The Streaming Industry’s Existential Threat to Independent Music

Imagining a post-COVID future to me is as utterly stupefying as imaging the nightclubbing and congregating of the past happening today. During the pandemic, people have not only had to live through disease, recession, rampant conspiracy theories and growing fascism, but we’ve also had to make peace with the omnipresent cloud of uncertainty hovering over every moment in the not-too-distant future. However, while the scope of change is unclear and may continue to be until well into the post-COVID landscape, one thing that is clear in the present is that the dynamics of change that were well in place pre-COVID have mostly been sped up by the upheavel. The ongoing protests over police brutality show that people will not accept a fucked-up system just because it has the facade of permanence; but, for the time being, gentrification, mass closure of small businesses, corporate consolidation, and Silicon Valley overreach are here to stay. And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the music industry. 

Spotify, the leader in the streaming industry, has been around for more than a decade, but one could argue its roots were planted in digital file sharing at the onset of the internet age. Kevin Erickson, director of the musicians’ advocacy group Future of Music Coalition, explains, saying “in physical stores your ability to get your music out there was based on whether or not you could get your product on the shelves and they have limited physical space so not everyone was able to. It was argued that iTunes and mp3s sort of solved that problem because there was infinite shelf space, and so music, it was said, could compete on its merits, not on the basis of whether you get your stuff on the shelfs. But there were still barriers towards exposure.” iTunes mp3s, of course, cost money, usually a dollar per song. This was extremely helpful in keeping independent music afloat during a period of large-scale changes to the music industry, but the fact that this music came at a specific cost may have made it less likely for consumers to take chances on more obscure music, as opposed to songs with guaranteed replay value. 

The alternatives to this model were file-sharing platforms such as Napster, which in turn provoked the legal fury of major artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica. Singer/songwriter Ryley Walker summed up that era to me, saying “There was no conversation about compensating artists. It was all like torrents and stuff, there was no conversation. like “what, we’re gonna pay a band? No, ‘I’m gonna download this shit for free, I don’t give a fuck.” And there was like a kind of thing 10, 12, 15 years ago even, where it was like “well, the artists don’t like that I don’t pay for their music, well, fucking deal with it.” If they spoke out against it, it was like “well, they’re dicks.” I’m sure I was a part of that conversation and part of the problem.”

Spotify’s model as a streaming service was to build on the ways in which iTunes eroded barriers of access. Erickson explained that “the idea with Spotify was that everybody would be competing on this level playing field and so there’ll be opportunities for more diverse music to reach consumers and those barriers towards access will fall, and there’s degrees to which that’s true. It is easier to access a broader diversity of music than it has in the past. Stuff that you would have to hunt and hunt for months to be able to find or scour eBay for a used copy you can get instantly. But the other side of it is the sustainable levels of compensation, and that’s where the results have been at best mixed. While it has resulted in net revenue growth for the industry, it’s very challenging for it to be meaningfully remunerative for any artist that is not operating with sort of mass scale assumptions. That leaves out vast swaths of our shared musical heritage. ” 

I certainly wouldn’t have imagined an Ethio-Jazz great like Mulatu Astatke or ahead-of-their-time pop experimentalists like Arthur Russell getting hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners in any previous era. But the underlying justification for Spotify not really paying artists anything is that whatever losses there are in compensation are made up by increased exposure. 

But having asked a handful of independent artists about how being on Spotify has impacted their exposure, the results were… mixed, at best. “I think the exposure idea is actually a myth. I’ve had it happen so often where someone was like, ‘oh, I didn’t know that was you, but that song came up on my Spotify. Spotify encourages passive listening, and therefore works great for artists whose music fits well in a shop or helps someone get through the overwhelm of their workday,” said experimental folk artist Sarah Louise. “I make in about a year on Spotify what I need for just a month of living—and that’s with a healthy number of plays! The hard truth is that most people who you assume are making a living from music are not. I think that is one way Spotify gets away with it, because people see someone in the press and just assume they are doing ok. But exposure doesn’t necessarily translate to being nourished by the society that consumes what you make.” 

Ami Dang, composer and Oberlin alumni, said “I was on a ‘Lava Lamp’ playlist, and on Apple Music one of my tracks got on ‘World Chill’. So those did significantly help, but on the other hand, my song might be in a playlist with a thousand more tracks, and so people aren’t necessarily playing that on repeat.” It’s clear that being playlisted can help artists reach a wider audience, to some extent. But in the grand scheme of things, if these artists aren’t making songs with high replay value, or songs that fit into a study playlist, or whatever kind of music Spotify’s gatekeepers deem worthy of being put on a playlist, it’s less of a boon. Some songs sound great on their own or in the context of a playlist, and some songs can be replayed over and over again and still sound great. But it shouldn’t be controversial to say that a system of playlists and algorithms being the main decider of success for the entire world of recorded music is deeply questionable. And when you look past the question of exposure towards the question of compensation, the opinions of artists are nearly unanimous: Spotify doesn’t pay shit, and with touring out of the equation, its model pours salt on a wound that could last generations.

It’s simple: the “freedom” that Spotify promises artists is little more than a uniquely late-capitalist form of exploitation. “This whole false democracy of libertarian tech capitalism, I just think it’s a crock of shit”, said guitarist William Tyler. “It’s just people being like “work harder for greater access” but all of the money is going to a smaller and smaller group of people, and that’s not a sustainable model of life, let alone art.” 

Joshua Frank of the band Gong Gong Gong said “We put our songs on Spotify in part because of our label, and being on Spotify has definitely helped us grow our audience. But unless those people later come to our shows, or buy a record or other merch, there’s no direct financial benefit that it offers us as a band. We’ve also noticed that after we perform in a city, we start to get more followers from there on Spotify. I think that demonstrates that our touring is what’s driving listeners to seek out our music online, and not that Spotify recommendations are the only thing introducing people to Gong Gong Gong.” 

Blues artist Adia Victoria compared the model to “almost kind of like being an intern, but you’re paid in exposure. At the end of the day, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about the fact that you can listen to your music as much as you want and you receive literally pennies.”

These issues are not new. As I mentioned earlier, this debate was around in a different form during the Napster era, and artists such as Joanna Newsom and Radiohead have been criticizing Spotify since its inception. But with touring out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Spotify and other streaming services’ stranglehold on the music industry has tightened, and if the unsustainability of its model was a problem for artists before the pandemic, it’s been bleeding them since. 

“I think every artist knows that the model is totally unsustainable, and the only part of the streaming model that maybe we were not gonna complain about is that it did enable touring. Because people don’t spend money on records the same way they used to, but they will go see shows. But it’s like, this year you can’t do shows, and you’re not seeing money from these streaming services to a sustainable degree, so you’re just kind of left like ‘what the fuck? How are we supposed to make a living doing this?’” said Tyler. 

The pandemic has brought Spotify to make a few concessions, including adding a tip jar, a feature artists have been asking for for years. But we know where the streaming services stand. In July, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. ignited a furor amongst working musicians when he addressed compensation concerns by stating that “you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.” These comments, and the uproar surrounding them, were part of what inspired me to write this article, and the reactions I got from artists when asking them about it may have been my favorite part of writing it. “What an asshole” was composer Nailah Hunter’s immediate reaction to mentioning these comments, saying “I hate the idea of being like ‘uhhhh okay, gotta make another record, it’s been six months’, you know, that sounds really stressful and that’s not how I work or make songs.” 

What might not be immediately obvious to listeners is that the kind of work schedules demanded by Spotify’s algorithm can be ruthless. “This speed is not tenable. Last year we were on tour for 247 days out of the year—you just kind of get lost”, said Blues singer/songwriter Adia Victoria. “And I think that a lot of musicians suffer from anxiety and depression because of what we’re forced to do under capitalism.” 

As much pleasure as these artists and I took from ripping into Ek, it’s clear that his attitude towards art is reflective of an systemic devaluing of art that runs much, much deeper than just one asshole CEO.While the unique threat that the streaming era poses to free, creative music shouldn’t be downplayed, the previous eras of radio payola and physical barriers to exposure show that this is another mutation of the same beast. Capitalism has always found ways to devalue art, but now, Silicon Valley has given capitalists way more tools at their disposal to do so. 

The result of this is that our ideas about the value of music itself have been rewritten by the Spotify model. “If you’re paying a monthly fee and mostly just listening to what an algorithm suggests…I think that really devalues music and undermines the creativity that goes into making a song or an album,” said Frank.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this system can’t change. However, the online music market Bandcamp has made the seemingly obvious point that seems to get buried under all issues stemming from capitalism: it doesn’t have to be this way. And while issues of compensation are more of a systemic issue than an individual one, Bandcamp’s ongoing Bandcamp Fridays, in which they’ve waived their share of profits on the first Monday of every month since April, have shown that there is in fact a pretty large community of listeners who want to pay for music. 

Artists’ opinions of Bandcamp were as unanimously positive as they were critical of Spotify’s compensation policies. “In the two plus years that we’ve been on Spotify, the total profits have been a few hundred dollars. Compare that to Bandcamp: on Bandcamp Day in August, where Bandcamp (as well as our label, Wharf Cat Records) waived their cut of profits, we made $300 in a single day,” said Frank. 

“I love Bandcamp: it’s the only reason I’ve been able to survive this year,” explained Louise. “There is so much tech that siphons profit from the labor of everyday makers…I think it’s an abusive relationship and it’s going to take the makers deciding to leave and a platform like Bandcamp to help facilitate that.”

In addition to giving musicians actual compensation, Bandcamp takes several other measures to support artists that I didn’t even fully realize were exclusive to the platform. Erickson explained this, stating “When I talk to people at independent labels, one of the things they’ve told me is that Bandcamp is the only service that has ever asked us what we need. That sounds so basic, but it’s this thing that we see across the music technology sector. Not just streaming services, all these, like, fucking stupid startups that dub this whole idea for a business and build it all out and then try and convince everybody that it’s what they need instead of just asking artists and asking independent labels what would be most helpful and then building models and building features based around what they tell them would be helpful.”

Dang has had similar experiences, stating “It’s nice that artists have a lot more control on the back end of Bandcamp to upload their music, change how it looks, change what the narrative is, you know? Like, I could go and change an album description right now while we’re talking, which is not the case with the other platforms where there’s an approval process with the distribution. And then also I can have my tracks and my albums up there, but I can also sell t-shirts and other things all from the same page. I think Bandcamp really helps to better facilitate that fan-to-artist connection.”

Streaming subscription models work for some musicians, but as basically the only way most people consume music outside of Youtube and maybe piracy, only being viable for some musicians doesn’t cut it. I, and many of the artists I’ve interviewed, believe that art should be accessible to everyone, and that there shouldn’t be any barrier of access separating listeners from the music they love. But Spotify isn’t anywhere near the great equalizer it makes itself out to be, and while there isn’t an easy answer of reconciling compensation and access, Bandcamp may be as close as one can get, as they give artists full freedom to determine pricing. Many artists let users stream their albums for free on Bandcamp, a few of the ones I’ve interviewed offer name-your-price for their music, and I can’t think of many albums I’ve seen on Bandcamp that don’t let users listen to at least a few songs before determining whether or not to purchase said album. 

And what has been most important to me in particular, as well as many of these artists, is that Bandcamp has restored a sense of community to music that has been painfully absent in the midst of the pandemic. While services such as Spotify are comparable to Facebook in a bad way, they don’t even have the social element that comes with social media. “You know people who follow other people, like a couple months ago Alessandro Cortini (a member of Nine Inch Nails) bought like all of my records in one day and so all of his followers saw that he did that and were checking out my stuff because of that, just as an example. It’s this awesome sort of transparent community that actually helps us make some money too,” said Barwick. 

Looking at every pivotal creative movement in music history, it’s impossible to imagine anything happening without that sense of community. Streaming has been making music less profitable for artists about as long as gentrification has been pushing artists out of cities and breaking up communities, but without shows, listening and enjoying music feels as lonely as ever. Bandcamp Fridays have shown that even without shows, the connection between musicians and listeners hasn’t been diminished. Listeners still care about the people who help them through times like these, and with $11 million being raised for supporting musicians, we’re willing to put money on the table to return the favor. “Without community, I don’t have any stories to tell,” said Victoria. “Without community, I’m not engaged, I’m not receiving anything, so community is everything as an artist.”

Bandcamp links:

Ryley Walker

Ami Dang

William Tyler

Nailah Hunter

Julianna Barwick

Quartet Davis

Gong Gong Gong

Sarah Louise

Adia Victoria is not on Bandcamp but you can see all of her options for streaming/download on her website