Should Music's Biggest Companies Be Doing More to Help Right Now?

Days after the cascade of music tour suspensions in the U.S. due to the coronavirus crisis, Bandcamp, an online music-and-merch shop, announced it would waive its revenue cut for a day to support the artists using the platform. Bandcamp’s CEO Ethan Diamond revealed Monday that fans spent $4.3 million on that day — kicking up 15 times the site’s usual amount of activity — with fans “at the peak, buying 11 items per second.”

As the live music industry has slid to a halt over the past few weeks due to the ongoing pandemic, an entire ecosystem of impromptu concert livestreams, online tip donations, and artist relief programs has emerged, practically overnight, to try to stem the bleeding for independent artists who are suddenly deprived of their primary source of income for the foreseeable future. DJ music platform Mixcloud, like Bandcamp, announced it would be waving its revenue share on its Mixcloud SELECT platform for three months; SoundCloud and Songtradr took similar voluntary financial hits to help artists. But during the initial days of the live events shutdown, the players with the most cash stayed mostly on the sidelines. 

This week, the largest corporations in music — from streaming platforms like Spotify and Tidal to major labels like Warner Music Group and Universal to tech behemoths like Facebook — finally announced corporate initiatives aimed to help support artists and creators in the coming months. Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, SiriusXM/Pandora, and others announced a joint donation to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, the Recording Academy’s charity for musicians in need — but none of the companies disclosed the size of their donations.

“Some of these companies have made a good start — you could call it a down payment,” Kevin Erickson, director of D.C.-based artist advocacy nonprofit group Future of Music. tells Rolling Stone. “But writing a big check is not nearly enough.”

The charity efforts of the titans of the music industry make for an odd contrast with what smaller companies like Bandcamp and Mixcloud have done: taking risks in their own revenue structure to support artists. “We should be asking for the most support from the companies with the most resources,” says Erickson. “If Bandcamp can make an impact with such a small team, a company like Amazon, which reported $280 billion in net sales last year needs to really step it up. That includes paying their fair share of federal taxes.”  

“Responding to this moment can’t just be about getting back to a pre-virus status quo, which was unsustainable for a whole lot of music industry workers.” — Kevin Erickson, Future of Music director

In the same way many critics have pointed out the coronavirus epidemic’s exposure of the structural flaws in America’s for-profit health care system, Erickson sees the crisis as a referendum on a music industry that’s been increasingly consolidated by a select few massive tech corporations in recent years. “Responding to this moment can’t just be about getting back to a pre-virus status quo, which was unsustainable for a whole lot of music industry workers,” Erickson says. “It should be an opportunity to reflect on the precarity that so many creative workers face, and to take bold action to remedy that problem.”

The gulf between the efforts of small companies and tech giants has not gone unnoticed by musicians, 1,600 of whom have asked Spotify in an online petition to consider tripling artist payments to cover lost concert revenue. Spotify this week did launch its own COVID-19 Music Relief program, through which it pledged to match up to $10 million in user donations, and said it will eventually roll out a function for artists to be able to fundraise directly from their Spotify pages — and it’s worth noting that Spotify already pays some 70% of its revenue to rights-holders under its core business model. 

But British songwriter organization The Ivors Academy says streaming services should be diverting at least $100 million to coronavirus hardship funds. “There is an estimated 20-30% of streaming royalties which are currently paid on a market share basis, because there is insufficient data on who was played,” Ivors Academy CEO Graham Davies said in a statement Tuesday. “This means millions of pounds will presently go to those who are reporting massive profits and huge margins from streaming. This is wrong. We call for these black box royalties to be paid into hardship funds for musicians so that targeted help can get to those most in need.”

Netflix set up a $100 million fund for coronavirus relief for the film industry, Music Business Worldwide pointed out.

Rolling Stone reached out to major streaming platforms, the three major labels, radio conglomerates like iHeartMedia, and tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, to get a sense of what charitable efforts the corporations were taking to help aid artists. Some, like Warner Music Group and Facebook, said, in part, that they’d be making donations to charities like MusiCares and Heart to Heart International; Amazon pointed to a MusiCares partnership with Alicia Keys and additional initiatives with the charity that haven’t yet been finalized. Apple and Sony did not respond to requests for comment. Youtube and Tidal pointed out ways that their own services, playlists, and livestream monetization platforms could be used by artists and fans during this time. 

“Some services are responding to this crisis with a bit of a sales pitch for how great their platform is for livestreams and fundraisers,” Erickson says. “This is kind of misreading the room.” He adds that the charitable efforts of several corporations are undercut by the ways they’ve been actively fighting against structural positive change for artists. (On March 10th, for example — the week artists began canceling concerts all across the country — Amazon and Spotify lawyers argued in court against a pending streaming royalty increase for songwriters.)

Contagious disease experts and government health organizations are currently estimating that the coronavirus pandemic may not blow over until well after spring or summer, meaning many artists, songwriters, tour managers, and other music-industry workers could be left in limbo for the better part of the year — but many of them still need to scrounge together money to cover canceled show costs. So while well-intentioned, even the more substantive changes promised by large music companies, like Spotify’s forthcoming feature to tip artists, may not have as much of an impact as they would have if they’d come earlier. 

“Most of the people who work at digital services really love music and want to see artists thrive,” Erickson says. “But they need to understand how cynical it looks when they’re making donations to artists on one hand while arguing vociferously against policy changes that would improve creator compensation on their services…Artists have been asking for donation implementation for years. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for Spotify to make that happen.”

Additional reporting by Amy X. Wang

Catch up with Rolling Stone’s earlier reporting on how the coronavirus pandemic has upended the music industry here, here, and here.

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