Music, Labels, The Internet, And Streaming Services

The other day I shared Benn Jordan’s latest video regarding Spotify and mentioned that I’d post some thoughts. When I started to write this, I went back and re-read two pieces that I keep on hand:

Both of those articles opened a can of worms, especially when you think of them as older companion pieces to the video.

While a lot of people thought (and still think) the music industry was/is evil, no one was really prepared for Big Tech.

Damn you villains, who are you? And from whence came you?

Admission: I was a fan of Napster when it came out. I grew up in the 80’s which was a glorious time of copying albums on cassettes, making mix tapes, and tape trading. When I was a kid and discovering Heavy Metal for the first time, the teenage metal head who lived across the street used to copy albums for me so long as I provided the blank tape. Some of these turned into purchases because I really liked an album and the sound quality of the duplication was not what one would call “professional”. 1

When I was old enough and had jobs, I bought music for myself and would pay $12-$15 for a vinyl record. Or $10.00 for a cassette. Or I would buy the album, then pay $2.00 for a blank tape so I could copy said album so I could listen to it in my Walkman knockoff 2.

Then CD’s came along and I paid $20-$25 for CDs. In the 90’s. That’s like $56 in today’s money.

For some albums, it was all three; the record got scratched or broken, so I’d buy the cassette copy. Then CD’s came along and I eventually bought into that format. So no, Iron Maiden, you don’t need any more of my money.

Needless to say, I felt zero guilt when Napster came along and I could download digital versions onto my computer.

Arrrr. This chair be high, says I.

We’ve all paid for music, and we paid for it again and again and again, and the Music Industry made insane amounts of money again and again and again. Yet the minute something new comes along (blank tapes, digital files, etc) the Music Industry turns the melodrama up to eleven and wants us all to think of the poor, poor artists 3.

A good dream is better than a bad reality.

in 2003 Apple introduced one click music purchasing via iTunes. Eventually other stores followed suit (remember Zune?). However, purchases from these digital stores were draped in DRM meaning you could only play music from iTunes on an iPod and not on a Sony MP3 player and vice versa 4.

Between 2007 and 2009 Apple removed DRM from the entire iTunes catalogue so you could download your purchases and play them on other devices. This was fine.

In the above linked Courtney Love article, she stated: “Now artists have options. We don’t have to work with major labels anymore, because the digital economy is creating new ways to distribute and market music…”

In he early aughts, it seemed like that’s where we were headed. And it felt good.

As time went on, artists could skip the middleman’s middleman and sign up for a distribution account (eventually TuneCore or DistroKid) and publish their music to whatever online store/service they wanted and keep their share of sales – minus whatever small percentage the services took. You’d usually make seventy cents on the dollar, which is way more than the labels offered. Other than that, all you had to pay was your yearly subscription to the distro service. It was also around this time that Social Media ramped up and allowed artists to market and connect with fans in ways that MySpace could have only dreamed of…

It seemed the dream was becoming real.

Then along came Spotify and streaming took off in a big, big way. Now music listeners could pay a few bucks a month and have access to ALL THE MUSIC. No more a la carte purchasing. Ten bucks a month for all you want!

Artists can still sign up for a third party digital distribution account and publish their music to whatever online store/service they want, but something changed; the labels are back in control thanks to the deals cut with streaming companies who control what is fed to you based on the whims of the labels. So while the little guys are on the platform, good luck gaining any traction over the big names that are being heavily promoted at any given time.

As for promoting on Social Media? We all know what’s happening on that front. So unless your friendly neighborhood singer/songwriter has all the time in the world to self promote by going viral on TikTok, they’re back to trying to get signed by a label (who want you to go viral on TikTok). Because there is next to no way they’re gonna pop up in the algorithmically suggested artists.

… When I see suffering, pain, and anguish. That’s when the true design of this world is revealed

So we’re right back where we were. Thanks to tech, the music labels have found a way to shut the door and keep the money.

Streaming services are the ultimate DRM. Sure, you can use Spotify, or Apple Music, or whatever streaming service you want, but you’re locked into their software based service. It feels like you’re not because, unlike the DRM of the past where you were locked into specific hardware, these services have apps for most every device; even your TV and car.

It’s the illusion of freedom.

Streaming now accounts for 65% of the global music industry’s profits. And those  profits have been consistently growing since 2015.

And here we are. Streaming is king. And while profits are up, the tech companies and music industry have found ways to squeeze every nickel and dime from the artists they so vehemently claim to support by finding creative ways to reduce royalties.

So what does one do? Next to the iTunes store, there is next to nowhere to actually purchase digital music. And even Apple is starting to hide purchasing (you have to enable the store in the Apple Music preferences on your Mac) because they want you to sign up for their streaming service. Most everything out there is now streaming only – and the lock-in that comes with it. If you “download” your music in Spotify, it can only be played in Spotify. You have no other access to it.

Actual purchasing of music (read: you can buy it, download it, and play it on whatever device/player you want) is now geared towards independent artists or specific genres.

Unless you’re an Apple fan, there really is nowhere out there you can just buy a digital copy of Taylor Swift’s Midnights and listen to it on whatever device you want, in whatever player you want. Go ahead and search for “places to buy digital audio” and see what comes up.

Three quarters of the time you can’t even purchase a CD and rip it because computers don’t have CD/DVD players anymore.

It’s old school gatekeeping, pure and simple. Through all the alligator tears about poor, starving musicians, it’s really about money and control. And with the help of Big Tech, the music industry has found a way to really bend the artist over the barrel while the general public thinks all is well because they pay ten bucks a month to a service that “pays the artist”.

Hell, even the iTunes store cuts deals with the labels. I don’t know what percentage of sales artists get from an iTunes purchase, but I think it’s close to on par with physical sales. I will say that if you’re a musician who is going it alone, you will make more of digital sales than you will on streams, as you’ll see by my lame example below.

Let’s jump on board, and cut them to pieces

I don’t think there is a quick solution for this. It would take a mass exodus of musicians and, more importantly, subscribers from the streaming platforms to start any kind of real discussion. (And a sizable uptick in “piracy” wouldn’t hurt either.)

However, I don’t see this happening any time soon. Most artists are locked into their label contracts and can’t do much. And subscribers? No way they’d leave. Things are too comfortable, too easy. If artists kick up a stink, the narrative from the labels and the subscription companies would be: “Look at the spoiled musicians! They hate freedom!” and the subscribers will all shout:  “Shut up, whiny musicians! Stay in your lane!”  

It’s just going to have to start with a few people gradually becoming fed up with the status quo and, hopefully, growing from there.

It’s going to take a long time.

Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you.

As for me, I’m making decisions that suit where my head and heart are at these days.

To start, I’ve deleted my DistroKid account. I originally signed up so I could put Opium Winter’s EP up on Spotify, etc. In total, I spent about $175 for DistroKid account over the past few years and in that time we made a total of (I shit you not) sixty cents.

Please note: I’m not blaming DistroKid for this! this is certainly not the fault of DistroKid (or, I guess, Spotify); we just didn’t promote the EP when it came out in mid-2019and then COVID hit (and we’re middle aged with full time lives) so yeah, I’m surprised that we even made sixty cents.

So that’s reason number one I canned DistroKid. It turned out to be a horrible return on investment. To compare, we made over $40 on Bandcamp in that same time with the same amount of promotion (next to zero).

The second reason is that I just don’t want to support streaming services. Like most things tech related, they started out with a good idea, then it turned shitty.

Which brings me to my next decision which is that I’m pulling my Spotify usage way, way back. As of right now, I only been opening the app if I want a quick Lo-Fi or modern classical playlist for background music.

I can’t completely cancel Spotify, at least not yet. We have a family account and my teenagers are completely hooked into it. They’re of the generation that have only ever known digital streaming. They’re not really interested in whatever crazy thing I happen to be into and it’s not fair of me to push my ideas on them. I can guide them through life, but they need to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices. Once they’re old enough, they can subscribe to what they want and I’ll wash my hands of the service.

In the meantime I’m working on ways to listen to music without resorting to paying a monthly subscription to a streaming service.

I have an entire folder of digital music I’ve paid for in the past. iTunes fucked me once by removing a piece of content that I’d paid for so, learning my lesson, I kept a backup of my purchased media.

I started testing with these files.

I’ve synced a good number of albums to OneDrive and am accessing them on my phone with an app called CloudBeats. On my computer, I’m using Strawberry Music Player.

While this is going pretty ok, I don’t want to rely on OneDrive so at some point in the future, I’m going to give PlexAmp a go. Plex itself solved a Linux vs AppleTV issue I had so I have a feeling that PlexAmp will do the trick for music 5.

The question then becomes: “Where do I buy the music I listen to?”

      • I still have my iTunes account and a somewhat functional, yet aging MacBook. I can still buy music from there and copy the files over to the main media drive.
      • Bandcamp. I have, and will continue to, purchase music from Bandcamp. If the artist offers their music on vinyl, I’ll buy it and then grab the MP3s and put them on my media drive.
      • If I ever find myself at a live show and the band is selling vinyl, I’ll buy it; put the money directly into the artists hands.
      • Good, ol’ fashioned record stores. I have a record player. It’s nothing super nerdy, but it works and I’ve been buying albums here and there. Record stores are where I pick up big name albums  6.
A good dream is better than a bad reality

Who am I in the end? Nobody. I’m a nobody. My acts of rebellion will go unnoticed by these big companies. The term “Valued Customer” really means nothing to companies of that size. Other than an account number in a database somewhere that sends them some money, neither Spotify or DistroKid know who I am. Even if I cancel my account, I’m just an infinitesimal blip on their radar.

However I feel like I have to put up or shut up and, as mentioned above, my head and heart is not into playing ball with whatever the music or streaming companies are telling us. I really feel that they are doing the majority of artists dirty.

Maybe more people will join in, but I doubt it. Most people like their lives to include zero friction. No one wants to work at things, they just want things to work.

Eventually something will come along and replace streaming and maybe we’ll move back towards actual purchasing. Then again, most likely not, it’ll just be more of same, just in a new package.

I’ll just sit over here and move my MP3’s around and edit metadata.

1: The guy didn’t have a super duper stereo system. He’d duplicate by putting a small tape recorder in front of his record player speakers.

2: Which was also, don’t ya know,  a big problem for the recording industry. This, of course, led a lot of countries to impose a blank media tax on cassette tapes, CD’s, and DVDs all in the name of “compensating the artists”.

3: I’ve always taken a huge issue with the “won’t somebody think of the poor artists” trope considering the “artists” that were complaining about potential lost money were, literally, the biggest artists on the planet. Besides Metallica, there was Dr. Dre, MadonnaAimee Mann, Alanis Morissette, Christina Aguilera, Blink-182, Sarah McLachlan, and Garth Brooks.

4: People from the 80s: Imagine Capitol Records having a deal with Sony where cassettes from their catalog only played on Sony equipment? If you tired to play it in a Fisher stereo, it would do nothing.

5: Yes it needs a PlexPass so I’ll try it out for a couple of months. If it does what I think it will, then I’ll buy a lifetime pass.

6: Let me be frank: If I buy a vinyl record, I will make a digital copy of said album so I can listen to it while on the go. There is nothing wrong with having a copy of a recording you purchased for your own. Check this page: “…because of AHRA, it is not an act of copyright infringement to make a backup copy of a CD for use in your car or truck.” Or this one. You get the idea.

** Note: All section titles are quotes by Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach. I found them on the Internet so make of that what you will.