On Sept. 28, 2023, music licensing startup Songtradr sent shockwaves through the indie music world, announcing their acquisition of the audio distribution platform Bandcamp from previous owner Epic Games. While I didn’t expect the Fortnite company to treat Bandcamp as anything more than a profitable asset (post-2022 acquisition), it majorly blew to see it sold to a company that writes essay-length commendations of how “rock music aligns with Taco Bell’s brand.” Newly under Songtradr, Bandcamp laid off about half the staff. Nothing says “spread(ing) the healing power of music” like firing the people who create it.
Of course, Bandcamp isn’t dead (yet), so it’s a bit hasty to make assumptions about what will or won’t happen to them under Songtradr’s belt. Bandcamp continues to succeed within its niche: It focuses less on streaming and more on directly supporting artists, fashioning itself as an indie musician paradise. But its current situation shines a light on the dire state of the music industry. How does an independent music platform come under the boot of companies that aim to devalue art, yet corporate music streaming platforms continue to dominate our cultural environment?
Eighty-four percent of the U.S. music industry’s revenue comes from streaming. It’s easy to recognize why streaming is so hegemonic. Capitalism makes things expensive, so when you see nearly the entirety of the world’s recorded music on offer for $10.99 a month, why wouldn’t you take it? But convenience doesn’t make music streaming sustainable. Since its inception, Spotify has never turned a profit. And it’s not just them; other streaming services experience this. They seem designed to lose and fail; a majority of their revenue is through monthly subscriptions, and millions of dollars in royalties and operating costs typically offset any monetary gain.
If you research music streaming business models, you’re certain to come across scores of articles from amateur business analysis blogs that partly blame their failing models on the prioritization of artist royalties. This is incredibly disingenuous. While it is true that most services reserve a majority of their revenue for rights holders (labels, distributors, artists), the way they distribute royalties makes it a losing venture for artists as well. Both Spotify and Apple Music distribute royalties through a “streamshare” model: Rights holders receive a share of the total revenue depending on their number of streams proportional to the platform’s total number of streams.
This produces an exceptionally low average pay-per-stream that differs across platforms: Spotify’s average pay-per-stream amounts to a measly $0.003, while Apple Music’s is a relatively larger $0.01. Despite Apple Music’s improved pay rates, the stream share model is too dependent on streaming distributions to ever be viable in the long run, and artists signed to a record label are likely to receive even less.
While the biggest burden falls upon musicians, music streaming platforms have fundamentally shaped how listeners experience music. The iron grip of algorithms and art “curation” over music recommendation is largely responsible for this change. I use Spotify to listen to music, and while I on occasion seek out curated playlists, they often sound watered down and homogenized. One example is the “hyperpop” playlist. While the term was briefly used to describe PC Music label tracks, today’s wide genre classification is rooted in the playlist’s proliferation. The playlist assimilates songs spanning from bubblegum bass to digicore under a single label.
This homogenization creates a “right” idea of what a genre is “supposed to” sound like, which makes commercial-friendly sounds more likely to be pushed into our ears than unique music. This curation is inauthentic and sanitizes music scenes for a broader audience. It also hampers the careers of many indie artists, whose exposure may be determined by how “playlist-friendly” their music is.
Streaming services also minimize active musical engagement in favor of relegating music to the background. To some extent, this is inevitable. With the access that streaming provides, it’s easier to throw on a playlist while cooking or studying. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. But it’s less satisfying. Sometimes I forget what songs sound like, as my recollection of them is reduced to an ambiguous, beige blob floating in the recesses of my brain. It almost feels like I’m losing my personal connection to music, so I end up falling back on my comfort music to reaffirm it — sometimes it’s Charli XCX, but more recently it has been Indian music I listened to in my childhood.
It has become increasingly clear that the music industry needs a new model. Meeting the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers’ demands that Spotify pay at least one cent per stream would be phenomenal for artists. Accordingly, U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. has introduced a bill that would force streaming services to adopt a royalty program that pays a fair amount per stream, in contrast to streamshare models. Another potential solution is the Bandcamp model, in which artists can set the prices for albums (including a “pay what you want” option). This would allow artists to make more money from the direct purchase of albums. Features similar to Bandcamp’s editorial sections would also give users the ability to discover and learn about different music.
But streaming isn’t inherently bad; after all, digital platforms have allowed for the ease of access to music and other entertainment. Musicians have spoken about how streaming has allowed for more equitable distribution. Chart success isn’t limited to UMG’s upper echelon, and neither is career stability. The problem arises when streaming is defined by corporate interests, prioritizing shareholders over a genuine passion for culture. This isn’t limited to streaming, but it’s interconnected. Major labels have an 18% stake in Spotify. While it’s imperative to fight for a society not dictated by profit, present issues require present concerns.
We can stand up for industry struggles and support alternatives individually, but how do we shape the future of our culture(s) if not collectively?
Daily Arts Writer Thejas Varma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.