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The State of the Middle Class Musician

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Today’s memo is about a group of artists who wish they earned more from streaming—the middle-class musician. This group of artists often earns less from recorded music than they did in the CD era, but do they earn less overall? Why do venture-backed startups struggle to serve this group? And what is the best solution?

I broke it all on on this week’s podcast with MIDiA Research’s Tati Cirisano. Here are a few highlights.

the state of the middle-class musician

The “middle-class musician” is a lightning rod topic. Many companies aim to serve this group, yet few do it well. Streaming has flipped their world upside-down, but thanks to streaming, this group has more options than ever to make a living.

In America, I define a middle-class musician as an artist who reliably takes home $50,000 – $150,000 per year.

In the CD era, a solo artist was “middle-class” if they sold 20,000 copies of a $20 album annually. If the artist took home $4 from every copy sold, that’s $80,000. That artist also earned income from other sources, but album sales were the majority.

Comparing that $80,000 number solely to Spotify streams (which often happens!) is tempting but incomplete. Spotify only accounts for a portion of recorded music revenue, and most artists today earn most of their income from other business lines. It’s best practice to compare both top-line numbers.

But even if we do that, middle-class musicians still face an uphill battle today.

selling ownership, not access

In a 2020 Fast Company interview, Pandora founder Tim Westergren shared his struggles to serve the middle class:

“When I founded Pandora, the purpose of it was to build a discovery engine for lesser-known musicians. I wouldn’t say we lost our way, but we got sucked into the music industrial complex vortex.”

For Westergren, that “vortex” was the inertia to serve the most successful artists in the world. That’s the same inertia that many music tech startups today face if their goal is to serve middle-class artists too. The streaming era has allowed their businesses to exist. Still, the underlying dependency on streaming pushes them to serve the most streamed artists possible, limit customer service costs on less profitable customers, and build a business with consistent revenue.

Streaming is a game of scale, access, and recurring revenue. Scale is great for superstar artists (and pro rata payout models), but smaller artists struggle to earn enough—especially if they are signed to labels and publishing companies. Plus, payouts don’t happen unless fans consume your music and you can only stream one song at a time. And while recurring revenue is great for investors and shareholders, it can limit consumer transactions that benefit middle-class musicians.

Middle-class musicians still need streaming, but they also need what streaming can’t offer—niche, ownership, and product sales.

These artists need to spend time in circles with people more likely to be their true fans. The online and real worlds have more corners than ever. Which ones are most aligned with the middle-class artist’s fanbase?

The ownership these artists need to offer is not necessarily music rights ownership (although that helps) but ownership instead of access. CD sales allowed fans to own the product they buy, like merch, vinyl, or other items. They are more about self-expression than utility. It’s a product sale that lets artists take home several dollars from each transaction. If fans want to go deep into an artist’s available products, make an impulse buy, or get multiple items at once, they can do all that too. There’s risk in treating fans like ATMs, but many middle-class artists have built a consumer surplus with fans without going overboard.

Touring is a huge income stream for all artists, but like streaming, a concert ticket grants fans access, not ownership. The opportunity cost to attend a show is higher than ever. Most fans only attend a few shows annually, and the post-pandemic data shows that touring is more subject to the power law than ever before.

The best solution is several solutions

One of the most successful companies that served middle-class artists is Bandcamp. The company is the antithesis of the streaming era. It was a profitable company for a decade until its 2022 acquisition by Epic Games. It allows fans to buy products at or above a particular price threshold for each item, and eliminates its 15% transaction fees once a month on Bandcamp Fridays. It offers niche, fan ownership, and product sales.

Bandcamp is rare. It stopped raising money years ago, focused on profitability, and likely left money on the table. But middle-class musicians don’t need to rely solely on Bandcamp, Spotify, concert promoters, or solo distributors. Their take-home pay is likely from several revenue services.

It’s more work for the artist to manage, and the revenue mix likely shifts year to year, but there’s more flexibility in what success looks like.

A middle-class artist can take home $100,000 even if they only take home $10,000 from Spotify. They could earn $40,000 from all recorded music services and $60,000 from touring. They could also own their music rights, focus solely on music revenue, and only participate in other revenue streams when they want to.

If you have any middle-class revenue breakdowns, please share.

In the podcast episode we recorded on this topic, Tati and I also talked about:

– why middle-class creators outside of music also struggle
– how Kevin Kelly’s 100 True Fans Theory applies
– good data vs bad data on artist success in streaming

Listen here.

TRANSCRIPTION

Trapital #TatiCirisano (middle class) Full Audio

[00:00:00] Tati Cirisano: If an artist is trying to sell them something for 300 just so that they make 50 or whatever it is that translates to the fan as them having to spend so much money just to prove that they’re a fan of the artist.

So we don’t want to. harvest people’s fandom, we want to cultivate it. And the current industry makes it hard to fulfill that promise.

[00:00:17] Dan Runcie Audio Intro: Hey, welcome to the Trapital Podcast. I’m your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. This podcast is your place to gain insights from the executives in music, media, entertainment, and more who are taking hip hop culture to the next level.

[00:00:44] Dan Runcie Guest Intro: Today’s episode is about the state of the middle class artists. It’s a very different world than it was 20, 25 years ago. If you talk to artists back then, who are now frustrated with the current model, they’ll tell you that the nineties and the eighties were a great time for middle class artists. You could sell a few tens of thousands of CDs per year.

You could still bring home enough for you and your band and others to earn a living off of that. But those economics get a lot harder in the streaming era where you need millions of streams, if not more. Just to make that same revenue that you did 25 years ago. But because of the streaming era that we’re in now, it’s also opened up many more opportunities for different revenue streams, both in real life and through digital communities and online marketplaces and things like that.

So with all of that change, all that dynamic. Where does that leave us? So for today’s episode, I’m joined by Tati Sirisano. She’s dug into this topic specifically with some of her work at Media Research and a lot of the analysis she’s done on fandom. So where are we with middle class musicians? What does it mean to be a middle class musicians?

And for all of the platforms out there that are aiming to serve middle class musicians, who’s actually doing it well? Let’s dive in.

[00:02:00] Dan Runcie: Today’s episode is all about the middle class musician. This is a group of artists that is often talked about in the industry from all of the companies, all of the services that are trying to help artists, but how many of them are actually serving artists and doing it in a meaningful way? And I’m here to talk about it with someone who’s talked about and read about this topic herself, Tati Cirisano, welcome back to the pod.

[00:02:26] Tati Cirisano: Thanks, Dan. I’m excited. I love a thorny topic and there are many thorns to this one. A lot of contradictions, a lot of really, I don’t know, interesting viewpoints. So I’m excited to get into it. 

[00:02:39] Dan Runcie: So first let’s define middle class musician. When you hear the term, when you use the term yourself. What are you referring to? How do you define that group?

[00:02:49] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. Well, it’s, funny because if you think about a middle class musician as someone who’s earning a sustainable living wage from their music, there’s very few artists as we know, that actually do that. Like some of the successful, you know, relatively well-known artists that we listen to might not even fit into that description.

so I think it is, you know, a pretty small group. but that’s what I would define it as, I guess if we’re being technical about it, is it’s someone who is able to actually, earn a full-time living from their music career. And, when we look at, you know, at media, we do a lot of creator surveys. and when we look at, you know, how many creators fit into that.

when we did our last creator survey in the UK and the US, we got, about 19% of everyone who filled out. Our survey was actually doing it full time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making a living wage, but that means that this is, you know, what they’re doing for, you know, their main career and the average income was about $46, 000. So that’s kind of what I see when I think of the term, I guess. 

[00:03:59] Dan Runcie: Yeah, I think the sweet spot. I’ve thought about that as the floor to 50, 000 that you are earning from your music related activities. And I say that specifically because I think this is where some of the difference of the term and its interpretation is for years, people used to look at that number specifically think about it in terms of what is derived specifically from your music revenue.

You being able to sell CDs, sell physical albums. How much of it comes from there today? Obviously, the economics are flipped and it is. Quite challenging for artists, especially if you don’t own the rights to your music to be able to earn that level of money stand alone from CD sales, unless you’re complimenting it with another revenue source.

So that’s a bit that’s why I mentioned music related things, because artists, at least now do make more from touring and we’ll get into that a bit more. They also have merch and other things that they still did have in. The nineties and other eras before, but some of these things have expanded and there’s now all of these digital, so you have the IRL experiences, the IRL experiences too, and if that can combine and you’re making, let’s say at least $50,000 in profit, I would say so take home expenses of, or take home revenue of what you actually have versus up to let’s say $150,000.

That’s how I’ve defined middle class musician. If you’re earning more than that, then you’re definitely at that closer to that tip of the spear. I don’t know if the numbers would exactly put you in, let’s say the 1%. I think there might be even a little bit of gap below that, but that’s how I’ve roughly looked at it.

So even though I know that. Every year, Spotify has its breakdown on how many artists catalogs generate this certain amount. And the math there is roughly been okay. You can multiply that number by 4 and that can give you an idea of what the total recorded music revenue is. That’s still only 1 source that doesn’t include all the other sources that are there.

So there’s a bunch of ways. And I think a lot of people out there do feel like you should be able to be a middle class musician. If you’re earning solely from the music recording itself, but I do like to think of it a bit more broadly and that’s how I’ve defined it

[00:06:19] Tati Cirisano: No, definitely. I realized that I answered that question thinking about it that way without even realizing it because it’s so common now that I mean, I think earning a full time living from your music alone and not these other things, all these other things around it is nearly impossible for a lot of today’s artists. And when we look at, you know, in the research. Most of these artists are learning from a really fragmented mix of income streams, right? There isn’t just like one thing that is their main source of income. They tend to have a hand in all these different places from, education to sync to performing, producing for other artists and things like that.

So we hear a lot. There’s this need to kind of have all the wheels spinning all the time. And usually the sources of income that, are maybe more important are the ones that actually are not about your music itself. So that’s a really good, that’s a really important distinction to make for sure. 

[00:07:14] Dan Runcie: Because I think what you’re calling out and it’s true is that what people enjoyed about the CD era was that there was 1 item that you could purchase in that 10 to 20 dollar range and that benefited. Those artists who could then get at least, let’s say, 4 to 5 for every 20 CD that’s sold. They then keep that and then that you just do the math on that even if you’re splitting that up amongst 4 band members, there’s still a lot there and technology has this pattern of making it more advantageous for the people who are already on top, not necessarily the people that are trying to get there. And I think this is some of the challenges that certain startups in the space have had, because several of them have tried to serve this middle class audience with the belief that technology does connect us and technology does do all those things, but we’ve seen it more likely or not just the way that things have been set up so far and streaming, but also in other aspects of the creator economy and people making a living off of the internet, one way or another, it does tend to benefit those that do happen to be the most successful, so that’s why I think you calling out the way things are, whether it’s people selling merch or people selling vinyl or people selling unique items, or even back in the NFT phase where people were selling more of those is unique items or concert tickets more broadly that gets you back to the opportunity to compensate the quote unquote, middle class artists more because it’s a fan having that 1 to 1 relationship where they’re spending the high and they’re spending their money on the high end product to get whatever it is in a way.

That’s very different from getting some pro rata distribution of their 1099 monthly subscription to 1 of the streaming services.

[00:09:05] Tati Cirisano: Yeah, no, and I think in music, especially we’ve really seen this, like the thousand true fans theory, kind of gained popularity over the past year or two years and really have to run up against streaming economics where scale is the only thing that matters. So I think, you know, if you were selling CDs in the nineties and you had a really small, but dedicated fan base, you could earn money off of that.

you could make a decent living off of that. but now there aren’t that many ways to actually, monetize a core fan base around the music itself. I mean, you’re not doing that on streaming. so I think, you know, streaming definitely delivered on the promise of. allowing more artists to be heard, but it the income side of that didn’t really catch up by opening the door to everyone. It just gave way to so much oversaturation and so much fragmentation that, it kind of breaks the pro rata streaming model. 

[00:09:57] Dan Runcie: And I think that most people listening to this probably do generally understand why it’s hard to do that with streaming. You literally need millions of streams per month in order to be able to reach those thresholds. And that’s just very hard to do. However, if we also look at the platforms that are intended to be more creator friendly or more independent. Artist friendly or more middle class musician friendly, even those still struggle to hit those numbers. One of the highly publicized numbers from Patreon, of course, this is now looking at all creators, not necessarily musicians, but only 2% of the creators that use Patreon are earning more than 50, 000 annually from their Patreon. So again, just to make sure that we’re covering all the bases, not all of the money that a middle class musician needs to make needs to come from Patreon in order to be a middle class musician. But it’s another highlight where even though now we’re taking away the streaming dynamic, you now have this product where most of the people are selling something on Patreon for one, five, 10 per month. It still doesn’t quite. Offer that opportunity. So what do you think the disconnect is there? Because I know patrons 1 example, but there’s other similar platforms that offer those types of things, but haven’t quite been able to get 

[00:11:23] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. I mean, I think that it all kind of goes back to with all of these platforms that so long as streaming economics are only benefiting superstars. We can’t really serve the middle class musician because even if those artists are earning a decent amount of money by, you know, making cameo videos for their fans or having some subscribers on Patreon, they’re still forced to monetize everything around the music rather than the music itself.

They still aren’t really able to fully capitalize on monetizing core fandom. Even as it’s been interesting, like even as the industry, I think, has really started to galvanize around this idea of monetizing fandom and how important it is, especially in how fragmented listenership is today to not just focus on building these mass passive audiences, but focus on a core fan base.

but again, that’s running up directly against streaming economics, which is part of the reason why there’s now finally a call, I think, from all sides of the industry to change things. But I think that I really feel like the more I think about it, I just come back to that as long as the ways the solutions that we’re giving to these so called middle class musicians are about monetizing things around their music, we’re still never really realizing the full potential of what they could do by monetizing their fan base around the music.

Maybe that’s like a simplistic answer, but I just, I just keep

coming back to that.

[00:12:50] Dan Runcie: Yeah. And I think 1 of the challenges with tools like Patreon and others is that. They’re still similar to the streaming services selling a monthly subscription product and it’s quite incentivized to be able to do that because they are SAS companies. They’re trying to sell subscriptions companies that have strong MRR do get better valuations. And these are companies that are ultimately trying to exit. And we saw a company like Patreon, I believe the valuation hit 4 billion in the peak of the pandemic, just when everyone was going wild about the creator economy. And we’ve since seen that and many others come back down to earth.

But the thing is a lot of those platforms it’s based on that take rate and the take rate, even though I think the take rate for a platform like a Patreon may have been relatively low. It still incentivizes the power law to take over where those platforms are going to succeed based on having a few of those power users in that 2% that make up over 60, 70% of the revenue, if not more.

And then you run into the same dynamic that you have on Spotify, where you see a similar dynamic there in terms of it’s that small 1% of the people on top that make up everything. And whenever you have that type of dynamic, it’s hard to shake that. And I think, especially given when you add on to it, any of these new platforms that do end up taking venture capital, there are incentives to have certain types of business models and certain types of approaches. So, I do think that that’s an aspect. And then also just the fact that it is limiting itself to that 1 type of subscription that 1 time you’re paying that artist or person on a regular basis and it’s hard to do that compared to, let’s say, the way it was when you’re buying CDs, when you could go to Sam Gooding, you could buy 10 CDs if you want, you could buy one CD if you want, and I think that’s where merch and vinyl and even platforms like Bandcamp and others get a bit more to that thing, where you’re not limited on the quantity of how much you can buy from the thing, and it does allow a bit more of that individual transaction, which is what I think that Middle class musicians, artists really need in order to succeed. How can you make it infinite that someone can buy more of your stuff?

[00:15:15] Tati Cirisano: Right, right. And I think in addition to all of this, there’s just these like underlying dynamics of how fragmented the market is, how competitive, the entertainment landscape is, how, you know, streaming has sort of inadvertently encouraged listeners to be a bit more passive, I think, over the past 10 years.

So we’re now in this situation where even if you decide as an artist to, you know, build this core fan base and you have all the right tools to monetize it, it’s still just really, really hard to break through and, gather, you know, enough people around your music and sustain their attention and get them to be active fans. Like I think, the competitiveness and the fragmented nature of the market is just underlying all of this. 

[00:16:05] Dan Runcie: So let’s actually dig into that with the, Kevin Kelly’s a thousand true fans theory that you mentioned. What do you think is the thing that’s making that difficult? I know you mentioned the competitive piece, so maybe let’s get into some of the specifics because in theory. If you were using a service like a Patreon or whatever, if you combine all of these things, can you have a thousand people paying you eight, nine dollars a month? And then that equals your a hundred thousand dollars like what is making that difficult? Like how big of an artist do you need to be for that to actually be a reality?

[00:16:39] Tati Cirisano: Well, right. That’s the thing is that there’s just so much music out there and people are spreading their listening across more artists, more songs than ever. I think it’s really hard to actually get a meaningful number of subscribers for something like that. And also people that are going to stick around. I think another thing with the subscription, like the artists for artists, specific subscriptions, the monthly cycle doesn’t really align with the pace of consumption and fandom where, people are. I think it’s natural that you’re fandom of an artist rises and falls over time as you know, a new artist captures your attention or something else is happening in your life or whatever, but I think that pace is accelerating and it might happen in two weeks.

Whereas it used to happen in two months or six months. So I just think it’s, really hard to actually galvanize people around a monthly subscription, but something else that’s interesting that actually comes from our recent research and we have a report coming out on this. soon. Is that when we ask people what they actually want from artist specific subscriptions, the things that come out on top are not what you expect and aren’t what most artists are going for.

So I think most artists have been doing, you know, behind the scenes content or I’ll hop on and do a Q&A with you or you get access to a community of other fans and those things actually come out towards the bottom. What comes out on top is just exclusive access to music, being able to hear music that nobody else can hear or being able to hear it early and same thing for merchandise and same thing for tickets.

So fans already have too much content out there that they have access to. They don’t necessarily want to pay for more. And so instead, what they really want is just to get what they’re already enjoying faster or before everyone else, or in a way that is exclusive to them. So yeah, I have a lot of thoughts as you can see on like subscriptions specifically.

 But I think that, you know. It’s ironic because the thousand true fans theory model is what a lot of artists need these days because it is in some ways a way to cut through the fragmentation is building a core fan base, making really deep, long lasting connections. But it’s also really just really hard to do that in today’s landscape. 

[00:18:57] Dan Runcie: Why do you think there’s a disconnect there? I mean, based on the insights that you’re sharing, why couldn’t an artist be like, okay, well, if that’s what the fans want, then why not give them the exclusive access? Why are artists leading towards behind the scenes.

[00:19:11] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. I mean, I think that I don’t blame them because I think social media has kind of taught artists to just give more content all the time. And there’s probably this assumption that that’s what you need to capture attention. I think there’s also a long history of streaming services and labels being uncomfortable with like exclusive content.

I mean, I think that’s why we’re at a point these days where all streaming services have the same catalogs. So I think in the past, maybe it’s been hard to justify that type of like, like windowing like remember when windowing kind of had a moment and then it went away. So I don’t know, maybe it’s time to reconsider that. And maybe the market would be a bit more open to that idea now. So artists, if you’re listening to this try it out.

[00:20:00] Dan Runcie: Right? Because you would like to think in theory that if an artist is independent, it’s their choice on what they want to do independently versus not. But we also know it’s very tough for an independent artist to even reach these levels to be able to get there, right? And I think this gives this is a good segue into another piece of the discussion, which is a lot of the music distribution services that have popped up and got in a lot more funding recently are specifically trying to be a alternative to the financing that record labels offer, whether you look at a company like a beet bread or into fire stem or United masters, these companies are offering advances in exchange for this. And sometimes the advances can start quite small, but still, at least on most of them, I think there’s some minimum threshold you need on, let’s say, a Spotify to have 10, 000 monthly listeners on the service, and even that, while it may not seem like a lot compared to the 1% of superstar artists, it still could be a lot, especially if you look at that compared to a lot of the artists that are these quote unquote, middle class artists that we’re talking about. There’s just such a divide where, because there’s so much noise out there, you can feel like there is, it can be quite difficult to even take full advantage of those services because of the levels you need to be in order to get there. 

And I feel with that, it’s probably a good chance for us to talk about touring because I think that’s the other piece. We know that for a lot of artists now, let’s say, whether it’s, you know, depending on the artists, it could be, you know, as low as 30, but as high as 70% or even more of their revenue that comes directly from touring and especially since the economics of the current cycle that we’re in have flipped where artists no longer, like, not everything is no longer the loss of leader in order to sell more CDs streaming. And other things are the thing that’s done to sell more tour tickets. And that’s essentially what we’re getting back to you, right? How do you get fans to buy that 1 thing? But we’re seeing that touring as well just like streaming, just like Patreon, just like any of these other things, even though they have a slightly different business model, it all becomes subject to the power law and how demand looks at it. Because you look at the superstars at the top level, we’re talking about how Taylor Swift and maybe Beyonce are going to have the first billion dollar tours ever.

And meanwhile, the artists that are in this quote, unquote, middle class artists bucket, many of them are struggling to sell out shows. Even the artists who are stars, but not quite superstars are canceling tours left and right. It’s very tough to be able to do that. And that’s another piece there because I feel like for years, that was always the retort you would hear. Well, they could make money on tour. Well, they could do this. Well, that’s becoming a tougher thing for artists that aren’t performing in front of thousands, several thousands of people on a regular basis.

[00:22:56] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. I mean, they’re struggling to sell out tours and they’re also struggling to finance them to begin with. I mean, there’ve been so many artists that canceled before their tours even really got started selling tickets because they said, I crunched the numbers and I just can’t afford this. So even if you are an artist that has demand for your shows, it can be really hard to, actually make touring sustainable for yourself.

[00:23:21] Dan Runcie: Agreed, and maybe just to look at some rough numbers here, because I think it would be helpful. I pulled up, Spotify’s loud and clear that they have their breakdown on the number of artists that are earning certain things and if we do some ballpark math here, so they said in 2022, there were 91, 000 artists that had catalogs that were generating at least 5, 000 dollars a year. And if you multiply that by 4, accounting for other streaming services, accounting for other recorded revenue streams, that then brings you to 20, 000 dollars. A few things to keep in mind, though, this doesn’t include publishing. This doesn’t include other things as well. That could also increase the revenue for artists, but it also is just about the artist catalog generated.

So it doesn’t Account for record label deals and things like that. So if we were to even take a number like this, and let’s roughly call it 50%, even at that point, you combine that with the, let’s say, they’re making the equivalent on the live side, but on live. The percentage that the promoters and others that you’re partnered with isn’t nearly as high as it is on the recorded revenue side.

So just to add some context for this. I mean, we’re talking about less than 100, 000 people worldwide. And that number may even be generous there because there’s this doesn’t account like record label splits and all those things and so it’s a tough world out there. 

[00:24:52] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. Wait. And can you back that up for so it’s a 90, 000 are earning what? 

[00:24:58] Dan Runcie: Yeah, so according to Spotify’s loud and clear report, 91, 200 artists, those are the number of recording artists whose catalogs generated recording and publishing royalties over 5, 000 alone on Spotify. Yeah, and then Spotify’s ballpark is that if you multiply that number by 4, that gives you all of the revenue streams overall. So you could use that to say 20, 000.

[00:25:25] Tati Cirisano: Right. Right. Yeah. No, and as we know, that does, like you said, it does gloss over a lot of nuances. So it’s probably a little bit different and very different, in practice. But I think the other thing talking about touring. and the struggle of a lot of these, you know, middle class artists to sell shows is another unintended consequence of streaming is how song focused the music landscape we live in is now where a lot of artists will have a viral song or they’ll have, you know, a popular song, but not that many people will actually discover the artists beyond that, or become a fan of their wider catalog to the point where they want to buy a ticket.

And I think that that’s what’s driving a lot of these sort of awkward tour cancellations that we’ve seen where an artist may think, or their team may think, based on the success of a couple of songs, they have a big enough fan base to sell tour tickets, and they might not. So I think the metrics for touring are getting a lot murkier. 

[00:26:25] Dan Runcie: This is why what’s happening right now with as it relates to socials, streaming and touring data, the more data has actually made people worse at the jobs, I think, to some extent. And I mean, I can’t say that factually, I would need to look at some data to truly be able to prove that. But I do question whether or not it is helped in a lot of ways, Because of everyone is programmed to algorithms in the 3rd way.

You could think that you’re seeing someone everywhere. So let’s just use I spice as an example. If you feel like, okay, in the circles of every time you open your phone, you see, I spice this, you see, I spice that you think that I spice could probably sell Madison square garden based on just what you may perceive to be people that are really in the industry.

Probably know that that isn’t the case. But even for those people in the industry that are making decisions, there could still be that disconnect to your point. And I think just going back again to the point you made earlier about the whole thousand true fans thing. That’s what I think makes that tough because you brought up the point earlier about why, yeah, it’s hard to have a recurring purchase with anything, especially when it’s hard for anyone to capture the attention.

I think recurring purchases can make sense for products like Netflix or Spotify, when they are the interface between all of these other products that we see on a regular basis, at least from a mass consumer perspective. And I know that in investing and finance and other circles, or even in music, there definitely trade publications out there that could justify it because it is offering education related information.

But I think that again, how can you get back to that a 100 dollars from 1000 people looking more like. An actual 1 time purchase thing, or 1 time purchase things that you’re purchasing. But again, even if you’re trying to get someone to purchase 1 t shirt, 1 concert ticket, 2 albums, this, that, and all of those things net your earnings become, a hundred dollars per fan, that’s still a lot. Like, how can you do all that and capture the attention you have because you could be asking someone to spend $300 just so that nets out to you, to the artist as $100 and at least the last I see, you know, it’s even tailoring Beyonce may not, aren’t netting that on the average ticket sale for their concerts because of the resellers and because of, you know, various fees and just all the other people involved. It’s very tough to get there.

[00:28:49] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. No. And the other thing that we don’t want to do is just, you know, squeeze every dollar that we can out of the fans. Like when you use that example of the fan doesn’t realize like what, you know, how the money trickles or doesn’t trickle back down to the artist. If an artist is trying to sell them something for 300 just so that they make 50 or whatever it is that translates to the fan as them having to spend so much money just to prove that they’re a fan of the artist.

So I think that’s the other side to this is we don’t want to. harvest people’s fandom. we want to cultivate it. And yeah, the current industry makes it hard hard to fulfill that promise. But the other thing I wanted to bring up before we get deeper into that, another interesting data point, that’s sort of a counterpoint to some of this, which is, so at media, we just released a report in partnership with bands in town where we surveyed their users about their experiences with live music. It’s a great report, I think it’s like one of the, most comprehensive of like post pandemic live audiences that we’ve seen. So just a quick plug, but the data in it, we were interested in understanding, if superstar tours are becoming so expensive, does that mean that audiences are splurging their entire budget for the year for tickets on that, you know, Taylor Swift tour? And then they don’t have anything left to go to the smaller shows that they would normally go to. And our hypothesis was that would be the case, but we actually didn’t see that in the data. We saw two things, one is that the audiences who are going to smaller shows tend to be different from the ones that are like going to these, you know, arena and, stadium tours anyway.

So they’re actually less likely to be bothered by things like rising prices and added fees, because the shows that they’re going to aren’t as impacted by those issues anyway. And then the other, really interesting question we asked was if we gave you a 300 budget for concert tickets for the year, What would you spend it on?

And we gave them four options and nearly half said that they would buy tickets of a few tickets for mid tier artist shows and about a quarter said they’d buy many tickets for many smaller shows. So that’s already 75% of the audience. And then the rest were split up between splurging on like a Taylor Swift ticket or putting the money towards a festival. So when push comes to shove and people are forced to decide where to spend their limited tickets budget, they actually weren’t, the most likely to go for, you know, the superstar shows, which was not what I expected. 

And I don’t know if that has to do. Yeah, I don’t know if that has to do partly with the fragmentation that I’m always talking about. And where I was talking about that, you know, people are actually starting to listen more to these sort of cult stars and not just a handful of big names that people are kind of spreading their listening and these mid tier artists are getting larger fan bases. That could be a part of it. it could just be people being a bit more, you know, pragmatic when they are forced to answer this question in this way. But yeah, I thought that was really interesting.

[00:31:43] Dan Runcie: That makes me think of two things. Let’s go back to the first board, just in terms of the slightly different audience profile of the big splurger versus the several shows. This is anecdotal, but most of the people I know that are frequent concert goers of smaller mid tier, maybe middle class musician artists, or maybe even slightly higher than that. They’re not necessarily posting the shows on Instagram. They’re not necessarily discussing it. It’s almost like part of their regular day or week like, oh, what do you do? Oh yeah. We went to a show on, Thursday at the independent of San Francisco was cool or something like that. Versus if someone’s going to a Taylor Swift or Beyonce show, and I’d even put Coachella and some of these other experiences in there.

You hear about it. It’s as much the experience, the brand of the thing and why taking an international trip to go watch Beyonce’s renaissance tour in Paris or in Amsterdam or doing something similar for a Taylor Swift tickets, or even getting all your friends together to go, you know, have the outfits ready for Coachella. I feel like there’s that is almost a very different group. So that felt like at least some anecdotal inferences that feel like they line up with what you’re saying. And I think that’s right. They are 2 very different types of people. The 2nd point, though, I do have to say, I am, I’m a bit surprised by that, because part of me wondered, okay, is there a little bit of potential bias of what someone is projecting of what they want to be versus what they may actually be right? And then just a natural distribution of, you know, how many people in each of those groups from that 1st point, you mentioned. Were the survey group for the 2nd point, but, yeah, it’s 1 of those things where, like, you know, I think, let’s say a movie example for me.

One of the only times I’d went to the movies this past year so far, and I’m someone that normally goes off on one of the only times I went this past year was to, you know, see Barbie and Oppenheimer, you know, like together and stuff. And if you would have asked me in the beginning of the year, oh, how often do I plan to go to the movies this year?

I probably wouldn’t be. Oh, I’m only going to go for the biggest weekend of the year. But like, that’s what I ended up again. I’m just 1 person with an example, but like, that’s what that made think of. 

[00:33:54] Tati Cirisano: You’re absolutely right. Every time we ask a question that is like hypothetical like that, we have to remember that, people will always answer with like their most aspirational self. And maybe people see that and say, Oh, I like to think of myself as, you know, a true artist fan. And I would like to go to more smaller shows or I’m not splurging on the superstar of the festival.

 So I think it does have to be taken with a grain of salt. I think the sample size is big enough. This was like nearly 3000 people and the numbers are pretty. like stark enough that I think it still gives us a sense that the majority of these live music audiences are wanting to go to the, or would prioritize those smaller shows, but you’re absolutely right that every time we ask a question like this, we have to take it with a grain of salt.

[00:34:39] Dan Runcie: Indeed. And 1 thing I do want to tap into as well. You mentioned this back when we were texting back and forth leading up to this. It’s about Pandora. You mentioned how the founder there had built a service, ideally intending to serve the middle class. And I went back and found 1 of the quotes. I’ll read it here. He said, this is 10 Western trend. He said, when I found Pandora, the purpose of it was to build a discovery engine for lesser known musicians. I wouldn’t say we lost our way, but we got sucked into the music industrial complex vortex, which is quite the quote, but I feel like that music industrial complex vortex is probably a few things. One, I think their rights holders discussions and negotiations back and forth with the record labels were quite public in a way that more recent ones haven’t been. So that’s 1 thing. But 2, I think a lot of it stems back to. This whole power law dynamic that we’ve been talking about. So you take the two of those together, you’re partnering with companies that want their 1% of music to rise above the ranks. And it’s in your platform’s best interest from a financial perspective to monetize that piece too, which just adds another layer to it.

[00:35:56] Tati Cirisano: Yeah, no, I think that. All of this is the, you know, second order impacts of streaming that all of the platforms are dealing with Westergen was just the first person to admit it. I don’t think that, you know, most streaming platforms are not going out there and talking about this in such, honest terms. So I think, you know, that quote just the first one to really say it publicly.

[00:36:18] Dan Runcie: Yeah. Yeah. Agreed. And I think with this too, the question I keep coming back to is the sad question that I do ask and wonder is. This a viable business model for a company? There are several companies that have raised money in recent years, on this goal of serving the artist middle class, and I think it is something that often sounds great and compelling as a calling card.

You’re able to show it and share it and pitch decks about how it is this underserved audience, especially if you talk about where most of the revenue is accrued, and you can talk about the long tail, but do you think that this is a viable business model? Or have we seen examples where this has worked in practice where? Yes, a company and to be clear, not even that a company has to do it solely like they can’t serve anyone that is more successful than a middle class musician, but have they done so.

[00:37:15] Tati Cirisano: Yeah, it’s a really good question. So yeah, I was thinking about that too when we were, texting about this over. Does it actually even make sense to focus on this goal of, like, enabling a class of middle class musicians? Because I think sometimes, the very important conversations about making the music business more fair to creators, what gets lost in that is that the goal is not for everyone to be successful because that’s just not the way that any industry works, that anything works, there’s still always going to be a bit of a hierarchy. But we just want to make sure that the odds are not so stacked against creators, that things aren’t so unfair and that it’s not impossible, you know, to make, a living off this.

but I think that for it to work, ideally there needs to be a way or probably monetize music fandom rather than just large audiences. And I think that’s something that. The music industry as a whole is starting to understand. And I think that we might start to see, I mean, we’re already having a lot of conversations about like what the next, streaming business model could look like, like user centric has been tossed out for that.

and this idea of maybe active listenership, if you can determine whether someone is an active fan that, you know, listening might get more royalties than the passive fan. We’re having these conversations. And I think, to your point earlier. Streaming put a cap on what you can spend as a fan. There isn’t any extra thing that you can buy.

If you’re a super fan, everyone is paying 9.99. And there are examples of streaming services that have monetized fandom like if you look at Tencent and NetEase in China, like they earn more of their annual revenue from a small segment of super fans paying extra for features than they do from a way larger base of subscribers.

And that’s a whole other, you know, rabbit hole to go down because I don’t know how that money is actually shaking out in terms of whether it’s still mostly going to the biggest artists or, you know, how much is actually going down to the creators, but I think that, it’s possible to build a streaming model that monetizes not just scale, but also fandom and that could be a really big game changer, for this middle class of artists.

I also think that to do that, we need to recultivate fandom in the first place, because again, we’ve spent the past decade teaching people to listen passively. So we can’t just, you know, like with user centric. You can’t just slap that model on a Spotify because so many of their listeners are passive.

It’s not a place that breeds fandom or encourages people or gives them ways to be more active fans. So there’s a lot of work to do, but I think that these conversations are happening in a way that they haven’t, at least in, you know, so long as I’ve been studying this. So I think that’s at least a good thing that we’re confronting all of these issues. 

[00:40:05] Dan Runcie: Yeah, I think a number of those things and it’s likely 1 of those things where the individual thing itself may not make the huge bump itself, but the collection or the collective of them do help raise the gap, right? So 10 cent for years, tipping and things like that have worked well. And we’ve seen the success there. 1 of the pushbacks you’ve often heard is that, oh, well, western culture isn’t as, you know, into that or into this or into that. And I’m like, well, I mean, do we really know that’s true until you try it? I feel like the past year, all I’ve seen is more and more places where physical locations. I’ve never tipped anyone before turning that square or toast thing over to my direction. And then now they want me to go. Give a 20, 25, 30% tip. And I’m like, excuse me. So granted, I know this is a whole debate now that people have very strong opinions on, but if anything, that shows me that whether or not people may like it or not, there is some aspect of that. So whatever thing like that can be created for artists that taps into that guilt or that shame that gets people to also go along with the tipping, even if they may not want to, I mean, I hate wording it like that because that’s probably just my opinion about how I feel about some of the merchant style tipping that has been introduced recently. But I say that to say that shows that there’s examples of this that have been introduced.

So I think about that on that side and then I think 2 on the, whether it’s user centric streaming and things like that. I do think that whether it’s sound cloud or title, or some of these other companies have shown some of the results. I think we’ll see a few more soon as well. That do show the impact there. And I know that that’s been another contentious thing with the record labels and others, but I do think that in the end, there’s other things that, you know, can still level the playing field for everyone. The thing that I think a lot about is what the physical purchases look like. And we all know that vinyl and other physical formats have continued to increase, but I also feel like that’s a bit subject to the superstar game as well.

I don’t know the answer to this question I’m about to ask, but if I was a middle class artist right now, I’m about to release my album and I wanted to have. A bunch of vinyl that was made for my fan base. Could I have that ready? The first week that my album comes out, could I have that out there knowing all of the supply chain and logistical issues that may still exist with vinyl?

Because last time I checked the record labels and others were getting. Priority and they were more likely to give that priority to the Harry Styles and the Taylor Swift’s and others that did have huge first week sales numbers, largely due to the vinyl that they were able to sell. So, is a middle class musician able to participate in that same way, at least upon the initial onset of their album release? I’m not sure, but things like that just make it easier for them to be able to monetize and capture that moment.

[00:43:09] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. No, I’m, glad that you brought that up. And that reminds me of another thing, because I think you would also ask, like, as any company doing this or has any company done this? Well, and I feel like band camp is worth mentioning here, you know, I think a lot of artists see that as I’ve seen bandcamp as sort of a lifeline throughout a lot of these struggles and something else that’s interesting about it, speaking of the whole tipping thing is. I think most albums or most, if you’re going to band camp and you’re buying a digital version of an album, there’s nothing more of an expression of fandom because what are most of those people are going to do with that? They’re really just doing it to support the artists because they probably already have a streaming subscription.

They can listen to the album somewhere else, they don’t need band camp for it. And I think a lot of artists as well. Put up their music or whatever. Yeah, yeah, when they put up their music on band camp, it’s oftentimes pay what you want. And I remember, back when I was at Billboard, I did a big feature on Bandcamp, and I remember them telling me at the time that, the majority of fans pay more than asking. I don’t know if that’s still true, but that’s a crazy stat! That the majority of fans are willing to pay more than asking when this is a pay what you want to purchase. So, you know, I think that’s an example of this working. and people wanting to support their favorite artists purely to support them and maybe not even really getting, a vinyl album in return cause a lot of times it’s just a digital download, but yeah, I think bandcamp deserves shouting out here. 

[00:44:33] Dan Runcie: They’re a good 1 dimension to, because they stand a bit different in this dynamic of companies that have been raised or that have been started. They didn’t necessarily start. I think that a lot of people have thought of band camp is almost this. Almost a bit of like a public utility or public good for the industry.

I don’t know if that’s always the most fair definition, but I think people say that because it gets into this viability of business model and how long it can scale and things you can do. And I know they’ve since, I believe it was acquired by Epic games at least a couple years ago that that had happened. But I remember leading up to that people had wondered the same thing about band camp and it’s just like you’re saying a company, a platform that offer this opportunity, you want to buy the 1 thing. Great. You want to buy it as many times you want to pay even more for it, they make it easy on the website.

They have band camp Fridays where they don’t take the fee for things like there were things in place to make it happen, but it’s 1 of those things where at the end of the day, I feel like the economics of convenience took over in a lot of ways for where the majority of people sat, but could you still do enough on the platform?

And there definitely were success stories, which were cool to see, but it definitely wasn’t necessarily the norm for all artists. So, when I think about it, collectively, I do think that it’s viable to have a platform and have a business that does serve the middle class musician, and I think that it’s probably more likely to be a platform that either relied on minimal outside funding or didn’t, or was it invested by some of the biggest venture capital firms?

And I say that not in any way against venture capital, but more so that the nature of those investments, they’re trying to get 10 billion dollar exits from people, or they’re trying to get 10Billion dollar exits from the companies they invest in, and they’re not going to get that level of exit unless this is a consumer product.

We’ll talk about a consumer product. This is a consumer product that reaches everyone and can maximize that nth degree, which then makes it subject to the whole power law dynamic that we’re then talking about. So I do think it can work for it. Like I said, whether it’s bootstrapper and minimal funding company, where the economics work out.

And I do think that I forget if, band camp raised or how much they did, but still relatively lean compared to the amount of money that many of the other consumer music, tech companies have raised, 

[00:47:15] Tati Cirisano: For sure. And another point on the business models, because I remember earlier you were mentioning one of the issues is there’s like competing incentives, right? Between streaming platforms and labels and artists. Not everyone wants the same thing, but with Bandcamp’s business model, since they’re taking, since it’s pretty simple, they’re taking a cut of your sales. They only make money when the artist makes money. So there’s this very clear, if you win, we win situation going on. And I think not every company can make it, you know, be that simple. But I think that’s maybe a learning to keep in mind is that. The artists, the artist’s goals should align with the business’s goals.

[00:47:55] Dan Runcie: Right? Agreed agreed and hopefully align with the target artists that is trying to serve and not necessarily. The uber duper 1% that happened to be generating the most money for them, which can often happen with these things. before we close things out, though. Let’s fast forward to 20 years from now, and I say 20 years from now, because I think it’s clear 20 years ago, a lot of people felt like it was a better time for the middle class musician.

Let me actually say 25 years ago, just because he get pre Napster and say, 25 years ago, a lot of people feel like it was a better time then than it is now. Now I alter that. It’s different. It probably takes a lot more work and more tentacles involved with everything, but it’s still possible. But 20 years from now, do you think it’s any easier for the middle class musician?

[00:48:43] Tati Cirisano: I love it. When you, end on one of these crazy think 20 years in the future questions, is it any easier? I think it’s, I mean, I know this is an annoying answer, but I think it’s easier in some ways and harder and others. Like I think that for the same, all these reasons that we’ve talked about, I think, things are only going to get more and more fragmented. And I think in the 20 years from now, it won’t be that there’s, you know, this 1% of superstars and then everyone else, it’ll increasingly be that there’s many, many of these like middle tier or even what we think was smaller tier artists.

And in that way, creating this core fan base is going to be even more important, but building it is going to be even harder. So I think, I don’t know. I remember, I did an interview a couple months ago where we talked about a lot of similar things about, you know, streaming economics and how hard it is today and all these things.

And at the end, they asked me, well, all of this considered, would you rather be an artist today or an artist then? And if I think about that same, like, if I kind of take that lens to your question, think about it now, or even in 20 years, I still think I’d rather be an artist now. Because I think there are many more ways to get in.

There’s many more, you know, options available to you. And I think before the door was closed to so many, just so many people, and now at least the door is open, like the door is open and you enter an insanely crowded room where, you know, there’s obstacles flying at you left and right, but at least the door is open. So yeah, complicated question, complicated answer. What do you think Dan?

[00:50:20] Dan Runcie: I think net harder, I would say if I had to pick net harder, like just more difficult in general, but I do agree with you that in general. It’s easier to get started and have a chance of having a breakthrough today that it is. Yes, that it was yesterday because of the gatekeepers and things like that. But once you do break through, it’s harder to get noticed today than it was yesterday. So I think those dynamics increase further 20, 25 years out, even 5 years out, I would say, and that does make it harder for someone in this 50 to 150 K range to meet their people. It requires even more intentionality of trying to make sure you’re talking to the right base that you’re truly trying to, let’s say, you’re taking advantage of the long tail.

You’re trying to find your pocket and focus on the niche. You’re going to take a much more thorough and deep business plan to do everything you want to do, even if you’re only bringing in a few percent. 70, 000 from all of the various things you’re doing, but you’re doing it. And I think that would only get harder.

And I think that probably speaks to more broad trends just with the state of the middle class and other areas outside of music. But that’s how I see things.

[00:51:45] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. No, I think that makes sense like if I really boil it down, I don’t think it’s going to get easier. So it’s either going to get harder or it’s going to be about the same. Yeah, because these, you know, positives and negatives will sort of cancel each other out.

[00:52:00] Dan Runcie: Agreed. Well, we’ll continue to monitor this continue to keep track of the companies that are aiming to solve this. I know it’s a problem. That’s easier said than done. I think there’s plenty of ways that it can work. It can’t work. And I think for a lot of the companies that are raising big amounts of money to solve this problem, it could be worth a look to see what that path looks like and other companies that have tried to do this as well and where their shortcomings were but rooting for the middle class musicians, an important group, and hopefully the more and more platforms we have that just increases the likelihood that someone can find the right service that can help them get to where they want to be.

[00:52:39] Tati Cirisano: Yeah. And I mean, like I said, we’re having these conversations more now there’s more, creative thinking about what the future looks like and, what innovation looks like in this area. So I think we’re having the conversations and that’s a positive thing.

[00:52:53] Dan Runcie: Indeed. All right, Tati, before we let you go, anything else coming up from media or from you that we should keep an eye out on?

[00:53:01] Tati Cirisano: Yeah, I would say, like I was, mentioning before we have this great new report on live music audiences that is already out on our website. And I will also have a report coming out in early August on the state of fandom, the state of music fandom. So I’m very excited about that one, as you probably guess, one of my favorite things to talk about.

So, yeah, look out for that. I’m excited.

[00:53:23] Dan Runcie: Will do, awesome. Thanks again. This was fun. Thanks for coming on.

[00:53:27] Tati Cirisano: Thanks, Dan.

[00:53:28] Dan Runcie Outro Audio: If you enjoyed this podcast, go ahead and share it with a friend, copy the link, text it to a friend, post it in your group chat, post it in your Slack groups, wherever you and your people talk, spread the word. That’s how Trapital continues to grow and continues to reach the right people. And while you’re at it, if you use Apple podcast. Go ahead, rate the podcast, give it a high rating and leave a review. Tell people why you like the podcast that helps more people discover the show. Thank you in advance. Talk to you next week.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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