Spotify: An Independent Artist’s View

Northern Kind are Sarah Heeley and Matt Culpin, an English synthpop band who’ve worked with synth-stars such as Alan Wilder (Depeche Mode, Recoil), Kajagoogoo, and Simon Heyworth (Simple Minds, Mike Oldfield). Northern Kind’s 2nd album WIRED was my favourite release of 2009 and it has been available on Spotify for a few months now. I asked Matt about his experiences of Spotify from an artist’s point of view: how he went about adding his music, what sort of returns he’d seen, and his general opinions on the current state of the music industry. Read on for this exclusive interview!

Some independent artists think that music piracy might not be so bad, since at least it gets their music heard more widely. However you seem fairly outspoken against piracy. Why is that?

I think it depends on how you view music, I’m appalled that some people think it should just be free. Why is that?  Do they expect to walk into a supermarket and be given free food? I guess not, so why should music be any different. Giving away a single to promote an album is fine, but giving a whole album away seems crazy.

We spend around 800 hours writing and recording each album. We don’t figure this time into the equation when calculating the cost as essentially it’s a hobby, however if you related that amount of time to the hourly rates that our 9-5 jobs are charged out at, the 800 hours would equate to around £60K. So if this was a full time job then I guess that would be a true reflection of the cost.

What we do try to cover however is the cost of mastering, replication, artwork, printing and promotion which of course we pay for ourselves up-front, so it annoys me when soon after our album is released it’s being shared on places like Rapidshare. And anything we do make over and above our costs usually goes straight back into promotion.

I suppose the cost of physically producing vinyl or CDs has something to do with how music is still priced. Digital downloads don’t have the same costs associated with distributing them so in general I feel music should be cheaper. Lets face it, how much does an artist see from the sale of a CD? I know of a fairly well known artist whose first album sold more than 2M copies yet he didn’t see a single penny.

You initially weren’t too keen on adding your music to Spotify. What changed your mind?

We have an initial busy period of sales activity around a release but after about six months the sale of physical CDs drops off. It seemed like a good opportunity to perhaps get more interest in us again and hopefully grow our exposure.

Why did you decide to go with DittoMusic as opposed to any other distributor?

If I remember, the cost was an issue and also the ability to choose which stores to distribute to. Some of the other distributors (CD Baby, Record Union) bundle their packages with releases on other stores like Rhapsody and iTunes. DittoMusic allowed us to choose just Spotify.

How easy was it to get your music added to Spotify? How much does it cost?

It took about 5 minutes to go through the online subscription plus the time to upload the files.  Currently we’re paying £2 per month, although they have introduced a £15 per year fee now. So no big deal really.

Do you have access to any listener stats? Can you track the number of plays your songs receive?
Actually DittoMusic have recently launched a new site and for some reason my existing account log-in has stopped working; they want me to re-register but at the moment WIRED isn’t attached to this account. I have a feeling that the new site has not migrated over any data.  I therefore have no stats for our current release WIRED but hopefully this will get resolved soon. In my experience the service is fairly passive so no real help with promotion or information regarding plays.

Have you received any payments or royalties yet? If so, how does this compare with returns from sales on iTunes? How often do you receive a payment?

Nothing from Spotify yet. With iTunes we get a quarterly cheque, and the amount has actually been increasing. I don’t think we get the the initial sales peak with iTunes since people who know and support us generally buy the physical CD. I believe iTunes allows us to grow our exposure organically: typically once an album is released and people start to buy it, it slowly gets blogged about and reviewed. People probably use iTunes to listen to the tracks and decide to buy there and then. Shortly after WIRED was released we ran out of the first album so there was a noticeable increase in sales for that on iTunes.

You’re busy working on the third Northern Kind album. Will you be adding this to Spotify? If so, will you add it at the same time as the CD and iTunes or at a later date?

I’m not sure yet but if we do I think it would be a staggered release, Physical and iTunes at the same time with Spotify probably several months later.

How do you think Spotify could benefit independent artists more?

Reading stories about big artists earning $167 from a million plays isn’t exactly inspiring. It essentially means Spotify will never be a viable revenue stream for artists like Northern Kind, so we have to make a decision about whether having our music on Spotify is a useful promotional tool or not. Personally I don’t think it is at the minute. I view it as a good-quality MySpace but without the social networking aspect.

It would be great to include some biography details and perhaps links to artist sites/blogs. Also if any of the tracks are used within user’s playlists I think it would be great to view these and see what other artists are within the lists (similar to iTunes iMixes).  I’m aware that you can search for a specific genre by typing Genre:Electronic for example, but the results can’t be fully explored or even sorted by release date. Maybe this is a premium feature?  (Afront: no, it’s not) I have stumbled across many artists this way by looking at all of the new Electronic releases each week on iTunes.

I’m excited about sites and services like Soundcloud, they offer the community aspect and interaction that is lacking on Spotify.

Thanks for your time, Matt.  I’m looking forward to your third album!


Photos by Northern Kind. WIRED: Sleeve by Edward Hann.