A Tale of Two Music Co-ops
7 min read

A Tale of Two Music Co-ops

Hello everybody! If you enjoy this newsletter, please do recommend it to a friend, colleague, or longtime personal nemesis. The only promotion I do is within this newsletter introduction and on Twitter, so any sharing is much appreciated. If you’d like to give a few dollars, go to the Patreon here; otherwise, let’s dive into a couple of alternative models of approaching the record business.

Last year, I wrote an essay called ‘Nu-Music: A Gig Economy Solution’, which along with providing a history of certain aspects of the music business devoted much of its time to envisioning the future. That’s a bit of what I’d like to return to this week. Here’s an excerpt I wrote on Resonate:

Resonate, a music streaming co-op founded by Peter Harris in 2016, exists in the middle-ground between music streaming and downloads. The co-op uses a “stream-to-own” model where the more one streams a song, the more the listener pays out to the artist until they completely own the song. The try-before-you-buy concept puts into action the post-Napster idea that people might listen to a song illegally but will likely end up buying it. Resonate removes the middle step so that every listen is slowly contributing to ownership. Harris, in the introductory blog post for the company, cites the global financial crash in 2008, the Occupy Wall Street movement and numerous examples of for-profit streaming services putting the desire of money over artists and fans, as a calling card for Resonate’s existence.

The concept of Resonate is one that is very appealing to myself and others who are critical of the current music streaming models. However, even as someone who’s given money to use Resonate, I still struggle to see what niche gap the platform fills. The company’s business model exists between the iTunes store and a traditional music streaming platform (e.g. Spotify) and its assumption is that if someone is going to continue streaming a song, then after a certain point they should be able to own it.

I’ve always found that this misunderstands just how much streaming shifted how people engage with music. Streaming’s ubiquity arrived alongside mass smartphone adoption. (Music streaming, as a format, is a couple of decades old but didn’t “save” the music industry when its chief platforms were MySpace or YouTube). The ability to stream and access all music from an always-online and constantly-by-your-side device helped reorient digital music consumption from the desktop to wherever desired.. A big reason for such adoption was that many streaming platforms are connected to either telecommunications companies (Tidal/Spring, JioSaavn/Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited) or large tech companies (Amazon, Apple, YouTube, etc.). In 2020, music streaming is an effective loss leader or minor money maker for many of these companies.

In early March, Resonate brought on a new member to its co-op board: Z, a co-founder of the Black Socialists of America. He wrote an introductory letter about his excitement for Resonate, which solidified a bit of my skepticism:

Resonate deals with both “base and superstructure” at the micro-level, but with “macro” implications in a digital age characterized by “global interconnectedness” juxtaposed next to feelings of isolation and fragmentation; through this platform, we have an opportunity to not just counter the Neoliberal warping and commodification of human expression, but to truly redefine “community” within an arts context as well, and at a global scale that doesn’t feel bureaucratized or centralized, but rather stable and decentralized.

The platform (be it Resonate, Spotify, YouTube, etc.) is not where I think the power ultimately lies within the current record industry. Rather, it rests, as it always has, in the labor of musicians. The labor that creates recordings that go onto streaming platforms, are heard in commercial advertisements and are performed on tours. The shift to digital didn’t really change the core issue with the record industry, which is the power of record labels to distribute and produce music without artists ever keeping a substantive slice of their work. (Kickstarter's unionization opens a potential window into creator and platform worker cooperation but remains more hypothetical than realized.)

‘Nu-Music’ covered the early 1940s American Federation of Musician strikes because musicians saw recordings as a threat to their ability to do live performances. To them, the solution wasn’t to take ownership of the recordings but simply to refuse recordings in an effort to say: “This practice is so antithetical to our livelihood, it must stop”. Resonate, even if artist-owned, does not offer a robust valternative to the status quo.

Why Not Give Labels...Another Chance

Earlier this year, musicians Christian Holden from The Hotelier and Chad Matheny from Emperor X hosted a YouTube live stream to discuss their new record label, Dreams of Field Recordings, which in its About page features three main bullet points to distinguish it from other independent labels: that it is non-profit, artist-owned, and aims to hold high transparency around how it handles its finances.

This particular model sparked my interest not because it’s a noble idea but rather because of the vision that Holden K and Matheny have for the future of the project. Dreams of Field Recordings, rather than existing as a singular node of a few acts/bands, aims to eventually partner and build along with other artist-owned labels that could potentially create something that functions similarly to a union and create leverage within the broader industry as a more radical version of what exists with the Merlin group.

Holden explains the need for a label in his essay ‘Post Scarcity Punk’, where he pushes back against the idea that the internet made the value of a record label irrelevant. In fact, the rise of the internet in many ways only heightens the need for a label or some entity to share and distribute music to an actual audience and to provide the infrastructure to produce music without insane costs and labor falling on the artists. It’s Holden’s vision of a record label, in which the “freedom” of the internet is best understood as misplaced labor onto precarious musicians. He writes:

As the competition for the top of the ladder increases, the barrier of entry for artists rises with it. This means working-class artists are dropping out of music or digging deeper financial holes when taking their shot. The community needs labels willing to invest in new artists or else they will have been completely usurped by the industry making it almost completely untenable to be an artist with all the leverage belonging to the suits.

Dreams of Field Recordings is still very green but directionally I get a sense that it sees the short and long-term issues that need to be addressed through the project. What’s held me back from fully appreciating Resonate is that it feels like it isn’t directly answering a need within the record industry. The project identified correctly that there is an imbalance in how artists are compensated for their labels through the streaming model. But simply fusing the streaming and download model still doesn’t quite address the real changes within the industry that have forced a streaming-first industry, whereas Dreams of Field Recordings makes a compelling argument about how the record label industry can enact real change to the record industry at a small and then grander scale.

Much in the same way that I wrote about the Buy Music Club last year, I’m never particularly curious about music/tech or business ventures that desire to run parallel to the record industry with the hopes of eventually being absorbed into that capitalist structure. However, the reason why I put a bit more interest into Dreams of Field is that I understand the path to that change. An alternative can be nice but it needs to understand what it’s standing against.

Unheard Labor

I wanted to give a mention to a couple of worker actions this week. Workers at the Brooklyn-based music/technology company Loove are currently on strike, as their management refuses to meet with them or recognize their union that was formed with the Communication Workers of America. If you wanted to spend any money towards supporting those workers, here’s a link to their strike fund.

Additionally, there continues to be a rolling wildcat strike at the Universal of California school system held by graduate workers. I wanted to mention this because a friend of mine goes to UC-San Diego and they voted last week to go on a grading strike. Not directly connected to music, but at this point, y’all should know I don’t always follow those confines. If you’d like to support the strike fund of the original strikes at UC-Santa Cruz, go here.

2019-2020 Streaming Price Bible: YouTube is STILL The #1 Problem To Solve - The Trichordist

Just the yearly update on the state of music streaming rates. YouTube still being garbage isn’t too shocking but it is interesting to see Apple Music and Spotify remain steady. My hunch, just a hunch, is that this is due to Spotify’s steady growth in higher-paying markets since it isn’t making the same gains in Middle Eastern or North African countries the way it did in Latin America a few years ago.

Are Australian Artist Managers at Crisis Point? - The Industry Observer

The issues of precarity, exhaustion, and unchecked mental health concerns can be found across the music industry and even for managers, who often are toiling away for years hoping for a breakthrough that may never arrive. The labor issue within music continues to repeat itself in so many ways that I’d be interested in knowing whether people are imagining more collective solutions.

Why a Coronavirus Recession Could Be Extra Painful: Its Suddenness - The New York Times / The U.S. May Already Be in a Recession - Bloomberg

I wasn’t planning on writing about the Coronavirus...but as you’ll see in the rest of the stories, it’s now getting harder to ignore. However, I’d highlight the second story here, since it feels pretty obvious that we’re in a recession and that it might affect a now-thriving record industry.

Coronavirus Has Hammered the Stock Market — But It Could Be Good for Warner Music Group’s IPO - Rolling Stone

I try to be sparing in my usage of this phrase...but: Big If True. (It’s likely true because there are only a few major labels and even if growth slows in streaming, it should be a fairly stable business in the medium term.)

The Coronavirus Impact: Global Live Business Takes Precautions, Keeps Watchful Eye - Pollstar

This might be the first piece I’ve included from Pollstar in this newsletter. I’m guessing that looking at the recent postponement of Coachella and SXSW’s laying off of sixty people, it won’t be the last. The live music industry will certainly feel the brunt of the Coronavirus but waves will certainly ripple into streaming.

Promoters Who Need Coronavirus Insurance Likely Don't Have It, Experts Say - Billboard / Unlike SXSW, Event Promoter DEAG Says It Has 'Full Insurance' For Coronavirus Cancellations - Music Business Worldwide

Last bit of Coronavirus-related news. Reading about the impact of event cancellations makes me more curious about what this will mean for touring artists who would’ve scheduled entire tours around these types of shows and whether there is increased uncertainty around what will be the next show to fall.