The way music is commodified and consumed has changed massively in the last twenty years – but is that for the better or the worse?
It’s that time again when people have been compiling their ‘best of’ the year music lists. You know the ones; you may well have seen a couple, or you may have published one of your own to social media, likely compiled on your behalf by your platform of choice – giving you access to data on genres and hours of play that you would probably not have recorded for yourselves. We are all data-driven now, it seems. And, as much as these generic lists can be useful ways of picking up on good albums that you may have missed, for me it can be a little bewildering to note just how many records – beloved of people whose tastes I trust – have passed me by altogether. More often than I’d like to admit, I don’t know the bands at all. How did it come to this? I buy more albums now than I have at any point before. Music has never been more available. Any time, any band, any device. There’s no reason to feel out of the loop, but that feeling seems to grow and grow; what has changed?
The Changing Face of Fandom
There are many excuses that could be offered, but surely the massively obtainable nature of music now must dilute its appeal somehow. Everything is accessible, any time, often free of charge; you can access a hundred albums a week, pay pennies for them, but this very possibility seems to take the sheen off new music itself. If you can try something anytime, then ‘anytime’ begins to recede into the never-never. Many of those albums I’ve purchased I’ll like a lot; many of them, however, will wash over me, playing in the background; we’re talking ten, twenty, thirty albums that could become new favourites at ‘any time’, but rarely do, because they never get my full attention. They were never hard-won. My listening habits for anything truly new seem irrevocably altered by the modern means that we have of getting hold of them.
Now, it could be simply that I’m older. All of us are. It’s certainly true that you cement your tastes when you’re very young, and for many of us in our thirties and forties, those truly magical pieces of music that still give us that nostalgia-happy thrill are often twenty years old by now, at the very least. I’m aware that it’s always been fairly rare for people to go the whole way through their lives finding new bands with the same crazy enthusiasm that they had as teens; the demographic at young bands’ gigs (remember gigs?) would be far more wide-ranging if this was the case. That all being said, I don’t think that the sea-shift in my relationship with newer music can completely come down to being older, given that many bands can and do still pierce the veil; rather, I feel that the shift in listening habits not only affects my age group, but every age group, and as such directly impacts upon our relationship with music in ways that are potentially ruinous for bands and fans alike.
Once upon a time, new albums were something of an event. If you were into metal, then your options for sourcing and getting hold of more ‘niche’ aspects of the genre was pretty limited. Lots of us had to travel afar to even get to a record shop. You might pick up on a few band names or album titles via the metal press, itself fairly hard to get a hold of at times, and then eventually you might follow the ads and the flyers to the DIY world of fanzines and demo tapes. This was a world apart from the likes of Raw and even Xtreme Noise in terms of what you could find, and it was exciting. You also had to work for it. Whilst you might be able to get someone to put in an order on the phone from Round Diamond Records or similar on your behalf, you wouldn’t have to wait all that long – perhaps a week, though that in itself probably sounds immense to people used to getting what they want with the click of a button. But once you got into ‘zines, and via the ‘zines purchased demo tapes coming from very far afield, you rather hopefully sent off your International Reply Coupons and buckled up. It wasn’t that unusual to wait three, four, five weeks if the music was coming from outside of Europe. It’s a long while – but waiting for that tape to drop through the letterbox created anticipation. It had value. If you wanted it, you had to wait for it, and with certainty there was never an occasion where I purchased a demo tape, received it, and then set it aside for a month while I did other things. I do that routinely with albums now; as with all aspects of physical media, be it print media, film (sourcing rarities or banned movies) or even TV (when you couldn’t binge-watch) things matter more when it’s not you setting your own agenda. And, back to that demo tape which you’ve waited five weeks for or the CD you’ve waited one week for, you found yourself poring over every detail of it in a way which is now lost. The interaction, with media you had to work in order to get, was stronger. The past is a different country, I guess. They do things differently there.
The Rise and Rise of Spotify
Whilst other streaming platforms are available, it’s perhaps inevitable that the music industry’s current fate is wedded to Spotify, a company established in 2008 and worth over $20 billion now. Whilst not a user these days – I think there’s a fallow account out there somewhere – it’s clear to see this company’s reach and influence. And it’s not my intention to simply rail against Spotify; the reach and influence which it now enjoys are born of several factors, shaped out of a blend of opportunism, a gap in the market, and a moment of crisis for a music industry grappling with the new rights and wrongs of existing online. What Spotify does, and the key opportunity that it gleaned back in 2008, is the chance to legitimise online listening by providing a cheap, often free service that ostensibly declawed the rise and rise of illegal downloading. A sudden liberation of access to the internet had given rise to the phenomenon of peer-to-peer file sharing sites, with the likes of Audiogalaxy, Kazaa and Napster permitting registered parties to trade MP3 files, undercutting the legit music industry in one easy move. It was dubious in quality, practice and ethics, but for a generation just getting to grips with the new terrain of the internet, it felt like no harm; had Metallica not sued Napster in 2000, attention would not have been brought to this practice, but then again, I’m willing to bet that this high-profile case probably opened a floodgate in many respects, too. Were many more people aware of peer-to-peer possibilities after a band as huge as Metallica took it on? Probably. Were P2P site owners willing to work out new ways to stick it to the man? Probably; and Napster mooted a pay-per-track model that was later taken up by the streaming services that followed. Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, was an early investor in Spotify; Daniel Ek, Spotify CEO, was the former CEO of uTorrent, a site that – you’ve guessed it – pirated music. Early file-sharing exposed weakness and fallacies in a music industry that was at the time riding high on the success of CDs, and that was soon being painted as arrogant, antiquated; it also, in its desperation to keep going, led to the birth of a business model that is now the norm, headed up by people who made it to the top off the back of file-sharing and piracy.
Spotify et al also by and large provide a decent-sounding service; listening quality is good, consistent across all genres, and cleaned up as much as is possible if the production values of a given band or track are not fully up to muster. It has a search facility, which ostensibly permits you to find anything and everything, whether you are searching for genres or bands; its use of algorithms means that you can be steered towards new releases that chime with your current personal tastes, and the facility for putting together shareable playlists is another facet of the service that could point you in the direction of new things. It is, if you are a subscriber, a vast and accessible world of decent quality, diverse music with potential avenues to encourage you into listening to new material. Spotify’s back catalogue is like nothing else on earth. So where is the damage?
For fans, Spotify’s ‘song by song’ approach, whereby you can purchase individual tracks (and it will tell you which tracks are the most popular, too) potentially disrupts the order and intent of the artists who have made the music in the first place and may have had solid reasons for arranging the tracks in a certain way. Whilst it’s not a type of album in the ascendant these days, I’ll admit – just imagine what this could do to a concept album.
Spotify unpicks the concept of an album in some sizeable ways, as well as rendering the musicians’ own ideas of what they wanted to do null and void; albums themselves become playlists, organised and curated by a disinterested outsider agency. “Essentially,” musician Ben Sizer (Twilight’s Embrace/Arx Atrata) tells me, “success on Spotify is largely down to whether you get featured on the popular playlists, because they are listened to much more than individual albums. The most popular playlists are the ones that Spotify themselves ‘curate’, and although everyone can apply to be on them, you can only give them one track per release – so if you’re an album band, you can expect either one or none of your songs to be popular, depending on what a Spotify employee thinks of your track.” It becomes a numbers game, in a way that never, either in scale or saturation, had the same impact on music twenty years ago, even when the record labels were warning that ‘taping is killing music’. Things like album art, lyrics, sleeve photos, even thanks lists – things that absolutely added value – are relegated. Not gone, per se, but disparate. That’s not to say there haven’t always been clueless music execs who misunderstood the music they were promoting, exerting pressure on artists to alter their ideas, but perhaps it’s fair to say that there was a range of labels, some of which did wish to promote their bands’ ideas wholesale and who were willing to take a risk on them – the likes of Peaceville, for example. Yet even given the presence of dubious labels, you could still expect to see the finished product making it to the end of the road, a complete package, rather than being excised altogether and replaced with a formulaic webpage interface, with artwork, lyrics and intended track order very much taking a back seat. Ben Sizer adds, “If we’re talking about Spotify profiles, then sure, we get to add a little picture or two, and some text. We can add links to approved sites like Facebook and Twitter, but we’re not allowed to link to our actual website, and certainly not to Bandcamp. We don’t choose the layout of the front page or get any influence over the content of the ‘Fans Also Like’ page. You can’t actually promote yourself on Spotify in any active way.”
So, for music fans, Spotify can be a very mixed experience. Some people absolutely love it, giving it credit for promoting a very affordable model, with a music collection accessible from absolutely anywhere (given a solid internet connection). Author and lifelong metal fan CJ Lines tells me “I was always a fan of mixtapes when I was younger, both for others and for my own pleasure (mostly driving, back in the day when I used to drive a lot). I still love making playlists but now I feel I have a limitless library to choose from, which is just feeling like a kid let loose in a sweet shop.” Fans of Spotify also feel that whilst not perfect, it has meant that – finally – the music business is making money again, after a ten-year lull which threatened it far more than a shift in format. Other fans aren’t so sure.
The Death of One Thousand Cuts
For artists, the picture is rather different – ostensibly simpler, yet in key respects more complicated. It has become, particularly in the last five years or so, impossible to subsist without an online presence, and as Spotify retains the biggest market share, it tends to be Spotify which acts as custodian. But, so the rumour goes, that’s all Spotify is: it’s artists that control their own profiles, so if they are inclined and able, then they can promote themselves. The only limit is the artists themselves. To do this, you need a lot of time to devote to it, but sure – if you can generate enough new content and spend enough time ‘reaching out’ on social media, then you can potentially garner more interest in what you do and accordingly, make money. Or so the story goes. In practice, many musicians are not full-time musicians, and fitting in a calendar of self-promotional activities around a full-time day job seems wholly impossible. Accordingly, Spotify’s voracious appetite for new content is a challenge for those same musicians, and for the same reasons. Of course, most artists would like to draw a living wage from what they do – but even for those for whom it’s a hobby, it becomes ever more challenging to make just enough money to keep the hobby ticking over. “You can’t do this sort of thing if you don’t have a decent job,” Ben Sizer affirms. “I used to pay something like £100 a month for a practice room, but [Twilight’s Embrace] makes less than that in a year of streaming.”
Perhaps then Guardian journalist Laura Snapes hits the nail on the head when she refers to Spotify as ‘a kingmaker’ (1). Musicians need to be on Spotify, but in many respects, they are ensnared by it: they have to abide by Spotify’s rules, conducting themselves in such a way which enriches the service whilst bankrupting them of time and means. In some ways this resembles the ‘truck system’ of the nineteenth century – a method of paying impoverished factory workers that replaced cash wages with a system of truck tickets, which could only be spent in certain shops – also owned by the factory owners, funnily enough, ensuring that the wealth found its way back to the wealthy, whilst the wealthy also dictated the amount and the kind of wages offered. Spotify calls the shots, meanwhile offering a now-legendarily tiny amount of royalties for music sold. The Spotify system works extraordinarily well for the few; the Ed Sheerans of the world, who appear on more and more playlists, influencing the algorithms and selling exponentially, make a mint. This reflects a general shift in wealth from smaller businesses and models, to those with immense global reach; the likes of Amazon, for example, seeing huge increases in profit throughout the pandemic whilst small shops and traders go bust. It’s a snowball effect; once you get known, once you generate the likes and the follows, then this exposes you to more and more potential fans and customers – but you have to get there first, and it’s a very big terrain.
There are of course many extraordinarily successful bands, but I think it’s fair to say that most acts operate on a far smaller scale; perhaps worst off of all are the bands that are signed, have a modest following, but thereafter owe a fair share of their proceeds to their labels. These are the same guys who have to work to pay the bills and can’t devote as much time as they’d like to music, because they have to work to pay the bills; they just owe a share of anything they do happen to make to a clutch of other people and, whether or not this is an amicable relationship, it can put a severe dent in the amount of cash which makes it as far as band members. Whilst the amount a band takes from Spotify users varies somewhat based on whether the listener is a paying or a free user, you would still need something in the area of 700,000 monthly streams in order to earn the equivalent of $15 per hour (2). Spotify has recently tweaked their business model to offer musicians an ‘algorithm boost’ – to help artists find their way onto those all-important playlists – in exchange for a royalties cut. Of course, for those middling bands – always too niche to find a vast, Beyonce-style audience, but big enough to have a label and a promoter who need paying – it is near to impossible that streaming will ever afford them much more than a modest supplementary income. A band may boast of having over a million streams in a year, but that’s amounts to around £3600. Split that with the label, and you get half of that to divide amongst the band members. “Imagine going back in time to the Nineties, telling a band ‘you’re going to have over a million people listening to your music – but you still need a second job’”, adds Ben. And yet, Spotify boasts its diversity; it needs its bands of all genres but is tiptoeing around the thorny issue of paying them.
The pushback against Spotify has actually been quite slow to appear; remember though, how quickly all of this has taken place. Ten years, give or take, is no great amount of time if you chart the length of time in-between other sizeable developments in musical formats and listening habits over the preceding decades; it has almost certainly taken both fans and musicians by surprise, and it has taken some time for any of us to step back and assess. There are, remember, countless music fans who are perfectly happy with the way things are now. They have their phones, their good headphones, and a 4G connection. Most of the time, wherever they are, they have a formidable collection of music; they would also remind us that they listen to music all the time without breaking the bank. “I think Spotify is directly responsible for keeping me extremely engaged with what’s going on and, this year, when everything’s been shit and I’ve been stuck indoors, it’s been easily one of the most essential, wonderful things I’ve had,” CJ Lines affirms. For the bands and artists, there are, again, those who are doing reasonably well on streaming platforms and those who are happy to adapt their practice, adjusting their schedules to ensure they put the time in, in order to get the streams back out. Certainly, Spotify hasn’t got rid of the possibility that your band will turn out to be a breakthrough act, in some respects the same as it ever was: luck is always a factor, it seems. Nor does the presence of Spotify indicate that listeners only stream their music, using no other methods.
For those listeners and creators who have profound misgivings about the platform’s stranglehold – which now seems to be edging into exclusive podcast content, by the by, now that it has made its indelible mark on music – there are some alternatives. Probably the best-known and most successful of these is Bandcamp, which operates in a rather more band-orientated way, allowing individual artists and labels to organise and update their own personal pages, selling their music and merchandise through the site for a small fee. As well as the conventional downloads, bands can also offer physical media including collectable vinyl and shirts – products that seem to do very well. During the first Spring 2020 lockdown (the first lockdown, let’s call it) Bandcamp took the decision to waive its fees altogether on selected days of the month due to the impact of the pandemic on musicians unable to perform live, and otherwise struggling to make ends meet. It’s been immensely popular. These ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ have, to date, run nine times and made $40 million for bands (3) and the service has confirmed that these will continue in 2021, which will – in truth – be itself far from easy, with a full return to live music unlikely for the first half of the year, if it resumes in any recognisable sense at all. It’s a commendable approach from a very user-friendly site and, while I wish there was a tad more of a community aspect to Bandcamp (in the same way that the sadly defunct, or at least irrevocably altered Last.fm used to have) it feels at least as if I am not fleecing the bands I purport to like when I use it.
Speaking of physical media, there really does seem to have been a renaissance of people collecting vinyl and – more surprisingly, even given their nostalgia quotient – cassettes in the last ten years or so, with a new demand that has helped to shape what record labels and bands make available. Particularly where cassettes are concerned, this seems to be largely driven by underground bands and it looks an awful lot like underground metal bands are once again using the medium on a fairly regular basis. Merch tables in venues and festivals seemed to quite suddenly feature a few tape-versions of existing albums, and it’s not so unusual now for the same bands to make a certain number of tapes and vinyl records available even whilst still putting out CDs and downloads because, for all their unpopularity with seasoned music fans in the 90s, CDs are still being produced, bought and listened to, too.
The vinyl pushback in particular – often driven by people a little too young to have decades-long regrets over getting rid of their first vinyl collections – seems to me to be a direct resistance to the world of download-only music, with its ephemeral qualities and almost total lack of tangibility. It’s a renaissance that seems to have sprung up at around the same time digital platforms began to move to the fore – 2007 – and it has, quietly, continued. Whilst it is – and likely will remain – a niche format, a prohibitively expensive one, again, for many bands, the fact that it’s back in any form at all is quite something. Arguments about sound quality aside, there is clearly still something special and enduring about owning music on vinyl that has seen it resurrected; from the point of almost complete obsolescence in the late Eighties, even a giant label like Sony was back to producing in-house vinyl records in 2018, even whilst struggling to find sound engineers who knew how to do it (4).
Given the 2020 pandemic, its kiss of death for live music and the fact that we still have no clear-cut route out of all of this, things have never been so precarious for music. Not for Ed Sheeran. Not for whatever is appearing on the front page of Spotify now. If your music of choice was being made by bands who were just getting by in 2019, then it’s never been more important that we close the huge, anonymous gap between fan and musician in 2021 that has been placed there, whether deliberately or otherwise, by large-scale streaming platforms, platforms that – whether or not you value their accessibility and extensive roster – have profited vastly whilst bands and artists have struggled and, in some cases, parted ways altogether. The very real possibility here is that bands simply decide to… stop. In a climate such as this, there’s a real chance of it happening, and we are all the poorer for living in a culture that seems to value the arts last of all.
We live in a climate of huge, conglomerate structures like Amazon and Spotify and this is highly unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, given that each of these multinationals continues to grow. They have thrived because they excel in key aspects; above all, they are convenient on an unprecedented scale, but surely, thinking a little more carefully about where we access and purchase music is something which we can all do. Thankfully, a more equitable service like Bandcamp can help to close the gap between instant purchasing power and a fair deal for artists; look into them, and support them, if you agree with how they operate. It’s also worth remembering that physical media is yours to keep forever, and this is perhaps something to weigh against the convenience of streaming music on platforms that can – and do – make decisions about your collection on your behalf, removing music at the whim of social fashions and the loudest voice of pressure groups who have declared songs, artists or even genres beyond the pale. Will we ever listen to new music in the same diehard way we once did? Maybe, but maybe not: at the very least, though, engaging with quality, not quantity will help to keep our relationship with music as meaningful and even-handed a relationship as possible in these strange times.
Many thanks to Ben Sizer and CJ Lines for their contributions.
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