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Illustration by Hunter French 
Music

We Asked 13 Artists How Spotify's 'Tip Jar' Is Working Out for Them

Amber Coffman, of Montreal, and Zola Jesus gave VICE their thoughts on asking for donations on the multi-billion-dollar platform after coronavirus put them out of a job.
13 May 2020, 2:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

If you've tuned in to Spotify lately, you may have noticed a purple button with the words "COVID-19 Support" pop up when you pull up your favorite band's artist page on mobile. It's not a glitch: Back in April, the company unveiled a new feature called "Artist Fundraising Pick," which enables musicians whose livelihoods have been cratered by the pandemic to raise money directly from fans by linking out to a payment platform of their choice—or, alternately, a charity.

Described as an attempt to "provide the global reach of Spotify to artists who are fundraising during this challenging time," the feature is part of a broader charitable initiative by the company, which has pledged to donate up to $10 million of its own money to a selection of partner organizations like MusiCares and Music Health Alliance, while matching outside donations dollar-per-dollar. Musicians using the Artist Fundraising Pick to raise money for themselves and their crew members were also, up until recently, able to take advantage of a new Spotify partnership with Cash App, which agreed to donate an extra $100 to artists electing to receive funds through the payment platform, for a total contribution of $1 million. In a May 4 update, Spotify announced that 10,000 artists had received donations through the Cash App partnership alone, and that the payment site's $1 million allocation had already been tapped.

But just because artists are taking advantage of the feature doesn't mean it isn't polarizing, especially coming from a company that posted $2 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year while routinely facing blowback for paying artists a fraction-of-a-penny per stream. Recently, Spotify also teamed with Google, Pandora, and Amazon to appeal a ruling by the U.S. Copyright Board requiring streaming services to increase royalty payments to songwriters by 44%. (In a blog post, the company explained that it was "important to Spotify" to pay artists more, but that there were "flaws" in the Copyright Board’s proposed rate structure that would "hurt consumers.")

One editor described the new feature as a "tacit admission that artists are not being paid enough," while musicians roundly criticized the move as one that reduced artists to making music for tips. And though artists have long been calling for a model that would enable fans to support artists directly, some complained that the company's emphasis on charity was no substitute for a fairer share of the royalties associated with their music—especially as widespread venue and tour cancellations obliterate musicians' most reliable income stream.

VICE got in touch with 13 independent artists—including Amber Coffman, of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, Nothing's Domenic Palermo, and Nika from Zola Jesus—to find out how the Artist Fundraising Pick feature has been working out for them and how they feel about Big Streaming encouraging artists to crowdsource donations from fans.


How well has the Spotify feature been working for you when it comes to raising donations?

Dave Benton, Trace Mountains: I haven't promoted it at all, so I've only gotten one contribution, which was generous and very much appreciated. I'm not very inclined to tell my supporters to go there because I'd rather direct them to my website or Bandcamp page, where I have more control and [can] communicate with them directly if I want. I like having the fundraising link on Spotify, but more as a passive thing for people to see and possibly contribute to if they are visiting the artist page.

Domenic Palermo, Nothing: So yes, I'm struggling, and yes, the button is there to donate. But no, it hasn't helped, and again, I don't feel comfortable promoting it when there are others who need it more. Not a knock to anyone who has either.

Kevin Barnes, of Montreal: It's generated around $30, so not very well.

Amber Coffman: I just put up a PayPal link a few days ago, so I can't speak to its efficacy yet, but I did receive my first donation the other day. (Thank you, Ben!) I saw the thing about Cash App and [an] extra hundred bucks, but I felt awkward using this feature in the first place and didn't want to bother with joining a new payment platform.

Nika, Zola Jesus: It works well. However, the donations are sporadic.

Alex Luciano, Diet Cig: It's been pretty slow compared to other ways we've raised donations; there's a donation option when you're checking out of our merch store, and we've put up a donation link through Square for some of our livestreams. There have been a few really sweet folks who've sent a bit our way through [the Spotify feature], but not many. It's a nice extra bit of money every once in a while, but it's not anything we can rely on, the way a higher percentage of streaming revenue could be.

Sean Solomon, Moaning: We haven't gotten any donations. I'm not exactly sure where the donation button is, to be honest! I haven't seen it.

Domenic Palermo, Nothing: Honestly, I set it up but haven't promoted it at all. Not above it or anything—anyone who counts on their music to live is in trouble right now, period. But we were lucky enough to not have any tours or plans canceled, and there are so many people out there who have had their lives dismantled from tour plans being canceled, or albums released in the midst of this. Merchandise, flights, rentals—normal people do not understand how one thing like this can unhinge our lives as musicians. Many of us hang on tour by tour, overextending ourselves financially with hopes of, at best, making the money back, let alone profiting.

So yes, I'm struggling, and yes, the button is there to donate. But no, it hasn't helped, and again, I don't feel comfortable promoting it when there are others who need it more. Not a knock to anyone who has either.

Do you believe that introducing a "tipping" feature on for-profit streaming services is a good idea?

Nika, Zola Jesus: Yes. If it means fans can find ways to support artists more directly and normalize[s] that as a concept!

Wesley Bunch, Suburban Living: It might take a while for consumers to get on board with the donation feature, but if every album or song came with a "Tip Jar" button next to it from here on out, I think we'd eventually see a great revenue stream for artists, managers, and labels. Like when you're at a coffee shop and you're settling up for your drink, and that iPad swings around to you with Square app on it, and it's like, "Tip 15%, 20%, or enter in your own amount." Or what if after you listen to the same song five times, a pop-up message with a virtual tip jar appears? Now that the public seems to know that artists don't make a lot of money off streaming or recording, they might be more inclined to throw some cash in that bucket.

Are you an asshole for not tipping? No, but at least you had the opportunity to directly support an artist. With so many eyes on corporations to "do the right thing," I would love to see these features stay in place when this is all over.

Dave Benton, Trace Mountains: In an ideal world, creators wouldn't need to work for tips on for-profit platforms. I think the only reason it's necessary is because of the power imbalance between the musicians and the platforms that profit off of the collective value of their work.

Maybe that's why Spotify doesn't want their "COVID-19 fundraising" button to be explicitly for the purpose of tipping the artists, because that in some way is an admission that musicians aren't paid a fair wage.

What are some challenges you foresee artists facing when trying to raise money using the Spotify feature specifically?

Wesley Bunch, Suburban Living: Honestly, if you're not unemployed, you're probably trying to save money. This, paired with the fact that most people who consume music on Spotify use that platform so they don't have to buy recorded music. I say this while also 100% supporting Spotify's platform: Just about all of our fans who support us at shows, buy our merch, and share our music have discovered us through Spotify. It is a valuable tool, and if you use it right as an artist, you'll reap the rewards.

Avery Springer, Retirement Party: People probably think that their subscription to Spotify pays the artists they're listening to, or at least fairly compensates them for the stream.

Jacob Bullard, Major Murphy: As a fledgling artist, I get weary of promoting myself and even more weary of asking for money, especially on a platform that folks are already paying for. With Bandcamp, when they waive their revenue share, it feels like an easier ask. You don't need a Bandcamp subscription to support artists, and the folks donating receive your music or merch.

David Benton, Trace Mountains: I think the function would work a lot better if it were more explicitly a "Tip the Artist" button. Instead, it's labeled as "COVID-19 Support," which to me could really be anything. Artists need money in their pockets, and I think fans know that and want to support the artists they love. Unfortunately, I think the button is designed poorly and fails to communicate clearly to fans that they can support the artists directly. It looks like a generic COVID-19 donation.

Matthew Fowler: I think most Spotify users still don't know the option exists. Secondly, the donation information ONLY appears on mobile, which excludes a large number of folks who [are] mostly using Spotify via their computers. That feels strange to me. Lastly, there's a lack of general "artist-to-fan" communication through Spotify; there's no way to promote or personalize this new feature, aesthetically or descriptively.

Kevin Barnes, of Montreal: People don't seem very likely to support artists through a pay site like Spotify because it's not a social media app, and no one uses it to interact with artists.

Sean Solomon, Moaning: Covid-19 has put so many people out of work. Even if someone has extra money to donate, I can't imagine supporting musicians is their top priority. I think most people assume there is some level of privilege to being an artist and would rather donate their money somewhere that helps more disadvantaged groups.

Theo Hilton, Nana Grizol: It's one thing for people to donate as a stop-gap because tours are canceled right now, and another for that to go on indefinitely— and that extends to all kinds of mutual aid fundraising. People's initial capital is starting to wane, and we need to think about how to make positive impacts for people, in addition to the state ramping up quality universal services.

Dominic Palermo, Nothing: The biggest problem is that we're gonna lose a lot of talented individuals to this. [The coronavirus crisis] has put our peers in a virtual subway station, collecting money in a guitar case. The other problem that comes to mind is the people [who are donating]. Where is their money coming from, and how long will they be able to provide their generosity?

How do you feel about asking fans to donate to your page?

Wesley Bunch, Suburban Living: I haven't done much promotion about it yet. In the past couple days, I've heard more and more stories of folks who have lost their jobs. People who thought they were safe. People who thought the economic impact wouldn't hurt them. I'm personally starting to have second thoughts about going on to our socials encouraging folks to donate to us because so many other people are in the same boat financially and suffering even harder.

Amber Coffman: We may know better, but there is still deep shame and fear of judgment involved for musicians and entertainers if they are seen as struggling financially.

Let's be real: I'm in a small indie band. I wasn't making a ton of money doing this in the first place, and although the support and encouragement from people around the world are amazing, I just have a weird, small amount of guilt when it comes to self-promotion right now. I keep having to tell myself that there are eight years of recorded albums on these streaming websites, and I put a lot of work into them. Maybe my sense [of my work's] value has been skewed due to the culture of the music industry.

Avery Springer, Retirement Party: We got one small donation the first day it was available, but as a band, we chose not to advertise it. We wanted it to be available for those who came across our page and felt inclined, but we also didn't want to pressure anyone. I feel a bit guilty for putting ourselves as the recipient instead of an organization, but in this time where we have lost so much income, it's an avenue to try to earn some of it back.

Amber Coffman: Well, for one thing, [the feature is] being advertised as a charity effort, and I think a lot of people don't realize it's supposed to be there (partially) to help support the artists they love. Perhaps Spotify is ashamed to highlight how badly musicians are hurting, since they have a huge part in that. I also think the way it's set up is slightly humiliating for musicians. It's like, "Click here to view this artist's charity of choice," and then it's just your personal PayPal, which feels a bit pathetic. It puts musicians in a position to feel guilty or embarrassed if they aren't currently in a position to donate to charity.

Despite our increasing awareness of [inequality], there's still this ingrained trust of "markets" wired into many Americans which tells you the lie that if someone isn't doing well financially, "Well, they must not have had what it took. C'est la vie!" It tells you that financially successful people deserve what they have because they earned it. But is it really that simple? We may know better, but there is still deep shame and fear of judgment involved for musicians and entertainers if they are seen as struggling financially.

If you opted for the Cash App option, did you receive the $100 from Cash App?

Matthew Fowler: Yes. I received my $100 from Cash App a few days after my first donation.

Avery Springer, Retirement Party: Yes, we did.

Jacob Bullard, Major Murphy: Yes! our manager paid us $1 and we got the $100 from Cash App, which was nice of them.

Dominic Palermo, Nothing: WTF NO?! Lmao. We linked [our existing] Cash App without the knowledge of the $100 for using Cash App.

Do you think the feature is a step in the right direction, overall?

Fran Keaney, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: I think it's a great idea. It's a good opportunity for artists to communicate to their fans causes that are close to their hearts. Regardless of whether it's on this for-profit platform or any other platform, it doesn't make a difference; the message is getting out there.

We've linked Support Act, which is an Australian organization that supports artists, crew [members], and other music industry professionals who may be doing it tough, whether due to physical injury, or mental health, or financial difficulty. The onset of COVID-19 has devastated the music industry and laid bare the lack of infrastructure [there is] to support people when they fall on hard times. If the fan is interested and able to support, they can. If not, it will at least help raise awareness for many causes, and this will be a good thing.

Alex Luciano, Diet Cig: The stream revenue share we get is so comically low, and to ask listeners who are often already paying Spotify for the service in the first place to make up the difference is just wild.

Matthew Fowler: I think it's a long-overdue feature and concept. However, the lack of tools to effectively connect and communicate with your existing fanbase ultimately limits this donation feature to [being] more of a gimmick than a staple. There are large (and heated) conversations going on right now regarding the way Spotify pays out artists, but I'm genuinely hopeful that this new feature is Spotify taking a small step in the overall direction of being more artist-centric/friendly.

Theo Hilton, Nana Grizol: I absolutely think that dropping an easy link to donate money for folks who can afford it is always a good thing. I appreciate Spotify as a platform where we can get our music and message out to a wide audience, and that includes lifting up the political movements, artists, and people that we care about. I'm really stoked that a bunch of people have heard our new music on Spotify and, maybe because of that, have been exposed to other cool stuff. That said, I really wish Spotify would give more money back to the artists whose work makes them a [multi-billion-dollar company]. Haha, it's a "both/and": they should both crowdsource funds and step up a lot more with their own bucks.

Nothing, Dominic Palermo: I think it's a great showing from Spotify, but essentially, it's just pushing responsibility back on the people who pay a monthly bill for the music.

Jacob Bullard, Major Murphy: Why put the onus on the musicians and the people already paying their subscriptions to raise extra money? Not saying it is a huge burden or anything, just that it's not the most effective.

Alex Luciano, Diet Cig: The stream revenue share we get is so comically low, and to ask listeners who are often already paying Spotify for the service in the first place to make up the difference is just wild.

Nika, Zola Jesus: Even though it's a considerate feature for Spotify to add, it's really nothing but a pathetic compromise after being prodded by musicians for a more respectable streaming rate. They're essentially [paying] us a pittance, yet market the service as an ethical practice to the consumers, so nobody questions it.

Sean Soloman, Moaning: I know a lot of musicians who felt the donation button was insulting. A group of friends recently started an organization called Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). The group was started in reaction to Covid-19 and teaming up with other gig workers who are seeking benefits. I think Spotify's donation button might actually cause a negative reaction and inspire some people to start thinking about how they can organize and demand more from streaming companies.

What are some other ways that streaming services like Spotify could help artists who are struggling right now?

Dominic Palermo, Nothing: Why not follow Bandcamp's lead and have a day where the artist sees a full percentage? I'm sure there's waves of issues, but why not take artists who are under 250,000 streams monthly and offer them a day where they can see their music generate actual money and not just the minuscule percentage that is somehow the same rate as the artists who are racking up millions of streams each day? Even just one day.

Kevin Barnes, of Montreal: If [streaming] sites were serious about helping artists, they'd offer a way higher percentage of their profits to the artists. The current model is extremely greedy and evil.

Nika, Zola Jesus: I feel like more than anything, we need to build awareness about the realities of what musicians are battling against in order to make a decent living. In an age where our music is accessible worldwide, to anyone who wants to listen, you'd think that amount of exposure would create an explosive renaissance for musicians as a viable resource to make a living. However, it's the opposite.

Amber Coffman: What they absolutely should do is make a personal "tipping" or donations button permanently available for any musician who wants one. I think the new feature was a step in that direction, but aside from the awkward labeling of being charity, it appears to be temporary.

The next thing they need to do, ASAP, is adjust the rate they pay us for streams. We have been asking for a long time. Musicians could barely keep their heads above water before the crisis, and now we are in serious trouble. Most artists feel humbled and privileged to be creating, but does our livelihood belong under a charity button while these companies get rich? Or do we deserve to be compensated for our work? Hasn't streaming "saved" the music industry? Why are musicians getting left behind?

I'd rather see some effort than none from Spotify, but we need a lot more from them. I have to wonder how many struggling musicians they consulted about this feature? Well, we're here, and we have a lot of great ideas, and we'd love to figure this out!

Fundraiser links:
Amber Coffman Diet Cig Major Murphy
Matthew Fowler Moaning Nana Grizol (Raising funds for COVID-19 Mutual Aid Fund for LGBTQI+ BIPOC Folks)
Nothing
of Montreal Retirement Party Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (Raising Funds for Support Act)
Suburban Living Trace Mountains Zola Jesus