16 Aug, 16

Speaking two entirely different languages.

Working in both the music world and the tech world sometimes feels like speaking two entirely different languages. (If you don’t believe me, ask your nearest recording engineer what “API” stands for, then ask your nearest web developer.) But more importantly, working in both worlds sometimes feels like oscillating between two entirely different value systems. The explosive growth of subscription-based streaming services such as Spotify has only made the tension between working technologists and working musicians more pronounced. And while subscription-based streaming services have generally insisted that their model is “good for artists,” this simply does not align with the lived experience of most of the working musicians I know — myself included.

It’s easy enough for musicians to vent their frustrations at the “tech bros” who build and operate these subscription-based services. But the vast majority of people I’ve met who work in music tech simply do not fit this description; they are smart, curious, and got into their particular line of work because they genuinely love both technology and music. They are eager to discuss the ways in which the products they’re working on can better meet the needs of artists — even though these more nuanced discussions sometimes get drowned out in corporate PR statements and draconian terms of service. Here are three conversations about subscription-based streaming that I wish technology companies were having more openly with musicians:

1. Different distribution models benefit different artists

As Spotify is quick to point out, the yearly cost of a Spotify Premium subscription is greater than the amount the average US listener currently spends on music. But it would be naive (and ahistorical) to suggest that a fundamental change in distribution model would not change which artists see how much of that money. For artists racking up streams in the tens of millions, subscription-based streaming might be a great model. But for artists who once relied upon selling $15 CDs to a small but loyal fanbase, the move to subscription-based streaming represents a substantial decrease in their ability to cover their basic expenses, let alone make a living. It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that one specific sales-and-distribution model would work better for some artists than for others. And yet, in the conversation about whether subscription-based streaming is good or bad, this simple and self-evident truth often gets lost.

In a particularly tone-deaf move, Spotify once claimed that an “independent artist” stands to make a cool $700,000 from a year of streaming payouts. The problem is that they defined an “independent artist” as one selling between 100,000 and 300,000 albums a year. The vast majority of working artists today could barely fathom selling that many records, let alone receiving a six-figure royalty statement. For a technology company to tell musicians that they are being well-compensated when those musicians are saying loudly and plainly “we are not being well-compensated” is dismissive and condescending. Rather than denying the lived experience (and paltry royalty statements) of working artists, I wish that subscription-based streaming services would simply acknowledge that their model will work better for some artists than for others. From there, they could work more closely with the artists who are not currently served by subscription-based streaming to better understand and address their needs.

2. Art doesn’t scale the same way as technology

In order for subscription-based streaming to work as a model — which, as Bandcamp founder Ethan Diamond pointed out in a recent blog post, is anything but a foregone conclusion — companies like Google, Apple and Spotify must each be able to offer a single service that can provide most of the world’s music to most of the world’s listeners. This is no small feat, and it places incredible pressure on music-tech companies to operate at enormous scale. To put it in perspective, selling 30 million albums would make you one of the most successful artists of all time. Signing up 30 million subscribers for your subscription-based streaming-music service might still leave you operating at a loss of a couple hundred million dollars a year.

From this vantage point, it can seem downright baffling to folks in tech when artists choose to abstain from large-scale models like subscription-based streaming. After all, as I’ve been asked many times, don’t I want my music to be heard by as many people as possible? The answer, though, is not so simple. Most working artists have a pretty solid sense of how large their addressable audience might be — and for many of them, cultivating close and direct relationships with listeners is often more important than simply making their music as widely available as possible. If a single person who can’t find one of my songs on Spotify winds up buying it directly for 99 cents, that’s one more person I can add to my mailing list, communicate with directly, and keep in the loop about future work. On an emotional level, this can be much more rewarding than a number ticking up on a metrics dashboard. And from a purely financial perspective, that one direct purchase is worth about 20,000 one-off streams.

3. What’s good for most users isn’t necessarily good for most artists

Both musicians and technologists pride themselves on making things that touch people’s lives. “User-centricity” is modern business catechism, and product managers like me are trained to constantly align the needs of the user with the needs of the business. And, when it comes to subscription-based streaming services, the user and the business actually seem to want more or less the same thing: for a low, flat fee to provide on-demand access to all the world’s music.

Herein lies the hardest truth of all: a model that is better for the majority of consumers could well be worse for the majority of artists. This is something I struggle with myself, as somebody who enjoys subscription-based streaming services as a user, but worries about their financial implications as an artist. There are so many important conversations that need to take place for us to begin reconciling this fundamental tension, and they need to start with a frank and non-propagandistic acknowledgement: subscription-based streaming is not going to represent utopia for every artist, nor will it represent an unstoppable triumph of commerce over art. As artists, we still have a huge role to play in the future of this model — by choosing to participate, choosing to opt out, and sharing our perspective in either case.

By Matt LeMay, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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