Why Artists and Indie Labels Must Emancipate Themselves from Big Music
By Anil Prasad
It’s time we started applying the same language we use with tobacco companies to corporate music streaming services. We’re officially in the era of “Big Music.” And it’s fundamentally toxic, and possibly lethal, for musicians and indie labels alike.
Spotify, Apple Music, Google/YouTube, Rhapsody, and the rest of the streaming services have officially taken control of the music industry. My last Medium article, “The Finger’s on the Self-Destruct Button: The Ugly Truth about Apple, Google, Spotify, and the Rest of the Music Streaming Universe” illustrated the issues musicians and indie labels are facing as they struggle to monetize their art in the brutally unfair, unwanted streaming construct that parasitic Big Music has established.
Big Music Remains Indifferent to Musician and Label Concerns
Hundreds of musicians got behind the article. It was read by 74,000+ people and shared with millions across social media. Yet, there hasn’t been a word of response from the streaming companies. Clearly, they collectively have so little regard for artists and indie labels that even hundreds of musicians expressing concern means nothing to them. Hear that? You’re all unworthy of even basic acknowledgement. These companies are morally bankrupt. Your art is nothing but software in the cloud for them. It’s content as a service. It’s merely fodder to sell advertising and devices, fund IPOs and acquisitions, and prop up Ponzi-inspired investment schemes. That’s it. Nothing else. These services have no investment in your future. They don’t care if you live or die.
The other interesting thing that came out of the article is that despite unanimous support from the global musician community, there was bitter, scathing feedback from many entitled music consumers. They feel they deserve free or low-cost streaming. They believe it’s up to musicians and labels to adapt to the Big Music streaming paradigm because it’s just the way music distribution will be going forward, like it or not. Wrong.
“A major problem is the warped image the public has of musicians as celebrities,” explains Markus Reuter, the composer who co-runs the Iapetus label, dedicated to avant-rock and new music. “The public is unaware of the facts. When artists actually speak out, they’re being seen as whiny or greedy. The image of the happy-go-lucky musician who leads an enviable life is a lie that has been told by the mass media for many decades. It’s the breeding ground for the absurd corporate streaming business models Big Music is now selling to people.”
The Solution: An Entirely New, Fair Streaming Service
So, how can this be fixed? By artists and labels completely emancipating themselves from Big Music and creating total separation. It’s clear there are two types of music consumers today: those who want a free ride and the enlightened ones who love music as an art form, and understand that musicians and indie labels must be supported and deserve fair compensation for their work. The former type of consumer is irrelevant to musicians today. These people are lost forever in a generational drift. They’re never coming back to put a dime in the pocket of artists and labels. So, let them go. Forever.
It’s time to create an alternate streaming environment focused on music of meaning for listeners of value. It’s time for artists and indie labels to work within an entirely new construct designed to benefit them, run by someone that has their best interests at heart. Some may call this elitist. I call it realistic. It’s a perspective motivated entirely by survival and creating a sustainable ecosystem for the long-term. Let Big Music stream McMusic to the McMasses. Listeners that care about the good stuff will go elsewhere — if it’s the only place to get it. Yes, there’s the rub. Hear me out on this.
The bottom line with a fair streaming service, is yes, the bottom line for artists and labels. Quite simply, it has to pay more. A lot more. Corporate streaming services are largely an extension of the old publishing construct, in which publishers make money by accumulating content from thousands and thousands of artists. The low-cost mass model may make it viable for those who run the services, but not for artists and labels, who are paid out in micro-fractions of pennies.
The New Model: Realistic, Sustainable Pricing
To establish a fair streaming service, it will have to charge higher prices. It’s the only way for tangible revenue to reach artists and label participants. For that to happen, the service cannot be rigged to pay back investors who eventually cash out through an IPO or acquisition. It needs to have a rock solid ethical and financial core. And it doesn’t have to put rampant profitability ahead of sustainability for artists and indie labels.
How do we get there? One of the most expansive thinkers I’ve encountered on the topic is multi-instrumentalist Joe Mendelson of the experimental hip-hop act Rise Robots Rise and alternative rock band Quodia. With input from touch guitarist and composer Trey Gunn, who helms the avant-rock label 7d Media, Mendelson has come up with the following model for a fair streaming service, involving 90% of all revenue going to either the artist or indie label:
The first listen to all tracks is always free of charge. The second listen, and any listen thereafter, is paid for in one of the following ways, with the listener choosing to:
- Rent the track for one play for 10 cents, much like putting a dime in a jukebox.
- Buy the track for $1, which then makes it possible to both download it, as well as stream it forever at no additional cost.
- Stream the entire service’s catalog for a subscription fee, but at a much higher price point than Big Music — potentially $40–60 a month. Remember, the goal is to ensure the artists and labels get adequately paid. The $10 per-month charged by Apple Music and Spotify will never, ever lead to meaningful compensation for musicians.
Further, Mendelson’s streaming company vision involves it being set up as a B-corporation, which in the United States means a for-profit company intended to positively impact society. There would be no conventional stockholders or high-position owners involved who can sell the operation. The team supporting it would be small and agile. They would be paid decently, but there wouldn’t be a way for anyone to get rich. In other words, it would be run by true music lovers.
Musician and Indie Label Commitment Required for Success
The other requirement of this fair streaming model is that it needs to be the single go-to place for music of meaning. A definition includes the avant sides of rock, pop and folk, punk, underground hip-hop, alternative country, jazz, world, prog, noise, and new music — essentially, the worlds Big Music cares nothing about. It also needs the exclusive commitment of respected labels willing to voluntarily abandon Big Music for this service. I can think of a few that might be receptive to the concept, including: Ayler Records, Brainfeeder, Cantaloupe, Discipline Global Mobile, ECM, 4AD, InsideOut, Kill Rock Stars, Kscope, Lazy Bones, MOD Technologies, MoonJune, New West, Ninja Tune, Pi, RareNoise, Real World, Rune Grammofon, Stones Throw, Sub Pop, Tzadik, Warp, and World Village.
That’s a big ask, but it will be impossible for this new service to work unless a critical mass of important indie labels withdraw from Big Music streaming and commit to the new fair streaming service. Frankly, why wouldn’t they? They literally earn next-to-nothing from the mainstream services anyway. What does ubiquitous availability mean on a corporate streaming service when you will never, ever be able to monetize it in an even remotely beneficial way? One can think about this new service as the streaming equivalent of independent record stores — those amazing places you would go to find music no chain store would ever carry.
Big Music will call this proposal naive, idealistic and impossible. I assure you it is anything but. The seeds have been sown. The outrage is palpable amongst the musician and indie label community. Many listeners are starting to get it, too. These enlightened consumers understand musicians and labels are being backed into a corner. They know both will soon be unable to continue working within the Big Music system as it continues down its treacherous path.
Now, It’s Up To You
Tell us what you think about this new model. We need your feedback. As a musician or label, would you commit to this service if it existed? As a consumer, are you willing to support artists and labels in a more substantive way?
Anil Prasad offers further in-depth perspective on the history of streaming, including a deeper dive into the issues, in his keynote presentation “The Economic Reality of Streaming for musicians.”
Prasad is the founder of Innerviews: Music Without Borders, the world’s first online music magazine, established in 1994.
Graphic by Jumpingsack. Used with permission.