Stop Trusting the Robots
With the state of SoundCloud in question and Spotify's growing influence, we must consider how we consume the music we love—and what that means for the future.
A Clockwork Orange, 1971
In 1996, a former Grateful Dead lyricist named John Perry Barlow wrote a thing called "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Though it was meant as a response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that in part tried to define which parts of the internet could be regulated and how, Barlow's words were something of a proto-meme, quickly becoming seen as a mission statement for a new medium. "Our world is different," he wrote, framing the internet as a self-governing cyber-utopia that could flourish as long as the government kept their grubby paws off it. Warning against "laws [that] would declare ideas to be another industrial product," he asserted that "where there are real conflicts, where there are real wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means."
As Barlow would later sheepishly acknowledge, the problem with a completely lawless society is that some laws––specifically the ones meant to keep gigantic corporations from taking advantage of millions of people––are actually pretty OK. In practical application, a free and open internet might have placed the big mean corporations on the same footing as the rest of us, but that only meant that bigger, meaner corporations could come and take their place. And with a relative lack of government oversight, many of these companies have started taking on the functions of government themselves, serving as the infrastructure for everything from the way we communicate to the way we conduct business to the way we entertain ourselves. For these companies, the game is not to use the internet to devise new ways of serving their customers, it's to offer lower prices as a way to relocate brick-and-mortar industries to the more loosely regulated online space, outlast their peers until they have a virtual monopoly, and then rewrite the rules to best suit their interests. Think Facebook's unprecedented ability to regulate and police speech, Amazon's power to dictate its vendors' prices, or AirBnB using its status as a "platform" to skirt local hospitality laws.
Once these tech companies reach a certain level of ubiquity, meanwhile, little spinoff industries pop up around them, whether it's a wave of clickbait sites capitalizing off Facebook's algorithms, drop-shipping services that allow people to flip cheap items on Amazon for profit, companies like Hyrecar offering a fleet of vehicles you can rent if your own car doesn't fit Uber's specifications, and AirBnB property management services such as Guesty. While it's arguable that such businesses both create jobs and support those working within the online economy, they can also drive up prices, lower the profits of individuals, and reinforce the hegemonies that tech companies have over the industries they've disrupted.
The music industry, of course, is not immune from these phenomena. Because of streaming, any artist can find an audience without the push of a major label, just like AirBnB and Uber have allowed anyone to become a hotelier or a cab driver. But the money an artist sees by capitalizing off these platforms is rarely enough to sustain their career, and as Liz Pelly's in-depth report for Cash Music revealed, there's now a dizzying array of companies that help artists get their music on streaming platforms, as well as companies meant to seed tracks onto popular playlists. Given that many of these companies, especially the ones involved with playlist curation, are not-so-secretly owned by major labels and Spotify itself, it's enough to make you wonder if record labels now exist to provide content for streaming platforms.
Reading Pelly's piece, I got the impression that Spotify's main priority isn't to become a digitized Tower Records where you can find whatever album you're looking for. Instead, Spotify wants to replace your radio. And if that's indeed their goal, it only makes sense that they'd start acting like the radio industry, instituting pay-to-play schemes and working behind the scenes to make select tracks ubiquitous. Instead of flipping between stations, they'd like you to switch between their flagship playlists, which offer options by subgenre ("Rap Caviar," "Teen Party") as well as playlists that fit specific circumstances ("Zen | Indie Folk for Focus," Jazz for Sleep").
Spotify has come under fire in recent weeks because of the music in this second category. After accusations that Spotify was commissioning music from "fake" artists to populate its ambient, activity-oriented playlists, the New York Times reported that many of the composers—all of whom were real artists using pseudonyms—were clients of Epidemic Sound, which provides cheap background music for video content. Given that Epidemic Sound shares an investor with Spotify, it's extremely possible that Spotify may putting so many Epidemic-affiliated artists on its playlists because they're getting a sweetheart deal on royalties. And even if the controversy surrounding these tracks is a bit overblown, Spotify's decision to jam its playlists with pseudonymous artists indicates they assume their subscribers wouldn't be able to tell a difference—and if they did, that they wouldn't care. In turn, this suggests that the company wants to sell music not as art but as a utility, hoping we're willing to sacrifice an element of the personal in exchange for convenience and ease of use (you can also see this impulse in the food-drink Soylent, whose website tells potential customers, "If you've ever wasted time and energy, or have been too busy to eat a proper meal—Soylent is for you).
All this adds up to a grim reality for artists. Just because an artist gains access to platforms like Spotify or Apple Music doesn't mean people will listen—a harsh reality underscored by the site Forgotify, which offers people a chance to listen to "millions" of tracks that have never been streamed—and even if a band does manage to find an audience or land a coveted spot on Teen Party, Spotify's meager payout system all but guarantees that only the most popular artists can survive off streaming alone. Hell, David Crosby's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and still complains he can't make money off Spotify.
The recent news that SoundCloud may have to shut down because it's running on financial fumes plays into the anxiety that Spotify may soon be an Amazon-like force in this shadowy digital ecosystem. One of the great things about SoundCloud is it allows anybody with an internet connection to upload their music to it and immediately get it out into the world. Think of it as a digital equivalent to a New York City subway platform, where anybody can legally busk. But when you take your guitar to the Bedford stop and start strumming, people can give you money directly. On SoundCloud, meanwhile, what little money there is to be made goes directly to SoundCloud itself.* While it's true that SoundCloud has launched countless careers because of its services, and it would be truly tragic if untold terabytes of music died along with it, the fact of the matter is the company's goal is to turn a profit, not to empower every rapper from Florida with a face tattoo. Even if Chance the Rapper does manage to "save" SoundCloud by buying it or hooking it up with some big-time investor, the site will have to change the way it does business in order to prevent itself from getting in similarly dire straits again. And since SoundCloud's priority is not to artists but to its own survival and eventual profitability, it's doubtful that any changes the service makes will make things easier for artists. Though SoundCloud might seem like the underdog at the moment, in order to come out on top it's going to have to become more ruthless than its competitors—probably doing so at the expense of those who use it. As Friend of the Site Craig Jenkins put it, "Don't trust the cloud."
If SoundCloud does kick the bucket, though, it's just one more reason to worry that the while we hoped the internet's anarchic nature would democratize music, in effect it's made it easier for a small group of corporate interests to exercise even tighter control over the spread of music than the physical music industry did. Furthermore, with the recent controversy over Spotify's business practices, we've gotten some ominous insight into the ways in which a streaming giant can make unilateral decisions that affect the entire music industry. In the future, we very well could be facing a musical landscape not unlike the one that exists in literature, in which a handful of authors make a living off writing intentionally commercial books, while those who wish to experiment with form or write for niche audiences will have to hold down day jobs or retreat to academia. Except it won't be the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams who are at the top, it will be the musicians willing to view their own music as "content" and create songs that appeal to algorithms first and people second, comfortably staying afloat through sheer volume even as royalty rates dwindle. This isn't all that different from the way things worked back when radio ruled the day, it's just that for a brief moment, the freedom of the internet represented the possibility that these structures might be broken, not rebuilt and reinforced.
*The fact that BandCamp doesn't do this is one of the reasons why it's so great––the lion's share of the money generated on it goes directly to the artists.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.