Last year, I wrote an essay called ‘Nu-Music: A Gig Economy Solution
’, which along with providing a history of certain aspects of the music business devoted much of its time to envisioning the future. That’s a bit of what I’d like to return to this week. Here’s an excerpt I wrote on Resonate
Resonate, a music streaming co-op founded by Peter Harris in 2016, exists in the middle-ground between music streaming and downloads. The co-op uses a “stream-to-own” model where the more one streams a song, the more the listener pays out to the artist until they completely own the song. The try-before-you-buy concept puts into action the post-Napster idea that people might listen to a song illegally but will likely end up buying it. Resonate removes the middle step so that every listen is slowly contributing to ownership. Harris, in the introductory blog post for the company, cites the global financial crash in 2008, the Occupy Wall Street movement and numerous examples of for-profit streaming services putting the desire of money over artists and fans, as a calling card for Resonate’s existence.
The concept of Resonate is one that is very appealing to myself and others who are critical of the current music streaming models. However, even as someone who’s given money to use Resonate, I still struggle to see what niche gap the platform fills. The company’s business model exists between the iTunes store and a traditional music streaming platform (e.g. Spotify) and its assumption is that if someone is going to continue streaming a song, then after a certain point they should be able to own it.
I’ve always found that this misunderstands just how much streaming shifted how people engage with music. Streaming’s ubiquity arrived alongside mass smartphone adoption. (Music streaming, as a format, is a couple of decades old but didn’t “save” the music industry when its chief platforms were MySpace or YouTube). The ability to stream and access all music from an always-online and constantly-by-your-side device helped reorient digital music consumption from the desktop to wherever desired.. A big reason for such adoption was that many streaming platforms are connected to either telecommunications companies (Tidal/Spring, JioSaavn/Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited) or large tech companies (Amazon, Apple, YouTube, etc.). In 2020, music streaming is an effective loss leader or minor money maker for many of these companies.
In early March, Resonate brought on a new member to its co-op board: Z, a co-founder of the Black Socialists of America. He wrote an introductory letter
about his excitement for Resonate, which solidified a bit of my skepticism:
Resonate deals with both “base and superstructure” at the micro-level, but with “macro” implications in a digital age characterized by “global interconnectedness” juxtaposed next to feelings of isolation and fragmentation; through this platform, we have an opportunity to not just counter the Neoliberal warping and commodification of human expression, but to truly redefine “community” within an arts context as well, and at a global scale that doesn’t feel bureaucratized or centralized, but rather stable and decentralized.
The platform (be it Resonate, Spotify, YouTube, etc.) is not where I think the power ultimately lies within the current record industry. Rather, it rests, as it always has, in the labor of musicians. The labor that creates recordings that go onto streaming platforms, are heard in commercial advertisements and are performed on tours. The shift to digital didn’t really change the core issue with the record industry, which is the power of record labels to distribute and produce music without artists ever keeping a substantive slice of their work. (Kickstarter’s unionization
opens a potential window into creator and platform worker cooperation but remains more hypothetical than realized.)
‘Nu-Music’ covered the early 1940s American Federation of Musician strikes because musicians saw recordings as a threat to their ability to do live performances. To them, the solution wasn’t to take ownership of the recordings but simply to refuse recordings in an effort to say: “This practice is so antithetical to our livelihood, it must stop”. Resonate, even if artist-owned, does not offer a robust valternative to the status quo.