Hello, everyone. I’ll be upfront to say this week's newsletter was originally about Pandora but then Spotify made some news and that's where my attention will be focused today. Next week, barring truly exciting news, will be about Pandora. And, yes Wednesday's Penny Fractions will be on the same topic but hopefully I’ll be a bit more coherent by then.
Yesterday Spotify announced in the coming weeks a limited number of artists will be able to directly upload music to the service through the Spotify for Artist portal, which is the company’s interface that allow artist to observe their performance on the platform. Such is now the case now with all Spotify news this was immediately filtered into the “How is Spotify going to destroy labels” narrative, see this particular Bloomberg headline: “Spotify Gives Artists Another Way to Circumvent Record Labels.” I must say reports on the death of labels, again, are premature.
Let’s start simple. I’m an artist who is about to release a new single but I cannot spend money on public relations for press coverage and hold no connection to any playlist curators. This is the type of artist this program is targeting because if you can afford public relations or know a curator, then one is ready to pay a distributor like Tunecore. Spotify highlighted the Chicago rapper Noname, as one of the earlier user, but she was just featured in the New Yorker and worked with Chance the Rapper, so she isn’t a music industry novice. Now what about artists who still need to find an audience. Did Spotify just open any new doors? Not really.
What Spotify described in their blog post is what SoundCloud and YouTube already offer in terms of quick access to the platform. This is notable for nudging more streaming platforms to push down this barrier to entry for all artists. Still truly independent artists with this announcement just got another platform where one can individually upload their music without using a Tunecore or CDBaby type service but that’s essentially it. Spotify didn't mention anything about receiving addtional promotion or support so materially this benefits smaller artists almost zero.
Soundcloud potentially could see this as a potential threat to their current position as the first place artist go in their career. Except SoundCloud, like YouTube, offers basic community features that Spotify lacks and thus any community that could form on Spotify would happen off the platform. The ability to interact with fans and be a part of a larger community is what makes Soundcloud and YouTube so great for artists just getting started and Spotify for Artist still offers none of that. Realistically this is just another way to put their music on a platform where only twenty-seven people will listen.
Labels: Can’t Die, Won’t Die
In their write-up of this news story Amy Wang of Rolling Stone showed one of my frustrations with how people cover the role of music labels by writing (emphasis mine):
Now, with a self-upload feature, Spotify is cutting out more of the label’s traditional middleman role and giving some artists more control and transparency over their work (and money gained from it since they don’t have to split royalties with other parties) than a label can provide. But of course, choosing to go that route as an emerging artist still means foregoing the vast resources and backing of a label — which may be too much a risk for most to take.
The word “choosing” here is working overtime. An issue of music industry coverage for decades is this idea that if artists can just put out their music then why would they need a label? The assumption is that all labels do is put out music and collect checks. This both undervalues the monopoly major labels hold on the industry in terms of promotion and how little power artists with zero industry connection holds in terms of being able to get heard. A state doesn’t promote a lottery with highlights of scratch-off losers.
I don’t say this as an endorsement of the traditional exploitative major label system. A label in this instance could be Atlantic Records, Sister Polygon Record, or even just a dude who happens to know a couple curators and understand the basics of music distribution. None of those business will shift due to this Spotify for artists update. If an artist wants to get on radio they need a label or at least a team that can work radio stations, which is something a single person can’t do. If an artists wants to get consistent press coverage they’ll need to hire public relations. If a band wants to go on tour...I think you get the idea. None of that changed.
My question is this: Who is the winner in a world where labels don’t exist? Eventually all artists will be able to upload their music to Spotify...then what? How does that music find an audience? How does an artist build and sustain a fan base? Who is footing the bill to record their music? All of these are things that labels, big or small, provide on top of any other connections in terms of live touring, licensing deal, etc. Never underestimate music industry middlemen, they'll always find a new home.
Two Weekend Reads
I often joke that music is just “air vibrations” but long time music critic and thinker Simon Reynolds in breaking down the last two decades of Auto-Tune's reshaping of popular music shows how important minor changes in those unseen waves can be.
Amazon yesterday announced an endless supply of new Alexa devices. I'll write on this before the year is over but Amazon's increasingly larger footprint in the music industry will be interesting to observe to say the least. Maybe musicians will join in an Amazon strike.
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