Why musicians pay the price for Amazon's cheap downloads

23 Jul 2010

Independent artist Robin Vincent reveals how Amazon can afford to sell albums so cheaply

The “music rip-off” feature in this month’s PC Pro (on sale now) gives solid tips on how consumers can get the best value for money, but what about the artists? More importantly, how do these bargain basement prices affect artists going it alone in the music industry?

Surely the biggest impact the internet's had on the music industry is the emergence of the MySpace and YouTube artist, and yet here we are talking about the usual record companies and top 40 artists as if nothing has happened.

The devaluing of music by sites such as Amazon makes it difficult for independent artists to make the move from enthusiastic amateur, messing around with tunes on the weekend, to a professional who can devote time to their art. And yet, to market yourself successfully you need to be present on as many music sites as possible.

Last year I had 818 individual track streams played via Napster or Spotify, and at 1 cent per stream that’s a princely sum of $8.18 – a little over a fiver

I'm an independent artist (of the enthusiastic amateur type) going under the name of Molten Meditation. I've self-released three CDs over the past few years and for the physical product I charge the outrageous amount of a tenner (inc p&p).

Online, I'm distributed through a service called TuneCore which maps your music onto all the usual music sites: iTunes, Napster, eMusic, Real and Amazon. It's a small one-off fee and then you just have to wait for the royalties to come flooding in. This is where a disparity begins to emerge.

Here are some examples of the royalties I've received from the different sites:

iTunes US - Album download - $7 (£4.55)
iTunes UK - Album download - €5.4 (£4.55)
Amazon US - Track download - $0.70 (£0.45)
Amazon US – Album download - $3.50 (£2.27)
Amazon UK - Album download - £2.45
Napster - Track stream - $0.01 (£0.006)
Rhapsody - Track stream - $0.01 (£0.006)

Why is Amazon so cheap? Take a look at my album page. The music I make is contemplative, meditation soundscapes, each track lasting ten to fifteen minutes – but there's no accounting for this on Amazon. It's five tracks, that's all that matters to the company.

At 79p per track, the entire hour-long album goes for £3.95. With iTunes at least you can specify that it can be purchased only as an album, and a fiver's return isn't too bad.

Download disparity

For my total album sales last year of 200 units, 31% comes from festival/gigs, 30% from direct purchases online and 39% from downloads. However, the downloads only account for 30% of my revenue. From a total of 78 album downloads, 52 came from iTunes and 26 from Amazon. Amazon also pulled in 81 track purchases at a paltry 70 cents (45p) a pop.

But it’s the streaming that really reinforces the lack of earning potential. Last year I had 818 individual tracks streamed via Napster or Spotify, and at 1 cent per stream that’s a princely sum of $8.18 – a little over a fiver.

I spoke to another independent artist I know who records electronica music under the name of Dicepeople and he said that with his first album, released last year, he put a lot of work into the promotion and marketing, earned great reviews, some radio play and yet sold only a handful of albums via iTunes. Recorded music has virtually no value these days and its only use is fast becoming a promotional tool for gigs. This is certainly borne out in my experience – you’re much more likely to sell product at a gig than convince people to pay for a download.

iTunes can work for the independent because it gives a reasonable return – but for how long? As consumers we have power. There has to be a point at which we decide music is worth paying for, that it's worth supporting the music makers. Pursuing the lowest price, the cheapest consumer experience, will not, I believe, help us in the future.

Find out how you can avoid the music rip-off and save money on music downloads in this month's issue of PC Pro - on sale now

PC Pro issue 191

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