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Over a year of COVID-19 shutdowns continues to be particularly hard for artists who rely on live shows and events to make a living — and despite streaming platforms like Spotify drawing more business than ever, many independent performers have had to find workarounds to get their music to new fans. For some, getting creative has actually brought new success they might have never found in pre-pandemic times. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker has the story.
A year of COVID-19 shutdowns continues to be particularly hard for performers who rely on live shows and events to help boost their sales. While streaming services are at all-time highs, many independent performers have to find workarounds to get their music to new fans. For some, it's bringing new success they might have never found in pre-pandemic times.
NewsHour weekend's Christopher Booker has the story.
At this point, it would be impossible to quantify just how many people Todd Rundgren has performed in front of. For over 50 years, on tour after tour, his life has been spent on the road, in front of people. Until, of course, this last year.
Is this the longest stretch that you've gone through throughout your career as a professional musician?
Pretty much, except for one year in the late 70s, I think, when I took a year off to learn computer programming.
Like the rest of us Rundgren spent much of the 2020 in suspended animation.
I was supposed to go out last May with a tour with a serious national tour that got moved to the summer and then I got moved to the fall and then it got moved to now to February and when I got moved from February to October, I said, that's enough. You know, I can't do nothing. I don't want to be this long disconnected from my fans. I want to do something for them.
But tonight, rather unbelievably, Rundgren is back on the road. On stage, performing live with a full band, back-up singers and all, in front of a crowd — during COVID. While being "on the road" is a relative term in this case, Rundgren is playing for an audience in a city. Having set up in a warehouse space in Chicago each show is broadcast live to audience members in a specific city only. Local fans from that zip code are able to buy access to the stream.
We have quite a number of video screens set up as if they're in the audience and so you can buy a ticket to the front rows for the first couple of rows and we will see you like we would normally we will actually see the audience and we will also kind of sprinkles for that actual live bodies to the degree that we are allowed to and that we can keep them safe and health and we can localize the show so that it feels more like we're doing it specifically for them.
Tonight's show is actually a hometown show if you will. Playing from Chicago for Chicago and even though the crowd may look just a bit different, Rundgren is connecting.
We're just so desperate for some music, for some entertainment, for something that will make us feel a little bit normal.
There is so much room to create new experiences around music right now
Nick Dangerfield is the co-founder of Oda, a live music company that broadcasts performances from the homes of artists through a dedicated speaker system.
While Rundgren is working to bring the stage to your home, Oda turns the artist's home into the stage.
It is essentially every weekend a new artist kind of takes ownership of the network and transmits over the three days of the weekend, we provide all the engineering support and we kind of set them up and then the artist has a little box with a single button every time they press the button their live on the network.
Similar to a concert series, owners of the speakers can subscribe to seasonal Oda programming.
Our focus a lot is on the on elderly, our artists that that, on the one hand might not be able to tour or have less ability to tour and on the other, they are not able to participate in, you know, in digital networks
How does this differ, though, from please excuse the question, but how does this differ from a radio transmission or a streaming performance on YouTube?
Our programs will always be live and it's not archived. The recordings belong to the artists and they can release them later, but we will not playback recordings. If you know that you know that you have that one chance to listen to that you will possibly be more attention.
But even before COVID pushed such experimentation into the forefront, connecting to an audience as an audience was never easy. A process made all the more complicated with the rise of music streaming platforms like Spotify.
We have 345 million users on our platform and then on the artist side, you know, there's there's millions and we are we're receiving 60 thousand new tracks a day.
Jeremy Erlich is the global co-head of music at Spotify. While the Company is based in Sweden, Erlich works from Los Angeles with a team of 100 editors sprinkled all over the world. His team curates the musical experience on the platform, from developing high-profile playlists to the selection and placement of songs.
In 2020, we managed to playlist 76,000 artists for the very first time and the carry on effect from that is through our through all of our properties every month there's 16 billion discoveries
When you say there are 16 billion discoveries, what does that mean? Someone's heard a song for the first time?
It's astonishing thinking, though, that when you're getting 60,000 song submissions. I probably have not listened to 60,000 songs in my whole life.
It's one of the interesting things that's happening in the world, it's– it's easier to break than ever because so many of the barriers that existed before aren't there, but with all those barriers going away there has also been an influx of content. Creating that moment, that spark and that connection between an artist and his fan bases is easier and more difficult than it ever has been at the same time.
Now there has been criticism from artists that Spotify does not pay enough. You know, you have the large artists of the world, who I'm sure are doing quite well in the streaming realm, but you have the smaller artists who maybe their income was largely subsidized through touring. How do you respond to the criticism of Spotify and how much it pays its artists?
I think the criticism is– is slightly misdirected and– and sometimes unfair when you look at how much of our revenue we do pay out in royalties. Last year we paid $5 billion in royalties and– and that number is growing every single year.
For younger artists coming up in this streaming world who are able to find an audience, building and maintaining a connection to their fans is a different endeavor – where the old rules don't really apply.
Kota the Friend:
Touring was never like the biggest moneymaker. It was always streams and music royalties, mainly because I own my music and I produce a lot of my music.
Brooklyn rapper Kota the Friend has been developed almost entirely online. In five years his Spotify audience has grown from 250 monthly listeners to over three million.
Coronavirus and COVID like it affected me mentally and emotionally, but not financially.
Do you think of yourself as a new type of artists existing in a new business realm?
Definitely. I think artists like myself and there are other people like me, we make music and we put it out and we get paid from our music. I'm able to grow my career as fast as I can. I'm able to kind of figure out where I'm going to be in a year.
Even after a year like this?
Even after a year like this, like, I can still figure out where I'm going to be. I can't think about the sixty thousand other people putting out songs. I'll never make it, you know, if I'm, you know, constantly anxious about who else is. Oh, there's so many people releasing music. You know, I just got to think about me and think about what am I doing for my music.
Kota's focus seems to be working just fine. His latest album, To Kill a Sunrise, released three weeks ago, debuted at number five on Spotify US album charts.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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