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  • Writer's pictureTristra Newyear Yeager

Streaming — Beyond Good and Evil

It’s time to move on, folks. Sometimes it’s not about good and evil. We need to take the streaming music conversation to more nuanced places, for artists’ and fans’ sake. And we need to think seriously about the future.

But first, let’s see where we’ve been. Here’s how the argument has gone for years:

Streaming is the worst thing to happen to music. It pays a pittance (or at least in certain cases). It flaunts long-standing, financially important licensing regulation, often using big tech muscle and questionable legal maneuvers. It’s turned art into “lifestyle”-enhancing pablum, tossing humanity’s grand achievements into a sloppy heap with crappy covers and Neo-Nazi bands. It’s even changed the way popular styles sound.

Streaming is the best thing to happen to music. People with talent, often outside the traditional industry, are winning fans and making money. Especially people who master the wilds of YouTube, hitting that sweet spot between personal endearment and quality production. Or people who luck out and get just the right playlist spot, boosting their track out of obscurity or earning them tens of thousands of dollars in royalties. Services have designed tools that guide a listener into new territories, starting from what they know, exposing them to new artists, whole new musical worlds. And that obscure but killer Croatian punk band’s folk album you loved? It’s there, a quick search away. Or listen to the chartbusters, if that’s your jam today.

This kind of pro/con, good/evil thinking always denies important voices their say. It neither addresses the perceived and very real wrongs, nor bolsters the perceived and very real benefits. The truth is in the middle, and it’s nuanced. It’s ambiguous. Its data points are contradictory. Its winners and losers are real and equally deserving of concern.

Whether streaming is good or evil often depends on which artists you champion. You might hear from legacy art rock fans how fucked up things are for the musicians they adore. You may hear how streaming is the best thing ever from anime and video music fans, from fans of synthwave or hip hop, from fans of music that once flew below the radar but has now clicked with enough listeners to gain some traction. If you’re a new generation, single-first constant creator, streaming is one of the main reasons why you have a career.

There are a few facts that are hard to dispute. Streaming has driven the rebound of the music industry, a business that looked hopeless a mere decade ago, that’s now seeing double-digit growth. At the same time, most of that growth has gone into the pockets of the majors, who are notoriously parsimonious in handing out royalties (to legacy artists in particular) and who are criticized for their pallid, reactive A&R.

At the same time, any music service that relies on sound recordings and compositions that fall under the century plus-old legal framework of copyright has a huge burden to bear, the reason streaming services pay 70% or more of their revenue to rightsholders. That’s a hefty overhead bar to clear, to reach profitability.

The business is complicated, we get it, but it’s also deceptive. Streaming platforms have inherited (and caused) some nasty licensing messes. To make matters worse, those who led the charge in technology were ignorant or neglectful of legal complexities and have used loopholes and lobbying to paper over their initial errors.

When you read licensing in music, what you should think is livelihood, the income that flows to songwriters and artists and makes for middle-class lives. Streaming services have embraced the industry’s hall of mirrors, employing the same questionable tricks as their record-pushing predecessors: manipulations of the market like payola, obscure payment schemes, favors, backroom deals, proprietary formulas, breakage. Spotify’s class-action settlements with songwriters and peculiar legal arguments that they are exempt from certain licensing payments fuel suspicion and snub the very basis of the platform’s existence, people who make music. This isn’t good for anyone, but is especially painful for songwriters and musicians.

You’ll notice one thing, if you’ve gotten this far. There’s an important part of music and its concurrent business that’s drowned out by all the debates about technology good or bad, money good or (probably if you’re a signed artist) bad, and legal issues, fair or unfair. It’s culture, the relationships, customs, and aesthetic and social ideals of a group of people.

Streaming doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Tracks don’t spring ex nihilo onto global platforms. Someone thinks up the noise, someone makes the noise, someone feels the noise. We’ve been letting technology and finance drive our thinking, not the process and joys of culture. It’s time to turn culture up in the mix.

What would a new culture of streaming look like? Let’s dream a little.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Photo by Henry Be

It would be transparent and have explicit ethics

Lots of players in the streaming economy really want this. Artists and their teams, smaller labels, concerned music fans, everyone. But transparency is both technically challenging, due to the volume and complexity of the data, and agonizing from a business perspective, as it’s hard to define, inconvenient, and expensive.

This is usually where someone whips out a hip reference to blockchain. But that’s the implementation, not the impetus, and transparency is a value. You can’t get blockchain or any other registry or global database to work unless people decide they want it to. Really want it to.

That desire falls under the realm of ethics, a word increasingly on the minds of technology commentators and companies. Do we want artists to know exactly what they’re earning? Do we want to know this in real time? How do we ensure all rightsholders are paid adequately and quickly? What are fair levels of compensation on all sides? Is there indeed a value gap for artists, who can (and do) earn millions, albeit only once their streams hit the billion mark worldwide (like Ed Sheeran)?

How does this transparency jive with the realities of running a private corporation or a single division of a much bigger tech company like Apple? Is there interest in levelling the playing field, making clear and easy-to-understand rules that give equal opportunities to smaller labels and individual artists to get on playlists, as one example, so that true artistry can win the day and reach ears? So many questions about what transparency would mean!

Committing to answering these questions to the general satisfaction of the parties involved will be inconvenient. Think about changes like worker’s compensation or family leave. They came from long fights to persuade and pressure. This is a shift in the culture. It’s bigger than open distributed ledgers. Way bigger. It would mean an ethical transformation. Hard, oh yes. But possible.

It would have ways to find new gates, alleys, doorways, ballrooms, and basements

Streaming music could operate transparently using technologies that are already in place and waiting to roar. These same, less-than-sexy services could add new elements to streaming thanks to their rich troves of data. What if, thanks to added data about songwriters, you could move through tracks written by your favorite composer? This is the kind of data services like Loudr and forward-thinking folks at more established music business entities like SESAC want to incorporate into these platforms.

What if you could use your voice to summon up songs that had a certain mood, that mentioned a certain place or event? What if you could browse music by lyrical content and even by context, not just title, album, artist? The data are there (just ask LyricFind, which has been working to get licensed lyrics everywhere in the digital space for a decade). Other elements are in place for this to be possible, more or less any day now. Voice command will cut down the steps in this exploration process and enable a real transformation in the way many people find and listen to music.

These new skills and powers would create new niches for listening and help more listeners find music they never knew existed. It would help more artists swim up from the sea of tracks and connect with waiting fans. In effect, you’d be creating a whole new series of entry points for music fans, be they die-hard or casual.

Even using the data that currently exist on services, there’s a lot more that could be done on the AI curation side. The much (and rightfully) touted algorithms that power discovery on Spotify could be tuned in different ways, using different parameters and approaches (extrapolation vs. interpolation) based in music theory (as apps like Muru do).

It would have a variety of well-informed, passionate gatekeepers

Most streaming platforms are crowded places. They are feature-heavy, with lots of ways to slice and dice listening. This is cool in some ways, but in others it’s distracting. How can you guess if any of it is any good?

The services would like to reduce the guesswork, often through algorithms. Depending on your listening habits, these algorithms can make for ample discovery of new and underappreciated artists, or can send you into a circular hell of repetitive suggestions. If you listen a similar swath of artists or a narrow range of popular styles, or if you listen to all sorts of stuff that’s all over the map, you’ll find the algorithms a serious let down.

Apple has a series of human-curated, radio-like channels with mixed success. Spotify, for all it’s working out a better way to distribute playlist opportunities, get most of its raw curatorial fodder directly from its label supporters, skewing what you’re likely to hear. In general, better or more diverse human curation, the crazy zags to add to the existing machine-learning zigs, would be a welcome expansion.

Who would these gatekeepers be? The platforms could integrate more creatively and tightly with existing hubs for exchanging musical ideas and criticism. Why, for example, does the Pitchfork new music playlist only have around 82,000 followers on Spotify, and the Alt.Latino playlist from NPR Music less than 700? Why don’t The Fader, Noisey, NPR Music, and other major music curators and outlets have more support from services? They have years of curatorial experience and massive audiences. Without these gatekeepers, emerging artists struggle to stand out, even as fans bemoan how boring their Discover Weekly tracks are. People want music recommendations, and not just from major label’s marketing departments, cola brands, and robots.

Even more than media outlets or music critics, people love hearing about music from their friends, a point music tech analyst and deep thinker Bas Grasmayer made in a recent blog post. As Grasmayer notes, on services like Spotify, there are only a few unsatisfying ways to peek at what your friends are enjoying—and next to no ways to get recommendations based on what your friends have discovered. What if user-generated playlists, especially from people you had a connection to, were promoted more, instead of just editorial or branded lists? What if music could actually go viral within the service itself, with no outside platforms necessary?

Exploring more approaches to solid human curation would mean a real shift in services’ perception of artists, not as a collection of data points, but as creative people who might benefit from certain kinds of support that falls outside the label system. This would mean committing at least indirectly to artist development, as well as data. Ideally, the streaming ecosystem might include ways to support artists and their development over time, giving them space to fail or to push themselves and to invest in large-scale and expensive projects (think Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac or anything Quincy Jones touched, with their studio costs). This commitment feels sorely lacking in the industry as a whole, not to mention in the tech sphere, with its clinical widget view of “content.”

It would connect music makers more directly with music lovers

Apple’s streaming service started out with a social component, but it fizzled. MySpace had a strong social side that connected artists and fans, but it faded. Many a startup has come and gone, promising to be the Facebook for music. Spotify’s sharing functions are nice, but don’t encourage conversation within the service, nor do they link artists and fans well.

Only two streaming platforms have mastered the social side. SoundCloud has proven wonderful at engaging listeners, who leave fun comments about their favorite breaks or horn sections right at the track’s timestamp, but it’s struggled financially. That leaves the 500-pound gorilla of streaming, YouTube, where interaction between creators and fans is part of the very model itself.

Ask any serious YouTuber: Feedback is motivating for artists and helps them tweak their technique. It spurs them in new directions or to dig deeper into projects they are unsure about. Despite the social side of streaming’s checkered past, it’s still an essential element, waiting to be incorporated more extensively into user experiences on a variety of different platforms. Artists would benefit immensely from the interaction and from more direct connections with their fans. They’d no longer be graphics and a track list; they’d be people and that would build fanbases.

That interaction lies at the crux of the matter. If artists can’t sustainably build ties to fans, the entire ecosystem is doomed, or only the Bhad Bharbies of the world will survive. The world needs complex music and artistic challenge, as well as savvy AI and marketing prowess. We can take streaming to a better, more robust place, one with a vibrant, ethical culture. We can get beyond the cries of good and evil. We need to, for the good of music, musicians, and music lovers.

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