Taylor Swift, Spotify and the Musical Food Chain Myth

I cannot tell you how happy I am that the conversation about Taylor Swift and Spotify is happening. Maybe people will start listening to what independent artists like me and my peers have been saying for years now.

A little background for those who don’t know me: I’ve been an indie musician by choice for 22 years. In 1999, I was chosen to perform at Lilith Fair and quit my day job the following Monday. I attracted several major labels, but ultimately, I walked away because I felt the industry was not going to be supportive of me; the business model was almost laughable for a new artist with little leverage and an insidious law called the Work For Hire Copyright Law had been passed that year, which prevented copyright ownership from reverting back to artists and remained with record labels in perpetuity. Like, that means forever. Luckily, Sheryl Crow and Don Henley went to Capitol Hill and had it repealed, but, by then, I was determined not to be become a cog and had committed to my full time life as an artist.
And, you know, I had good run of it…

Fast forward to 2008 when everything was crashing. I don’t think people think of artists being affected in a failing economy, but we were. Gas prices were sky high as were flights, so expenses went up and venues started paying less because fewer were able to come out to the shows (because they were broke, too). And, for the first time in all my touring history, my American dollars lost value going into Canada. It was sobering to say the least.
In the years preceding this, I saw a slow but very deliberate decline in my music sales, which was more than just supplemental income; it was nearly half of my income. So, I stopped touring full-time to assess the situation and come up with solutions.
The only solution I found that allowed me to stay true to who I am an artist was to stay put: which brings me to today.

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Like clockwork, once or twice a week since I stopped touring full time in 2008, I get asked when I’m coming back to XYZ. And, like a broken record once or twice a week, I’ve had to say I can’t afford it. I’ve had to explain that not only have physical CD sales been down, but also the digital money I used to get from legal downloads all but disappeared. Instead of getting weekly payments ranging between $200-$750 from my distributor, I started getting an average $11.36, once a month from all streaming services combined. Yes, $11.36/month is what I get from all of them. That is not a sustainable business model for a truly independent artist.

While carefully building and maintaining a social media connection with my fan base and doing mostly one-offs in some of my bigger markets, I decided to do a full regional tour in 2012.  And, while I am grateful to the people who came, I had miserable turnouts at most of the shows. In Buffalo, where the temp dropped to 30 degrees that night, I cleared $14 once the door was split with the venue. In Philadelphia, where I started my career, I lost upwards of $1,500-2,000 on one show because only 12 people showed up. It was the night of the Presidential debates, something I couldn’t have known when I booked the show months before. But, I still had to pay the venue, their door person and sound person, pay my band, pay for their hotel room and mine for three nights so we wouldn’t have to stay in NYC, paid for their flights (along with baggage handling fees for my cellist’s cello), my rental car, gas and food for myself and the band (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Same with D.C., where the venue wouldn’t even allow me to officially charge a door fee and where some people (my fans included) opted not to pay one even as a requested donation.

This is my reality and the reality of the many artists you care about.

I’m sorry if you think so, but music is NOT FREE. It costs money to make and it costs money to support via touring. It’s a “life cycle.” This “life cycle” is how I used to get my CDs out and how I used to see my fans two to three times a year in some places. It worked like this: fans would come to my shows, they and their friends would buy my CDs and then I made another CD and went on a another tour and so forth and so on.


All the money I made went to bills, touring, promotion and creating new music – so I had to keep my overhead low. No new cars (I had and still have my ’78 Volvo that I bought for $600 in 1996), no new shoes or clothes and I lived in a small 425 sq ft apartment for 12 years. 12 years. That’s how I did it. It’s not a sob story. It’s not a mystery or a marketing ploy. I am a working-class artist. There is no rich-uncle-wizard-behind-the-curtain type situation here. This is how it goes when you make tough decisions to be true to your life and your life’s work. I have no regrets.


I’m seeing a lot of chatter about Taylor Swift and her supposed “greed.”  If you’re saying it, you’re probably saying it because Swift is already incredibly wealthy. But, what about artists who aren’t? If you or your friends are indeed one of those people, I challenge you and them to go to work for a year, bust your butt, do a good job (maybe even a great job) and then accept half of a year’s pay (or less) from your boss. I further challenge you to pay your bills and keep your other financial commitments from that pay all while keeping your enthusiasm for your job – which is kind of essential for you to even do your job.

Go on. I’ll wait…

As indie artists, for all intents and purposes, our fans control our careers, the ebb and flow, trajectory and course. For example, if I hadn’t raised enough via Kickstarter to do my last project, a tribute CD to folk legend Odetta, there wouldn’t have been a new CD at all. Period. No new CD in eight years even though I was able to release six projects on my own before that and have enough music for several full-length albums right now.


Another example: I haven’t been back on the road since 2012 because I assume my fans don’t want to see me or can’t afford to see me in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and Charlotte. Because of that, I can’t take a financial chance on Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and the like. And, just forget Canada, France, Sweden, Japan or Australia altogether. I’ve remedied this by doing online shows on a platform called StageIt and this has allowed fans as far away as Vancouver, Taiwan, Germany and Boise, ID to see me play. It works, but it isn’t ideal.


The point is, we haven’t just “given up”. It’s not that we don’t “want to” do it anymore. It is, painfully and honestly, simple math that mostly prevents me and others like me from doing what we do.

And, before we get flooded with snarky retorts like “get a job,” I will say this: First, I have a job, one that I’m fairly good at and one that I’ve had for 22 years (or over half my life). And, second, what if Bob Marley or Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain or Joni Mitchell or Mozart, Frank Zappa, Joan Jett, Diana Ross, Prince or Aretha Franklin had actually listened when someone (undoubtedly and repeatedly) said to them, “Get a job.”?

What would your life look like?

What happens to the first dance at your wedding to that special song, the one that made you realize you loved her? Or, the song you hum to your baby because it’s the only one that makes him less fussy? What would you be distracted by in an elevator ride with your creepy co-worker? And, how, pray tell, would you know when Jaws or Jason or Darth Vader is coming so you can yell your futile warnings at the screen?
Okay, granted, those last few examples sound frivolous but they’re serious considerations to make when you consider how music plays an integral and inseparable role in your life, from the mundane to the momentous. That’s something to protect. That’s something to respect.


As a consumer and a fan, you are at the top of this food chain, not the bottom. You are not subject to the whims of popular culture; you are the arbiter of it. If you want to see less “fluff” in the music industry, if you want to see your artists remain authentic, creative and prolific beings and, if you want them to come back to your hometowns:

1. Start buying our music again. Digital, hard copy, doesn’t matter, just pay for it. If you can pay $4 for a coffee, you can pay $9.99 for something meaningful that you’ll enjoy forever.

2. Stop using streaming services that only pay us $.0006 per listen if you don’t already own our music either via a legal download or a hard copy. Educate yourself. If you think the profits that oil companies make are obscene, I urge you to do some digging about what some of these streaming companies are really about. [Editor’s note: Spotify claims to have paid Taylor Swift over $2 million dollars in streaming royalties. Her label says that’s not even close to the truth.]

3. And, this is important: Set your DVRs on your favorite show nights and go to our concerts. If I had a dime for every time a person told me they weren’t able to make my show because it was the finals of DWTS or The Voice, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I’d be sitting in a bungalow in Costa Rica sipping something fruity and delicious.

Simple solutions sometimes require difficult choices. Oh, and this goes for independent movies, books, indie/feminist bookstores, small venues and small businesses, too. Just know this: you have the power to change the cultural landscape around you. Use that power wisely. 


Doria Roberts has been a full time independent musician since 1993. In her spare time, she runs, owns and bakes sweet things for a bodega + deli in her adopted hometown of Atlanta, while simultaneously trying to teach her dog Piper how not to eat holes in her freshly painted walls. Her Odetta tribute, Blackeyed Susans is scheduled for re-release in August 2015. Follow her on Twitter @doriaroberts.

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  1. Ryan

    November 18, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Interesting article, I’ve felt frustration at many of these issues. It’s kind of a diagonal to this one – that talks about all the good attributes of the current industry. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/nov/17/steve-albinis-keynote-address-at-face-the-music-in-full

  2. Brian Loebig

    November 18, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    Great article Doria! Glad to hear the voice of the independent musician in this debate. I will always purchase CD’s from you and other artists for the reasons you outline! Would love to see you booked at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club. 🙂

  3. Daniel

    November 19, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Doria might conider writing as well. Well put!

    • R. C.

      June 12, 2015 at 2:12 am

      She does write, lyrics. It takes someone who is well versed, pun completely intended, to write lyrics that you are able to connect to.

  4. Recycled Recitals

    November 20, 2014 at 3:38 am

    You really hit the nail on the head with this one. There was a really great documentary called ‘Surviving Progress’ that came out in 2011. They talk about the idea of when humans invented the spear to kill a buffalo, they had made significant progress. When humans figured out to usher an entire gang of buffalo into a ditch and kill all of them, humans had fallen into a progress trap…

    I think, as both music listeners and consumers, we have fallen into a media consumption trap. Our expectations are too high and we have, inadvertently, devalued music. We expect music for free, and ultimately hold the success of those we listen to in our bank accounts. When we chose not to support the music, we chose not to support the artist. By downloading music for free, and streaming on sites like spotify, we’ve created a vicious cycle that slowly erodes the market.

  5. D5rkSt5r

    November 20, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Loving music and dabling in it myself every here and there, I understand what you mean, but, however. Many a music has come to my ears via bootlegs, copied cassette tapes and the likes back in the day, and these days via the internet. Some bands I would have never heard about if it wasn’t for “illegaly shared” music. (and if a band is really good, I actually do buy their cd’s or attend concerts or whatever else of merch they might have available).

    I’m not suggesting you are turning out bad music, just saying that there will always be a way to make something out of it if you relaly want to (not every band makes it unfortunately). but instead of directing any anger or frustrations towards “pirates” and the like, why not attack the industry itself, they do not care about the artists as much as they care about how much the artist will provide them with a new castle to live in (talking executives here, overgeneralizing).

    And then i read the following:
    “Set your DVRs on your favorite show nights and go to our concerts.”

    What about the creators of these shows? shouldn’t we just pay for a dvd to watch instead of simply “taping it” ?

    there’s no one stop solution here, the world is changing and not so long ago, no artist whatsoever was able to make ends meet like they can today. Along with it, copy rights changed over the years as well making it harder for the artists (and easier to make money by buying n selling rights to certain “art” ).

    All in all, nice read but not satisfactory. Though some good points were touched here…

    That said, I will continue to explore new music via the “cheapest way” as possible to find a new gem I might want to pay for… Taylor swift is not really one of them 😉

    Do I miss the local cd-shops, sure, they’re a dying breed. but once again, that’s not just the “consumers” fault, many factors come into play here… did cassette tapes destroy the artists living? no
    Did cd-r’s destroy the artists living? no
    will internet destroy the way an artist makes an income? no.

    Just different times, different challenges…

    • cleve

      January 13, 2015 at 6:41 pm


      u just dont get the article..how bout i come to ur job and grab ur shovel and use it for the day… im sure u wont mind u ddnt really make the shovel it was provided to u by ur employer who gives u all the tools u need to work the job he gave you,,u fail to see that the artist;’s creations are being exploited by big business..with ur attitude there would be no Sting, Louis Armstrong,Duke Ellington, James Brown,Beyonce, JayZ, just a world of music created by weekend warriors who make music as a hobby and occasionaly come up with something worth listening to. There would be no true entertainers ala Michael Jackson, Elton John. they would be working a minimum wage job somewhere humming tunes they created the world would never hear. Whenever you turn on a light, start a car, turn on a computer, use a cell phone, the inventors of these creations are getting paid and so will their children and children’s children. Why shouldn’t an artist/songwriter enjoy similar fruits of labor??? Oh…..i just realized YOU might be one of those greedy businessmen types that exploits talent for your own financial gain. SMH

    • R. C.

      June 12, 2015 at 2:15 am

      There has been a contingency of about 10% of piracy, but now that piracy is mainstream. About 10% of people listening to music, pay for it.

      You can get free samples at Costco, but without people buying the products, they can’t provide samples for you to try.

  6. Doc Searls

    November 24, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    All the course-reversing suggestions are good, but also assume that the only possible choices are the ones we have now. This has never been the case. We can invent new choices — new solutions for this already-old problem.

    I believe the best solutions are those that make it very easy for consumers to pay whatever they want for whatever they like (and not just music).

    One outline for this is EmanciPay, at ProjectVRM: . My own idea for an expression of EmanciPay is a user-side system set up to automatically pay (or pledge to pay) a penny per listen to any song heard anywhere, including one’s own music collection. That’s a high multiple of whatever coercive rates are being extracted on the supply side of the marketplace today — and in the whole future, which will suck.

    Way back in ’98, when the DMCA birthed the ancestor of today streamed music royalty regime, it framed coercive rates with this context: “in the absence of a willing buyer and a willing seller.”

    So let’s quit working only the seller-side of the marketplace. Let’s equip the willing buyer.

    If anybody wants to work on the code for that, contact me (I’m not hard to find). We’ll get a posse together and go do it. Given the sum of existing code in the world already, it shouldn’t be too hard.

  7. Tom oswald

    January 20, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    This is exactly why videscape has been built, last month it paid out 0.61 cents per stream. It’s got a business model that shares the entire platforms revenue with all the content creators equally rather than just a small percentage of it. It’s target is to pay out in the cents if not tens of cents per stream ultimately

  8. Simon

    June 11, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Doria Robers doesn’t even have a combined total of 100.000 plays on Spotify. How can she be expecting more than 11$ a month?

    Check your facts: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/10/spotify-apple-music-75m-active-users?CMP=share_btn_fb

    Spotify already paid out 3 Billion USD over the past years to artists and their labels.

    • Sky Solyd

      June 12, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Much more to the label than artists. Back in the day, 100,000 plays on the radio would’ve rendered a hell of a lot more than 11$, which gave the music industry flight. I’m not saying we should turn back, but we should turn something.

  9. Mike

    June 20, 2015 at 1:15 am

    The thing is, though, that for every traditional way of making money that’s been lost, another has opened up.

    It used to cost $10k-$50k to record an album- Because setting up a studio cost a million dollars. Today, $5k and a spare bedroom will get you that same capability a hundred times over. Yes, much of the cost is in the professional engineer and producer- Skills which can now be learned online for free instead of through expensive specialized colleges. There’s even the half and half approach- Record everything at home, then hire a pro studio to mix and master: What used to cost $30k is now down to $6.

    It used to cost a fortune to print a few thousand CDs at a time. Now, distribution is virtually free via the internet, and physical discs can be printed on demand and drop shipped- which means *no* up front cost.

    If the author doesn’t want to “risk” a show in Chicago or Boston, do a Kickstarter for it. If it doesn’t generate enough money, you don’t do the show. If it does, the band gets paid in advance whether or not anyone actually shows up.

    How about monetizing YouTube videos? Bands like OK Go and Walk off the Earth have built their careers on that.

    Use new services like Patreon and PledgeMusic that allow fans to directly fund the artist on a monthly or project basis. Forget posters and flyers- Use services like Facebook and Google to advertise to your exact target audience with laser precision.

    The market isn’t dying, it’s just changing so rapidly it’s unrecognizable from what it was less than 5 years ago. Music has always been one part art and two parts promotion- The fact of that hasn’t changed, only how it’s done. Learn the new tools with the same level of dedication you used to learn the old system, and you *will* make money.

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