By Patrick Sweany a musician and songwriter based in Nashville, TN. On July 16th, he released a new solo album, Close To The Floor, on Nine Mile Records.
I am a lifelong performer and recording artist. I have spent most of my adult life uninsured except for the vehicle I travel in to make my income. I have never had a road manager, or handlers, and I've never ridden in a tour bus unless I was loading someone else's gear into it for extra cash. For the entirety of my career I have released albums on a small independent record label, and made the majority of my very lower middle class income from performing, and a much smaller percentage from selling records at those shows.
The release of an album signifies a finite space of time, usually no more than one year, to promote said album, attempt to receive attention from influential media outlets, and in turn promote performance dates in support of that album. One year at the very, very most, then sales drop off, and touring drops off because it's harder to promote a product that isn't "new." Thousands and thousands of other bands release their "new" album and we all float along on the rising and ebbing tide of promotional opportunities.
I am exactly like most of the musicians you know. Relatively unknown, fighting to generate income to continue to keep the business afloat. Fighting to open shows for larger bands to reach more fans and sell more records. Essentially, fighting to just "be known." Like a lot of musicians you know, you see a contemporary of theirs become successful to some degree and wonder "why isn't he or she as successful as the 'known person?'" and "why doesn't that translate to more success for the less 'known' one?" The answer to those questions is inevitably "that's just the way it is."
And it was. But something different also happened.
Back in the early 2000s a young Dan Auerbach was playing in my band. We had become friends over a mutual love of Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers and a mutual desire to sound just like them. He soon started his own band, then a short time later, started another duo called The Black Keys. That band became quite successful, well beyond anything we had seen in our area. In 2006, Dan offered to record an album for me at his home studio.
After that album was released, the obligatory record release business was conducted, a summer of grueling, low budget touring continued into the fall and minor support slots, the occasional third tier festival slot, summer turned to fall, fall into winter, winter into spring, and not a whole lot else. The association with Dan was a nice foothold for press, but really failed to achieve much beyond the initial press releases. In an effort to stay afloat, a move to Nashville was decided. It is then I entered the most discouraging and financially difficult period of my adult life. I took supplemental work as a roadie, a census taker, I sold musical gear that I had collected and cherished to pay bills. When it came time to write and record another album, I didn't have the savings to do it. Several low budget attempts were made to try to record the new album, and as the old saying goes, "You get what you pay for." None of these attempts were satisfactory sonically, nor in performance. The label and I were forced to crowd source funds from fans on our email list. And that money ran pretty thin too. Making an actual album is immensely expensive.
At this same time, an internet radio cell phone app called Pandora became a standard feauture on most cell phones. The app is unique in its ability to employ an algorithm that takes the music you choose and adds other artists that appear similar to your tastes, according to the algorithm, and also factors in simple user feedback on the selections. It was and is surprisingly good, and quickly became the app that a staggeringly massive amount of music fans use as their primary means of listening to music. And unless you minded a few commercials, it was free!
It was at this time, that the label informed me that downloads of my song "Them Shoes" and subsequently the Auerbach produced album "Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone," were growing in numbers that exceeded initial sales of the album nearly 3 years after it's release. We began to receive licensing offers for "Them Shoes." The small increase in income enabled the completion and release of "That Old Southern Drag." That album did not do well as I had hoped. It received some great critical reviews, sales were moderate, but it didn't make the dent that we had hoped it would, and subsistence touring continued, more budget conscious solo support slots rather than headliner appearances with the full band. I was working, but I slept on alot of couches, and general financial discouragement continued. I was panicked, feeling trapped, that no forward momentum was being achieved. I felt I was as good a performer as I had ever been in my life, I felt the songs I was writing and releasing were as good as anything I've ever done, but the economy of the music business was not supporting my feelings. Budgets were smaller. There were less clubs to play. Door deals, where once the performer got the lion's share of the take, were becoming a thing of the past, another revenue stream that the club or promoter now absorbed. "If you don't like it, you can always stay home and take nothing."
But downloads of "Them Shoes " kept increasing. It began to bridge the gap between the lack of touring revenue, and the lack of off the stage album sales. More people began coming to shows in major metropolitan areas where I had little or no track record. I listened to people talk about me as I stood manning the merch table, completely unaware that I was THAT GUY, not some employee of Patrick Sweany Big Rock and Roller Touring Enterprises. When they would buy a disc prior to showtime, I would get asked, "Will Patrick be out later to sign stuff?"
I am a proud person, and it's a little embarassing to reveal the actual numbers of a "barely hanging in there" business that I have based my life on. I am an entertainer and it's the reason I walk this earth. My job is to bring peace and happiness through sharing my talents to those around me. I feel a wealth and an attachment to a thing so much greater than myself through music than I ever thought possible. It is a great need in me to be that person, and I hope that the numbers you see don't discourage the young and hopeful, or make those older bitter and dismissive at just how small potatoes the numbers are that we're talking about. I assure you, it is all big business to me.
In 2008, digital download sales of my new, Dan Auerbach produced album "Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone," was 225 copies. In 2009, Pandora became a household name, album download sales more than tripled, to 684 copies.
That number nearly doubled in 2010, to 1181 album downloads, and we saw a smaller increase in sales in 2011 with 1785 album downloads. In 2012 that number was 2297 album downloads. There were 430 downloads of "Them Shoes" in 2008, and that number tripled in 2009, and then tripled that in 2010. In 2011, "Them Shoes" came just shy of doubling the previous year's downloads. It is of note we released another full length album in 2011, which may account for the slowdown. In 2012, there were 11,136 downloads of "Them Shoes." These are not the type of numbers you see on the back pages of Rolling Stone.
The phenomena of gaining exposure through Pandora, by our association with The Black Keys, and Pandora's algorithm continuing to attach us to other artist "stations" (The White Stripes, Jack White, Dan Auerbach, Queens Of The Stone Age, Wolfmother, Raconteurs, BB King, Junior Kimbrough, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick etc.) is about as unique an occurrence as one can find in the music business. I never in a million years of doing business the way I do could have reached the audience I have reached. I have received well over 2,000,000 plays on Pandora. I was dumbfounded to learn we had that amount of exposure. I couldn't dream of reaching that many people. Then I learned something else. For that amount of plays, Pandora has paid out less than a hundred bucks. Less than $100 for over 2 million plays.
Most people listen to Pandora to be surprised at what variety of artists the algorithm comes up with, and exposing listener to new artist they may like. What most of those people don't do is buy music they can already hear for free, or what they can hear by paying for commercial free Pandora. Why would they? Downloads of "Them Shoes" have increased 2600% from its initial release. Album sales of "Every Hour.." have increased 1000%. These numbers appear to signify great success, but the reality of those numbers is much different than they appear. The cost of fuel and lodging is higher every year, the amount of places to do gigs is smaller, audiences have many more choices where to spend their money, and that money is tighter than ever. My lifestyle, and my income has changed very little. I am still uninsured except for my vehicle, my touring costs often meet or exceed revenue taken in, and my wife and I are still renting the same 750 square foot house in East Nashville that we moved into almost 6 years ago.
Of the millions of people that have listened and enjoyed my music, I am thankful to each and every one. To the much, much smaller group of people who actually purchased my music, I owe an even greater debt of grattitude. I feel that I am a lucky guy to still be in the game at this point in my life. In all honesty, I am very wary of criticizing Pandora's business practices. If it didn't exist, I would probably be splitting my time between being a roadie, substitute teaching, and if things went well, a couple bartending shifts a week. By the same token, I don't understand how Pandora CEO Tim Westergren could proclaim he is helping independent artists by reducing their royalty pay out by 85% I don't claim to have the answers, but I am that person for whom the playing field was supposedly levelled. Mine is the best case scenario from a promotional standpoint. I have benefitted and continue to benefit because of Pandora, but the margins are very small. I can't see how shrinking my piece makes it more fair for anybody.