A Look Inside Zoe Keating’s Earnings As An Indie Musician

Zoe-Keating-333x332San Francisco cellist and composer Zoe Keating is among a talented pool of musicians who managed to earn her spot and create a sustainable career from her music with global touring, appearances on soundtracks, and collaborations with the likes of Imogen Heap and Amanda Palmer. She has also been very outspoken about artists’ rights and transparent about the way she earns her living – all in hopes of showing a greater community exactly how artists pay their bills in today’s music space. Recently, Zoe took the liberty of disclosing exactly how she tuned her music into money.

While it has been very well documented how labels, digital retailers, and streaming companies earn their money, the real difficult numbers to come by are from “all the way at the bottom of the food chain,” as Zoe puts it.

“How does a recording artist make a living? How much cold cash does an unsigned DIY artist make from a stream or a sale? Those numbers are surprisingly hard to come by.”

Earlier this summer, the avant-garde cellist posted the details of her Spotify earnings, showing that each time a user listened to one of her songs, she earned about three tenths of a cent. But most recently, Zoe added to that data what she earns from Pandora, radio plays, and from her affiliation as an ASCAP member.

During a six-month period from October 2011 to February 2012, Zoe earned $84,386.86 before taxes.

Here's a breakdown of where that money came from:

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Source: The Atlantic

Clearly, the best way to support Zoe (and other independent artists like her) is to purchases directly from the artist. Just by taking a look at the pie chart, it is evident that the vast majority (nearly 97%) of her recorded music revenue comes from fans purchasing her music as opposed to streaming it. Less than $300 came from Spotify, while more than $45,000 came from iTunes.

“Music sales have been a consistent 60-70% of my total income,” Zoe told Hypebot. “The rest comes from concert fees and film/commercial licensing.”

Considering Spotify accounted for such a marginal percentage of her total income, should independent artist abandon ship in fears of Spotify streams cannibalizing direct-to-fan music sales?

“The income of a non-mainstream artist like me is a patchwork quilt and streaming is currently one tiny square in that quilt,” Zoe said in her Google Doc. “Streaming is not yet a replacement for digital sales, and to conflate the two is a mistake. I do not see streaming as a threat to my income, just like I've never regarded file sharing as a threat but as a convenient way to hear music. If people really like my music, I still believe they'll support it somewhere, somehow.” 

A good chunk of Zoe’s support comes from her regular and super fans, who she feels remain loyal to her due to their interest in her story.

“They seem interested in my DIY-story,” Zoe told Hypebot. “Or the mechanics-of-how-I-make-music-with-a-cello-and-computer-story; or the classical-musician-gone-rogue-story; or the radiolab-Amanda Palmer-Imogen Heap-Rasputina-connection; or the I'm-a-geek-too-story, etc. The casual listeners might not know my story or anything about me.”

“Casual listeners won't [support], but they never did anyway,” Zoe added in her Google Doc. “I don't buy ALL the music I listen to either, I never did, so why should I expect every single listener to make a purchase? I think that a subset of my listeners pay for my music, and that is a-ok because… and this is the key… there are few middlemen between us.”

You can access Zoe Keating’s precise earnings figures here.

Disclosure: Zoe Keating is an agency client of Hypebot's parent company Skyline Music.

Hisham Dahud is a Senior Analyst for Hypebot.com. Additionally, he is the head of Business Development for Fame House and an independent musician. Follow him on Twitter: @HishamDahud

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  1. Interesting that Amazon Physical was 10 percent. In the last Billboard newsletter it stated that Amazon had built 17 physical warehouses in the last year alone hopefully I’m not the only one that noticed.
    IMHO This is yet another sign that physical sales of music needs to be taken into consideration to include both digital stores like Amazon and all the amazing record stores that keep opening their doors everyday.
    If she’s in a distributor’s catalog there should be sales to stores as well and would increase her overall sales and reach as an artist.

  2. What’s really interesting to me is that her Spotify stream numbers are really disproportionately low compared with her iTunes and Bandcamp sales. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, but mine, while much lower, are kind of flipped opposite of that. Maybe it means her fans are of the particularly engaged type? Not sure, but find it interesting.

  3. Actually, I just looked on Spotify and most of her catalog isn’t there, so I think the comparison/discussion re: sales/streams is tremendously misleading. Anyway, great music. I look forward to watching her continue to succeed!

  4. We at Indiehitmaker totally agree, dont forget all those sales that occur at the live performances as well. Week after week we are seeing tons of indie and DIY musicians selling lots of physical product at their live shows, we can only report the ones that use our service, but we have the proof that the physical CD is not dead. In fact it is alive and flourishing, just look at The Silver Comet who charted the last two weeks on Top Heatseekers regional and national charts from physical sales while on Warped Tour. We see weekly reports of artists pocketing several hundred dollars a gig from music sales alone at their live performances regardless if they are on Spotify, sell CDs online or us a digital aggregation service.

  5. The comparison between streams/sales is not misleading, particularly in the case of Spotify.
    Spotify is great if you happen to be U2, Lady Gaga or Bob Dylan… to the independent artist though it is practically predatory. Streaming itself is not a problem; if the recompense to the artists made sense, no problem. But since the technology exists to distribute music easily it seems that people feel that the “business model”- and the definition of “stealing”- should adjust to fit.
    Plenty more on Spotify at the Trichordist site. Hold your nose and dig in.

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