Fandom in the Age of Music Streaming

Michael Donaldson

It’s possible for music fans to utilize streaming with intention, but it’s not effortless. Rather than clicking on playlists and random recommendations, listeners can seek out albums and new releases from trusted sources (reviews, online radio shows, friends). And once a great album is discovered, learning more about it and the artist is just a few clicks away. That said, requiring the effort of intention won’t easily convert casual listeners into die-hard fans. But the seductive nature of playlists and algorithmic recommendations is turning fans into more passive listeners.

Intention used to be inherent in the medium. Gone are the days of merely perusing the CD or LP liner notes (or holding a curiosity-inspiring album cover) and digging further.

The writer Warren Ellis has been reclaiming his physical media, sorting through collected DVDs and CDs — and sending off for new additions — in defiance of the ephemeral streaming of digital art. Ellis’s re-transition is occurring in public, through his newsletter — Orbital Operations — and photos appearing on his blog. There’s a touch of paranoia about treasured music becoming unavailable, whether through hard drive failures, platform redundancy, the whims of corporate interests, or technological apocalypse. It’s a calculated “withdrawal from feeds and streams,” he says, implying that the download option is still considered a form of ownership. Here’s a section from a late May issue of Orbital Operations:

This is, of course, all part and parcel of my withdrawal from the feeds and streams … also, a continuing personal rejection of Music As A Service. I purchase all my downloads. And if something for sale is offered for free on a streaming site, I try to track the thing down and buy it if I love it. Sampling is fine. That’s what radio was/is for. I use YouTube and other services to sample things, and I think — I hope — it can help artists. But renting a music collection is bullshit and bad for everybody.

These are the words of a music fan. And fandom requires intention, as we decide the artists worthy of our obsession and adulation. Of course, the fan can discover a new artist through radio or a playlist, but there needs to be a push — an inner encouragement, even — to explore further. Whether by design or not, I find that playlists encourage the opposite. There’s always that new niche playlist — updated regularly! — front-and-center on the platform’s launch page, drawing attention with delightful sonic promise.

Recently, Motive Unknown’s Darren Hemmings published an article exploring a like-minded sentiment — that music streaming might discourage fandom through a lack of financial support to the artists. He writes:

At every step of the way, streaming services are essentially gaslighting us that this ecosystem is an amazing new development. Just like Silicon Valley in general, there is this mindset that having everything available all the time is a good thing. It isn’t — and it is arguably damaging art and culture as a result. […]

In 2019, artists need meaningful patronage, not a speech about how they could get more streams. That patronage might come from merch or other means, but it should come from music too. As someone who makes his living from the music industry, it also occurred to me that frankly, I owe these people. Without them, I wouldn’t have this job that I love.

The author continues with an opinion that streaming is more of a replacement for radio — rather than for albums or fan-cherished media — than we realize. As with radio, most listeners approach streamed music passively and evanescently — a song or artist listened to now is forgotten fifteen minutes later. Hemmings feels this is partly due to a lack of listener investment (the purchase of the music) as well as the psychological effect of a seemingly endless amount of content.

It seems that many of us are re-evaluating our relationships with the transitory delivery of digital art. Hemmings’ reservations mainly come from wanting to give an artist his or her due — some coin directly in the pocket — and a reasonable suspicion into the goals of a company like Spotify. These feelings also motivate Ellis, but he adds the wild card of wanting to own his music and movies and to enjoy them in a way that’s not dependent on a corporate subscription platform. In other words, something different than a platform that encourages ephemerality and distraction through endless options.

And this dovetails into my preoccupation with the societal effects of music streaming and our perception of ‘music’s place in the 21st century.’ I was a late adopter of music streaming — a casual free-tier Spotify user, the launch of Apple Music is what got me fully on board. I went through multiple stages of the streaming listener: excitement at all my favorite albums at hand; discovering new albums and artists based on reviews in niche blogs; getting seduced by the fun of playlists; and the realization that an obsession with playlists was turning me into a passive listener rather than an intentional one.

Passive vs. intentional is something I think about a lot. One effect of ‘newsfeed culture’ is it creates passivity in our consumption — what we see and hear is determined by an algorithm or a curation, a diet of someone else’s choices. This passivity isn’t always bad. When we listen to the radio, we are listening passively, and there have been times when a random radio experience changed my life. But the erosion of intentionality is a disassembling of personality. This condition can deprive us of the agency of our thoughts.

Like Ellis and Hemmings, my struggles with this have brought me to Bandcamp and my personal music library. Several months ago, I started building a Bandcamp collection of music for sleeping. I noticed that familiar satisfaction of purchasing a release and knowing the majority of my payment will go to the creator — a much different psychological experience than a monthly subscription payment to Spotify. And I was picky about what I was purchasing, thus committing the music to multiple listens and an attachment to memory. At first, I left these releases to play via the Bandcamp app but soon downloaded the lossless files, adding them to my iTunes library. More satisfaction: I was creating a walled-garden library of music that I intentionally discovered and considered top notch. Sort of like I did when I was a teenager buying record albums and arranging them in a milk crate.

Now I’m visiting Bandcamp more often than Apple Music or Spotify, and I’m purchasing more than ‘sleep music.’ Admittedly, I’m still experimenting — this young era of digital music has been a constant experiment for all of us. But it’s fascinating that as all things internet have lost their luster, other listeners and music fans are arriving at a similar place. There’s a questioning of music’s role among fandom and the artists that wish to cultivate fans.

Where are we headed? I believe it’s time for independent artists in all media to reclaim the intention of fandom. There are emerging signs that this shift is beginning.

The above comparison with radio may predict an inevitability: that streaming platforms will become more exclusive rather than aiming to contain every available musical recording. Just as you know to turn to a top 40 radio station to hear that format, or a jazz FM station for be-bop, or the local college station for freeform, esoteric selections, we may see a similar separation in streaming outlets. I believe this could be a good thing, and we see seeds in the Bandcamp model — that platform isn’t actively courting the new Taylor Swift single.

The ultimate model is for artists to create portals for music through their sites like Neil Young has done with his Archives project. If a fan wanted to hear the music first and in the best quality or format, then the artist’s site could be the destination rather than that of a corporate third party. This hub also gives the artist freedom over presentation, to have ‘liner notes,’ videos, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and such featured alongside the music. The emphasis would be on fan-building as opposed to platform-building. One step further is for artists to be connected and networked, perhaps by an organization like Merlin, for the discovery of similar bands through the artist’s portal.

The good news is that there are many possible directions for the future of the streaming industry. I know it feels like we’re at the end-point, that Spotify and Apple’s dominance and agenda-setting are the way things are and will be. But, as we’re learning with society’s now mainstream skepticism of social media, we’re still at the ‘figuring-it-all-out’ stage with digital media. Expect more than a few forks and unexpected crossroads along the way. And if an independent artist’s future is outside of Spotify — just as MTV or commercial radio rarely included independents — then it’s likely that artist will end up stronger for it.


A shorter version of this article appeared previously on 8sided.blog. Check out my latest posts on ‘music’s place in the 21st century’ I might send you a vintage Florida postcard, too. 📬

Michael Donaldson

Written by

I think and write about music’s place in the 21st century. Music industry mentor and blogger at 8sided.blog.

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