Maverick Life

OP-ED: THE KILLING STREAMS

How digital music streaming hangs creators out to dry

Image: Alexander Shatov / Unsplash

There is a crisis. There are many empty bellies to fill. The United Nations is referring to it as a violation of human rights. But unlike other crises we have had to confront where bellies remain empty because there is simply no money to throw at the problem, the problem of digital music streaming and the revenue crumbs musicians are fed is solvable.

Remember when public protest was a real thing? When people who believed passionately in something got together en masse to express their rejection of or support for it in a meaningful way? And by meaningful we should understand that a result was achieved, that change occurred or an impact was felt.

Amid the docile acceptance in this era of whatever is thrust upon society at large, there has been one significant example in 2021 of people banding and bonding together to voice resistance, rejection and opposition in a unified voice. It wasn’t in politics – where acquiescence, indifference and silent consensus have been exploited by the powers that be to protect and promote the interests of the few; it certainly wasn’t in or against religious dogmatism, or climate breakdown or corporate domination or the tyranny of social media. Oddly enough it was in football. It was the game of soccer that prompted a near-universal voice of outrage and condemnation of a scheme and the fans, the loyal supporters of the “beautiful game”, came together and made themselves heard.

When the plan for a football “Super League” was announced the community of fans saw it for what it was. Straight away they smelled a rat.  

The distaste for such a transparent power play – transparent in its self-serving greed and its naked, corrupt, muscle-flexing exploitation of the players, the clubs, the fans, and the heart and soul of a game that was already almost obscenely commercialised – was more than the football world could bear. In harmonious and unambiguous rejection, the world came together, said “No F****** Way!” and within a week the whole sorry, scuzzy idea was dead and buried and its architects were putting as much distance between themselves and the whole rotten enterprise as possible. 

People cared. And it was a reminder – a very necessary one – of the power of a unified voice, a reminder that there is power in union. It is an example that music lovers and music creators, in a less docile, more involved and involving world, could take a lesson from. 

The current set-up of music, its cheapening, its defining by streaming services and new corporate controllers, is founded upon and driven by the unwitting complicity of consumers and artists. The environment in which the DSPs [Digital Streaming Platforms] operate is, in essence, that of a Super League. The spoils are shared unfairly among the biggest players who, every year, permit a handful of new, approved – steadily groomed – members into the echelons of high reward. 

Having succeeded in propagating and perpetuating certain falsehoods and myths, the streaming services – more craven than the worst record labels of the past, who at least to some limited degree invested in, recorded, marketed and distributed music (and counted on a return on that investment) – wear the mask of “accessibility”. Accessibility by and to the consumers and the artists. The latter have the “freedom” to record, publicise, market and make their music available to the fans who pay for it, but not in a way that benefits their favourite artists, but rather the platforms and their giant fiscal allies. 

One stark example of this: Apple’s current AirPods business generates more revenue than Apple Music, Spotify, The Orchard and Tidal combined. The genius of this is complemented by an array of other mythologies – one being that “everything” is available, on-demand, all the time, everywhere. Another being the mistaken pride which each artist after artist after bedroom Beethoven declares with undisguised, unabashed and dangerously uninformed pride – as though they’d just been awarded a lucrative record deal – that their “latest release is out on Spotify”. 

The access to and availability of music is a wonderful thing – democratic even if not genuinely liberating – but its cost is carried by its creators. No doubt many will consider it romantically naïve to think that its pillaging should be denounced or that passions similar to those who joined the football anti-Super League chorus, could be aroused by fans of music. But still. Music is kind of important and nourishing and not merely background. 

So, it is that the United Nations’ recent determination that “streaming is killing music” is to be welcomed and taken seriously. Having conducted dogged, un-hysterical research into the matter, the world body has concluded what is manifestly true but has been slipped past all those who genuinely adore music and care about its future. It is the UN’s position that the exploitation amounts to a violation of human rights, a contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which “guarantees” to creators a “fair remuneration”. It is not hyperbole to suggest that musicians are currently on the breadline, that their livelihoods particularly have been destroyed.  

But unlike other crises we have had to confront where bellies remain empty because there is simply no money to throw at the problem, the problem of digital music streaming and the revenue crumbs musicians are fed is solvable. In short, there are mountains of money. The marauding digital streaming platforms with their stellar valuations need to adjust their model by only a tiny fraction in order to have a profound impact. The alternative is the ongoing strangulation of music creation. A little air must be allowed in before it all goes belly-up.  

And it’s not about nostalgia or returning to a “better” time. It’s not about the stars – just like it wasn’t about Chelsea or Manchester City or Arsenal or Barcelona or any of the other FC’s who nearly got bamboozled by big bucks into the Super League – it’s about the fresh, new talent, the up-and-coming talent that needs nurturing, the new and old fans and protecting the health of the “ beautiful noise” for now and forever. DM/ML 

Jay Savage is a consultant and specialist in entertainment and media. He worked as African music expert at MCPS in London, at Gallo Music, has run independent publishing companies, was MD of Sony Music and EMI Music South Africa for 16 years and served on the Boards of Collection societies SAMRO and NORM. He has represented composers as diverse as Lucky Dube, Johnny Clegg and Sibongile Khumalo to Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Felix Laband and Beatenberg. He is on Spotify (@savagekind) and compiles playlists which have been called “among the greatest in recorded history” .

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  • When spending money in the ‘sharing economy’ I always ask myself: Who is setting the price? If the content creator or asset owner or business owner is setting the price and the tech aggregator or platform is adding a reasonable and transparent charge on top of that then it is probably a fair trade. For example Airbnb prices are set by the hosts and while the platform puts pressure on hosts to reduce prices, they can resist that pressure and fix their own rates. On the other hand Uber sets the ride fares and their driver-partners have to take it or leave it. This is a recipe for exploitation and I am seeing signs all over the world that the Uber model is not going to work in the long run. To my mind there are two aspects to the creative economy that should change:
    1. Creators should always keep control of their ability to price their output. They should pick the distribution channels and platforms that allow them to do this; and as consumers we should support them whole-heartedly to make that choice.
    2. As a society we should find ways to support our creatives so they can produce with less commercial pressure. I am a big fan of Patreon, which allows me to support artists without an expectation of what they will make. There are also local support initiatives for artists including NGOs, grant programmes, artists collectives and others. We should all be putting the money we have saved from streaming our music into these programmes to avoid a more silent and sad future.

  • A good addition to this article detailing some artists earnings can be found in the rolling stones online mag under the title “Spotify Has Heard Artists’ Complaints ‘Loud and Clear’”.

    Some interesting stats for Spotify quoted from this article:
    “The top 500 artists by listener count on Spotify drew in an average of $3.7 million in royalties for the year from monthly listener counts of 17.3 million according to the new site.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the 286,000 independent DIY musicians who get their music on Spotify through distributors like CDBaby and Distrokid drew in an average of nearly 35,000 monthly listeners and made $4,100 on average.

    Furthermore, 870 artists’ catalogs are making at least $1 million per year as of 2020, Spotify says. 1,820 are getting half a million, 7,800 are making at least $100,000 and 13,400 are pulling in at least $50,000. All of those numbers grew by at least 80% since 2017. Those who get paid but aren’t earning enough to make a living from their streams grows exponentially, with 184,500 artists on Spotify making $1,000 or more.”
    While we definitely need to look at how royalties are distributed, especially how the record companies are taking a big slice for little work, being an artist is no guarantee for income, let alone to survive on…this is nothing new. Spotify & Co offer a channel to reach more potential listeners than ever before in history for smaller and independent artists, increasing chances for them to be discovered.