Think Artists Don't Make Anything Off Music Sales? These Graphs Prove You Wrong

Physical and digital music sales

The recording industry finally tapped the pause button on its decade-long funeral march this week, when it reported that global music sales rose 0.3 percent in 2012 -- the first increase this century, as you can see from the Quartz graph above. As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote yesterday, the labels can thank the growth of digital downloads and streaming subscriptions outside the United States, as well as a worldwide crackdown on piracy. 

Another group that should be thankful are musicians and the people who care about them. When we talk about the post-Napster collapse of the music industry, it sometimes gets lost that -- aside from the horror stories of labels screwing over artists -- royalty checks really do make up an important chunk of income for the people who create the music we love. And no, I'm not just talking about superstar acts like Metallica that get in a huff when fans download their work.

Last month, Northwestern University law professor Peter DiCola released the results of a fascinating survey that tried to discern exactly how much income most working musicians make off of people actually paying for their recordings (or in some cases, their compositions). His very broad answer was between 12 and 22 percent, depending on whether you counted pay from session playing (shown as "mixed" below). If that doesn't sound like real money to you, consider how you'd react if your boss suddenly said you were getting a 10 percent pay cut tomorrow. 

DiCola_Copyright_Related_Income.PNG

DiCola's study isn't perfect. It analyzes answers from roughly 5,300 musicians who volunteered for the survey, meaning it lacked the element of random sampling that most social science work strives for. The participants were overwhelmingly white (88 percent), male (70 percent), and old (the largest demographic was 50-to-59-year-olds). Almost 35 percent were classical musicians, and another 16 percent were jazz artists. In short, this isn't going to offer a crystal clear financial portrait of your up-and-coming Pitchfork darling. 

Nonetheless, the results do offer insight into how workaday guitarists, saxophonists, singers, songwriters, and timpani players -- 42 percent of the group earned all of their income from music-related work -- earn a living. And music sales (or streams) are usually a small but by no means insignificant piece of the picture.

They seem to be most important for both the highest- and lowest-earning artists. The graph below breaks the study's participants into income brackets based on how much they make from music specifically, with 1 percenters earning about $330,000 a year, median earners taking in 49,500, and the bottom group making under $4,500. Composition and songwriting royalties, in black, and recording royalties, the bold black and white stripes, make up close to 10 percent or more for every income group. It's the middle 40 percent that appears to rely on them least.   

DiCola_Revenue_Streams_by_Income.PNG

If you add add in session work -- a slightly muddled category which includes studio recording and live playing -- the portion of income tied directly to music sales gets close to 20 percent or more across the board. Most musicians still make the majority of their money off teaching, live shows, merchandise, and (especially for the classical folks) salaries. 

DiCola also breaks the survey down by genre, to try and separate out the classical artists from, say, the bar bands. As you see, recording is most important for the rock and pop crowd, as well as composers and songwriters. That should make intuitive sense -- laying down guitar on a Ke$ha album is going to be a lot more lucrative than playing along with Chris Lightcap. It also means the artists most Americans listen to probably rely disproportionately on recorded output. 

DiCola_Revenue_Streams_Genre.PNG

Will more revenue for the industry eventually mean bigger checks for musicians? That's far from clear at this point. The early deals labels have struck with streaming services like Spotify, for instance, haven't paid off well for artists, and their growth at the expense of digital downloads or CDs (yes, they still exist) could cut deeper into musicians' livelihoods. But the broader point to remember is this: How you get your music, and what you pay for it, really does matter to the people who make it. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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