Carrying her musical life on her back – in more ways than one. Zoe Keating, by Nadya Lev for Coilhouse. Photo courtesy the artist.

She shocked the music business by revealing she wasn’t making money on Spotify – then shocked them again by revealing she was making money on our own. Now, CDM’s Matt Earp talks to cellist Zoe Keating about surviving as a creative musician, and keeping the music coming. Hint: “exposure” is not necessarily the key to survival. -Ed.

Zoe Keating is an avant-garde cellist, a Canadian transplant to San Francisco who now lives on its far outskirts. Her sound slips back and forth between the classical and electronic worlds, conjuring sylvan images and dusty warehouses with equal clarity. Two self-released full-lengths, a couple dozen collaborations, and a decade of touring into her career, she’s been steadily working her way towards greater recognition throughout the West Coast of America as well as the rest of the world.

Around mid-summer this year, Keating released a public Google Doc that reported her earnings from Spotify – which turned out to be around 3/10th of a cent per listen. (Nice summary article here in The Atlantic). This opened up a can of worms for the streaming content world, and was the first public shot in what has become an increasingly voluble debate about how much musicians earn from streaming services. Other bands followed suit with numbers. Pandora countered with numbers of its own. Cartoons on the subject were even made.

To round out the picture, a month later, Keating released ALL the information she had about her music sales from the previous year (2011), causing further attention and stir. And making her a bit of a cause célèbre as an information hactvist in the muddled world of music, income, and the relationship between artists, labels, and digital services of all kinds.

CDM was able to catch up with her at October’s SF Music Tech conference, where she spoke on Artists, Entrepeneurs and Technology (you can catch some of the video of that talk below). She told us about what had happened since she released her sales info to the public, her thoughts on distribution models, and her upcoming album.

How did you release your last album, 2010’s Into The Trees?

Last time, I finished the album two weeks before I gave birth in a mad rush, and two weeks after, I put it up for sale on Bandcamp. [see the album below] And that was it – that was my distribution strategy.

Did it appear anywhere else, or was it 100% BandCamp?

I also have an account with iTunes, so I put it up there simultaneously. But I didn’t have a release date, I didn’t worry if they were synchronized or anything, I just don’t do that kind of thing. And so far it’s done pretty well!

Can you tell us more about what happened after you released the information about your 2011 record sales?

There was one camp, mostly people in this music industry sphere who talk and blog about the music industry, who were totally shocked that I’d made any money selling music at all. As though that was a totally novel concept. And the result of that was that people said ‘Oh, you’re an anomaly.” I had sort of been hoping that the story would become “Look, here on the fringes, things are good.” And they said “Well, you’re an anomaly, there’s no one else like you.”

And then the other thing that happened has been a little bit of feedback along the lines of “OK, well, you’re doing fine as an artist, so maybe you don’t need our support any more. Maybe I don’t need to buy your albums because you’re doing fine.”

Did anyone approach you afterwards and say “will you give us data again in the future or will you turn yourself into an ongoing experiment?”

Well, for the most part I should say that that the majority of the feedback has generally been overwhelmingly positive – maybe I should have said that first. And people saying “Wow, I had no idea, I wish more artists would do this.” So that was encouraging and I’ve continued to release information since then just because there seems to be a lack of knowledge about this subject and I feel like I need to keep putting it out there.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do since then, since I got the anomaly comment, is I’m trying to find other artists in the same position as myself , to see whether I am an anomaly – that is, I’m a non-legacy artist, I run my business myself, and I make the majority of my living through music sales.

And have you found any?

Surprisingly few. So I’ve been trying to put out the world before SF Music Tech that I wanted to find more artists like myself because we need to be talking about our lives, about how we make a living, because I think it’s important. So I would love to find more artists.

Photo by Lane Hartwell, courtesy the artist.

Would you like to find more information? Or is there information about your own income that you don’t have?

Well, I want information on my ecosystem. Am I really the only artist in my ecosystem, are there more artists like me, where are they, etc?

It does seems to me like there’s something about the people that purchase my music that is different from the mainstream. Say if there’s 2% of all music listeners who purchase music, if that – I don’t actually know what it actually is but it’s probably something pretty low – I think that my audience is those people. They tend to be people who are avid listeners of music who are interested in supporting artists directly – I think I have a high percentage of those kinds of listeners, and that’s what my business revolves around. That is, making music for myself and for them.

And where I’ve been making some distinctions recently is that I’ve been going for quality listens over quantity listens. For me, when I buy music, I’ll pay $30 for some expensive album that has hardly anything on it, and I’ll listen to it maybe twice a year. And I’ll listen to it with great pleasure, making it extremely valuable to me. And I’ve been realizing that that kind of music is a bit worthless in the mainstream streaming model, where it’s all about how many times has the thing been listened to. But the music that I’m often interested in is something that you’re not going to listen to all the time, it’s not musical wallpaper, it’s something you’re going to listen carefully to. So I think that the economics around that kind of music, which is where I live –

Do you think that’s the kind of music that you make?

[laughs] I don’t know, I’ll leave that for my listeners to decide, but it is the kind of music sphere that I think of myself being in. And I think that has a slightly different model than the one which is often put forward in the press – one that says “You’ve got to do everything you can to get exposure.” That your main problem is exposure, solve your exposure problem and everything else will follow. I don’t think that that’s actually true for me.

Ed.: I can’t resist referring to this definition of exposure.

How did SF Music Tech approach you to share your experiences?

Well, I’ve been coming to it since it started and I’m really interested in the conference in general. I tend to go to tech conferences in general because I like that sort of headspace – people at them are often thinking about problems for the future, doing interesting thought experiments and that sort of thing. And I often find music conferences are kind of depressing, so I don’t tend to go to them. I think of my team as the tech team – those are my people. And I like the way that this conference merges these two worlds together, so that you can start the process of thinking and talking, and I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with people here about how could you solve problems for artists like me through technology.

You’re working on a new album for release hopefully next year – any insight on how you’ll be releasing it in light of your findings?

Well that’s another reason I’m here, because the models for distribution continually change, there’s more tools, there’s more interesting ways to reach people, so I’m looking to see if there’s anything I can do differently this time rather than just suddenly announce “Hey, it’s available.”

It’s been a little slower to make this time because I have a son who’s now two and a half, and his room is my studio. I was actually thinking of calling the album “Across the Street” because I’ve been working in a neighbor’s house across the street for most it.

Ed.: Apart from stirring up business controversy, Zoe makes music that we really love. Take a listen:

  • plurgid

    so was she “making a majority of her income from music sales” BEFORE she became a “cause célèbre”? If the answer to that question is “no”, then this is less a story about changing income models in the music industry and more a story about guerrilla marketing strategies.

    BTW I like her music … it’s good! But the age old problem of getting your good music in front of an audience who cares (and will spend some money) is a problem that’s plagued musicians since music was invented.

    • David237856

      Yes. It was the fact that she was making most of her income from sales that caused a stir. Isn’t that clear from the article?

    • Erica

      She has been ouspoken about musicians and their revenue streams for a long time, but she’s been successful making music for just as long, if not longer. I believe she has referred to her house as “the house iTunes bought” after One Cello x 16 was released in 04ish.

    • zoecello

      Yes, I was. I’ve been making the majority of my income from music sales since 2006 (I released my first album in Oct 2005). It’s been steady ever since, although the overall percentage has decreased from around 75% to slightly less than half as other income sources like licensing and concert fees have grown. Hope that helps.

    • plurgid

      well that is super cool. Didn’t mean to come off critical … like many people I’m a bit skeptical about these things. Rock on sista!

  • ljova

    Zoe, I’m curious — can you break down your sales of vinyl vs. CDs on tour? Merch income? have you tried selling download cards?

    Having previously released three albums on CD/iTunes/Amazon, I’ve released my latest as a Bandcamp exclusive, and it’s working out really great so far —

    thank you!,

  • Véronique

    So awesome. I’m a musician yes, but I am also a business graduate because I’ve never had enough faith in the music industry (the numbers are always so vague, so hidden) to see how I could earn a living full-time. This is so encouraging, so well-deserved… so epic… because just in iTunes alone, it means that your songs were purchased over 66,000 times!? Intense!

    • Véronique

      Damn, I meant 155,000 times because iTunes pays 30% of sales right>

    • Michael Lunapiena

      iTunes pays 60-70% … that becomes 30% (or something like that) if you are splitting this money with a record label

  • newmodernscience

    Zoe, if you’re looking at other ways to release an album: I just picked up Trifonic’s “The Ninth Wave” Producer’s Edition for $30. Best release I’ve bought in a long time. Not necessarily because the album is good (I love it), but because this edition included a commentary track, videos for each song explaining production insight, stems for every track, and sample sets ands sampler instruments. Being able to take a granular look at the stems gave me a huge appreciation for the depth and complexity of this body of work.

  • ahmet kizilay

    I don’t mean to sound like a troll, but the title seems a little bit sexist to me. I wonder what zoe keating thinks about it?

    • Aaron Levitz

      She linked to the interview herself without any qualifying remarks about the title, so I’m guessing it didn’t bother her.

    • Peter Kirn

      The “finances” are what are being undressed here, not any person – and a reference to The Emporers’ New Clothes (and the music industry’s reaction, certain realities being thus exposed).

      I take full responsibility for the title; it was mine, not the author’s. But I’ll stand behind this title, because it’s about the data – and was worth getting saucy with the title, because getting *numbers* ‘naked’ in this sense was important. And yes, the data being exposed in this way was also shocking to people, so I think the metaphor fits.

    • ahmet kizilay

      sure, I see your point.

      I guess, my internal litmus test was that whether or not the editors would have thought of this if the musician was male. the only time i can imagine undress being used for a male musician would be for an infamous womenizer like serge gainsbourg. and as for the maternal connotations of the blah blah blah….

    • Peter Kirn

      I’m changing the headline, because it’s somehow making me as the editor the focus rather than Zoe. I wanted to choose the most vivid metaphor I could for exposing this information. I think the headline was clumsy, and the fact that we’re having this discussion rather than talking about the content means it didn’t work. So, that passes my litmus test for needing to change it.

  • Clyde Smith

    Since Ms. Keating mentioned music industry bloggers in her negative responses comment, I feel I should point out that at Hypebot we’ve been covering her info releases and pointing to her as an exemplar for DIY and indie artists for at least the last couple of years since I’ve been there. We dig her!