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Penny Fractions: There is No "Good" Way to Stream Music

Hello! I hope people are doing well this week, I got sick as soon as I sent out last week’s newslette
Penny Fractions
Penny Fractions: There is No "Good" Way to Stream Music
By David Turner • Issue #73 • View online
Hello! I hope people are doing well this week, I got sick as soon as I sent out last week’s newsletter so I’m still in recovery mode. Before I dive into the newsletter this week, I wanted to say that Cherie Hu, easily the person I link to the most in this newsletter, just created her own Patreon page, which y’all should check out. While on the topic, my first bit of Patreon content went out on my own page over the weekend. That post is available to the $3 tier, but expect my early thoughts on Spotify’s official purchase of Anchor/Gimlet Media this Friday for the $6 tier. Anyway, enough Patreon talk, let’s dive into this week’s newsletter.

Last month, I was at an event where I ran into Liz Pelly, author of some of the best contemporary pieces critiquing the modern music streaming ecosystem. We got to chatting with some peers and Liz mentioned that she constantly receives questions about the best ways to consume music in this new age. Now, this could be interpreted in a number of ways, but the underlying theme was more simple: What streaming service pays artists the most money?
The question of how to best support artists, and how we as fans factor into the equation, isn’t new. It’s a decades-old question that was rebirthed in the post-Napster digital era through easy accessibility of free music, the rapid fall of the CD, and extreme media consolidation across radio, both terrestrial and satellite. I’ll argue this week that this is the wrong question.
There is no good music streaming service for artists. Despite the last few decades of this thought: Consumerism isn’t good politics. Then what is the answer?
Is Music a Good Career Path? Probably not.
In January, Victor Luckerson wrote a story for the Ringer titled “Is Spotify’s Model Wiping Out Music’s Middle Class?”. The story’s hook centered on Spotify’s end of the year graphics, which showed a limited number of stats to quantify their overall year on the platform. What happened rather quickly in certain circles was that artists used Spotify’s own public relations campaign against the company and asked the question: If millions of people are listening to my music, then why am I not seeing more money?
This was exemplified by Amber Coffman, an indie rock performer (formerly part of the band Dirty Projectors), who used the Instagram account of Trans-Pecos, a music venue out in Ridgewood, New York City, to address this issue:
Also, please understand I don’t blame the listeners. I absolutely believe that it is a thing to behold to connect with thousands or millions of people and I am truly grateful for the support and the chance to engage with people. But I also believe that the listeners would want us to be able to pay our bills and achieve basic dreams like starting families and all of that. I have personally delayed a lot of these life milestones largely due to finances and so many of my friends are in the same confusing boat.
The record industry spent much of the 1990s/2000s effectively turning itself into a weapon against music fans by suing people for piracy and prioritizing the concerns everyday musicians, instead focusing on serving the 1% of musicians and company CEOs. Record industry leaders saw the business crumbling before their eyes, and, rather than of blaming it on corporate greed of inflated CD prices, chose to attack piracy of individuals. The record industry collapse was put in the hands of Shawn Fanning and kids on college campuses downloading a few songs online for free, so when the shift towards streaming occurred, the non-1% of artists were left with a new business model that failed to look out for their needs.
This is the backdrop from which Coffman writes as a semi-known professional musician who feels a sense of distance between herself and those appreciates her music. For decades, the record industry fought against her interests and the desires of the average music fan. Once the industry course corrected back towards profitability, it was labels that were newly flushed with cash, while musicians were left wondering what part of the industry they just spent years defending would allow them to succeed.
A Little Bit of Math
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?
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?
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?
6 Links 2 Read
I lightly often chuckle at the colonialist way non-western music markets are covered in the world of music streaming. This pieces checks all those boxes, where instead of attempting to better contextualize the Japanese market, the author assumes the Chinese music model could work in Japan if listeners just accepted streaming into their lives.
I really need to do a newsletter on TikTok one of these days. But to the topic at hand, I fully expect advertising on TikTok to be fucking huge, though because it isn’t in the Facebook/Google ecosystem, it’ll lack a bit of the same effectiveness.
Advertisers still aren’t super confident in Spotify’s advertising product, which I don’t find too surprising because one of the consistent Spotify memes is about how shitty their ads are. Not sure how you pull in advertisers when a certain percentage of ads that people hear are explicitly about how they should pay money to not hear shitty ads.  
Spotify’s launch in India remains the most overrated music story of 2019 but that doesn’t mean I don’t find all of the hand-wringing over it unamusing.
I’m currently mulling over if this deserves a Patreon post or full newsletter treatment. Last year, I wrote about Fortnite and how the industry should be observing the game, but some initial overreactions might point people to learn the wrong lessons.
Oddly enough, even before the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 21 Savage over the weekend, SPIN reported on musicians whose music was used during ICE propaganda and their mixed feelings about such work. So, to close this week: Free 21 Savage & Abolish ICE.

The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out my Patreon page. The artwork is by the graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. The newsletter is copy edited by Mariana Carvalho. My personal website is davidturner.work. Any comments or concerns can be sent to pennyfractions@gmail.com. That’s that’s that’s all folks.
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