Content Warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault.
The American pop group AJR once sang, “All my role models are on TV for the wrong reasons / And, I will unravel if you rip away my best pieces … Can I truly love the art, when I kinda hate the artist?”
This is a question many have struggled with, particularly with the modern advent of streaming and the ability to see an artist who has committed bad acts continue to garner thousands, if not millions, of streams. There have been many recent high-profile incidents, including allegations of sexual assault against Rex Orange County and Win Butler of Arcade Fire, and the recent anti-Semitic tweets made by Kanye West.
Arguments have been made that the payout from one individual listen is so little that it does not matter whether someone listens to an artist or not.
“Even if [people] stream something thousands of times, you get like three dollars,” a member from the San Luis Obispo DIY scene, who requested to remain anonymous, said.
This can be illustrated by Animal Collective canceling their European tour due to economic difficulties, despite having several songs with millions of streams.
While Spotify has not published exact details about how money is distributed to artists, some websites speculate that the payout is approximately $0.04 to $0.005 per stream. Apple Music stated their average payout rate per stream is $0.01, which includes label and publisher royalties.
As put by an online observer of such trends, “Assuming a $15 minimum wage (or $31,200 annually), at a presumed average per-stream revenue of $0.003, an artist would need 10,400,000 streams per year to earn a minimum wage income. And this estimate doesn’t incorporate distribution fees, publishing administration fees or the costs of marketing and promotion.”
However, this doesn’t tell the complete story. Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” is their most listened-to song, with around 124,600,000 streams. Assuming a payout of $0.005 per stream, this amounts to about $623,000. That translates to over $34,000 a year since the album it was featured on, “Funeral,” was released in 2004.
What this analysis fails to account for is the many times that the song has been utilized in popular culture, from SNL to the film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to the promotional video for the LA 2028 Olympic games, all of which generate much higher royalty fees and payouts for Arcade Fire.
Yet, as mechanical engineering junior Garrett McAvoy said, the focus on streaming “is very analogous to climate change and putting the onus on the individual … There are large labels directly making choices to label and support artists.”
And certainly, music labels are quite keen on marketing and supporting their artists. A recent study published by Music Tomorrow found that editorial playlists on Spotify were “dominated” by major labels like Sony, Warner or United Music Group (UMG), with nearly 70% to 85% of music on playlists like New Music Friday, Rap Caviar and Pop Rising being from major labels.
The story of rampant sexual abuse at the former Burger Records also provides a chilling account of just how far music labels will go to defend and actively support artists that they know have committed horrific acts against other people.
The ethics of listening to problematic artists becomes further murky when we consider artists whose actions are not easy to make sense of, as shown in the allegations of grooming raised against Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend.
While we may never have the information to fully understand the depth of any given situation in Koenig’s case, it can be hard to listen to their music without wondering “what if?”
“There is a saying that it is always better to believe a liar than a rapist,” the SLO DIY scene member said.
Even for seemingly “resolved” cases — like that of The Frights’ lead singer, Micky Carnevale, who released a joint statement with an underage woman who he had relations with — some people find it hard to fully make peace with what has occurred.
“The knowledge will still taint the music to me,” the SLO DIY member said.
People can find themselves in another troublesome ethical pickle when an artist they deeply love, or who has made music that connects with them on a deeply personal level, does such a thing.
Many fans of David Bowie, whose impacts on pop music and queer culture are still revered to this day, had to juggle with this when he was accused of relations with underage women in the ’70s and rape in 1987.
“[From] a lot of different levels you can understand and look at the art. You can support the artist or look at it from arm’s length,” McAvoy said.
The member of the SLO DIY scene concurred, saying that “As long as you are aware and do not agree with their actions, you can enjoy their music that way; but, if you can, don’t pay money to see their shows or wear their merch. Don’t follow them and give them a platform, but you can separate them from their music.”
The road toward moving on from the horrific actions of artists that we used to love is long and ill-defined. It is hard to move on or to even begin to trust an artist again.
“It’s hard to know if someone is sincere, especially if they have a big platform,” the SLO DIY member said.
Safer is Cal Poly’s prevention education & confidential advocacy resource for sexual assault, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, stalking, sexual exploitation and harassment. Safer welcomes people of all identities and backgrounds to utilize their services and is committed to ensuring their office is inclusive and accessible. They can be contacted at email@example.com or 805-756-2282.