The back patio at The Royal American, an uptown Charleston dive bar and music venue, serves as a hangout for those looking to sip a signature rum punch away from the bar, smoke an American Spirit between sets or play a round of cornhole.
Last Friday night, however, it served as a gathering spot for musicians protesting Spotify's business model, which they said fails to pay artists their due.
A group of Charleston musicians — electronic artist Diaspoura (Anjali Naik), classical violinist Vivek Menon, singer Niecy Blues (Deniece Williams), drummer Chase Bunes and jazz and hip-hop-inspired producer Contour (Khari Lucas) — was responsible for the rally, one of five organized across the country. Other locations were Portland, Maine, Los Angeles, New York City and Spartanburg. The Charleston musicians started with a small gathering in the New York City subway, then decided to branch out, working with colleagues in each of the participating cities.
On average, musicians make .00437 cents per song play on Spotify, according to 2019 streaming data. The statistics for Apple Music, Tidal and YouTube are similar.
Spotify is currently fighting a ruling from the U.S. Copyright and Royalty Board that would increase the percentage of royalties paid to rights holders per stream. The ruling dictated that Spotify would have to pay 15 percent to music publishers, a 43 percent increase and the largest increase in the company's history. Famous rapper Eminem's publisher recently sued Spotify for copyright infringement, a case that might be headed for the Supreme Court.
As disputes over music streaming grows, local musicians are trying to make sense of it all and understand the impact on them.
One person who has been interpreting the analytics, and sharing them with fellow artists at a series of information-sharing rallies, is Charleston musician Anjali Naik, whose stage name is Diaspoura.
According to information Naik has compiled over the course of a quarter-year deep dive into streaming statistics, business models and strategies, a song would have to be streamed 366,000 times per month for a South Carolina musician to make minimum wage annually — $17,000. Share that among multiple band members and the income per person declines precipitously. The rest of Naik's findings can be viewed at diaspoura.com/dirtylaundry.htm.
"It's important for artists to understand that they can advocate for themselves and they have rights, and to be able to imagine systems that work for them," Naik says. "I think artists, especially, are so giving because it is a passion project for so many of them, but a lot of times artists get taken advantage of because they love their work and they’re willing to do it for free or at a very low cost."
Spotify's press team did not respond to requests for comment.
Because of the streaming problem, musicians rely heavily on playing live shows and selling merchandise such as T-shirts, CDs and vinyl to generate income. Most work part-time, or even full-time, jobs in addition to writing, practicing and performing.
Making a living wage as a musician is an issue that The Royal American's co-owner John Kenney says isn't new to the streaming age, but exacerbated by it.
"Big business strikes again and takes everyone's money," says Kenney, who was in a rock 'n' roll band in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Now, that big business just has a different name, he says.
Subway station sharing
Kenney happened to be in New York City when a group of Charleston musicians hosted the first of their five rallies on the mezzanine of a Times Square subway station to voice their concerns.
Around 10 people gathered in the station to listen, including an entertainment lawyer and several artists. Kenney was one of them. The activists distributed flyers to passing commuters. But before long, police broke up the rally, confiscating equipment and arguing that a permit was required, which the musicians disputed.
Kenney offered the musicians The Royal American as a venue for a future meetup.
"It’s so important for these congregations to keep happening," Naik says. "It's just congregating artists to talk about how we're living every day and having an honest, public conversation about what we’re going through."
Royal American rally
On Friday, Williams and Lucas were among those who convened under a starry Charleston sky to share industry stats and personal struggles at The Royal American. This time, they weren't cut short.
Past the Morrison Drive railroad tracks and through the black ironwork railing of the back patio, about a dozen musicians gathered. Williams and Lucas passed out the same flyers they had in New York City, with information on streaming statistics and tactics Spotify uses to mine data.
One section of the pamphlet highlights "Our demands for Spotify." Another asks "How can I support artists now?" with bullet points like buying digital or physical music versus streaming, paying for tickets to live shows and buying merchandise.
While most of the participants in this round of rallies were musicians, organizers say they hope to expand their reach and get more of the general public up to speed on the problems musicians face.
Attendee and local musician/DJ Dave Curry says he was initially skeptical of the rally but decided to attend because the topic affects him and others in the music scene.
"After I left, I felt like there's a community of people with similar struggles and who actually care about them," Curry says. "A lot of people don't think about streaming services on the rap side locally, especially. I left 1,000 percent more informed."
Williams says she hopes to organize more rallies with help from Naik, Menon, Lucas and others. Connecting musicians, finding solidarity and comparing stories lays the groundwork for change.
"What can you do about it if you don’t know about it?" she asks.