Nova Scotia

It's tougher to make it as a Nova Scotia musician in the streaming era

While streaming is a way for artists to get their music to the masses, the live show is what musicians are relying on to earn an income.

Major labels are cashing in on streaming services, not independent musicians, says Halifax rocker John Mullane

Halifax-band In-Flight Safety perform at SxSW in Austin, Texas. John Mullane on vocals and guitar, Glen Nicholson on drums. (Andrew Stretch)

Becoming a rock star might not be as easy as it used to be.

John Mullane, the music producer and frontman for Halifax rock band In-Flight Safety, is in an enviable position. He has a back catalogue that still gets some play and as a producer, he's helping mentor young artists. But he sees them struggle to make a living in the era of global music streaming, where Spotify is the biggest player on the block.

"You're stuck. You can't leave the streaming service because your fans would be outraged," he told CBC's Information Morning.

"Spotify offers a licensing rate that they set, which meets their business requirements. It's pretty much non-negotiable, but the larger record companies have clout. The major labels make a lot of money from streaming, the independent artists don't."

In 2018, the three big music companies, Sony, Warner and Universal Music Group, made an estimated $19 million a day in revenue from music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, fully half of their revenue, according to Music Business Worldwide.

How much streaming pays

Streaming is the main mode for music listeners to tune in, but with music creators earning a reported $0.00586 Cdn per play on Spotify, according to Digital Music News, that would require approximately 170,650 streams of a song for the artist to earn $1,000.

"The new paradigm does make it very hard for independent artists to make money," said Mullane. "The value of recorded music has plummeted.

"There's more money than ever coming in, but it's being concentrated to a few people. It's just capitalism, but it's a shame the situation isn't improving for independent musicians."

Performing live to make a living

Mullane can remember the days of CDs, where selling 100 of them would earn a band $1,000, which he says was an achievable goal for a touring act. Now performing live is the primary way artists make money.

"Streaming is a very essential tool because music history is based on listening to songs and if you didn't hear the songs you wouldn't go to the show, but now the music is more of a calling card to get you to buy the ticket to the live show and the live show costs a lot to put on," said Mullane.

Fewer supports for new musicians

The rise of streaming also comes at a time when the music industry is changing in other ways. There are fewer supports for musicians starting out, said Trevor Murphy, a Halifax musician in bands such as Quiet Parade and Dance Movie. He's also a publicist and runs his own label, Acadian Embassy.

"It wasn't uncommon in the '90s, for example, for a major label to give a band $5,000 and say, 'Let's see what happens and we'll go from there,'" said Murphy. "The ability for people to get that upstart funding to make a go of it has slowly, over the last 25 years, disappeared."

He also grieves the slow death of music coverage in print and screen media.

"Our arts sections in newspapers are the first thing to go when changes are happening in newsrooms," said Murphy.

Mental health challenges

Earlier this month, the East Coast Music Association released the results of a mental health survey, revealing that regional music industry members report mental illness and thoughts of suicide — and lower income and barriers to mental health support — at a higher percentage compared to Canadians in general.

"There used to be a thing where you would throw off the shackles of your daily life and try to make it as a musician, and you can't do it now," said Tara Thorne, a songwriter, journalist and arts columnist for CBC's Information Morning.

"So, people are juggling a lot of things, a lot of stress. And also therapy's really expensive and a lot of these people, if they're trying to make it as musicians, probably don't have any health-care program support at all," she told Information Morning.

Mullane recognizes disruptive digital technology is growing in many industries, and there are opportunities to be had for those who hustle, but the priorities are different.

"The fight of modern music artists today is how do you get your music heard," he said. "The issue has become unless you are on a curated playlist or with a major label that can spend advertising dollars on a viral hit, how is anyone going to hear your music?

"We are facing a different kind of gatekeeper system now. Who can help you cut through the noise?"

With files from Carsten Knox and CBC's Information Morning


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