100% DIY: interview with cellist Zoë Keating

Zoë Keating
Musician Zoë Keating; photo by Paul Trapani.

Zoë Keating is a cellist and composer whose music has appeared in tv shows like Breaking Bad and the Sherlock Holmes drama Elementary. She’s released several albums and EPs of her original music, and has recorded with artists such as Amanda Palmer.

All of this Keating does with a “100% DIY” approach, as she wrote in an LA Times op-ed in 2013. She owns the rights to her music and controls the distribution, by putting it up herself on iTunes and other platforms like Bandcamp.

Even better, this DIY approach has been successful. In the following interview with her, you’ll see a detailed breakdown of how much money she made from her music in 2018. In summary, she earned $20,828 from streaming and $42,229 from digital downloads and physical albums. That’s not counting revenue from concerts, licensing fees from tv and movie soundtracks, and other income.

A taster of Zoë Keating’s music.

Over the past decade or so, Keating has also managed to build up an impressive following on social media – with over 52,000 Facebook followers and 989,000 Twitter followers.

In short, Zoë Keating embodies the independent and self-sufficient approach to creativity I’ve set out to profile here on Creator Interviews.

For this interview, Keating graciously agreed to tell me more about how she runs her career as a musician, how she makes a living as an indie, and her thoughts about the current state of digital media.

Revenue: streaming vs downloads

In her end-of-year Tumblr post, Keating outlined her streaming royalties for 2018. She had earned $12,231 from Spotify, from 2,252,293 streams. That equates to about half a cent per stream. She estimated $3,900 from Apple Music and $2,800 from Pandora, and from everything else it was two or three figure sums (including $71 from Napster, the once popular file sharing service that didn’t pay artists a penny in its prime). All up, she earned a bit over $20,000 from all streaming sources in 2018.

I asked Keating how her revenue from digital downloads and physical media (CDs and LPs) compared with the streaming royalties?

“In 2018 there were 5,024 downloads and 4,093 physical albums sold on Bandcamp,” she replied, “which after packaging, shipping, and tax netted me $28,729.”

She made a further $13,500 from 6,610 iTunes downloads (albums and songs combined) in 2018, down 11% from the previous year. This, said Keating, parallels the industry decline in digital downloads.

“iTunes download revenue has been gradually going down for me over the years,” she said.

Streaming services are of course to blame, since they’re making the act of downloading less and less common.

Zoë’s Bandcamp page.

This trend is also reflected in Bandcamp, the leading platform for indie musicians to sell their music online.

“Bandcamp sales are not as large as you’d think,” Keating told me. “Bandcamp does not market or advertise or receive any kind of press, unlike the major music services. When I mention Bandcamp, many listeners say ‘oh what is that?’ So my sales are from the listeners who take the trouble to visit my website, are comfortable with the concept [of buying from her site] and purchase the music directly. But people tend to use their service of choice and only a fraction buy from me directly.”

It would be great for indie musicians if streaming revenues replaced the loss of download revenue. However, as you can see for Zoë Keating, streaming brings in under half the amount of digital and physical albums. The disparity is set to get even worse, as streaming continues to take over the digital music market.

Connecting with fans

In a recent Facebook post, Keating wrote that “the hardest problem I have as an artist these days is reaching the people who already love my music.” Considering she has 52,000 Facebook followers and 989,000 Twitter followers, this shows how hard it is for even popular indie creators to get attention on social media platforms.

Indeed it’s highly likely that only a small percentage of her followers see her content regularly, due to the opaque algorithms that drive Facebook and Twitter.

So I asked Keating is there more the digital music services can do to help her communicate with her fans? After all, Spotify clearly has the data she needs: who follows her, where they live, how often they listen to her music, what other music they listen to, and so on. Could Spotify and other music services pick up the slack from Facebook and Twitter?

“Well, I do wish Bandcamp would do some marketing,” she replied. “Obviously I net the most there and they give me the ability to email everyone who has downloaded a song.”

Zoë performing ‘Lost’ from her album ‘Into the Trees’.

She is most frustrated though with the streaming platforms.

“I am at their mercy and have no ability to communicate with my followers on those platforms,” she said. “Instead I have to rely on whatever features they choose to implement. For example, Spotify is now sending out notifications to people who follow me, to let them know I have a concert – which is a huge improvement. iTunes and Amazon should do the same. But this doesn’t do much for artists like me who can’t tour very much [Keating is a solo mom]. I should be able to notify followers of other things besides concerts. My blog posts could be autopublished to those who follow me, for example.”

She thinks services like Spotify can and should make it easier for people to contact her.

“Most of my licensing comes from people who fall for my music and then track me down to license it for a project,” she said.

She would also like the ability to sell her music as a subscription, similar to what creators do on Patreon. She thinks there is potential for Spotify and other streaming services to offer that same functionality. Another option is to offer an affiliate program.

“Why would I send my listeners to Spotify when I get so little in return? If I send a listener to Spotify to listen, I think I should earn more than if a listener stumbles onto me in a playlist.”

Managing her web presence

Even though Keating says she struggles to reach her fan base, it’s not through lack of effort. She’s sent out nearly 25,000 tweets, over twice as many as I’ve managed! She also actively promotes herself on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr (which she uses as a blog).

Best of all, Keating has a regularly updated website using her own domain name – so she’s not dependent on the platforms of big Internet companies. Her Bandcamp page is nicely embedded into her website, making it easy to listen to and purchase her music on-site.

I asked Keating if she handles her web presence all by herself, or does she have an assistant or manager to help?

“I do this myself and always have,” she said. “I have a booking agent and a licensing agent, but I do everything else. I’m a single mom and my time is limited, so there is some discipline around my digital life. If I don’t keep a lid on it, email and social media can take up a huge chunk of my working hours.”

She tries not to look at email or social media for at least one day a week, “so that I can have a clear head and an expanse of time to write and record music.”

She also stopped using social media for personal use and only uses Facebook for business.

The digital landscape for musicians

I was curious to know Zoë’s thoughts on the overall digital landscape for musicians these days. It seems harder than ever for artists to get new people to discover their music, not to mention pay for it in this streaming era.

“The attention landscape is crowded!” she exclaimed. “Everything is competing for attention and now everyone is telling their story and building their “brand”. I have to say I pulled back from doing that in recent years because I find it exhausting.”

A major life event also made Keating re-consider her priorities. She tragically lost her husband to cancer in early 2015.

“The death of my husband was painful and jarring. I am still recovering and don’t always want to share. For self-preservation, I had to scale back to focus on my son and what I care about. I need more digital ‘quiet’ than I ever did before.”

In terms of the music landscape, Keating says it’s more important than ever to continue her DIY approach.

“Yes, listeners have migrated to streaming,” she said, “[but] I see that if I want to capture any money from this ecosystem, I have to continue to be my own advocate.”

She likens herself and other indie artists to “community supported agriculture.”

“You want your weekly box of high quality produce that can’t be bought in stores? Then you have to be willing to pay more for it and we will deliver it directly to you. Not everyone will want this or care about it – it will always be a small fraction of listeners. But reaching that fraction is my job.”

Tell your individual stories

Lastly, Keating told me that “an individual telling a story does makes a difference.” Regardless of the amount of noise you’re competing with.

“Even though more people are telling their stories and it is harder for an individual story to be told, that does not diminish the power of it,” she said.

On that inspiring note, a big thank you to cellist and composer Zoë Keating for doing this interview. Don’t forget to buy her music on Bandcamp.

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