Hesmondhalgh critiques Liz Pelly’s work in The Baffler, Victor Luckerson’s work in The Ringer, and even my work for not providing enough clear evidence that music streaming has in fact decreased the ability for artists to make a living off their music. I’ll only speak for myself as to why it’s easy to make such a leap but will also accept that this is a fair and necessary critique.
Daniel Ek’s bold claim that a million artists could live off Spotify stokes the fire of such criticism. This recently resurfaced when Ek’s comments about artists needing to continuously create music again sparked artist backlash. Even if all artists aren’t bound to Spotify’s ecosystem, the company’s decisions still cause hold ripple effects across the rest of the industry. The company’s own ambitions are too big to ignore. Thus Spotify, and perhaps even YouTube, is seen as a stand-in not only for the company’s deleterious effects on the record industry but also the larger effects post-financial crash: smaller music venues shutting down, rising rents, wage stagnation (especially in the United States), and the hollowing out of music media, both independent and corporate. Neither of those tech firms could shoulder that entire burden, but building on the anti-Napster, tech skeptic lens that is somewhat rooted in the record industry makes that an easier sell. If music’s enemies are always outside forces, it’s easier to avoid looking inward.
Now Hesmondhalgh isn’t deferential to streaming platforms, nor does he deny the harms of major labels; he just wants claims that the industry is worse today to have a better historical grounding. He writes in the paper (emphasis mine):
It is certainly valid to criticise the MSS for being dominated by the majors, or to question the musical system dominated by MSS for involving close synergies and complementarities between the big streaming companies and the majors. But such critique would benefit from being clear that there is nothing novel about major dominance, and there is scant evidence that MSS has increased that domination in the musical system as a whole. Moreover, that dominance needs to be weighed against the increasing possibilities for musicians to work independently of the major-dominated recording industry system, and to retain ownership of their own rights.
This is a concern I’ve fumbled towards in my writing throughout 2020. Oftentimes, the analysis of the larger economic forces at play within the record industry, of which streaming is just one part, is lacking. (He even admits this is a large ask of any writer.) That’s why this year I’ve written extensively on the interconnections between private equity firms and the record industry, pension/sovereign wealth funds buying up music catalogs, and the unparalleled reach of Liberty Media and Tencent. Cherie Hu’s graphic of where companies share investments
is in many ways the tip of the iceberg when it comes to critiques and scholarship to understand the contemporary record industry. Even though Hesmondhalgh repeatedly makes clear that he’s not implying the current setup is fair or just for all artists, he needs more evidence to know how and why it’s worse.
Hesmondhalgh closes with a look at “user-centric streaming,” the model in which what you pay to a streaming service goes directly to the artists you listen to, rather than a big pot divided out proportionally between all artists. I’ve written and will continue to write about the idea, but I find it an interesting landing point in the paper. He even mentions the possibility of such a change potentially undermining a number of critiques against the big platforms. The spectre of government regulation pushing for user-centric streaming or other reforms is raised, though such changes don’t need to take place to understand the theories promoted by his critiques
This is why I often bristle at calls for streaming services to pay artists more, because the business models of these companies cannot meet such a demand. Even calls to break up and regulate record labels, radio, or streaming platforms still need more thinking, especially when the proliferation of financially backed publishers that buy up song rights is further estranging parts of the record industry from itself. It seems Mat Dryhurst’s concern around “streaming fatalism
” preventing new ideas from entering this space still holds true.. Artists, and not just those on the biggest stages, need to have a real say in how these tectonic plates are shifting.
The slightly more existential question for those in the field, myself included, is that if we’re going to talk about what is and isn’t fair for artists we need a better understanding of what artist and who is our audience. Otherwise the issues that are highlighted and become potentially central demands for reform might not speak to the core issues facing musicians. Hesmondhalgh admits such data collection around the experiences of musicians can be hard, even my own journey to articulate the deleterious effects of record industry financialization remains frustratingly vague. Still, it feels like the conversations in these spaces are building upon each other even if there’s still much to learn.