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Why musicians pay the price for Amazon's cheap downloads

Posted on 23 Jul 2010 at 10:20

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

Author: Robin Vincent

Subscribe to PC Pro magazine. We'll give you 3 issues for £1 plus a free gift - click here
User comments

I don't get your point

If you don't want to be paid what you obviously consider to be a derisory royalty by Amazon, why did you agree to their terms? If your album sales are at 200 a year, you can't seriously be expecting to make any kind of real money out of it, so you're either doing it for the love of music (in which case why does it matter if you only get £2.45 for an album sale from Amazon) or you're trying to promote yourself to get a break (in which case surely you want to be as widely distributed as possible in the hope of being picked up). Incidentally, £2.45 is 62% of Amazon's £3.95 sale price - not a terrible cut in my opinion.

By flyingbadger on 23 Jul 2010

Me neither

Yeah, I don't get it either - if you don't like Amazon pricing, why do work with them at all? And the point is, I believe, "don't hunt for bargains as I want more money"?

By Lomskij on 23 Jul 2010

Why musicians pay the price for Amazon's cheap downloads

isn't this the same as tesco and farmars in particular, in that tesco make more from milk than the farmars who do all the hard work and provide the milk from their grass & cows

By invalidscreenname on 23 Jul 2010

Why musicians pay the price for Amazon's cheap downloads

isn't this the same as tesco and farmars in particular, in that tesco make more from milk than the farmars who do all the hard work and provide the milk from their grass & cows

By invalidscreenname on 23 Jul 2010

Thank you

I've read the article with interest. Thank you for shedding some light.

PS: Your ambient music would do well on long distance flights. It would be better market than the digital one.

Good luck!

By stasi47 on 23 Jul 2010

Accept the change

The industry has moved on - no time for so much bleating from 'artists'. I wish soemone would pay me over and over for the work I do once ! Is it not time musicians recognise that it's hard work now to make a living from your skills or talent whatever industry you are in . The ones who have recognised this are out on the road playing at gigs and festivals, where their real talent can show. It's maybe just the 'recording artists' who need the studio to make a decent sound that are compaining. Perhaps see Spotify and Napster as a promotional tool to show off your wares.

By onside on 24 Jul 2010

my point being...

that there's more than one side to demanding cheap music. I wasn't bleating, i was simply sharing my experience and some figures that i hoped would be interesting to people. I treasure every penny and rejoice that anyone would pay anything for my work - it's an amazing thing - having your music on iTunes and Amazon is also completely fabulous. It's up to the musician to find new and interesting ways of using their art to generate an income - not all music translates into a live show. Personally i'm optimistic that even as music becomes free we'll find new ways of injecting value into our work :)

By robinv on 26 Jul 2010

It is interesting

Robin, I sympathise. I don't see how you are expected to make money with this so called 'new model'. £6000 for a million plays on Napster? Why bother? You need to bring in an awful lot more than that to fund a tour, pay your mortgage and employ others to support you. Onside believes you are only an artist of legitimate talent and worth if you constantly perform live in order to justify your earnings. I love live music, but tend to disagree, as do many millions of others who buy 'studio' music. I disagree because Onside's approach disadvantages those who create media that is not easily performed live, and also because it suggests recorded music should not be a source of income. By arguing "I wish someone would pay me over and over for work I did once", Onside implies that the work is not worthy of repeated payment. Why should that be so? Assuming it is enjoyed by many people, recommended to friends, given as a gift, even covered by others, why is its creation not worthy of repeated payment? If I came up with a new way of doing something, which was used by others to improve human health, or create efficiency, and ultimately bring advantage to many, why should I not be rewarded for that beyond a slap on the back and a one-off well done? It might have a legacy lasting years, affecting thousands or millions of people. The user may pay only once, depending on the business model, but the user gains the benefit of my creation, repeatedly and for as long as they want to use it. Why shouldn't that logic apply to music?

By Mat1971 on 26 Jul 2010

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