Streams and Earnings: 75% of Sampled Artists Earned Less Than $3/month

What does the typical professional musician earn in streaming royalties? Does spending a ton of money on mixing and mastering boost the likelihood of popularity on streaming platforms? What about music videos, social media ads, and publicists? What separates the talented-and-popular from the talented-and-obscure on these platforms?

To explore these questions, I asked my musician peers to 1) fill out a survey outlining their production and promotion spending and 2) send me digital distribution reports providing a day-by-day account of where and how much their music was streamed during the first eight months of 2020. Excluding a couple of exceptional outliers (more on them later), the result was a snapshot of 40 artists/groups with 2.4 million streams that can be used to understand the artist experience with these platforms. For more background, the characteristics of the data set, and other findings go here.

Streams and Earnings

As predictable is it was, I was still surprised by how skewed stream counts were towards the most popular bands in the group. To give you an idea, here’s what the stream counts of the 10 most popular artists looked like:

The stream counts closely follow a log-normal distribution, meaning the growth is exponential, not linear. Numbers start small, take a while to grow, eventually explode, and most of the action is at the top. Wealth (the top 1% have 30% of it), populations (the seven biggest countries house half the global population), and the length of internet comments (your QAnon uncle won’t shut up) are also log-normally distributed. In this set of 40 artists, the top two had 80% of all the streams, more than the other 38 combined. Crazy, though it makes sense. Even within a single album, I’ll listen to a few songs 500 times and the rest once or twice (my current obsession). The same is true for artists. Most barely get listened to, a tiny number get listened to a lot.

In distributions like this, it makes sense to look at the median stream count (the middle number in an ordered list) to get a sense of the “typical” experience, as opposed to an average that would be pulled upward by the huge numbers at the top. For example, the average stream count of the top 10 above is 233,221, but the median, which would be the average of #5 and #6 in this case, is 40,028. Given that only the top two made it above 200k, it makes sense that 40k would be a better representation of the typical artist experience.

So how much was the median artist in the whole group streamed in eight months and how much did they earn? The median artist was streamed 2,241 times and earned $7.23 in streaming royalties. That means half of the artists in the group earned less than $1 per month from streaming royalties. Even worse, 75% of them earned less than $3 per month. On the flip side, the average production cost for an artist’s most-streamed album was $5,000.

On average, the artists in this group were most active five years ago but, for the 14 artists who were most active in the last two years, the median stream count is still only 3,955 and the median earnings are only $13.05. That said, it’s been 11 years since the third most popular artist was most active, and I didn’t find a strong correlation between being recently active and getting more streams. The median doesn’t change significantly when limiting to non-jazz artists either.

“But Tarik, your study didn’t include mega stars who make millions!” True. The few incredibly popular artists I know had trouble getting their streaming data from management. That said, being an incredibly popular artist is incredibly rare, so that situation is sort of irrelevant to exploring the typical experience. Adding an artist or two with a billion streams to the set of 40 wouldn’t significantly change the median earnings.

If you went to a mid-to-large-sized city and picked a random working musician, I think it’s reasonable to expect that their profile would be similar to a few of the artists who participated in this study. The earnings of the most popular artists in this set ($3,510) are definitely much lower than that of the most popular artists on Spotify, but I think it’s unlikely that the earnings of the median artist in this set are substantially lower than that of the median artist on Spotify. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually higher, given that a sizable portion of Spotify’s catalog doesn’t get played at all.

So what do I do with this?

When I was looking for data, I could tell a lot of musicians were embarrassed by how little their music was streamed. When Spotify rolls out its end-of-year stats and the small number of popular artists are plastering social media with their high stream counts, it’s easy to feel like you’re one of the few who are failing. Know that you’re not alone. Most of us are failing!

Most experienced artists don’t expect to make meaningful income from streaming royalties, but I’m surprised how often I hear younger musicians reference their bandmate’s friend’s sister’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin’s song that hit it big on Spotify when they talk about streaming and how they expect to earn money. The reality is that, among this group of mostly-full-time musicians producing quality music, only a few experienced any success being widely distributed on playlists and earning money from streaming. If streaming royalties are part of your income plan, you’d better be damn sure you’re one of those few.

As far as what production/promotion investments were and weren’t correlated with higher stream counts in this group, that’s coming soon. In the mean time, you can read about how streaming platforms compare here.

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