A Half-Step Towards a Better Music Ecosystem
7 min read

A Half-Step Towards a Better Music Ecosystem

Hello, hello. I’ll keep this week’s introduction short. If you enjoy Penny Fractions and you’d like to support it, please recommend it to someone, post about it on social media, or if you’re so kind, contribute to the Patreon. Regardless, today might be the most upbeat newsletter I’ve written all year so... enjoy?!

Earlier this month, I was invited to speak at a Marymount Manhattan College class, where I received a few questions that centered around what it is that music consumers can do to help the industry. If it’s understood that record labels are seeing skyrocketing profits while artists continue to struggle, then how can fans help fix this problem? I responded with skepticism towards the thought that consumerism can fix such deep structural issues, but for this week’s newsletter, I wanted to challenge myself. If every week I’m going to offer critiques of the music industry and say that so many of the systems are broken, then why not try to highlight some efforts to do good?

The Simplicity of the Buy Music Club

Last December, to siphon the energy of the end of the year season, Avalon Emerson (a newsletter reader), Louis Center, Ignatius Gilfedder, Georgia Hansford, and Elissa Stolman created the Buy Music Club. It’s a rather simple website that builds upon Bandcamp to allow users to create their own playlists of their favorite music on the platform. All with the explicit purpose of encouraging fans to buy music—thus the name—and supporting artists, rather than just clicking on a playlist to contribute a few pennies towards the new music people are discovering. Simple enough.

Tomorrow, Buy Music Club will release an updated version of the website with profiles, the ability to search for songs and artists, easier functionality to share playlists, and the ability for users to timestamp SoundCloud mixes with appropriate Bandcamp links. Emerson and the team were kind enough to let me test out the early beta, which only reaffirmed my desire to dive a little more into why it is that I grew so enamored with this project last December.

The Buy Music Club helps offer a minor shift in how artists can position themselves within a post-streaming world. Instead of streaming being presented as the only option forward, artists can reconsider what it means if they eschew heading down this funnel. They can tell their fans that consumption requires payment and that music doesn’t necessarily need to be mediated through an increasingly limited number of platforms (I often try not to forget when digital music consumption wasn’t shorthanded into “Spotify” or “YouTube”). That’s why Emerson’s reasoning for selecting Bandcamp to encourage music fans to purchase music stuck out to me: “Bandcamp is currently one of the most equitable music vendors online, discovering and buying music there is one of the best ways to support independent artists and record labels.”

I’ve quoted this before, but again I wanted to repost an excerpt from a 2016 New York Times profile of Bandcamp:

Bandcamp, which started in 2008 and is run out of a number of small offices in San Francisco, Brooklyn and elsewhere, became profitable in 2012 and sells a record every five seconds. It grew 35 percent last year and has paid $169 million to artists, according to its website. Its chief executive, Ethan Diamond, mentioned in an interview that “plenty of artists” have made more than $100,000 each through it, and all of them get the same deal: The site keeps 15 percent of each sale. (By comparison, iTunes takes about 30 percent, and going that route also requires being on a label or working with an independent distributor, which takes another cut.)

Contrast that phrase containing “plenty of artists” with this toothless Daniel Ek quote from an interview last year with Fast Company (emphasis mine):

A great product without great communication falls flat on its face. Look at Uber. They broke some rules to succeed–aggressive worked. But they also have a core challenge. The end vision of Spotify is to get a million artists to make a living off of their art; the end vision of Uber is to have zero drivers: Be my partner until I don’t need you anymore. That’s a very challenging business proposition.

I’ll give credit to Spotify in that the company has pressed this message into Ek’s brain hard enough that like clockwork he provides the same answer in repeated interviews. Yet, if one takes both companies’ leaders at their word, then Spotify’s ambitions for the industry are far greater than Bandcamp’s, but the practice of telling fans to funnel all their engagement into a platform that doesn’t value individual artist labor is far from ideal. The record industry spent decades decrying piracy, even before the internet, as destroying the industry up until a company was able to make it profitable for those same record labels, even at the detriment of artists. Bandcamp doesn’t present itself as a billion-dollar solution but rather as just another modest option.

The Buy Music Club feels worthwhile exactly because it doesn’t need to sell investors on a reimagined music industry. Any redux of the record industry that will appeal to venture capitalists and companies like Coca-Cola isn’t going to be artist-friendly and more likely will be working purely against the interest of artists. No, with this project, Avalon Emerson, Louis Center, Ignatius Gilfedder, Georgia Hansford, and Elissa Stolman give a slight pushback against a neoliberal system that isolates musicians into silos to help improve advertisement targeting.

If This Isn’t The Future, What Is?

It might be a little odd that I’ll now speak a few kind words about the Red Bull Music Academy, which announced its eventual closure later this year, along with Red Bull Radio. An aggressively anti-consumerist view of Red Bull’s music efforts is that it was simply a way for a terrible energy drink to entrench itself into various communities, which did give back to those communities but for ultimately nihilistic capitalist ends. Fair enough. But when I saw an outpour of sadness over it shutting down, this reaction pointed to how much people embraced Red Bull’s championing of not only newer acts but spending the money and resources to champion musicians that the traditional record industry left behind years ago. After a while, it becomes harder to imagine these particular communities without the involvement of a brand like Red Bull or even Carhartt, which supports NTS Radio. This isn’t to say that truly independent projects can’t exist, but that the material world of musicians means attempting to take into account various actors and simply rejecting one out of an ideological principle doesn’t make sense.

(This is effectively saying “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” I understand. However, the music industry existed long before recorded music and, in fact, recorded music was seen to be a job killer and an existential threat to early 20th century unionized musicians. So I’d rather not reinforce the myth that the act of buying and selling records is radical when at one point it was viewed with the same, if not more, skepticism as contemporary music streaming is today. Otherwise, narrowing one’s politics towards record consumption self-limits how one can envision a music environment that’s truly equitable for artists and workers across the industry.)

Mat Dryhurst, a great thinker within this intersection of music and technology, in the Guardian drilled down into why the individualism that’s defined the popular narrative of “independent” music is a half-truth and explained that in 2019 there is no going back to a model that didn’t truly exist in such idealized modes. He wrote:

We need technical and economic concepts that reflect what working artists have long known to be true: an artist creating challenging work is dependent on resilient international networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services to facilitate their vision. A vision of interdependence acknowledges that individual freedoms thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions.

I’m a huge champion of the Buy Music Club, not because I expect it to fix a century's worth of music’s economic problems, but because shifting the conversation about how fans approach music, even within niche communities, is still important. It’s why I’ve written so much about Twitch and why I obsess over Patreon−because there are so many other potential models for how the music industry could be structured. Such a change won’t happen overnight, but I know nothing will happen unless there’s a drive for that change.

Music Labor Corner

I’ve done this before, but there were enough small bits of music-related labor news that I wanted to highlight them all. Pitchfork, one the most influential music tastemakers of the last couple of decades, announced a Newsguild-led union drive and last week put out a Spotify playlist of labor-related songs, as they await voluntary recognition by their parent company Conde Nast. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra are in their sixth week of striking, which makes it the longest strike in the union’s history. Much solidarity to them as they continue to fight and rally with free public concerts.

The last bit of music labor news is that the National Music Publishers Association and Nashville Songwriters Association International hosted a Nashville town hall to publicly shame Amazon, Google, Pandora, and Spotify for its stance on a Copyright Review Board ruling to increase pay to songwriters over the next five years. The town hall is certainly a public relations stunt, but when fighting billion-dollar companies (as seen in New York City’s pushback against Amazon’s HQ2) such spectacles can be an effective tool to force private companies to change their direction.

Amazon in Talks to Launch Ad-Supported Music Offering: Exclusive - Billboard

I wrote a number of times about voice/personal home surveillance devices last year, so this sounds like a smart move on Amazon’s part, which is probably, in the long run, a terrible move for any of the workers (i.e. musicians) who’ll find their music on the platform.

It looks like Apple is about to break up iTunes - The Verge

The long-rumored day may be coming where iTunes finally ends. If Apple makes it any harder for me to put MP3s onto my fucking iPhone I'll certainly complain about what is likely an extremely minor inconvenience to my listening habits.

Streaming Platforms are Keeping More Money From Artists than Ever (and Paying Them More, Too) - Rolling Stone

Traditionally, one great way to help pull some money out of executives’ pockets and back into workers’ pockets is through collective action—musicians even spent much of the 1940s striking over this exact issue. Just saying.

Against Chill: Apathetic Music to Make Spreadsheets To - The New Yorker

A nice essay on the value, or lack thereof, of “chill” music in a society that seeks to squeeze work out of every waking second of one’s life.

Apple Faces Antitrust Regulation In The Netherlands Over App Store Dominance - Digital Music News

Apple is facing increased governmental pressure for how its App store is run. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this story because any changes to the Apple store would impact most, if not all, businesses I cover here.

TikTok owner Bytedance said to be planning Spotify-like music streaming app for overseas market - South China Morning Post

Does the world need another company with an inflated valuation getting into the enticing money pit of music streaming? I’d say no, but I certainly won’t let that stop Bytedance from charging ahead.

The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page. The artwork is by 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.