Royalty rates on popular music streaming services make it impossible for all but the biggest musicians to earn livable incomes. Consumer habits alone won’t save the world, but enough people spending conscientiously can make a huge difference to an awful lot of artists. With that in mind, this article contains a selection of more ethical alternatives to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.
This is not a ranking list. The services are presented in no particular order and we are not affiliated with any of them. Nor do we claim to be the arbiters of music industry morality. This is for anyone wishing to learn more about streaming models that don’t totally shaft musicians. In our eyes the standard for that involves things like higher payouts for streams (think one cent per listen and up, a kind of music streaming minimum wage), more transparent payout distribution, and co-operative organisation.
Of course, buy merch if you can, buy records and attend gigs if you can. If you can’t, fair enough. Artists aren’t the only ones struggling right now. All the same, the services below may well allow you to spend the same amount as you were before while putting a lot more money in your favourite musicians’ pockets. Who can argue with that?
Founded in 2016, Resonate uses an approach to payouts called Stream2own. With them the cost of streams doubles each listen until you reach the around the dollar mark (that’s nine plays). After that you effectively own the song and can listen as much as you like for no further cost. The thinking here is that users can explore and discover new music without breaking the bank. It’s only once a song hooks you that you really start to fork over the pennies, which seems fair enough.
Uniquely among those mentioned here, Resonate is a cooperative, owned by the people who use it and develop it. Their one member, one share, one vote ethos leaves an especially warm, fuzzy feeling. All the other services described here are private companies that try to behave well, but they’re private companies all the same. You know what they can be like. Meanwhile, any profits Resonate makes goes to its members.
One trade-off of being a cooperative is that Resonate does not yet have the resources to build dedicated apps for iOS and Android. It is instead a browser-based offering - a web app, if you will. That will be a turn-off for some, but the interface is simple and intuitive and you can link from your homescreen and have much the same experience as if you’d installed something.
Going all in on a musician-centric model, on SonStream you pay artists directly for streams. Instead of a subscription it’s straight up pay-as-you-go — around 2.5 pence a song (or 3 cents). No fucking around.
If you listen to no songs in a month, you pay nothing. If you listen to 500 songs you’ll pay somewhere in the region of £12.50 (or $15). Seems reasonable right? The direct line between listeners and artists is a real pro here. There’s no opaque processes whereby your money mysteriously finds itself in the pockets of artists you’ve never listened to.
As far as ease of use goes SonStream is getting there. It recently rolled out apps for Android and iOS, which is a mammoth effort in itself. There’s some teething to be done but for a plucky underdog without billions of venture capital to pump into development it’s not half bad. Find a song, press play, enjoy. Simples.
The catalogue is a little lean — one millions compared to Spotify’s sixty million — but it’s growing. Radiohead, Talking Heads, and The Specials are there, to name but a few. An especially nice thing about SonStream’s pay-as-you-go model is it costs nothing to have it installed and ready to go. If an artist is on SonStream, great, listen to them there. If not, no harm done.
SoundCloud is likely the biggest name to move towards a more user-centric model. In March of 2021 the company announced it was moving towards a ‘fan-powered’ royalty system, meaning artists’ earnings would now directly reflect the number of listens they receive. Before that SoundCloud had a Spotify-esque old model in which money was put into a giant, mysterious pool and distributed at the platform’s discretion. The new model is much more direct. If you listen to three artists during the month, all your money will go to those three artists.
Although SoundCloud stopped short of a guaranteed per-stream royalty rate, their step was still positive - one the rest of the industry will likely be watching with interest. If you’re a vote-with-your-wallet kind of consumer, SoundCloud may be an especially good option. If SoundCloud can make ethical music streaming work then the idea’s time on the fringes could be over.
Bandcamp isn’t exactly a music streaming service, but it’s been so good to and for artists during the pandemic that it merits a mention. A wide range of artists have stores on Bandcamp, selling both music and merchandise. On digital sales Bandcamp takes a 15 percent cut, and for the merch it’s 10 percent.
Although Bandcamp doesn’t pay out for streams of songs, it does make purchasing music super easy — be it for yourself or as a gift for someone else. Their Bandcamp Fridays initiative (during which they waive their revenue share) have also been fantastic for artists. Keep up to date on the next one at isitbandcampfriday.com.
Their live stream gig functionality is a good way to get your live music fix while supporting the artists you love. Bandcamp takes a 10% cut for e-tickets - the rest goes straight to the artist. Something to keep in mind during the pandemic and beyond.