One of my favorite books last year, Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection
, spends an entire chapter talking about how the internet altered the relationship between fans and artists. It specifically cites the band Throwing Muses, who back in the mid-90s set up a subscription payment program to fund the band’s future recordings. Baym doesn’t fetishize this as entrepreneurial spirit but recognizes this as artists monetizing off the internet’s already-fertile fan-created spaces. Though the actual business set-up of the Throwing Muses isn’t conceptually too far from Patreon, the frame of centering the transaction as one of a slowly building community, rather than one of pure commercial transactions, sets up a more considered way of seeing one’s fans and art. These early artist experiments built upon formerly scattered fandoms that existed in prior decades without a centralized way for fans, and then artists, to communicate with each other. Sadly, that culture became more diffused and out of the conversation with the arrival of Napster and iTunes, which absorbed all the creative air of what digital music transactions looked like. It’s these early digital corporate efforts that were reactions not only against piracy but also against the premise of music ownership.
In his 2016 book Platform Capitalism,
the technology writer Nick Srnicek cites Pandora and Spotify as examples of Product Platforms. The business model is one where, for example, Pandora would lease out record label-approved music for a recurring monthly fee to consumers, but the company wouldn’t create or own any of this music. Srnicek correctly parrots that this model leads to a revival of the record industry. However, due to the decline of music journalism, the constant threat of DIY venues across major cities, and the hollowing out of music’s working class, I find it worth drilling down on who this original model was designed to serve and who ultimately reaps the rewards.
I wrote about this earlier in the year
, but initial record label-approved music streaming platforms, pressplay and MusicNet, were explicitly imagined by record labels to remove ownership from fans. These early experiments caused intense artist pushback and never caught on until Spotify, with the full support of major labels, were able to pull off this heist upon music consumers’ wallets. Yet that original tension only increased, as year over year Product Platforms pay out less money to the companies that they’re leasing the music from, but also aren’t developing enough non-major label content to separate themselves from this contentious tango. This subtle conflict is what drives the many subscriptions I’m about to outline.