Hello, I’ll keep this introduction short today. If you’re a new reader, certainly do check out my back catalog of newsletters that dates back to November 2017, and if you ever want to contact me, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. My other note is that on Friday, and next week, there is Global Climate Strike. Certainly, I would love to know if anyone in the music industry plans to participate because it’s hard to have music without a livable planet. So, do let me know, but otherwise, let’s get into Audiomack.
Right now, in the New York City subway system, Audiomack, an audio streaming platform, is running a campaign around the ability to listen to music offline for free—unlike its competition that charges for that feature. Not a terribly exciting feature but it offers a solid peg to raise attention for a music platform that’s ready to enter the mainstream. So why not follow the footsteps of every other brand and plaster a crumbling subway system with advertising?
Now, I won’t be coy: Audiomack isn’t an interesting company. Founded in 2012 by David Ponte and Dave Macli, who also founded the website DJ Booth, Audiomack is a music streaming platform that’s unsurprisingly centered around rap music. A decent market for African pop can be found on the platform but rap is overwhelmingly the most popular genre with little space for other styles. Billboard, when profiling the company earlier this year, mentioned a few projects that Audiomack claim helped establish its popularity this decade:
The site saw some significant early success: Macli and his co-founder and CMO Dave Ponte point to April 30, 2013 -- the day that J. Cole’s Truly Yours 2 and Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap both premiered on the platform -- as the first, and to date, only, time Audiomack ever crashed. (“It’s sort of a notch [in your belt] for an artist when you can put a site down,” says Ponte.) Later, Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N---a,” Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and Future’s Purple Reign all either debuted on or gained significant traction through the site.
I’d just like to clarify that Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” blew up because of Vine, so to give much credit to Audiomack feels misguided. Purple Reign could be argued to be one of the last major releases on Datpiff/LiveMixtape, as Future’s career was experiencing another reboot just before those sites were phased out for legitimate streaming services. Acid Rap is also a strange inclusion when it was massive on Datpiff and was made available for download by Chance on his own website. Even Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” debuted on SoundCloud, which is where the rapper was originally uploading most of his tracks, and he credited Instagram and Twitter for the song’s success in a Pitchfork interview.
Audiomack is currently within the Top 10 music apps on the App Store, so it’s clearly popular to a certain extent, but the company’s success stories deserve a bit more scrutiny. Especially when there is more credit that could be shown in users engaging with the platform to seek out the likes of Chief Keef, whose mixtape Bang 3 found its initial home on Audiomack. Even still, in the mid-2010s the only real distinguishing factor for the platform was that it didn’t charge artists or listeners and instead solely relied on advertising (until it introduced a paid listener tier more recently).
Not Like Those Other Streaming Services
If labels help Audiomack to establish itself as the place to hear up-and-coming rappers, Audiomack can help labels build a certain amount of control over the market for leaks and unlicensed streams. The site’s improving market position is good for the content owners, especially if Audiomack can push out other outlets that are less concerned with being a good partner to the labels.
Audiomack’s business proposition is simply to be a feeder system into major labels, which is a perfectly boring and likely the only feasible way that this company could sustain itself without being mired in endless label lawsuits. That’s why it shouldn't have been surprising to see that Audiomack signed a unique licensing deal with Warner Music Group earlier this year. To quote from Rolling Stone’s reporting on the story (emphasis mine):
Allan Coye, WMG’s vice president of digital strategy and business development, acknowledges that “historically, the mixtape space could have been seen as much of a risk as an opportunity” for major labels. “But this [partnership with Audiomack] can serve as a template for deals going forward,” Coye adds. “These guys are doing this the right way, and we’re in the business of breaking artists.”
The idea isn’t that Audiomack will hold the same catalog as other streaming platforms but rather that it’ll maintain its unique catalog with that major label stamp of approval. This is a rather stark change from the era of illicit street mixtapes that existed completely outside of the label system or even from post-DJ Drama’s raid that effectively moved much of that activity into sites like Datpiff and Livemixtapes. In that era, mixtapes offered a way for new acts to emerge outside of the major label system but also, much to the dismay of labels, allowed established artists to find and produce side income that cut labels entirely out of the earnings. Labels are now getting their cut of the pie. The autonomy that rappers held is being curtailed, as these smaller platforms sign deals with major labels, so that they’ll get first pass at any income that’s being derived from signed artists.
What I, personally, find funny about Audiomack is the company’s rather sudden PR campaign to promote itself. If one looks at Google Trends, searches for Audiomack peaked back in 2015, even though its self-reported user numbers are on the rise.
Music streaming isn’t a viable business on its own and ultimately someone will need to buy or absorb Audiomack. So why not start waving that flag now? Pandora never made it work and was bought by Sirius XM, Deezer was buoyed by a telco (Orange) and is now under the thumb of Warner Music Group’s owner Access Industries, and Tim Ingram at Rolling Stone reported on how back in 2017, Zahavah Levine of Google Play wrote in documents sent to the Copyright Royalty Board that: “Google Play Music’s primary objective is to achieve standalone, sustainable profitability...despite a continuously increasing user base and subscription revenue, Google Play Music has never been profitable.”
If all of these companies couldn’t make streaming work, why would I expect any different from Audiomack as it starts signing licensing deals with majors? Majors are fine with Audiomack since it provides a useful service, but I’d be more excited about a music platform that existed outside of this oligarchic cartel.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians, as part of Local 40-543 of the American Federation of Musicians, filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the Baltimore Symphony for bargaining in bad faith. Earlier this summer, management locked out the musicians from their workplace and are seeking to reduce pay by 20%. The fight appears to still be ongoing with the symphony season about to begin, so I’d like to share continued support to these musicians on their prolonged fight.
Another bit of union news is that Kickstarter is allegedly engaging in an aggressive anti-union campaign, which includes the firing of a number of union activists within the company. This type of anti-worker behavior certainly isn’t new and it shows that the tech industry, like the manufacturing, public service, or teaching industries, desire profits over the well-being or voice of its workers. Solidarity with those at Kickstarter who will hopefully see this union achieve its goal.
6 Links 2 Read
YouTube bans paid-for plays from contributing towards its Music Charts - Music Business Worldwide
I don’t want to give any credit to YouTube policing a problem within its platform that is entirely created by its own incentive structure. Instead, my thought here is what it would look like if all streaming metrics were verified by a third-party company, instead of relying on multinational companies to be their regulators. YouTube could also become a public global utility and the monitoring of analytics could be done by local governments... but we can start small!
Spotify Increases User Surveillance to Crackdown Against Family Plan Abuse - Digital Music News
Spotify, or major labels, are very upset that users may use the “Family Plan” and not live in the same house. I won’t list all of the ways in which “family” can be defined outside of people sharing a street address, but I’m sure a desire for profit overrode any consideration for the various ways that families are organized within society in 2019.
How Artists Are Gaming Streaming Searches to Score Hits - Rolling Stone
I can’t ever, ever, get enough stories about people gaming streaming platforms, so godspeed Tayler Swift’s latest album Levers.
Five Debatable Statements about the Future of the Indian Music Industry - Water and Music
I don’t really have another joke about how often I include Cherie’s work in this newsletter but this is a really interesting breakdown of the Indian music industry and takes a rather wide view of the industry. I know a number of readers do work within the Indian music industry, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether it sounds like Cherie is providing astute commentary here.
This isn’t a live concert newsletter but I truly cannot understate the harm that the consolidation of live music into the singular hands of Live Nation and AEG is doing to music for fans who cannot afford such ridiculously expensive concert tickets.
I must give a shout-out to the musician Roberta Fidora (Curxes) for tagging me in a tweet about this essay that researches why exactly people share music on social media. This is an activity I’ve done since I first made a Facebook account so it was cool to see someone dive even deeper into the social reverberations of such activities.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can at his website. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. My current job is Curation Analyst at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to email@example.com.