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Devil's in the Downloads: High Cost of Making It in Music

Artists face a hard choice: sacrifice their identity & artistic integrity for fame or risk obscurity. But is there a way to dance with the devil without losing your soul?

Photo by Samuele Giglio / Unsplash

The idea of "selling one's soul" has been a repeated theme in the music industry. Many would argue that it’s just a metaphor for sacrificing artistic integrity for fame and money. But can it be more than just a figure of speech?

The expression itself goes back to the legend of Faust, who made a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for knowledge and pleasures. Many musicians were suspected to have similar arrangements: from Niccolò Paganini to blues icon Robert Johnson and rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, both members of the infamous "27 Club" (Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse a part of it, just to name few) were associated with dark forces in their music and deaths.

And there are more recent examples of well-established and generally not-considered-crazy artists who made some bold devil-related statements.

Bob Dylan has openly admitted to selling his soul. Katy Perry was pretty blunt about it, and Kanye West also proclaimed that he got a deal with a devil for all his fans to hear.

Even more explicit are performances and music videos with occult themes, like Lady Gaga's casually swearing to Lucifer or recent “performances” by Sam Smith and Taylor Swift. Many “Swifties” reported that they don’t remember parts of the show after visiting Taylor’s concert, and that left hundreds of people speculating that some kind of hypnosis or programming was used during the tour.

Alt: tweet from Charli XCX advising new musicians to sell the soul for money and fame
Some X wisdom from Charli XCX‌ ‌‌ ‌

And if you jump into the depths of Quora, you’ll find dozens and even hundreds of questions (and very detailed answers) on how to sell the soul to the devil for fame and money, specifically by aspiring musicians.

As Grammy-winning musician Tim Kubart reflects, "Oh boy, selling your soul. I can fully understand that, but I think it has a lot to do with one's relationship to it and ourselves. I spent many years basing how I feel about myself on how much money I’m making from my music, how many gigs I have a month, and whether I get recognized on the street or not. I think it’s pretty clear that isn’t the answer to happiness, and when my self worth was based on that, it was easy to “sell my soul.” I was working seven days a week and taking any gig that would have me for a few dollars. I also think, like all entrepreneurial pursuits, you can ALWAYS be working. If you don’t have any job, you can be sending emails trying to find the next one. This is really tough to turn off. The truly unfortunate thing in the industry, though, is if you don’t think this way, there is a downside, and making a living as a full-time musician almost requires you to be not only full-time, but all the time. It’s a delicate balancing act I’m still working on.”

All in all, selling your soul to the music industry is a complex mix of ambition, sacrifice, and, sometimes, literal and metaphorical deals with the devil.

However, this article will not be about who, but rather how that happened and whether there is any way to become famous without soul-wrenching sacrifices.

The struggle is real

The music industry, especially when viewed through the lens of streaming platforms, can be rightfully called daunting for new artists.

Streaming platforms now account for 48.3% of global recorded music industry revenues, amounting to $17.5 billion in 2022. This has changed not just the way people listen to the music but the very economics of the industry, particularly in terms of revenue and contract negotiations.

Caley Rose, a Billboard-charting singer & songwriter, shared her perspective: “With the advent of streaming platforms came a significant decrease in how much money artists can make from streaming. Vanity metrics seem important for artists, so often comparing how many streams and monthly listeners you have on Spotify when, in reality, the amount of income you earn for even 1 million streams is extremely low; the payment for 1 million streams on Spotify can vary, but it is generally estimated to be around $4,000 to $7,000. This can hardly sustain an artist for very long.”

For most artists, the payouts are laughable since streaming companies have the monopoly to decide on the numbers. Take Apple Music, which is generally considered more generous than Spotify. Their payout can be as low as a measly $0.000365 per stream. That's way less than the hyped-up $0.01 per stream that everyone talks about. And even that is only available when you “made it.” But how about everyone else?

In 2023, artists uploaded music that would play for 871.78 years if played back-to-back. Yet, despite such massive content creation, success remains practically unattainable, as 99% of artists struggle to break into the mid-level tier, let alone reach mainstream or superstar status.

Alt: NYC-based electronic duo The Knocks
The Knocks

The Knocks, a NYC-based duo of electronic geniuses that has been in the game for over a decade, know the struggle all too well: “We are not going to sugarcoat it. It's bleak out there. We feel endlessly grateful to be still making music and touring after 10+ years, which in the music industry is certainly not guaranteed.  We started out making hip-hop beats for acts like Mobb Deep, Dipset, and other New York rappers and DJ'ing at night to pay the rent for our shitty Lower East Side apartment. Then the dance music boom came and we were fortunate enough to build a fanbase during that era. We sold some tickets, signed record and publishing deals, got a bunch of syncs in tv/film and commercials, and somehow, the industry allowed us to be ourselves and make the shit that we thought was dope. If we were coming up now, we are not sure we could have had the same longevity without sacrificing creativity for the sake of the almighty algorithm. We feel for the artists coming up today! Obviously, the payment structure is objectively unfavorable to the artists and songwriters, but hasn't it always been to an extent?”

Troubling changes in the music landscape

The music industry is no longer just about albums and concerts. Today, if you’re an artist, you must be a social media star too. It’s all about being liked online and somehow favored by almighty algorithms. And while the promise of becoming famous overnight through platforms like TikTok is tempting and widely held as a real possibility by producers and managers, the truth is harsher. There’s no guarantee of success.

You could post your heart out every day and still end up with crickets. Some big-name artists like  Adele and Post Malone  have straight-up refused to play the TikTok game, in spite of pressing demands from their management, feeling like it goes against their artistic vision. But does every artist have the luxury of choice?

Despite the larger audience reach platforms like TikTok provide, they rarely translate into significant direct revenue for artists. And, surprise-surprise, exposure requires money.

“Let's say an artist writes a brilliant song. An undeniable smash that ticks all of the 'when you know you know' boxes... but for whatever reason, the song doesn't get the first-week editorial support at Digital Service Providers. They don't have enough money to pay for digital advertising or influencer promotion because they are broke, so their social posts promoting the song exist in a vacuum. They started a Discord, but in order to get new fans to the platform, they need to post to algorithm-driven apps. They can't afford to lose money on the road, and they live in a small town, so they play live for the same group of people week after week. Does the artist follow social media trends and post videos that go against every fiber of their being? Do they keep releasing music every week, regardless if they want to, in hopes that one of the songs will randomly catch fire and the 'smash' sees a "waterfall" new discovering moment? Or maybe they catch the eye of a record label, and the label gives them enough of an advance to pay rent for five months but takes 85% of the royalties. We don't know the answer. What we know is that there are a lot of brilliant artists making music right now who have the potential to shift the cultural zeitgeist in new and exciting ways. Do we give them a platform to succeed or do we prop up a wealthy, over-privileged DJ mashing up "Harlem Shake" and "Mambo No 5," – shared Ben and James from the Knocks.

And there’s more. As technology like AI enters the scene, anyone can make music. Tools like Suno allow people to create songs with a few clicks, which means the little money there was to be made is now spread even thinner since AI songs for now are not explicitly prohibited on large streaming platforms like Spotify as long as there are no copyright concerns. AI might make music-making cheaper, but it’s also flooding the market, making it harder for artists to earn a living. With all that, understandably, some musicians might end up posting yet another question on Quora on how to get a devil’s cell.

Alternatives to selling your soul

So, yeah, in the cutthroat world of music, it's easy to feel like you must sell your soul to make it big. But is there another way?

Some companies claim to have the answer. Take Universal and Deezer's "artist-centric" model, which promises to boost streaming earnings for artists and songwriters. Sounds great, right? But there's a catch. This model only benefits artists who rack up more than 1,000 monthly plays from over 500 unique listeners. In other words, it's still geared toward the big names, leaving smaller musicians in the dust.

As IMPALA, the independent music community's trade group, pointed out, these deals are often made "in a vacuum" without input from the wider industry. The result? A "two-tier approach" that hurts independent labels and rising artists.

Independent music company Believe agreed with this assessment of Deezer’s innovation and called it a “reverse Robin Hood system that is centered around taking compensation from rising artists to allocate it to top and established artists.”

The solution might lie in how artists engage with their fans. Building a genuine community offers an alternative pathway to sustainability in the music industry. By establishing direct and meaningful connections, artists can rely less on traditional industry structures and more on the support of those who value their work most. The Universal Music Group has actually recognized this potential, citing an increase in revenue through direct fan engagement. Still, as we’ve covered in this deep dive, the primary goal for them remains profit.

Sure, there are also smaller companies like Audiomack that claim to put artists first. However, their impact is limited, and it’s hard to find fresh numbers for their audience. But with just 4.3 million visits in March 2024 (according to Similarweb) compared to Spotify's 485.4 million, they're a drop in the ocean. And when those smaller companies try to make a difference, like Masterchannel's AI-powered spatial audio tool offering affordable mastering and spatial mixing, they often get shut down by the big guys like Apple by simple issuing of some new guidelines.

Alt: Grammy-winning musician Tim Kubart
Tim Kubart

So, what's an artist to do? According to Tim Kubart, it's all about getting creative with how you make money off your music. "The music industry today is more difficult than ever. I think a huge difficulty is just how fast people move through content. We listen to a song once or watch a video on TikTok once. People ingest content in the same way, not dependent on how much time or money is spent on it. And the fact is, making good music in a studio setting is time-consuming and expensive. It’s a new balancing act now to put out music that is “good enough” so you can keep your streams up but, even more than that, stay relevant. When you are self funding and actually looking to make a profit, it’s quite possibly more difficult than ever. Making music is also basically a business card to other ways to make money. For me, this is mostly gigs and occasional songwriting jobs (for children’s TV shows.) One needs to be CREATIVE on how they are going to make money off people liking their music because for the music itself to turn a profit is becoming more and more difficult. I used to make most of my money from radio airplay, but with the rise of streaming those checks and opportunities are less and less. Creativity in business is just as necessary as creativity in art.”

Caley Rose, a Billboard-charting singer, advises young artists to trust their instincts, surround themselves with good people, and take control of their own careers. "It often feels that there's no clear path. Labels are no longer the goal, thanks to the democratization of music and music marketing through social media platforms like Instagram and Tiktok, which has its own unique benefits and downsides. I made a ton of painful mistakes when I first began in music. I had three male producers take advantage of my dreams. I began to doubt myself and my ability. Until I stopped waiting for someone else to discover me, and I took the wheel in my own career. I decided to learn songwriting in order to become a better singer and artist and immersed myself in a songwriting education at the Songwriting School of LA. That school changed my life and helped me find a good, genuine, and trustworthy community to surround myself with. The path became illuminated and clear in front of me. I had finally found my people. So, for every sleaze ball that passes themselves off as a producer who can "make you successful" in music, there are even more good people in the music industry. I've lived it.”

The future of music and artistic integrity

The music industry is at a crossroads. The rise of streaming, social media, and AI has changed the game. Artists are caught between the pressure to go viral and the desire to stay true to their craft.

On one hand, you have the harsh realities of the industry. Measly payouts from streaming services. The never-ending grind. The need to be a jack-of-all-trades just to make a living. It's enough to make any artist want to throw in the towel (and search for a soul-selling agency).

But on the other hand, you have the passion. The drive to create. The joy of connecting with fans through music. As Caley Rose puts it, "Ask any singer and songwriter why they create music, and they won't say it's for the money. It's for the music. The passion. The obsession that drives us to create and emote through melody, rhyme, and lyrics."

So, what does the future hold for music and artistic integrity?

Maybe the answer lies in a new model. One where artists build direct relationships with their fans, where they can create on their own terms, without the pressure to conform to algorithms and trends. Where they can wear all the hats—label, content creator, songwriter, artist, marketer, and booking manager—and still feel appreciated, valued, energized, and content instead of feeling burned out.

New technologies and platforms provide more opportunities for artists to engage with fans directly. Services like Patreon and Bandcamp allow artists to monetize their work directly through fan support rather than relying solely on traditional revenue streams like streaming and live performances.

It won't be easy. There will be mistakes, hard days, and plenty of hard work. But for those truly passionate about their music, it is worth it.

In the end, maybe the future of music isn't about selling your soul. Maybe it's about finding a way to keep your soul intact, even in the face of an industry that seems hell-bent on crushing it. It's a challenge that every artist will have to go through. But if they can find a way to stay true to themselves and their art while still connecting with their fans, then maybe there's hope for the future of music after all.