Maisie Burgess discusses the rise in unethical streaming, and its effect on the music industry.
Listening to music has never been so easy. Gone are the days of naively trawling through record shops, taking a risk on an unknown album which you are then fated to listen to for the next few months until you can afford to buy another. Now, without even leaving your bedroom, you are able to access infinite tracks and be offered, on a gleaming, Spotify-green platter, the playlist of your dreams. Now, artists who would have previously been inaccessible to us, artists from across the world, or artists who are unsigned and aspiring, lie at our fingertips, ready to be discovered.
With the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, publishing music has also become easier than ever before. Where once one would have had to jump through the rather narrow hoops of the relentlessly competitive music industry in order to get signed, promoted, and heard, anyone is now just a few moments away from existing on a platform alongside artists from Billie Eilish to Bob Marley. It is a democratisation of the music world; a way of making the far-fetched dreams of many seem, at last, attainable.
It all sounds great, right? But beneath the temptations of these musical empires lies something more complicated – something which challenges our ethical standpoints in ways which we are, for the most part, unaware of. Over the past few years, the more damaging side of these streaming services has become an object of increasing concern in the public eye, and such harms are, unfortunately, numerous.
One of the first of these harms, which really raises the question of the ethics of music consumption, is the way in which these services encourage musical anonymity. When you are handed a pre-made playlist, you have no need to check who is playing – the song becomes simply one among many of the nameless others which you like. Whilst this may not be of any real issue to the listener (after all, it all sounds good – why the need for interruption?), it strips the creator of any possession they may have had over their artwork. It is decontextualised, ignoring the clear presence of a human, and their labours, behind it.
What this anonymity assumes, however, is that you, as an artist, are actually lucky enough to be listened to. As already mentioned, the internet and the provision of streaming services has enabled a huge range of artists to be accessed by a huge range of consumers. However, whilst those traditional gatekeepers, which stood in the form of production companies or labels, may no longer pose the threat they once did, new gatekeepers, predominantly in the form of inhuman algorithms, have taken their place. Your pre-curated playlist is made up of songs selected due to their popularity, due to mutual listeners, or specific tags. If an artist does not happen to tick the right boxes of the right algorithm, then they become silenced.
Further to this is the way that these streaming services may be blanketing alternative artists in favour of specific sounds, as described by Liz Pelly in her article on ‘Spotify-Core’. This is a genre of music which is pretty chilled, a little emo – you know the sort of thing. It is hugely popular, and for good reason. It is, psychologically, appealing: these are songs and playlists which are not confrontational, they merge seamlessly into one another, and then they are suitably attention-grabbing just when they need to be. They operate on formulas which work. Unfortunately, what the increasing domination of this model of music means is an increasing level of musical conformity. It’s either that, or you face total obscurity.
It quickly becomes clear, then, that the democratisation so enthusiastically associated with streaming services is less true than it seems to be. And we haven’t even begun to look at one of the big issues at stake when considering the ethics of these platforms: the money.
On average, Spotify pays artists only about $0.003 to $0.005 per stream. That means that you would be striving for over 30,000 streams just to make $100. It’s a pretty unsustainable figure. On top of this, however, is the very system which big streaming services such as Spotify operate on and which make their practices even more questionable. Spotify operates on a pro-rata system (also known as a Market Share Payment System). This means that all the money gets pooled before being distributed amongst artists in proportion to their number of streams. Essentially, your subscription fee will not just be funding the artists you listen to, but will be funding all artists, whether you like them or not. Your money will always be going towards the big music giants who are certainly not the most in need of it.
There is an alternative to this system: the User Centric Payment System. Within this, your money gets divided in a ratio which reflects only those songs and artists which you listen to. It is a far fairer, far more direct, way of supporting musicians. But even this system has been shown to have its flaws. This model does move monetary focus away from the biggest musical names, but only to primarily benefit the top 11 to 1,000 top streamed artists; this still leaves the majority of artists without much noticeable benefit.
So, in the face of such corporate exploitation of artists, prioritising profit over human value and individuality, what is left for us, as consumers, to do? There are a few solutions, and what it ultimately comes down to is quitting these major streaming sites. One alternative is Bandcamp. With Bandcamp, you pay directly to the artists for the music you listen to. 82% of your money will reach them. Bandcamp also attempts to recreate something of the lost connections which the music universe once represented. Through the platform, you can leave reviews, interact with other users, share collections, and reach out to artists. Resonate is another similar service which operates on a far more ‘artist-centred’ model. At the moment, these services do still have their limitations; as yet, they have considerably fewer tracks, and have fewer licensing deals with bigger major labels, meaning many of the big musical names can’t be found on them. This should change as they get bigger and more well-known, but it does seem a pretty small price to pay for the clear ethical payback which you will receive.
As an alternative method of discovering new music, you can try interacting more directly with artists, DJs and record labels – following up on their leads and suggestions. Following independent record labels is often a good way of uncovering new work, as (besides their more intimate relationships with musicians) they often centre around certain genres which can lead you on to further musical finds.
What seems to jump out at me throughout these discussions is the disintegration of community. What these larger streaming services are doing is dissolving musical families and connections, rendering obsolete the need to communicate with other listeners, artists or labels. In a society so absorbed in independent, solitary existences, perhaps this seems like a benefit. However to me, this starts to question what the real value of music is. Music is a cultural object. It is an artistic object. It is created by people and created for people. It is about connection. Music can unite a room full of disparate bodies as they move, or just feel, their way into rhythms and words. When we passively accept a newly created playlist, we strip music of the humanity that lies integral to its conception. In order to acknowledge artists and grant them the value they deserve, we must return to a method of interacting with music which is more active. More expensive, yes; more time consuming, yes; but more enriching, and more ethical, undoubtedly.