US-based digital store Bandcamp prides itself on paying a good rate of return to artists. Click on the first album listed on its page of bestselling releases and you will hear a woman’s breathy voice singing about dollar bills: “I’m gonna get paid, yeah, just give me my moolah-la-la-la.”
The song is “Sad Girlz Luv Money” by Amaarae, a Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter. Its cash-me-out message will resonate with her fellow recording artists. “Just give me my moolah” is the cry from aggrieved musicians and songwriters, infuriated by what they perceive as underpayment from giant streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify. Music industry revenues are growing, up almost 20 per cent to $25.9bn last year, and so are demands for a fairer distribution of spoils.
The complaints are not going unheard. Bandcamp, founded in 2008, has positioned itself as an equitable alternative. It takes a cut of just 10 to 15 per cent from artists for downloads and sales of vinyl, CDs and merchandise. Among streaming services, the Berlin-based music sharing platform SoundCloud introduced a “fan-powered royalty” system last year, which channels subscribers’ fees directly to the acts they listen to. It claims the result has been a 60 per cent rise in average artist revenue. And new technologies for distributing music are proliferating, from non-fungible tokens to Kanye West’s quixotic Stem Player audio device, with which he bundled his 2021 album Donda.
But there is a large obstacle to all these various schemes. Can they make a difference next to the dominance of Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube Music, which together have more than 560mn estimated subscribers and many more non-paying users?
“Here’s the way that I look at it,” says Amaarae, 27, whose real name is Ama Serwah Genfi. Bandcamp’s bestselling artist is talking by video call from her home in Accra. “A lot of artists complain about payouts and the rates we receive, which I agree are unfair,” she says of streaming payments. “We are being totally robbed. But music is an ever-changing landscape and we all evolve to fit that landscape. I have to do what I have to do. I can’t fight the streaming giants.”
Like a multidimensional game of chess, Amaarae works across multiple different media and territories. Promotion involves international radio play and live performances, remixes and commercial tie-ins. Among the forces that have turned “Sad Girlz Luv Money” into her biggest hit is “the magic of TikTok”, as she calls it — the song went viral on the video-sharing service when it came out in 2020, and again the following year after a remix was made with US singer Kali Uchis.
“Recorded music is pretty much the essence of any artist’s expression,” she says. “But the moment it’s done, I have to take off that hat and look upon it as a product. How am I going to earn off this? How am I going to get it in front of people?”
Amaarae was born in New York and raised in the US and Ghana, and her recording experience began when she was a high school student making mixtapes of her songs. After she left high school, she interned in an Accra music studio where she learned how to engineer and produce. She developed her sound and built a following by releasing singles. She uploaded her earliest songs to SoundCloud for free use in 2014. It’s a common entry point for up-and-comers. Billie Eilish is among the stars whose career began by posting tracks on the platform. In 2020, Amaarae made her debut full-length album The Angel You Don’t Know. It was turned down by “all the major record labels”, in her words, so she released it on her own label, with her mother as business manager.
The Angel You Don’t Know’s blend of US R&B and Afropop was warmly received, including end-of-year picks by the New York Times and the New Yorker. A distribution deal followed with Apple-owned, London-based Platoon, which specialises in African pop. It invests in independent artists’ work in the style of venture capital rather than the traditional record deal in which the label acquires copyright ownership of the recordings.
The singer prefers not to put a precise figure on her revenue, but breaks it down for me into approximate portions. Despite being one of Bandcamp’s most popular acts, her earnings from the digital store’s sales are negligible. The largest source of revenue, at roughly 50 per cent, is money earned from live shows, in person and online. About 35 per cent comes from licensing deals for the use of her songs, such as in the soundtrack of the hit Netflix television series Top Boy and a tie-in with Ikea. The last 15 per cent derives from streaming revenue: the remix of “Sad Girlz Luv Money” has been streamed 210mn times on Spotify alone.
Earnings from recorded music involve a complex set of factors linked to contracts, licensing rights and the way the music is heard. As an all-rounder who performs, writes and produces her work, Amaarae owns the copyright to her sound recordings as well as the compositions themselves, the musical work copyright. But not having the backing of an established label also means that she has to cover upfront costs.
“The downside is that I take the majority of the financial hit that comes with distributing and putting my music out,” she explains. “Someone at a label who has partial or no ownership [over their music] doesn’t have worries like — ‘Oh man, I have to pay my managers this month. Oh man, we’re travelling, we’ve got to book Airbnbs, how much is that going to cost me?’ That’s what comes with ownership.”
The play of forces between tech companies, record labels, artists and legislators is in constant flux: sometimes antagonistic, at other times co-operative. Streaming services reject claims that they don’t pay out enough, instead blaming record labels for not sharing the proceeds fairly with artists — an accusation that the labels in turn deny.
A recent development in the US favours the talent. This month, a ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board proposed an increase of more than 30 per cent in mechanical royalties for songwriters from sales and streams of their compositions. The change, which is due to begin next year, has been met with widespread agreement from the US music industry.
Meanwhile, another unfolding case in the US threatens to add to the cost of music for consumers. Bandcamp, which was taken over by video game company Epic Games in March, is fighting Google’s imposition of fees for using its Android app store billing system, due to begin next month. In a statement, Bandcamp has warned that the measure might require them to charge its customers more.
While these corporate titans clash, Amaarae epitomises the nimbleness of today’s recording artist. Key decisions for The Angel You Don’t Know include hiring a London radio plugger and remixing “Sad Girlz Luv Money” with Uchis, who has a sizeable Latin fan base. Both were investment risks; both paid off.
“You have to manoeuvre around the terrain as and when it changes,” Amaarae says. “I think the power dynamic is a little bit skewed, but I’m not opposed to being smart and finding ways around the situation. You just have to play the game.”
Amaarae is performing at Koko in London on May 31, koko.co.uk