How music streaming’s option anxiety birthed another single-serving economy

too long; don’t recommend

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

The inconsequential royalties artists receive from corporate music streaming giants like Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, and YouTube Music are no closed secret. 

Last October, the compensation model for those royalties—”pro rata,” where rights-holders receive a market share of all streams—even prompted the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers to demand a switch to a compensation model that pays at least one cent per stream as part of its Justice at Spotify campaign.

The advent of music streaming freed musicians from the limitations of physical media, allowing them to express themselves through seamless, virtually endless means, but play-determined royalty systems created an economic environment that rendered that mode of production increasingly precarious. The value of a track spanning the duration of an entire album was reduced to that of a one-minute punk blast; value is extracted from human labour exponentially the longer a track runs. 

Under these circumstances, tracks spanning longer durations are simultaneously disadvantaged in that even listeners who choose to enjoy longer songs “on repeat” can do so with less frequency than their earworm counterparts over a given stretch of time, and substantially longer tracks demand greater quantitative attention of active listeners than shorter ones. By rewarding all tracks a royalty that is founded in play frequency, consumer streaming platforms devalue the labour of artists creating longer running tracks as well as their aesthetic import and appetites for those listening experiences.

big mood

That cultural devaluation is compounded by corporate streaming’s preference for centralized recommendation systems and algorithmic discovery functions. These systems dissuade listeners from active engagement in favour of more ubiquitous, hands-free “listening.”

Across the board, this typically manifests in endless platform-curated playlists encouraging listeners to defer their selection processes to moods or activities. The editorial impulses responsible for their curation are universally proprietary, but we can assume they are generally concerned with boosting passive engagement (e.g., continued listening) metrics, something longer tracks naturally discourage (though active disengagement—skipping a track, for instance—also generates the kind of valuable, intimate user-data platforms in turn entice advertisers with). 

In this sense, platform-curated playlists function like muzak: an ignorable soundtrack deployed as an ethereal presence that slows down consumers’ visits to environments like department and grocery stores so they enter an explorative state where they encounter, reach for, and ultimately purchase items outside their shopping lists. In their 2018 MIT Press book, Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Music Streaming, co-authors Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars, and Patrick Vonderau observe that the breadth of these mood and activity-related playlist categories “schematize every aspect of daily life” and reframe music “as functional tools for accomplishing a task or reaching a certain state of mind”:

The use of music as a functional device has a long history, especially in terms of productivity requirements in workplaces and the exercise of and resistance to power more broadly. However, while the idea that music can be used to control one’s body and mind is not new, the mode of ‘ubiquitous listening’ facilitated by streaming services seems to correlate with a broader turn toward a utilitarian approach to music, whereby music consumption is increasingly understood as situational and functional for certain activities (rather than, for instance, a matter of identity work or an aesthetic experience). This shift is evident not only in Spotify’s classification scheme but also in other features delivered by the service [such as Spotify Running or Spotify’s partnership with Headspace] … Whereas these examples suggest that music streaming and listening should be used for utilitarian purposes, they also privilege specific ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In particular, they insist on self-governance through mood control…

That is, a version of self-governance that mutes the autonomous impulses of active track selection. Mood and activity playlists instead perpetuate a passive listening landscape geared toward functionality, disproportionately devaluing music geared toward active or deeper listening. By the same token, works that explore more complex or nuanced emotional territory over a longer timeline fail to fit the narrow parameters described by streaming’s prescriptive playlists. As a result, we increasingly see more substantial works absorbed into the pop machine of corporate streaming. 

rat race

Hedging their bets, composers often “break up” more substantial works to squeeze through the same funnels. But corporate streaming’s increased user conditioning towards a passive listening mode introduces more complications. Even when they play the game, the odds are stacked against them.

When Toronto doom metal trio Völur issued their 2017 album Ancestors, a four-part exploration of different Germanic myths, it received two release treatments. Ranging 10-17 minutes in length, its four original tracks are preserved on physical releases and platforms like Apple Music and Bandcamp, but at the request of their label, their running lengths were also chopped into 17 compartmentalized movements for Spotify.

“[Our label] was kind of like, ‘You should do this; we would like it if you would cut them up into shorter portions for Spotify; that way we can get more streaming revenue,'” Völur vocalist and bass player Lucas Gadke says. He frames the Spotify cuts in terms of reluctance and compromise. “I was kind of like, ‘I don’t like the idea of it, and it’s more work for our mastering engineer, but whatever, we’ll do it.'”

As a whole, Ancestors relishes in the atmospheric, each of its four parts building gradually to a heaving sprawl; out of continuity and out of context, it lands differently.

“Everything kind of starts like BLANGHK!” Gadke muses, mimicking the jarring volume blasts each of the parts’ interior tracks drop the listener into when absorbed out of sequence. “It doesn’t fade up artfully.”

Taken in smaller chunks, the individual movements are also robbed of the nuanced emotional import of the complete tracks, tension robbed of resolve, and climaxes sectioned off from their builds.

“In that capacity, having it chopped up makes it tough to get on a playlist in a meaningful way,” Gadke notes, referring to the role recommendation playlists can play as exposure pipelines to bands’ larger catalogues and the fact that these cuts deny listeners an accurate representation of the band’s work. 

It also disconnected him from an entire platform of listeners.

“I can’t even remember the [sectioned] titles [and Spotify listeners tell me] ‘I love that song you do that’s called this,'” Gadke reflects. “I’m like, ‘what?’ and they have to show me and then I’m like, ‘oh.'”

The English language doesn’t even have an adequate word for this kind of experience—the closest approximation available might be the German “Entfremdung.” Literally translated as “estrangement,” Karl Marx used the phrase to articulate the alienation labourers experience when they don’t own the products they labour to create. Yet even this term falls short in its inability to encapsulate the transmutation of artistic craft to market-ready product—or “content,” in this case.

There’s a precedent for this kind of format-challenged listening experience in terrestrial radio broadcasting, but at least that format offers entire programs and stations dedicated to longer playing music. Station scanners who stumble into a track midway through can learn their schedules and tune in accordingly; streaming platforms diffuse more substantial works by asking them to compete for the ears of distracted listeners as fragments and shadows of their true selves.

Endless possibilities

Untethered from the runtime limits of physical media, streaming should aspire to a music culture that reaches far beyond pop digestibles. Instead, the listening paradigm we’ve entered is the aesthetic equivalent of Appolonian office microdosing: we get all our work done and feel all our feels, but at the end of the day, artists are left chasing micropennies and playlist syncs, and we all dream about a life with more substance.

What if platforms diverted from corporate streaming’s emphasis on passive, function-based listening ubiquity and compensated music labourers based on intentional listening? 

Corporate streaming’s critics have been arguing for user-centric licensing (a pay-out rewarding a percentage of a user’s subscription fee to an artist, relative to the percentage of the time that user spent listening to it in a given subscription period), for years, and in March, SoundCloud announced it would introduce such a scheme. VICE reports “eligible artists will keep 55 percent of the revenue they generate from fan-powered royalties,” attributing the figure to Michael Pelczynski, SoundCloud’s head of rights administration and strategy. 

“The remaining 45 percent goes to SoundCloud—but they don’t keep it all as profit,” VICE reports. “Instead, they use part of it to pay out publishing royalties and cover other costs. Ultimately, SoundCloud retains about 25 percent of the revenues from fan-powered royalties and publishing royalties, which is in line with industry standards.”

Further, only artists enrolled in SoundCloud Premier, Repost, and the Repost Select monetization groups—or roughly 20 per cent of all musicians on SoundCloud—will receive the fan-powered royalties. So it’s far from perfect.

Diverting from the monthly subscription game, Berlin-based platform Resonate launched in 2015 with a “stream to own model,” asking users to pay a ninth of the cost of a track download for the first nine plays, then unlocking it for digital download and unlimited listening. Utilizing blockchain technology to manage payment distribution and keep the process transparent, they take a 30 per cent commission on any income. 

Of course, both of these artist compensation alternatives are still significantly anchored to a replayability vector.

Others are pushing to rethink streaming as a good that public enterprise can provide by funding track licensing with the wealthy class’ tax dollars. In an op-ed for The Week, Ryan Cooper makes a case for nationalizing Spotify, including demands for an elimination of the service’s recommendation algorithm and its “aural wallpaper that one barely listens to.”

Writing for Real Life, Liz Pelly submits that we should build a new, socialized streaming platform from the ground up, gesturing towards proposals like Henderson Cole’s American Music Library, a concept founded on values like free access to information and privacy. That model included a maximum wage to prevent the government from funneling the majority of its funds to already rich pop stars.

Even more endearing to artists working in niche genres, this January, cooperative effort Catalytic Sound launched Catalytic Soundstream, a boutique streaming service carrying a rotating catalogue of 100 to 150 albums showcasing work in challenging avant-garde genres like out-jazz and free improv. With new albums swapped in and out every day, monthly revenue is divided from listeners’ $10 monthly subscription fee so one third is reserved for co-op expenses. After $450 is set aside for a monthly platform-exclusive album, the other two thirds are split evenly amongst 29 of the 30 co-op partners, regardless of how frequently their music was streamed. An intentionally small-scale undertaking, they’re also assembling an instructive guide to forming a musicians’ co-op, with hopes of germinating a larger network where co-ops regularly exchange resources on a pay-it-forward basis.

In an interview with Pitchfork contributing editor Andy Cush, Catalytic Sound co-founder and jazz musician Ken Vandermark encapsulates the intervention’s impact in confident, sober terms: “In a collective like this, you’re shifting the platform, but people inherently understand that they’re not forced to fit into a certain mold to belong to the group. We want all these people to be exactly doing what they’re doing, and being heard.” 

With a focus on centring collective good over market populism, artists have the potential to be freed from arbitrary concerns like earning potential and playlistability, labour valued for what it is. By wrenching music from its extractive vulnerability, we can begin to empower artists to pursue streaming’s endless potential.