Pandora's box: How one indie musician has fared with digital music

By Patrick Sweany , written on August 10, 2013

From The News Desk

I am a lifelong performer and recording artist but have never had a road manager or handlers, and never ridden in a tour bus (unless you count making a few extra bucks loading and unloading someone else's gear). I release albums on a small independent record label, and earn the majority of my very lower middle class income from performing, and a much smaller percentage selling records at my shows.

The release of an album signifies a finite space of time, usually no more than one year, to promote it. This entails my trying to receive attention from influential media outlets and going on tour. After a year, sales drop off, and touring dries up, because it's harder to push a product that isn't "new." Meanwhile thousands of other bands release their albums and we all float along on the rising and ebbing tide of promotional opportunities.

My life is a far cry from Jay-Z and Adele’s. They are outliers. Instead, I am like most musicians you might know: relatively unknown and fighting to generate enough income to continue to keep my business afloat and battling to open shows for better-known bands, so I might reach more fans and sell more records. Essentially, I just want to "be known." Like many musicians, I see a contemporary become successful and wonder why not me? The answer is usually the same, though: That's just the way it is.

And it was. Then something happened.

Back in the early 2000s 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 was very successful. In 2006, Dan offered to record an album for me at his home studio.

After that album, "Every Hour is a Dollar Gone,” came out in 2007, I began the obligatory record release business – a summer of grueling, low-budget touring that  bled into the fall, with the occasional third tier festival slot and minor support slots. Fall then became winter, winter into spring, and not a whole lot else.

The association with Dan failed to achieve much beyond some initial press. In an effort to stay afloat, I moved to Nashville and entered the most discouraging and financially difficult period of my adult life. I had to take supplemental work as a roadie, performed as a census taker, and sold music gear I had collected and cherished to pay bills.

Making an album is immensely expensive, and when it came time to write and record another, I didn't have the savings. I tried cutting corners, but as the old saying goes, "You get what you pay for." None of these attempts worked sonically. The label and I were forced to crowdsource funds from fans on our email list. That money ran thin, too.

At the same time, an Internet radio app called Pandora became a standard feature on many cell phones. The app was unique, because it employed an algorithm that takes the music you choose and adds other artists, based on your tastes. It factors in simple user feedback and is surprisingly good, quickly becoming the app that a staggeringly massive amount of music fans would end up using as their primary means of listening to music. Even better, it was free, the only cost having to endure a few commercials.

It was at this time that my label informed me that plays on Pandora of my song "Them Shoes," and subsequently the Auerbach produced record, "Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone," were exceeding initial sales nearly three years after it's release. We began to receive licensing offers. This small increase in income enabled me to complete and release another album, "That Old Southern Drag." It received flattering critical reviews, sales were moderate, but it didn't make the dent that we had hoped it would, and subsistence touring continued with more budget-conscious solo support slots rather than headliner appearances with a full band.

I was working but slept on a lot of couches and was imbued with general financial malaise. I believed I was as good a performer, as ever, and the songs I was writing and releasing were good, too. But the realities of the music business did not reflect this. Budgets were smaller, and there were fewer clubs to play. Door deals, where 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.

Nevertheless plays of "Them Shoes" kept growing. It began to bridge the gap between the lack of touring revenue and CD sales. More people were 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 merchandise table, completely unaware that I was that guy, not some employee of Patrick Sweany Big Rock and Roller Touring Enterprises. When someone would buy a disc prior to show time, I would often be asked, "Will Patrick be out later to sign stuff?"

I am a proud person, and it's a little embarrassing to reveal the actual numbers of a "barely hanging in there" business, but I assure you it is all big business to me. In 2008, I sold 225 digital downloads of my new, Dan Auerbach-produced album, "Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone." In 2009, after Pandora became a household name, album download sales more than tripled, to 684 copies. It nearly doubled in 2010, to 1181 album downloads, and I saw a smaller increase in sales in 2011 with 1785 album downloads.

In 2012 the number was 2297 album downloads. There were 430 downloads of "Them Shoes" in 2008, which tripled in 2009, and then tripled again that in 2010. "Them Shoes" in 2011 came just shy of doubling the previous year's downloads. I 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 barnacle 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 uncommon. I never could have reached this many without webcasting and streaming music.

On Pandora, my music has gotten well over 2 million plays. When I found that out I was dumbfounded. I couldn't dream of reaching that many people. Then I learned something else. For that number of plays, Pandora has paid me about a thousand bucks. Yes, for more than two million plays.

The simple truth is that most people don't buy music they can hear free, or stream for $9.99 a month, which is what Spotify and MOG offer subscribers. Why would they? Plays of "Them Shoes" have increased 2,600 percent from the initial release and album sales of "Every Hour" have risen 1,000 percent. You would think these numbers signify success. They don’t.

The cost of fuel and lodging is higher every year. The number of places to do gigs is smaller. Audiences have more choices on where to spend their money. Over the years, my no-frills lifestyle, and income, has changed little. I am still uninsured; only my car has insurance, and that’s required by law. Meanwhile touring costs often meet or exceed revenue. My wife and I still rent the same 750-square-foot house in East Nashville that we moved into almost six years ago.

I am thankful to each and every one of the millions who have listened and enjoyed my music, and owe an even greater debt of gratitude to a much smaller group of people: those who actually purchased my music. I know that I am lucky to still be in the game at this point in my life. And I am wary of criticizing Pandora's business practices. If it didn't exist, I would probably be dividing my time between being a roadie, substitute teaching, and if things went well, a couple bartending shifts a week.

By the same token, however, I don't understand how Pandora founder and chief strategy officer Tim Westergren can say he is helping independent artists by reducing their royalty pay out. Don’t get me wrong: I have benefited and continue to benefit from Pandora, but I don't see how shrinking my piece of the pie makes it fairer.

A version of this was originally published on Hyperbot.

Image courtesy of Patrick Sweany