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Rock icon King Crimson finally joins Apple Music, even though streaming pays next to nothing

Daniel Bukszpan, special to CNBC
Key Points
  • The iconic progressive rock band King Crimson has made their entire studio catalog available on Apple Music, with Spotify to follow next month.
  • They're one of the last groups from the classic rock era to do so
  • Streaming services pay artists only a fraction of a penny for every song played, with Napster paying out the most, at $0.019 per stream.
  • The move to streaming may not do much to pad the group's bank account, but as a promotional strategy, it makes a lot of sense.
1969: (L-R) Guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Michael Giles, singer and guitarist Greg Lake, multi-instrumental Ian McDonald and lyricist Peter Sinfield which consisted of the first lineup of the English rock band "King Crimson" pose for a portrait sitting in a field in 1969.
Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

The iconic progressive rock band King Crimson has made their entire studio catalog available on Apple Music, with Spotify to follow next month. This makes them one of the last groups of the classic rock era – if not the last – to put their catalog on streaming platforms.

As apps like Spotify and Apple Music became more popular with listeners, many artists resisted them. Led Zeppelin waited until 2013 to allow their catalog to be streamed, and the Beatles held off until 2015. Prince was so dissatisfied with the platform that he removed his entire catalog from streaming services in 2015

In the majority of these cases, the issue was royalty rates -- and it's easy to see why. According to Digital Music News, streaming services pay artists only a fraction of a penny for every song played, with Apple Music paying $0.00735 per play. Napster pays the most, at $0.019 per stream. 

Eventually, these artists saw the writing on the wall and resigned themselves to these platforms, and even Prince's music can be streamed today, after a decision on the part of his estate to make the music available again.

In announcing the availability of the band's catalog in April, King Crimson manager David Singleton said that the group's decision to adopt the platform was not motivated by the ongoing decline of physical media sales. In fact, he said that over the course of the past decade, the band's own DGM label had actually seen sales of their records and CDs go up.

That being the case, why should the group change their strategy?

Singleton told CNBC in an email that this business model doesn't create enough revenue to sustain a recording artist, even an independent and relatively inexpensive one like King Crimson.

"If a small-to-moderate artist records an album and sells perhaps 10,000 CDs, this is quite sufficient to fund a moderate recording budget," he said. "If, however, those same sales move onto streaming, and you now only have 10,000 streams, there is no comparable income."

The move to streaming may not do much to pad the group's bank account, but as a promotional strategy, it makes a lot of sense. Certainly, the timing is right.

Cover art of King Crimson's 1969 debut album,  "In the Court of the Crimson King"

It's all about promotion

It's the 50th anniversary of the group's 1969 debut album, "In the Court of the Crimson King," and they're commemorating it with the release of two deluxe CD box sets and an international tour. A more widely available catalog could do a lot to raise awareness of both.

The move to streaming services could also benefit the band's DGM Live website, which sells the group's independently-released music and merchandise. A newly-available streaming catalog could open up customer bases for it in new, far-flung places.

"Classic rock has a significant following in the Asia region, which is often ignored during tours," said Mangala Bhattacharjee of the India-based market intelligence firm Research on Global Markets. "Moving to streaming services not only gives bands exposure in newer markets, but also the opportunity to grow their business through online sales and subscriptions."

King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp speaks during the band's 50th anniversary event at October Gallery on April 06, 2019 in London, England.
Dave J Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment

Perhaps most importantly, the DGM Live website is home to a vast archive of live recordings dating back to the group's first concert in 1969. These downloadable "official bootlegs" number in the hundreds and sell for $10 each, and according to attorney Donald E. Petersen, they may be the band's most important long-term asset.

"The live recordings are infinitely more valuable to [the group], and leasing studio recordings to Apple Music will help grow the market for the band's full catalog," he said.

Reaching a new generation

The group may also be making this move simply because the passage of time demands it. Some of its members are now in their 70s, as are many of their longtime fans, and Tara Anne, an artist manager who has worked with such musicians as Snoop Dogg and the Indigo Girls, said that King Crimson and other legacy artists must embrace streaming as a matter of survival.

"If the majority of your fanbase is aging and you are hoping to continue to introduce a younger audience to your music, you make the move to digital," she said. Jeff Price, CEO and Founder of the digital rights service Audiam, agreed, and said that artists without a presence on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming services are putting themselves at a disadvantage that could prove commercially fatal.

"People 30 years and younger all predominantly use streaming services," he said. "If you want to fade into obscurity, there is no better path than to ensure your music is not where the 'kids' are today."

Finally, David Singleton said that putting King Crimson's catalog on streaming services is also about more than just making new, young audiences aware of them. Increasingly, these services are just becoming the resource audiences turn to when they want to listen to music, no matter how old they are.

"An increasing number of music lovers use [streaming services] as their main way of finding and enjoying music," he said. "Therefore, quite simply, the music needs to be there."