Trickling streams: How digital has affected local musicians

Getting added to one of Spotify’s curated playlists gave Alethea Leventhal’s “Ships In The Night” new listeners, but not a big payday. Photo by Tristan Williams Getting added to one of Spotify’s curated playlists gave Alethea Leventhal’s “Ships In The Night” new listeners, but not a big payday. Photo by Tristan Williams

Paul Curreri remembers getting rid of his CD collection. He and his wife, Devon Sproule, both musicians, were packing up their Austin, Texas, home to move back to Charlottesville in 2015, when Curreri realized he hadn’t added to his CD collection in a while. “There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch,” he says of the 2,500-odd discs. The collection “used to be super fun, and vital, and alive,” he says, but once he stopped adding to it, it wasn’t fun anymore. Curreri sold it all for about $400.

Paul Curreri

“Now we have Spotify, and we have Pandora, and [I have it all] technically, on a hard drive somewhere. …But then I open up Spotify and I literally can’t think of artists. It drives me nuts! It’s like I’ve lost my entire filing system without having [the albums physically] on the wall,” he says.

Curreri’s story likely sounds familiar, and it demonstrates how consuming and appreciating music has changed drastically in recent years.

There’s no shortage of talk about this on music blogs and in entertainment magazines, particularly how the advent of streaming pays artists only a fraction of a cent per song play. But how is it affecting non-superstar local artists, in a small city with a fairly robust music scene?

It’s hard to find an exact number for how much a single-song stream pays. “It is pretty meager,” says Alethea Leventhal, who records dark electronic, ethereal synthesizer lullabies under the moniker Ships in the Night.

Conversations with Charlottesville-area musicians of many genres reveal that for the most part, they’re not in it for the money; they’re in it because they have something to say and to share.

Curreri says that when he began recording and releasing music in the early 2000s, he got regular checks, for hundreds of dollars a week, from his distribution service, CD Baby. His records were well-received by critics and audiences, and he started selling enough albums to make his money back on recording, and then some. But just when it seemed like he could make a real living off music, sometime around 2007 the checks started shrinking. That was the year Radiohead released In Rainbows, not as a CD, but as a pay-what-you-want download, and arguably altered the way people thought about releasing and purchasing music. (The physical version of In Rainbows was offered in January 2008 through Coran Capshaw’s TBD label, and was certified gold with 500,000 copies sold by March 2008.)

Crunching the numbers

BuzzAngle Music’s 2018 data shows that people are listening to more music than ever, but purchasing less with each passing year.

701 million

Total album consumption in 2018, including physical, digital, and streams (up 16.2 percent over 2017)

5.8 billion

Total song consumption (27.4 percent increase over 2017)

809.5 billion

Total on-demand streams (35.4 percent increase over 2017)

121.2 million

Album and song sales (a combined decrease of 189.6 million­—in 2018, there was not a single song that broke one million in sales)

Now, artists often record their music at a personal financial loss and rely on live shows—their cut of the door, plus merch and physical music sales—to make money from music.

Last year, one of Leventhal’s songs made it on to a curated Spotify playlist—a placement that Curreri likens to “getting on Letterman”—and while she only made a few hundred dollars from the resulting streams, she saw it as a channel to new ears. Perhaps some of those listeners came out to one of the 70-plus shows she played last year, or shared the song with a friend.

“That’s what inspires me to always keep sharing music,” says Leventhal. “Just that one person in a sea of many who it really, really reaches, and maybe helps.”

Kai Crowe-Getty

“We see Spotify not as a revenue stream, but a carrot to get people to come to our show,” where they’ll have a good time, buy merch, and hopefully see the band next time it rolls through town, says Kai Crowe-Getty, guitarist and vocalist for Americana/Southern rock band Lord Nelson.

“People want to experience things together, in the dark, with people they know and don’t know,” says Crowe-Getty. That part of enjoying music hasn’t changed, though he scratches his head at how some folks shell out $150 for a concert ticket, but not $15 for an album.

Indie rock band Stray Fossa had a few songs appear on various music blog playlists, and in November 2018, its single “Commotion” appeared (how, the band has no idea) on Spotify’s “Fresh Finds” and “Fresh Finds: Six Strings” playlists. Bassist Zach Blount says that while the resulting tens of thousands of song streams didn’t result in more physical or digital music sales via Stray Fossa’s Bandcamp page, “we have had people turn out for shows while on tour who said they had found us on Spotify and decided to check us out.”

Kate Bollinger, a third-year student at UVA, only releases her music digitally right now, with many tracks exclusively available on Spotify. She approached the platform, with its 87 million paying subscribers, not as a money maker, but as a way to get heard.

Last year, her song “Tests” appeared on a YouTube playlist with a considerable following, and was later added to several Spotify playlists. As a result, her songs now have more than 80,000 monthly listeners, and she’s almost certain that her Spotify artist page is what got a recent show mentioned in the New York Times.

Bollinger says that her Spotify success hasn’t resulted in a big check (or any check, yet), but it gives her confidence that music is something to pursue long-term.

Local rapper Kevin Skinner, aka Sondai, has previously told C-VILLE something similar: so far his 2017 single “One Chick” has more than 2.2 million listens on Spotify alone.

Curreri is now part of the growing group of artists, like Bollinger, that releases music exclusively online. He and Sproule have a Patreon page, where they release at least two new things—usually original songs, sometimes covers, videos, or even essays—each month, and supporters choose how much they want to pay per release. It averages out to about $400 a song, says Curreri, so while it’s not bad, it’s not enough to make a living. Part of why Curreri agreed to be interviewed for this story, he says with a laugh, is because he hopes a reader might think, “I’d like to hear what Devon and Paul are doing.”

Curreri implies that all is not lost—musicians are still making music, and people are still listening to it. He and Sproule have about 30 songs up on their page—making at least two songs every month “is something we would not have done otherwise,” says Curreri.

“It’s a huge priority for me. It’s our work, and our art, and our opportunity and platform to present something to an audience, to insert something into the universe.”

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