The launch of Apple Music a couple of weeks ago has started another backlash against streaming.
Alex Ross, on the New Yorker website:
[T]he pressure from the margin to the center is strong. Despite “Think Different” maxims redolent of the old Steve Jobs script—“It’s your music. Do what you like with it.”—you’re encouraged to gravitate toward the music that everyone else is listening to. This is what happens all across the corporatized Internet: to quote the old adage of Adorno and Horkheimer, you have the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” The musician, writer, and publisher Damon Krukowski, a longtime critic of the streaming business, calls it the return of the monoculture. “What Apple is doing to music retail,” Krukowski said on Twitter, “is exactly what I saw chains do to books in the nineties: kill indie competition, then eliminate the product.”
Criticism of the “monoculture” has never been less valid. The Internet is an incredibly large place, and within its 3.14 billion users, there’s room for an infinite variety of cultural pockets. While there may be a gravitational pull towards the popular, that pull isn’t strong—certainly not strong enough to change people’s existing tastes. If people can’t find what they want on streaming services, they’ll just go elsewhere. Because the Internet is so huge and so interconnected, it’s never been easier to find people who share your passions, no matter how obscure.
These cultural pockets will continue to exist alongside the titans. While it’s possible for companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google to become almost infinitely large, they grow at the expense of middle-sized businesses, not small ones. Because no company will ever be big enough to cater to everything everybody wants, there’s an infinite number of niches to be filled, and the best way to fill these niches is to be extremely small and focussed. Business analyst Ben Thompson has made the analogy to the rainforest: enormous trees taking most of the resources at the top, but incredibly fertile land at the bottom.
Streaming services are best suited to popular tastes, both from the listeners’ and the artists’ perspective. But it’s true that a lot of smaller artists and labels—the types who fit these cultural pockets—are having a rough time on streaming. Their rate of pay is pitiful, and it’s made worse by the loss of album sales.
To address the problems of streaming, though, we first need to think about who’s encouraging artists to be on the services. Through iTunes, Apple is the largest music seller in the world. If they wanted, they could use their clout to push indie artists into a catch–22: join Apple Music or leave the iTunes store—but they don’t. Spotify likewise requires no exclusives from artists. Tidal wants exclusives, but that business is a total disaster anyway. Only Google’s terms of service are onerous and repulsive.
The reason Apple don’t force artists to their streaming service is simple: it’s bad for them too. Think of it this way: if you’re an indie musician, you make a lot more money by selling an album on iTunes than by having a thousand streams of your songs. And so do Apple. Their thirty per-cent cut of an album’s sale is worth a lot more than their nearly-thirty per-cent cut of a couple of thousand streams. So why would they encourage musicians to be in their streaming catalogue? The problem with streaming services is not that they’re a bad model for musicians; it’s that they’re a bad model for some musicians, but at the moment nearly all musicians are on them.
Indie musicians’ complaints about streaming revenue are misdirected. It’s not streaming services that are to blame for the poor payouts to musicians. Even if streaming services could triple or quadruple what they charge listeners, the payouts to musicians per stream would still be vanishingly small. If anyone is to blame, it’s record labels—big ones in particular. It’s no good for smaller musicians to have all of their music on streaming services, but it’s of great benefit to those musicians’ labels. By having a large catalogue of music on a streaming service, big labels have a consistent source of income. A record label doesn’t care if one of their artists gets a thousand plays per month or a million, it’s all revenue to them. So they’ll upload their whole catalogue to Spotify, Apple Music, and all the rest, because they can. It doesn’t matter to the labels if any particular artist is a bad fit for streaming. As long as they have a lot of musicians making them a little money each, they’re sitting happy.
Rather than blame streaming services for not paying indie artists enough, musicians need to take matters into their own hands. They can only do this by knowing their audience. If a musician aspires to be the next Taylor Swift or Adele or Drake or whoever, then the goal is to get everyone listening, and that can only be accomplished by being available everywhere. In that case, being available on streaming services, and being pushed by a big record label, is almost certainly the right call. Those services are, after all, where most people are listening to music these days.
But if a musician wants to be a smaller success, a professional rather than a superstar, then they don’t need to be everywhere. Instead, they need to connect directly with existing and potential fans. That means being online, and it means building a relationship with their listeners. It also means selling, not streaming, their music, and convincing fans that it’s worth buying. I’ve argued before that piracy is a better option than streaming for musicians who want to build a passionate, loyal fanbase, and I stand by the argument I made then. Listeners who pirate music know the artist isn’t getting paid, and those who fall in love with it will often buy it in future. People like supporting independent creators, regardless of their field, because they can see that their contribution makes a difference. That’s the stuff on which Kickstarter is made.
Musicians who want to achieve this type of professional success can’t market themselves the same way as pop musicians: that way lies ruin. Instead, they need to develop loyal fans who are willing to pay to support them because they’re unique. The Internet, and social networks in particular, allow that kind of connection. Success as a musician separate from the peloton is still hard, but it’s within reach of more people than it has ever been before. And that’s not monoculture.