“How Spotify Started Paying My Rent”
(This is a guest BLOG from our good friend John Schmitt)
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2010, I met a girl, fell in love, and became completely enamored by her. Then, I had gotten in over my head and (not surprisingly now) she broke it off with me. At the time, I was devastated. I wept and lay in bed for days; I even called out sick to my day job for two days straight.
Over the course of the next 2-3 months I started to put pen to paper and write out what happened. A stream of consciousness happened, and from it I was able to write 4 new songs. One of them ended up being called “Ophelia.” It was difficult to perform because it was so incredibly personal. But I carried on performing it live, and eventually entered it into a songwriting contest… and won.
I’m not the best writer, best singer, nor best guitar player, but I get by on what feels right and honest. “Ophelia” always feels right, and honest, and most people tend to agree. I decided to make a record of the songs I wrote from the time, and I would call the entire album “Ophelia.” It would be the culmination of my painful transition into adulthood – where the stakes were higher and the feelings wider than I could have imagined before.
I made the record largely on my own dime and with the help of some incredibly generous friends and family who donated to making my vision come true. In total it cost me about $14,000. I distributed it on iTunes and all the other relevant sites, including Spotify, and I went about my daily life.
As commercial successes go, “Ophelia” was not distinguished whatsoever from any other local NYC releases, and in many ways it lacked the “sheen” (that’s my word) you might expect on a true pro release. That’s no one’s fault but my own of course, but I didn’t really know how to make a record. It was, however, the best record I could make at the time given my budget and, most importantly, my songwriting ability. As time passed once I released the album, it is not surprising that I was not looking to album sales of “Ophelia” to completely change my life, or anything close.
I made 1,000 physical copies of the album, and sold them for $10 a piece at live shows. I sold approximately 500 in the first year as I played shows, but then I started to give them away. It was more important for me to have people listen than to try and beg for their money. Once I ran out of CDs, I didn’t make new ones. I haven’t since.
I wrote off the record as a positive experience, where I lost a bit of money that was ultimately an investment in my future as a person and an artist. I think many artists reframe success in this way quite often.
I haven’t made a record since then, and started a new band in the time since “Ophelia” was released in 2011. Records don’t “tank” at my level, they just kind of sit there, like a snow globe that has settled. Mine has sat untouched for over 2 years.
I began to regularly use Spotify about 1.5 years ago, and downloaded the platform on my PC. I know my music was on the service, but I never really cared to check it out because “Spotify rapes artists,” so I was told. I was much more excited about having been accepted to Pandora, which I thought would open my music up to the entire world, and I wouldn’t have to do anything! Spotify paid portions of pennies on the dollar for providing users with unlimited access to your content, after all. Plus folks would have to know to look for my music on Spotify if they wanted to listen. I didn’t really care about the payment stuff, I just believed that I would be perceived as legit for having my music available on all these mediums that are so widely used.
So I went about my life being a working musician, and occasionally I would see money from CD Baby, my digital music distributor, but it was always because of iTunes sales – usually $30 a month that I used to buy new guitar strings.
I also started to use Spotify more, making my own playlists, saving music on my phone, finding rare live versions of music, comedians’ albums, etc. And last November, I noticed that you could see on Spotify how many plays a song has accrued over time on the desktop platform. So I started looking up my friends, two specifically. Both of them I would unequivocally describe as more successful than me in every way possible. They had about 3-4000 streams for each of their songs, more for the popular ones, and this all seemed in order for me. I considered that very good too, and knew there was a pittance in royalties for 3-4000 streams.
I decided to look up “Ophelia” next. It was hard to find at first, as I’m not a “verified artist” on Spotify (I don’t care enough about it to get the silly blue “checkmark”) and there is also a successful instrumental pianist named John Schmidt. So I searched “john schmitt ophelia” and found it.
I went to my artist page and saw the top 5 streaming songs, with the corresponding numbers of streams. They were in ascending order:
SONG TITLE: # of PLAYS:
5. So We Sing >1000
4. The Stone >1000
3. Ave Regina 1,694
2. Two Souls 2,891
1. Ophelia 762,310
WHAT?? That didn’t seem right. Why did “Ophelia” have 263 times more streams than everything else? When did that occur? And, what was, if any, the financial implications of this?
I took a screencap of the number, and immediately shared it on my Facebook artist page. I was convinced this was a direct result of my best friend’s recent meteoric rise in Holland. He had tweeted on my behalf to his followers saying how much he loved my music, and I chalked this all up to that.
So I wrote:
You can see I have 76 likes, and only 3 comments. Most of the likes were American – and people that I know personally. Was I blowing up in Europe because of my friend? Hardly. After a few weeks, I let it go, yet “Ophelia” kept streaming, the numbers going ever higher.
In February, I cracked a million. I remembered checking my phone each day to see how I was getting closer and closer. I still had no clue how or why it was happening.
So what the hell was going on? “Ophelia” was dead in the water as an album for about 3 years at that point, and now I was averaging about 400,000 streams every month. And, more importantly, where the hell is the measly pittance I was supposed to be paid from Spotify? No money had come in from them.
I went back to the Spotify desktop platform and search my name again. I scroll down and I see at the bottom “Playlist: Appears on… YOUR FAVORITE COFFEEHOUSE.” Huh?
So I click…
…And it takes me to this playlist created by the username: Spotify. And I see it has 250,000+ subscribers. A quick scroll down and there, lo and behold, is my 3 year old song, sitting alongside Joshua Radin acoustic versions, Ray LaMontagne, and so on. My little song! There were also some local NYC artists on there, who had once been a part of the songwriting contest I took part in, and it became apparent to me what had happened. Upon distributing “Ophelia” online, someone from the NYC Spotify offices must have enjoyed my song from that songwriting contest from 5 years ago. They must have been tasked by the company to make a list of relaxing acoustic songs, and decided to include mine and other contest favorites.
So that was it! There was no European buzz, just folks trusting the platform maker and using this pre-made playlist in their local businesses or offices, and I certainly took no offense to it.
But what about the money?! I called my distributor, CD Baby, to inquire. I was told there was a 3-4 month delay from when streams happen to when you are paid out. I would expect money from November in February or March. It was February then, and I grew impatient as the weeks went by. But how much is a million Spotify streams?
I sincerely thought I would see about $100 at best, and so I didn’t really look very hard. After all, “Spotify rapes artists.” But after a quick Google search, I saw corroborated information that said you receive about $0.006 a stream, but this is a very, very broad generalization, and can vary tremendously. So a quick math equation:
(1,000,000 stream) x ($0.006 per stream) = $6000.00
SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS!? That’s completely insane! This dollar figure only made my persistence with CD Baby more intense. I even started to get snarky and say “I am an artist with over a million streams, yet you have paid me nothing! What are we going to do about this?!” I was being an asshole, but I had never been able to be so brazenly confident about my music career. They wrote me back and said to be patient, and I would see all payments for the quarter in the next two weeks. The first payment came in, for about $1300. I was expecting $6000! This no doubt made me happy to get such a nice check for doing literally nothing, but where was the rest of the money?
Looking at the numbers, the payment was for November and December, when I was only up to about 500,000 streams, and so the money, following Spotify’s $0.006 formula, would total about $3000. Yet I got roughly half that. Where is the other half?
A call to CD Baby and I’m told that they collect only the publisher’s share of the royalties, and any writer’s share is sent to my performance rights organization – in my case, ASCAP.
So I “filed an inquiry” with ASCAP, and they have been largely unresponsive in locating the money that belongs to me. That’s a problem for another article, but it is enormously frustrating, and jumping ship to another organization would be too cumbersome at this point. If you have any help you could provide me with someone at ASCAP, it would be a great help! Email me at email@example.com.
Back to Spotify though. Today, my song has 4,200,000 plays, and has remained consistent in terms of streams per month. I have been paid over $11,000 from CD baby, processed like clockwork each month. It comes out to about $1300-1400 a month. And guess what? My rent is $1300 a month. So, you guessed it. Spotify pays my rent, every single month, so long as “Ophelia” sits on that playlist. And the price paid per stream holds up, too, if you do the math (within a few hundred dollars). They didn’t hide anything from me.
My point is, I got lucky. And because of the way the service is set up, I am now able to make about half a month’s worth of work for doing nothing. All because I fell in love 5 years ago, and writing about how bad it made me feel to have it end. I attend grad school now, play half as often as I used to, because I know my rent is going to be paid each month by Spotify royalties. So, I think we have to be careful to assign blame to organizations like Spotify. We should hold our performance rights organizations accountable, and my fight with ASCAP continues.
Another unforeseen byproduct of my success on their platform is this:
“Good evening, Mr. John.
My name is Donjet. I listen to music everyday, and the other day while browsing music on the music application Spotify I came across a playlist featuring one of your songs. Immediately I fell in love with it (It was “Ophelia”).
I became more interested in your music, and decided to listen to some of your other songs. Ophelia was your most popular song, but I was surprised to see how big of a gap there was between between your most popular song, and your second most popular. Ophelia is up on 2,3 million hits, whereas number two, Two Souls is on 8000 listenings. I’ll include an image of your most popular songs.
This just shows how sad it is that the song, Ophelia, is popular because it was featured in a popular playlist. If only people would give your music a chance for the tune and the lyric, and not for where it’s featured, things would’ve been so much better.
Nonetheless, you do have at least one fan in Sweden who enjoys listening to you daily for how they make me feel when I listen to them, and not because they’re featured somewhere. Listening to Ave Regina (which is now my favourite song of yours) I could immediately feel that the lyrics were powerful, so I decided to look them up. I stumbled across your very own blog where you told the reader about this song and your inspiration. I was blown away by your thoughts where you write about where you try to avoid talking about death, but still you did in your song. It’s very brave of you to talk about it, and people like myself appreciates things like this. It gives us a better chance to truly image your songs while listening to them.
I know the album is from 2010, and I don’t even know if you’re still active, but if you are, are there any more albums in the making?
Mr. John, I want to thank you for making not just great and addictive music, but for also giving us the chance to live your songs by sharing your stories and putting them in your songs.
Best regards from your fan in Sweden,
I receive emails like this, or Facebook messages on my artist page, about once every other week. Spotify has opened my music to people all over the world, and only after a few years of true apathy on my part. It has been inspiring for me to get back to work, to say the least.
Thank you for reading. I wanted to share my story, as it paints a different view of Spotify than Taylor Swift. I also truly believe she took her music off the service to force people to purchase the album on iTunes, where her immediate profit margins were higher. She had a hot product, and therefore did not want to reduce its cost just to remain on a platform. I have no doubt that once album sales start to come down, she will put her music back on the service, to capitalize at the albeit lower pay rate on Spotify compared to iTunes. Watch over the next few months and see if I’m right.
As for me – I’m going to make a new record. I owe it to folks like Donjet from Sweden. I owe it to my new life and new experiences. I owe it to everyone who stumbled across my songs because somebody at Spotify decided to legitimately change my life.
John Schmitt is a full time freelance singer/songwriter in the New York, NY area.