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!

Links:

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

  • JB

    Always interesting to see small artists act in the same way as the big ones (Dylan, Rammstein etc).

    They have to wake up and realize that a whole new world of music fans don’t want CDs. Hell, lots of people don’t even want downloads either.

    It’s also a bit sad to see the fake Lady Gaga story influence how artists view Spotify. Of course with such negative attitudes they will never find Spotify to be a useful marketing tool. I mean, why would a band want more people to discover them?

    Maybe you should inform Northern Kind that pissing off their new fans by adding an album to Spotify several months too late isn’t such a great idea. Sorry for my rant, but I just can’t understand why the Spotify idea is so darn hard to grasp for certain artists….

  • Matt

    JB

    Can you explain to me then why I’ve not seen a penny from Spotify since releasing last September, yet I’m getting royalties from iTunes from the same period?

    Neither of these services are getting any promotion except via our websites.

    I also doubt that if we were signed and had a decent marketing budget we still wouldn’t see any royalties for actual record sales. Where signed artists make their money is through publishing and playing live. Both of those revenue streams rely on airplay and a fan base which require serious marketing budgets which I’m afraid we don’t have. Signed artists don’t care how people hear their music as long as it’s being played and generating interest.

    In the news today U2 earned £71 Million in 2009 from playing live just in the US promoting an album that would have earned them about £4M from after costs of recording, promoting are deducted. As artists they don’t really care how people hear their music so long as people come to see them live, buy merchandise and get they radio play. For them Spotify works.

    We have not made a single penny from playing live, in fact we have lost money. For me it’s simple. We’ve made 2000 copies of each of our albums. We’ve sold out of our fist album and probably will do the same with WIRED in the next few months. So that is 4000 people who will have gladly purchased our album.

    For each full album that gets downloaded from iTunes we receive £3.91, the amount of downloads are increasing each quarter and we get full stats including location, time date etc. We can cross reference peaks in these stats with when our albums get reviewed etc.

    If I’m incorrect about the GaGa story then can you explain to me how many plays it takes to earn money from Spotify, because as an artist on there it’s not clear, and I have yet to have this explained to me.

    There is no way for us to organically grow our fan base on Spotify yet I receive regular emails from people who find us on iTunes, I always make a point of asking how people heard of us, so far no-one has yet contacted me saying they stumbled across us on Spotify.

    My point is, Spotify will never work for unsigned independent like ourselves, unless we want to give away our music for free, and whilst our only revenue stream so far is selling our CD’s and from iTunes that will not change.

    Matt

  • Very interesting review and comment Matt.

    My two cents: First, I heard of your band through Spotify and this blog… so hopefully there would be more Spotify-generated fans of you. Good luck.

    Second, I think Spotify should enhance their browsing feature dynamically. Playlists sharing is great and fun, but why not do something like the interface of iTunes Store so that users can browse artists/albums by genre and releasing dates? Why not give indie artists more chance to promote their own music to Spotify’s user base, while all these music is just one click away?

    I think Spotify has great potential to be the Youtube of music, right now the content is fantastic, but they need to do more to spread the word.

  • JB

    Matt, just a basic question: since your whole approach to radio seems to be revenue-related, are you also equally negative about getting played on regular radio? I assume you do know that Spotify pays much better (due to being on demand)?

    If you haven’t received any money yet, maybe that’s something you should ask DittoMusic about? As far as I know Spotify won’t send checks directly to the artists. If you have any questions, you could also ask content(at)spotify.com

    I can also inform you that your album was added to Spotify in November. That’s when I wrote about you on my blog. http://spotinews.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/northern-kind-wired/

    I also notice that you have failed to understand the power of social marketing in Spotify. If a popular dude like Afront features you in a playlist your name can spread very quickly. With a bit of luck you can have 1000 more listeners in a very short time. It’s true that Spotify doesn’t have the Myspace ability to spam the “fans” with updates etc, but that doesn’t mean Spotify is completely useless.

    Still, though, my guess is that more social features should arrive to Spotify this year…

    For more about the Gaga story see: http://www.stevelawson.net/2009/11/if-spotify-is-the-new-radio-the-artists-are-winning/

    It is also possible to buy mp3s in Spotify via 7digital. But not from your album since you limited yourselves to iTunes only…

    I also see that you have a deal with iTunes that most artists would dream of having. Good for you. But I still can’t understand why staying out of the best digital streaming service ever created would be GOOD for you in any way. You will still sell your albums, right? And as long as people listen to your music and Spotify grows, your small revenue will increase.

    To this date I haven’t heard of one small indie artists making a living out of regular radio plays ONLY so why should that flawed way of thinking apply to digital streaming?

  • amanda

    By only having your music on itunes you’re limiting yourself – not everyone has an itunes account ya know.

    As well as spotify you could have music available to napster/we7 who also have mp3s available to buy.

  • Will

    If you make £75 per hour in your regular 9-5 jobs then you’re going to find it *very* difficult to make the switch from working full time to making music full time.

    Unless that 800 hour figure is multiplied by the number of band members to make the £60K figure – which would mean you all spent 100 days at 8 hours a day writing & recording 1 album.

    Maybe the key to financial success in all this is to drastically reduce that figure? I struggle to see how you maintained 9-5 jobs whilst putting those kind of hours into the recording / writing process. Especially considering the release dates for your albums are Sep 07 and Apr 09.

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