Wednesday, January 28, 2015

TMFW 73- The Silent Album That Paid for a Tour

Spotify is an online service that offers "all you can eat" steaming music.  Users can listen for free (with ads and other limitations) or they can buy a "premium" subscription for $10/month.  As of January 2015, Spotify boasts 60 million users and 15 million subscribers.  Basic math suggests that means revenue of over $1.5 billion per year.  That's a lot of money. 
Spotify says that it pays about 70% of its revenue in royalties to rightsholders; they paid about $1 billion in royalties last year and $2 billion since their inception in 2006.  But with over 30 million songs in their catalog, and over 7 billion hours (!) of music streamed in 2014, the rates get stretched pretty thin.  How the pie gets divvied up is complicated, but the average royalty is around .6 and .8 cents per stream.  For shorter songs (less than a minute or so), it is about half that.  And that royalty is not the artist's alone: in fact, the majority of it goes to recording and publishing rights holders and the artist takes only a fraction.  
At less than a penny per stream, it is clear that very few artists are getting rich from their Spotify stats.  But as the service has grown, some clever bands have found ways to increase their numbers and improve the size of their royalty checks.  For example, last February in TMFW 24, I wrote about Matt Farley, a guy who flooded Spotify with 15,000 songs by over 50 different "bands".  That strategy earned him almost $25,000 in one year.
Last March, a Michigan band came up with an idea even more clever than Farley's: they sold silence.  The funk band Vulfpeck, hoping to put together a tour consisting only of free shows but without sufficient capital to do so, hatched a brilliant plan.  They "recorded" the album Sleepify, which consisted of 10 songs of silence, each lasting either 31 or 32 seconds.  Track 1 is titled "z," 2 is "zz," 3 is "zzz," and so on.  The band self-released the album to Spotify, and put out a delightfully chilled-out YouTube plea for fans to listen to the record on repeat while they slept at night.  The band guessed that in an average night each listener would drop about $4 into their tour piggy bank, and promised to use the royalty to put on free shows based on wherever the album got the most streams.  
Due to the brilliance of the plan, the fun YouTube plea, and the power of social media, Sleepify took off.  Rolling Stone wrote it up a few weeks into its run, and momentum only grew stronger from there.  By the time Spotify pulled the record seven weeks later - for violating unspecified policies - the royalty tally stood at $19,655.55.  The "policy violation" was a necessary invention; when Sleepify was pulled several copycats had already sprouted up hoping to exploit the loophole.
While Spotify acknowledged Vulfpeck's "clever stunt," it was unclear whether they would actually come through with a check.  To their credit, they paid up, and the band toured as promised.  They played six dates across four states, all courtesy of a 6 minute silent gag.  Much respect to Vulfpeck.    
BONUS FACT:  Lots and lots and lots of Canadians pre-ordered Taylor Swift's latest album 1989 on iTunes, and a feature of pre-ordering is that album tracks are automatically downloaded when they are released.  So it was a matter of some silliness late last year when Swift's label released 8 seconds of white noise to iTunes that was accidentally tagged as track 3 for her as-yet-unreleased record.  The "song" was auto-downloaded in droves, and so 8 seconds of noise reached #1 on the Canadian iTunes chart within minutes.  There's a joke about the modern state of the music industry somewhere in there.  
BONUS FACT 2:  As one more example that there is nothing new under the sun, experimental composer John Cage beat Vulfpeck to the idea of silence as art by 60 years.  In 1952, he published "4'33"" (pronounced "four minutes thirty-three seconds" or just "four thirty three"), which Wikipedia notes is "a three movement composition...[written] for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements."  YouTube features many versions of 4'33" being "performed," often to an appreciative audience.  Here it is for piano and here it is for a full orchestra.  My favorite, I think, is this "death metal" cover performed on drums.  The guy sped it up quite a bit, but I appreciate when musicians add their own interpretation.  Be sure to stick around 'til the end to see his various "failures."  
BONUS FACT 2.5:  As it happens, Cage wasn't even the first guy to think of "don't play anything and call it a composition."  The "Precursors" section to the Wikipedia page notes SIX different works that came before.  Of note, Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 piece "In Futurum" is just several staffs of ornately notated rests.  The dude was a genius.
BONUS FACT 3:  TMFW-favorite Todd Snider has a terrific and fun song called "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" about a grunge band that employs the gimmick of refusing to play a note.  It's worth a listen (really, all of Todd Snider's stuff is worth a listen.)
BONUS FACT 4:  Many many artists - Thom Yorke, Taylor Swift, The Black Keys, and David Byrne among them - do not like Spotify, as they contend that it does not fairly compensate musicians for their work.  Ironically, in the Rolling Stone interview linked above Vulfpeck identifies the inspiration for their stunt: a record producer who boasted that the giant 2001 remake of "Lady Marmalade" was available only by buying the entire soundtrack for the movie Moulin Rouge!.  That crass exploitation of the record buying public is a good example of why music consumers have little sympathy for major artists and labels, and it got the band thinking about how they could deploy music business economics in a friendlier way.  

1 comment:

  1. You sound like a music biz guy there at the top. And I think Pierogi Boyz should have played 4'33.