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STREAMING ISN'T EVERYTHING (FULL STORY)


Streaming dominates the music industry but it isn’t the be-all and end-all for many local acts and music labels, while others shun it entirely. Gareth Shute catches up with a few artists and label owners who’ve decided having a physical product is still crucial to getting their music out.
STREAMING ISN'T EVERYTHING (FULL STORY)

by Gareth Shute

Gareth Shute is a writer and musician, who writes regularly for pop culture websites such as Audioculture and The Spinoff. He has also published five non-fiction books about music and the arts, including Hip Hop Music In Aotearoa which won a national book award.


Cover photo: The Beths at Auckland City Limits 2018. Photo: Gareth Shute

Over the past decade, streaming has come to dominate the revenues of the local music industry, making up 75% of the overall total in 2019 (as calculated by Recorded Music New Zealand). This has been a boon for music labels with a long back-catalogue, since they can now generate streaming income on old albums that would’ve been prohibitively expensive to re-press in the CD era.

It has also allowed a small number of New Zealand acts to be picked up worldwide in a big way - for example, an act like Benee whose tracks can go from TikTok popularity to millions of streams. Even in the late 00s, this would’ve required getting physical products into shops across the world and hence would’ve meant a large financial outlay, whereas streaming removes this upfront cost.

However, the benefits of the streaming era have been far less clear for many musicians, especially new artists who don’t immediately manage to have a viral hit or whose music doesn’t fit the major playlists. The essential problem is that the income musicians are able to glean from streaming is notoriously tiny. While a single play on a premium account within New Zealand might be worth almost half-a-cent, free accounts generate far less. Fortunately within New Zealand, there are a higher proportion of paid accounts than overseas, partly due to the cheap or free registrations that are provided by some mobile providers. 

The trouble is that to reach a substantial number of streams on a service like Spotify usually relies on gaining listeners overseas where the proportion of free accounts is far higher (unless you are an act like Six60 or The Black Seeds with a huge local following). Even at half-a-cent per stream, a million streams would only generate NZ$5000 and in most cases it will be considerably less. 

So what is a young artist supposed to do? While it’s unlikely CDs will regain their dominance, in some areas of music they are still important. For example, if you go to the Pacific Islands or visit markets in Auckland, you’ll find CD sellers doing a brisk trade to Polynesian customers. This trend extends to Hawaii, where Katchafire are very popular and this has helped them place multiple albums on the Billboard reggae chart in the United States because it is entirely based on sales.

The rapper Poetik has also sold thousands of CDs during his career thus far, often selling them out of his car trunk like a door-to-door salesman, alongside his full range of t-shirts and hoodies. The income from these sales were enough to take him to Los Angeles to film one music video. 

“I’m old fashioned even with the CDs out the trunk and going door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness. People say ‘you know you can do it all on an online store?’ I tell them ‘yeah, I know I can, but just let me have fun with my people here.’ I want to go out and meet everyone.”

CDs and merch organised for sale in Poetik's car boot. Photo: Andy Murnane
CDs and merch organised for sale in Poetik's car boot. Photo: Andy Murnane

Anthonie Tonnon’s music may be world away from Poetik’s, but he has also found that selling CDs directly to fans is a worthwhile endeavour, especially at his live shows:

“People are always talking about data science now and how you’re supposed to be watching your stats. But I honestly don’t think there’s anything better than your own personal dowsing stick of sitting on the merch desk and seeing the reactions from people after the show. If you play a really killer show, quite often it will mean you sell a lot more merch. It’s not hard and fast, but there is a relationship … I’ve done support tours with people like The Chills, Don McGlashan and The Veils. If you’re playing to that many people and a decent proportion are from a generation who still have CD players in their cars and who still like to buy them, you can very easily make more than your support fee in merchandise sales.”

Tonnon still sees streaming as an important part of releasing his music, but has adopted what he calls a ‘digital last’ policy to ensure that he gets the most out of his physical releases as well. For example, while he put the singles Two Free Hands and Old Images up on streaming services, he also released physical EPs with extra tracks to sell at shows and from his website, so that fans are encouraged to engage more directly, and have the option to buy something with added layers.

“Spotify is great and for some people it has to be a key part of their strategy, but for me it’s a bit like applying for a grant. You might put your application in and hope for the best, but you shouldn’t base your business on grant applications … I do worry about artists that are a little bit younger who release an EP on Spotify and because it doesn’t get 100,000 plays, they think the universe is saying ‘don’t make music’ and they give up.”

Of course, CDs aren’t the only kind of merch Tonnon has available. He’s recently found that socks are a fun item to stock. The price point is similar to CDs, and while most people only want one copy of a CD, they might buy multiple pairs of socks. He’s also glad to find that socks can be made in New Zealand from ethically sourced materials.

Over the past few years, Tonnon has noticed vinyl beginning to match the sales of CDs over the merch desk, part of a general phenomenon that is taking place across the music industry.

Figures from Recorded Music NZ show that vinyl sales in New Zealand during the early 00s were little more than a blip, whereas in 2019 they made up 39% of physical sales overall. While physical sales overall have been steadily declining in recent years, vinyl sales have continued to rise.

Cover photo: Kim Martinengo from 1:12 Records. Photo: Gareth Shute.

Vinyl certainly carries a certain cache due to its association with the first arrival of rock and roll, so it remains popular among fans of guitar music. This has provided a unique avenue to acclaim for two of New Zealand’s most popular modern guitar bands - Unknown Mortal Orchestra and The Beths. Both managed to reach fans overseas via streaming services, but have had some of their most remarkable charts successes on the vinyl/physical sales charts overseas.

UMO’s Multi-Love reached No.1 on Billboard’s US vinyl chart, while their second album II got to No.3 and their latest album Sex and Food got to No.8. More recently, The Beths hit No.9 in the UK’s vinyl album charts with their album Jump Rope Gazers and they also made it to No.41 on Billboard’s Current Album Sales Chart; which solely tracks physical sales in the United States, mainly of vinyl and CDs.

Singer from The Beths, Elizabeth Stokes, gets a kick out of having their record in homes around the world:

“It's sweet when people like your music enough that they want to invite a physical object into their space, because it brings them joy. That vinyl will stick around in their collection, and I love the idea of someone revisiting our music years and years later and it making them happy again. Not everyone likes to fill their lives with 'stuff' though! And so digital is great for people who want to directly support an artist without purchasing an item.”

This connection with fans is part of the appeal for Kim Martinengo, who runs vinyl-only Auckland label, 1:12 Records. He says one of the aims of the label is to create a permanent record of upcoming bands on the scene. Martinengo started the label with David Perry after a discussion at the latter’s mother’s wake (the name “1:12” is a reference to her love of miniatures, since this is a common scale used by hobbyists).

Back when the pair started almost a decade ago, Martinengo says that they relied on pressing in the United States because the dollar was strong, but it had a downside:

“We were spending as much on freight as we were on pressing. You’re paying all this money to a courier company - it’s dead money. It sucks. Vinyl was still quite fringe, but then the majors all started wanting to press vinyl so the large pressing plants were being swamped and their lead times blew out massively. We were looking at three months minimum ... Then we worked with Zenith in Australia, who we really liked, but the freight prices started to creep up again. The beauty of Holiday Records in Auckland is that they’re really good people and we’re supporting the local industry so the money stays here.”

This has also meant turnaround times have reduced to around eight weeks which allows 1:12 to capture new bands in their honeymoon period, when their material is still spontaneous and fresh. Despite being focused on vinyl, 1:12 Records do allow their acts to put their music on streaming services if they wish. Nonetheless a number of their releases have ended up only being available as records and/or purchasable on Bandcamp - this includes work by Bloodbags, Hallelujah Picassos, The Raw Nerves, and The Conjurors. There are also many tracks on the latest 1:12 Records compilation, 1:12 Party, that cannot be heard online. 

Another Auckland label, Arcade Recordings, has moved from vinyl to releasing a run of albums on cassette tape, including work by popular indie acts Womb and TOOMS. Owner Rohan Evans finds tapes are a relatively risk free alternative to vinyl given the lower upfront cost.

“Having pocket-sized merch is good for sales at shows! Amongst the people who buy them, I’d say that there’s a 50/50 split between people who have tape players (of some sort) and people collecting memorabilia. People do often get a couple of tapes and that leads them to getting an old tape deck ... We had a successful Bandcamp tie in with the Fimo release - only some of the tracks were available online unless you bought the EP and got access to them all.”

For indie musician Lukas Mayo of Pickle Darling, putting out an album on cassette means that there’s a real sense of ownership and connection between artist and fan:

“With streaming, there's no ownership of the music you love and unless the algorithm throws it back at you, or music blogs are talking about that album again, it's pretty easy to kind of 'lose' music ... but when I look at my shelf I still have a reminder of all these albums that meant something to me at some stage even if no one else is talking about them ... I have tapes of bands I love and often they write on them or add cute little extras or a note to me and that's always awesome. It feels like a real community and real people sharing art to other real people.”

This drive to find a new way of connecting with fans in the real world has driven a number of artists to create even more inventive types of merch that go far beyond the usual t-shirts and hoodies, whether it’s Nadia Reid’s book of lyrics, the beer that Beastwars created in collaboration with Garage Project, or Thee Golden Geese promoting a show by giving out free pens.

While the media might focus on the streaming breakthroughs of acts like Benee and Jawsh 685, down at a grassroots level many acts are finding their own ways of getting their music out to their fans. Streaming isn’t everything and it never will be.

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