A (Dollar) Sign of the Times

We've heard it all a million times before, right? Musicians just can't make money anymore. Thanks to streaming services that pay pennies in royalties, and illegal download sites that pay nothing at all, making a buck in the music business has never been tougher than what it is right now. But how tough is it really? Are musicians exaggerating the truth a bit to play for sympathy and guilt us into buying or paying to download their music? Aren't those streaming sights growing by leaps and bounds, thereby adding more listeners (and more revenue) to the artist's royalty checks? Let's address the last question first. According to Daniel Sanchez's July, 2017 article in Digital Music News, subscription streams like Spotify and Apple music continued their "meteoric ascent" in 2016, with a 69.3% increase in subscribers over the year prior. As of last week, Spotify is up to 70 million paid subscribers, while Apple music, now entering only its third year, has over 30 million paid subscribers. Great news, right? Champagne and diamond-covered Ferraris for everyone! Yeah, no. As it turns out, your friendly neighborhood metal nerd has an "in" with Central-Pennsylvania thrashers, Xstrophy, and they've got a different take on the financial end of the music industry.

Never heard of Xstrophy? No one's perfect. Basically, if you wanted to make a tasty Xstrophy sandwich, you'd start with two thick slices of 80's Metallica, slather them with a generous portion of 90's Pantera, add several slices of Among The Living-era Anthrax, and season with hatecore heroes Neglect and Leprosy-era Death. Now that's some good eatin', and Xstrophy's debut LP, 'My Tortured Past,' has not simply sold well, according to Leonard Newton, the band's lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, in recent months it has outsold albums from other destitute and struggling metal acts like Slayer and Metallica on certain international streaming sites. Newton explained that thanks to these sites originating overseas, where copyright protections don't do much to protect the artist, the album has been downloaded for free, meaning that the band doesn't see a dime.

And how about legal streaming sites where bands are actually paid when someone streams their album? They should be doing pretty good there, right? If you can call .00091 cents per stream "good," which is exactly what Xstrophy receives when someone streams their album, then yes, they're absolutely killing it. What's the end result, apart from people feeling entitled to the work of others while genuinely talented people literally receive nothing for their efforts? Well, higher ticket prices at concerts for a start. Aimee Cliff, in her January 5, 2017 article on thefader.com, points out that concert ticket prices have increased "at a rate much faster than inflation." In that same article she cites Pollstar's 2015 year end report in which they noted that the average, AVERAGE, concert ticket would cost you $74.25, with plenty of tickets available that will cost you several hundred dollars. Though plenty of people are willing and able to fork over that kind of money on an evening, I think I'll make my next car payment or keep the electric turned on in my house instead. Can some good be found in all of this? For starters, many bands are discovering that the work that their predecessors used to farm out (production and distribution) are things that they can do themselves. Check the liner notes of your underground metal CDs and you'll often find that the album was produced by a member of the band. Though results are mixed (pun totally intended), you can't beat the price of free when it comes to studio expenses. The website Bandcamp has become the go-to distribution site for independent musicians of every genre, due in no small part to the site's relatively low 15% commission on sales (which drops to 10% when a band surpasses $5,000 in sales). This DIY approach to recording and distributing music is what launched the careers of nearly every band that matters, so maybe this return to the roots of music isn't the end of the world in-and-of itself. At the end of the day, pinching pennies in the studio and using artist-friendly streaming sites amounts to a fat pile of nothing turds if us fans aren't doing our part and buying the music that moves us. As I've pointed out in previous blogs, I am a notoriously cheap guy, and this extends into my music purchases. Though funds are limited, I purchase one physical copy of an album a month- directly from the artist whenever possible. And really, with albums costing less now than they did 20 years ago, buying a new album is the equivalent of lunch at a sub shop. If foregoing that $5 foot long (which magically becomes $9 when you add a soda and the smallest bag of chips known to humanity) is what I have to do to support music that matters to me, so be it. Thoughts? Are artists getting the shaft from legal streaming sites that are clearly doing well for themselves; or would these bands have little to no exposure without them? Is the world populated with too many thieves for upcoming bands, no matter how good, to have any hope of making a living by playing music? Am I a dinosaur from the 80's who cherishes his quaint, antiquated CD collection? Is a freaking 10oz bag of chips with my spicy Italian sub too much to ask for? All of these questions and more can be answered in the comments section. Many thanks to Leonard Newton of Xstrophy for being the catalyst for this article. By all means, give their album 'My Tortured Past' a spin over on their Bandcamp page, and let us know if I got that sandwich recipe right. Rage on! JPR

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