The music publisher Tunecore recently sent me a reminder email to renew an album by my project Boron for another year. I had signed up with the service to see how publishing the album to streaming services (Spotify, Mog, etc.) and online stores would impact the music’s exposure. Musicians, and all creatives, expend a lot of energy pursuing exposure. Even though the label Field Hymns had released the digital-only record, part of me wanted the further legitimacy of being on iTunes and everywhere else.
The initial fee for signing up with Tunecore was $50, with a $50 per album per year fee. As you can see from the screenshot below, which reveals that I made 57 cents in the past year from over 100 streams, my bid for exposure cost me 99 dollars and 43 cents. Had each of those streams been a 99 cent download, I would’ve broken even. As you may have noticed, the more streams there were in a given month, the lower the value per stream. This may be due to royalties varying service to service–it’s not worth investigating, I would be losing more money by spending time on it.
The abysmal payout of internet sales to artists, the difficulty of making a living as a musician, oversaturation, all of this has been well covered. The question to me is: what is the value of exposure to a musician? Does “exposure” actually mean “revenue”, is it another euphemism in an army of words we Americans use to merely signify “money”? What is the value of exposure to me specifically? Because I don’t hope to make a living from Boron and because Boron isn’t a touring act, exposure has more of an ego value and a social value. After a few months of solitarily producing a record, putting it out to friends and beyond is an attempt to restore the social function to the process, and add the music to the cultural dialogue.
Getting my music on the streaming service I use, Mog.com, was the initial reason for using Tunecore. I had rosy visions of someone playing Cabaret Voltaire or The Knife and then Boron being played as a related artist, a cheap way to become part of the pantheon and spread the Boron news via the internet’s passive word of mouth. (Before this could happen there was the small matter of figuring out why Mog and/or Tunecore had not posted the first four of 19 album tracks on Mog. After three months of emailing support and 6 months into the 12 month contract, the tracks were restored and the album no longer “started” with a short, atypical piece that’s inaudible on laptop speakers.)
One thing that’s clear is that, without becoming a live act with physical releases, the value of being on online stores and streaming services is limited, both monetarily and socially. I was about to write that there is no point in making music that simply gets played by someone alone in their room and doesn’t result in some sort of social interaction. This is obviously not only how things work now but shines a light on how the outdated my notions of a “social interaction” are. It used to be that a message left on an answering machine served as a reminder and catalyst for a future social interaction, and was not itself an interaction. Since you couldn’t speak with the person, you talked at their answering machine.
Now messages of all formats, personal and impersonal (email vs. FB post), statement or conversation are considered social. “Social” in fact seems to be shorthand for anything whatsoever that’s interactive. Clicking on a banner ad that has been targeted to you on a social network somehow falls in the same class of phenomena as having coffee with someone, at least in the eyes of marketers. Looking at a billboard is not social, but “looking behind the scenes to see how Audi shot their latest commercial” is.
What’s particularly unsatisfying about the one-way “interactions” of social media is the lack of feedback, the feeling that energy expended outward to others never returns, or in a very diminished form at least. (Maybe by “social media” in this case I mean posting your music or art online, music being the original medium that is social.) Although I never got the feedback, the Boron tracks were listened to over 100 times. This should be gratifying and is, in some faint, abstract way. Apart from the quantity of streams, whether 100 or 10,000, it reveals the pattern that information on the internet takes as it spreads, which is like a tree or root system. Perhaps it will become more circular, more exchange than spread. Perhaps this pattern at a certain point doubles back on itself, curves back around to the person who planted the seed so that it can touch and change that person. Maybe it just needs to get bigger for that to happen.