Updated: Oct 21, 2019
I sometimes wonder if I will ever get to the point where I can do music full time? If I only ever made money on Spotify the answer is... probably not. Spotify gets a lot of bad press because it is commonly believed that they do not pay artists very well. And while it does seem like the per stream payment is pretty low, I actually don't believe they are mistreating artists. I think they are giving artists around the world exposure they would otherwise not have gotten and thus are providing some revenue to many who would otherwise not get any revenue. In previous eras, an artist making music in Nebraska could never expect to make money from a fan in New Zealand or Kuwait unless they were fortunate enough to be signed to a huge label with that kind of extensive reach. Spotify provides that worldwide reach to anyone willing to put their music out there. So, I don't think it's fair for me to complain that Spotify doesn't pay enough. I think we're all lucky to have a seat at their table.
Then what is a reasonable expectation for revenue on this far-reaching platform? Let's look at my own streams and try to figure that out. Right now my streams are pretty low. A few months ago I was working harder and had newer music. At that time, I was getting around 14,000 streams on Spotify per month. During that time period, I made about $50 per month from Spotify which means I was averaging around $0.0036 per stream. So, if the payment per stream rate stays the same even as you get more popular I would need to have 140,000 streams to make $500 and a whopping 1,400,000 streams to make $5000 a month. I would say that's getting close to quit-your-day-job money in my area of the U.S., but that's a ton of streams.
From my own research on the subject it appears that there are significant variances on what you can get paid per stream. The most I have ever seen touted as a per stream amount is about $0.007. At that rate I would only need a mere 714,285 streams per month to make $5,000. Okay so the question then becomes, are streaming numbers like that even possible? This is where it can feel a little discouraging.
By now, you've probably noticed that all of the really huge Spotify playlists in the modern classical genre have one of two types of people in their most valuable positions (places 1–20 or so on the playlist). They are either very well known artists like Max Richter or Ólafur Arnalds, or they are artists you have never heard of, have no bio, and are not searchable on any social media platforms. In other words, they appear to be fake artists or possibly studio musicians that Spotify hires to fill up the valuable spots on their large playlists. You can find plenty of internet chatter about this practice, so I realize I'm not the first to notice it. But is Spotify wrong to do this? I don't know the answer to that. They certainly have the right to run their business in a way that makes it profitable, as long as they don't break the law. But whether this practice is right or wrong I must admit it was discouraging to find. How can I possibly expect to get into that upper echelon of the stream world?
Well, the good news is we are not dependent on Spotify or anyone else to make our dreams come true. It's on me to make things happen. (see below for a book recommendation to help you "make things happen") Spotify doesn't have to accept artists like me, but they do. And I have just as much chance, at least in theory, to get into a top-tier playlist as anyone. In fact, I'm grateful to report that in the last few months I've seen artists who don't have massive marketing machines behind them making it into some of the biggest and best playlists on Spotify. And I don't mean at the very bottom. This kind of exposure over time could lead to huge followings and set up these and others like them with a decent income. And that's only Spotify. Apple Music streams, iTunes sales, and Deezer streams are only bound to grow as you become more popular and gain a true fan base. The number of streams needed on Spotify goes down even further as you gain fans from other platforms. If you are able to sell some of your tracks to third parties for TV or film or even sell CDs, sheet music, or merchandise, you could potentially make significant money besides what Spotify and Apple are paying.
Ultimately, I believe streaming, and Spotify in particular, has helped the little guy. It's still not easy to become well known or to make enough money to quit the rat race, but the goal is more achievable than in the past, and I for one am not giving up yet.
For more ways to create exposure and revenue for your music I highly recommend you get the book Work Hard Playlist Hard by Mike Warner (paid link). It's a fantastic resource with tons of tips and info to help you market your music and get paid.