Last year, one of my most listened albums was Atlanta rapper Gunna’s Drip Season 3
, as my iTunes account, I contributed close to 700 total song plays on the album. According to The Trichordist
, that would amount to under $2.32 on Spotify or $3.47 on Apple Music, both of which are much less than the $9.49 I paid for the album on the Amazon Music store. Will I keep playing the album? Of course. Will I play it enough times to ever register enough streams to equal a single album sale? No, the answer is of course not.
That’s why the current model of music streaming isn’t built of individual artists—it skews toward catalog owners. Accolades for high streaming number records obfuscates the fact that the money that artists generate is just rolling back mostly into the pockets of record labels. Last year Billboard
reported on the rush to sign young rappers
but didn’t harp on just how many of these deals are ones where it’s unlikely the rapper will ever make back more than their initial advance. It’s a story so often repeated that a gallows humor builds up about the upcoming fate of one’s favorite artist.
I say this not to vilify record labels—even though this is the system they wanted, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago
. My point is that there are no organic, recording studio-to-your headphones streams that’ll pay out a fair rate to your favorite artist. There is no method, at least under the current system, that’ll properly fix such a broken system. At least with piracy, there could be no noble quest for ethical consumption under capitalism.
This might sound a little bleak but Luckerson’s article does offer a solution. Zoë Keating offered a different model for how music streaming payouts should work that would be user-centric, where one’s money goes directly towards the artists one listened to that month rather than a single lump sum. This limited band-aid says, “If I only stream the 1975, then that would be the only artist to receive money from my monthly subscription”. This is a model that Deezer considered adopting
at one point, so this isn’t outside of the realm of possibility for “fixing” a perceived to be broken system. The issue is that, as I pointed out with my example of Gunna, even my most-heard album of 2018 would only net an artist a few bucks, so it’s hard to understand why that model would be a significant improvement.
A slightly more radical version of this model can be found in the music co-op Resonate
with its stream-to-buy model, where after nine streams of a song the listener would own it and be able to download it. This is a model that oddly fits along a path that Spotify proposed nearly ten years ago when downloads were expected to exist alongside free streaming. Resonate’s business idea is certainly novel and repositions streaming towards an end goal of ownership, rather than perpetual lending, however it still feels weak. Okay then, what are the options?
When I emailed Liz Pelly about that conversation she deferred away from offering a singular solution to such large problems. I’d share the conclusion that journalists can simply raise questions and identify actors without needing to also offer a tidy answer. Still, I’ll offer a small solution: Organize. Musicians oscillate between extremes of either radical community musical structures or late capitalist free-for-alls where to gain modest success to the detriment of their peers. It’s a context where the solidarity between an artists and their fellow worker is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t have to be the case. My “solution” doesn’t take the ethics out of streaming, which is fine. It’s hard to expect music streaming to solve all the problems of the music industry, so why not stop asking for such miracles?