Challenges Artists Face in the Modern Streaming Era

In the current oversaturated music market, artists face endless challenges in getting their music heard on platforms like Spotify.

Challenges Artists Face in the Modern Streaming Era
Sonia Chien
Sonia Chien
May 13, 20249 min read
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With nearly 80% of artists on Spotify never even hitting 1,000 monthly listeners in 2023, visibility is an increasingly essential topic for many musicians in the industry today. When a 2023 study asked musicians about the biggest challenges they currently face in their music, over two-thirds responded that breaking through the noise was one of their three most significant challenges — with notable runners-up being joining the dots between social activity and streaming, lack of time to create, and lack of financial resources.

While the lower barrier to entry resulting from streaming has provided some element of democratization, it has also created an oversaturated market in which many artists must juggle their creative aspirations alongside the business side of the equation. These days, booking shows, reaching out to playlist curators, and managing social media accounts are just some of the responsibilities that musicians must consider when aspiring to play music as a full-time career.

The Pay Gap between Musicians and the Industry

If you are an artist vying to grow on a major streaming platform, the nature of what this balance entails is apparent when you look at how Spotify defines a professional artist. In their 2023 Loud & Clear update, Spotify reported the number of “emerging and professional artists” as just under 225k out of a total of 10 million artists on the platform. Evidently what Spotify is referring to here as “professional” is not elements of the music itself, such as quality of production or creative value, but rather the artist’s ability to balance creating music that generates streams while also knowing how to market themselves. When it comes to who is getting paid among these artists, the number is even smaller, with only 66k artists making over $10,000 in 2023.

In 2017, Citigroup reported that musicians in the US only gained 12% of the $43 billion generated by their music, suggesting that while the industry is indeed profitable, the artists making it possible are being left in the lurch. Even celebrity musicians are beginning to speak out on the topic, as James Blake did in a post about the lack of pay for artists and its inevitable leech on quality — to the point where we are seeing an increasing amount of AI-generated music.

Within this category is the dilemma of fake artists, who have been present on streaming platforms since their inception. As early as 2015, music industry analyst Tim Ingham reported deals between Spotify and Swedish musicians to create music under pseudonyms. While Spotify has denied involvement, there are reports of this continuing into recent years, with Spotify financing individual artists to create songs under 20 non-affiliated artist profiles, in order to pay just one artist while generating the streaming counts of several.

Take FN Meka, a virtual rapper signed to Capitol Records in 2019 whose white and Asian creators were accused of cultural appropriation due to using a black avatar and lyrical content perpetuating stereotypes. Paired with a following of 10 million on TikTok, FN Meka songs have been placed on over 3.6k playlists on Spotify tracked by Chartmetric.

Despite continued adds onto playlists, none of the songs on FN Meka’s Spotify profile are currently streamable, putting FN Meka’s monthly listenership at zero. This kind of activity on fake artist accounts is not only bizarre, it also stands in stark contrast to the real artists trying to make a living creating music from scratch to be consciously heard and enjoyed.

FN Meka's Spotify page, with 0 monthly listeners and no streamable songs
FN Meka's most streamed song on Spotify, which is currently unable to be played

Quality Always Wins

So where does all this leave living, breathing musicians who are interested in pursuing their craft because they love to do it, but would rather not be sacrificing all their time to promotion in exchange for minimal profits? Chartmetric spoke to curator Michael Rosen, founder of Digital in Berlin, a platform for sophisticated music culture, and creator of Kiezsalon, an innovative annual concert series, about his take on how emerging artists should tackle finding success in music. His view is an optimistic one: quality always wins. 

“I am 99% confident that if you are an emerging artist, and you’re doing great stuff, you’ll be reached by the right people,” said Rosen, who has worked to help independent artists make better economic use of their creative potential since 2008. 

Concerning the artists who approach him to say that they are putting music out there but not getting where they want to be with gigs, shows, and management, he has a simple answer. “They could have the best marketing agency in the world. There is a reason why: the music is just not good enough.” 

While he acknowledges the benefits of good management and organization — giving the example of D/B-partnered guitarist Hayden Pedigo, whose large team Rosen cited as an asset for a small-town Texan embarking on a first tour outside of the US — he is also a strong believer that nothing will take you further than your skill as an artist. In service of this point, he referenced Kelly Moran, a New York-based piano player who was quickly recognized as a huge talent and signed to Warp Records in 2018, despite her timing during an era when people had grown tired around all the hype of neoclassical. 

All of a sudden, [Warp Records] found someone who was just incredibly good. And so incredibly good that [she defied the trend of distaste for neoclassical]. So these people are around. In every genre, it doesn’t matter if it’s punk rock or jazz,” described Rosen.

Rosen, who has attended concerts almost every day for years — sometimes two or three times per day — originally started Digital in Berlin as a “superfan” who had so many concerts he wanted to go to that he made a guide for himself to follow. Over the years, this has turned into a cultural program with a strong community reputation and funding from the Berlin government. Under the D/B umbrella, Rosen also founded Kiezsalon, a series of concerts featuring two back-to-back performers of different genres performing for a half hour each. He notes he does it this way because he likes seeing a diverse crowd, and when there are just 30 minutes to perform, he finds that the attention from the audience is of a higher quality.

Kiezsalon has been held each year since 2010 around Berlin, mainly in places that are not normally designed as venues. One 2021 show, for example, featured performers Robyn Schulkowsky, Liam Byrne, and Jozef van Wissem playing in a former bear pit, with audience members standing outside the enclosure. Another show in 2023 was held at Zionskirche, a historic Berlin church, and featured Brooklyn electronic artist Time Wharp and French modern classical artist Delphine Dora

Kiezsalon w/ Time Wharp and Delphine Dora at Zionskirche

Taking the Kiezsalon with Time Wharp and Delphine Dora as an example, one might imagine from their vastly different audience sizes and genres how a traditional concert arrangement may create a dichotomy between their acts. In a majority of cases, opening acts are allotted shorter sets than the main act, and often even worse lighting and lower volume. In the Kiezsalon setup, with the diversity of genres offering a point of equality, both artists are presented in parallel and share the stage for an equal amount of time, sending the signal to the audience that they should be valued equally as well.

Rosen expressed that his reputation in the Berlin music scene has given him a lot of creative freedom. Since his events are established and he can be sure that tickets will sell, rather than stick to a formula that he knows will work, he books the acts he likes and experiments with event structure in ways designed to heighten the quality of experience for both the audience and the artists alike — regardless of their stream counts. 

Finding the Right Rhythm

Chartmetric also spoke to Cindy Bouchakour, aka Cindy BB, a London-based singer-songwriter whose music mixes electronic with North African and Arabic influences. The 10-year journey of her music career has been largely self-directed. After arriving in London in 2015, she attended university for vocals and songwriting, and since 2022 has made music under the independent London label Sweat Entertainment.

While the label has helped her manage various tasks, including getting her tracks featured on their well-followed playlists, Cindy finds that there is still much to be done on her part to get her music out there, such as reaching fans through social media. With this to do on top of two jobs, she is often left overworked: “I feel like there are not enough hours in the day. I’m staying positive by being grateful really, and acknowledging the progress I’ve made through the years.”

When it comes to her biggest challenge as an artist, Cindy notes that she often is her own harshest critic. She aims to give herself more grace; noting “then I’ll be able to be more productive. I think a lot of artists relate to that.” 

She also noted that she has learned the most by trying things out and seeing what sticks. “Today artists have to wear all the hats, and be their own promoters, managers, creative directors, everything. A lot of people are going to give you advice, but you have to try and fail to be able to succeed and see what’s best for you.”

Making it Work

When it comes to pursuing a career as a musician, there can be a seemingly endless number of things to keep in the balance: getting music out there to listeners, creative development, taking advantage of opportunities, making it work financially, and when things seem to not be happening fast enough, a whole lot of patience. 

Although it may seem like an uphill battle at times, there are some things that this challenging era of musicianship has not changed. One is the power of music which is simply good. As Michael Rosen suggests, if an artist is confident that they are doing something unique in the music world at a high ability, then sending just twenty emails to possible contacts to get the ball rolling is an excellent start.

While no one can do an artist’s creative work or make key decisions for them, a second timeless element is how much knowing yourself, and delegating and/or simplifying tasks accordingly, can solve a lot of problems. If breaking through the noise poses a challenge, researching representation by an independent label, such as the route Cindy took, may be a very good option. If the logistics of a tour sound daunting, there are resources for that too. Digital in Berlin, for example, helps artists spread information about their concert dates and book living accommodations. 

Choosing what obstacles to take on individually, and which to find help with, is all part of the experience. When it comes to the obstacles that you choose to tackle individually, showing up, even when things are uncertain, is the first step. As Cindy noted, she used to get nervous about going to the studio, out of concern that nothing would sound good, but she has since just started having fun. 

At the end of the day, she makes music because she enjoys it: “Now I just have fun, really. I absolutely love creating new songs, being on stage, and singing live. It really is my favorite, to get to see people vibe and sing back to me.”

Visualizations by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado. Data as of May 13, 2024.