book Airbnbs, how much is it going to cost me? That’s what comes with ownership.

The play of forces between tech companies, record labels, artists and lawmakers is ever-changing: sometimes antagonistic, sometimes cooperative. Streaming services reject claims they don’t pay enough, instead accusing record labels of not sharing profits fairly with artists — a charge the record labels in turn deny.

A recent development in the United States favors talent. This month, a ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board proposed an increase of more than 30% in mechanical royalties for songwriters from sales and streams of their compositions. The change, which is due to begin next year, has met with broad agreement from the US music industry.

Meanwhile, another ongoing case in the United States threatens to increase the cost of music for consumers. Bandcamp, which was taken over by video game company Epic Games in March, is battling Google imposing fees for using its Android App Store billing system, which is due to start next month. In a statement, Bandcamp warned that the measure could force them to charge customers more.

As these corporate titans clash, Amaarae embodies the agility of today’s recording artist. Key decisions for The angel you don’t know include hiring a London radio plugger and remixing “Sad Girlz Luv Money” with Uchis, which has a large Latin fanbase. Both were investment risks; both paid.

“You have to maneuver the terrain as it changes,” says Amaarae. “I think the power dynamics are a bit skewed, but I’m not against being smart and finding ways around the situation. You just have to play along.”

Amaarae performs at Koko in London on May 31

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