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Musicians rally for better pay from streaming services

A crowd stands in front of a stage where three musicians are performing, with a video screen behind them.
SYM1 performed Monday night at The Green Room in Minneapolis in support of the Living Wage for Musicians Act. (CBJ Photo: Jasmine McBride)

The Minneapolis live music venue The Green Room was overflowing Monday night with supporters of a bill to improve wages for musicians. 

The Living Wage for Musicians Act calls for economic justice and fairness in streaming, a form of digital consumption that has turned into a multibillion-dollar business for Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube. The bill would tax providers’ non-subscription revenues and add a small fee to the price of music streaming subscriptions to increase musicians’ earnings to one cent per stream. 

The bill was introduced this past March by Detroit Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman in partnership with United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) and has become a national movement across cities with reputable music industries. Representative Ilhan Omar is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Twin Cities United Performers (TCUP) – an organization whose formation was inspired by a battle to unionize First Avenue workers – dedicated its first event to drawing attention to the bill and gaining signatures for the petition. 

Two women stand shoulder to shoulder, smiling at the camera.
Musicians Nadi McGill and Katie Drahos

“You'd have to get 18 million streams annually from Spotify to make the US poverty line. That's just not sustainable. So this aims to put the value back into our work,” said drummer and TCUP member, Nadi McGill.

Streaming platforms have profited immensely from the digitization of music. According to Forbes, streaming has grown to represent 84% of recorded music revenue in the U.S. The digitization of music has also allowed artists to share their music across the globe. However, accessibility comes with drawbacks. A study overseen by Georgetown University Professor Benjamin Harbert found that despite the music industry's record success since moving to streaming, artists on average receive just 18% of profits – less than at any other point in history. The Living Wage for Musicians Act bill specifically uses Spotify as a reference point, as it is the largest music streaming platform ​​with more than 615 million users. While it boasts 239 million subscribers in more than 180 markets, it only pays independent artists .003 cents per stream.

“When you know that Spotify as a corporation is making $14 billion a year, and it's really off of the backs of artists like us, everyday artists – there's clearly this inherent value to music and to art – and it's not reciprocated at all,” said TCUP member and musician, Katie Drahos.

The bill also requires streaming services like Spotify to pass some of their taxed revenues and royalties to a non-profit collection and distribution fund, which would benefit artists’ earnings in proportion to their monthly streams. 

Rising hip-hop artist NUR-D showed up to the event in solidarity with TCUP, and in support of the bill. He says the nature of the music business requires people to supplement their income to get by. He says a bill like this is a step forward in making the career more accessible.

“I've played with a million people who would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now if they didn't have to go work at a bank five days a week,” he said.

The petition list grew full of signatures as the event carried on throughout the night with performances by Lupin, Essjay, Sym1, and Alonzo, with speakers sharing their thoughts between sets. One speaker, Laura Kiernan of the Kiernan Band, held up a check for $28 issued to her by Spotify for two years of work. 

“That’s $28 after 7000 streams and over 150 listeners per month,” said Kiernan. “$28 is not what I’m worth. It’s not what my band is worth. It ain’t right.”

She then ripped up the check and threw it into the air, to applause from the crowd. The night continued with dance, laughter, and toasts in celebration of the love of music and in honor of the local music scene. 

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