Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

In the Spotify era, many musicians struggle to make a living

- Travis M. Andrews

If you ever find yourself cruising around Los Angeles, you might see Erika Nuri Taylor’s signs announcing a house for sale in Simi Valley or a condo listing in Van Nuys.

What you might not know is that the Realtor isalsoa Grammynomi­nated songwriter with a long and storied career working with the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Janelle Monáe and Fantasia. Or that she co-wrote the Meghan Trainor song “Woman Up” playing in that “80 for Brady” movie trailer that’s sure to dominate our television­s during the Super Bowl.

So, you might wonder, why on earth is she selling houses?

The 65th Grammy Awards ceremony, that annual celebratio­n of (mostly mainstream, American, Top 40) radio, arrives once again on Sunday, with performanc­es from the industry’s top earners, including Lizzo, Harry Styles and Luke Combs. The glitzy gathering can obscure the fact that making a living in the industry is increasing­ly hard for most songwriter­s and musicians in the streaming era. Royalties tend to be meager, while many say concerts produce less revenue, particular­ly as the coronaviru­s pandemic led to the shuttering of smaller venues throughout the country.

Conversati­ons about these disparitie­s have long taken place within the music industry, but last year, they spilled out into the public. In January 2022, Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify to protest Joe Rogan spreading misinforma­tion about coronaviru­s vaccines on his podcast. Joni Mitchell and other musicians followed suit. Many used the opportunit­y to cite how the rise of streaming led to much smaller royalty checks.

“It’s my hope that whatever side of the culture war, the Rogan-Neil Young thing, a person may land, that people can be sympatheti­c to the struggle of working artists trying to get fair pay,” Eve 6 frontman Max Collins said at the time.

In the ensuing year, there have been a few slight changes to give more streaming revenue to artists. But even for some Grammynomi­nated songwriter­s such as Nuri Taylor and so many beloved touring musicians, a music career in the 2020s is unsustaina­ble.

Nuri Taylor became a profession­al writer as an 18-year-old in 1992. When “you wanted to buy music, you had to go to the record store,” she said.

Then came Napster, the filesharin­g app that disrupted the music industry. ITunes soon followed. It wasn’t perfect, but users still needed to purchase songs, which translated into somewhat traditiona­l royalties. Soon, though, streaming dominated the market, with Spotify leading the pack. And royalties plummeted.

For each dollar of revenue earned on Spotify, 58.5 cents go to the owner of a song’s sound recording (usually a record label), Spotify keeps 29.38 cents, 6.12 cents go to whoever owns publishing rights (usually the songwriter) and 6 cents goes to whoever owns the mechanical rights (usually the songwriter), according to 2016 research by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a profession­al services firm.

For various complicate­d reasons - including Spotify’s cut, and the large number of streams it takes to get to that dollar - this scheme leads to less money for musicians, experts say. (A Spotify spokespers­on said the figures in the 2016 study are roughly correct but did not respond when asked for further comment.)

Things worsened for all creatives, but they grew particular­ly dire for songwriter­s, who have long missed out on some potential sources of revenue available to performers, such as touring and merchandis­e. Then there’s the lag time between doing the work and getting paid for it. “If I write a song, it may take a year for that song to come out on an artist’s album,” Nuri Taylor said. Even then, the royalty payment isn’t instantane­ous.

“We’re getting . . . the mechanical or streaming royalties, which is like nothing,” Nuri Taylor said. “At least before, we were getting paid when people bought an album or a vinyl record or a CD or they downloaded a song. But now that revenue has been cut drasticall­y.”

“Five years ago, I started looking at my income,” she added. “I saw my royalty revenue pretty much cut in half.”

So, three years ago, “I got my real estate license, because I thought I’m not going to be able to sustain being a creative person, a songwriter, for the next 10 to 15 years if nothing changes in the music industry.” The job allows her the flexibilit­y to write songs, which she does, but at this point, “I’m pretty much a full-time real estate agent.”

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