User-Centric Streaming and Other Radical Streaming Proposals
7 min read

User-Centric Streaming and Other Radical Streaming Proposals

Hello, hello. I’ll be upfront — this week’s newsletter is a bit out there, but next week’s will be much more grounded on individual company analysis (guess who?). I’m sure most won’t mind, but I wanted to just flag that for y’all. My other upfront ask is for y’all to check out a little Penny Fractions survey I created right here. This newsletter is almost at 2000 subscribers. I wanted to ask y’all a few questions, so if you could take the time to answer them I’d really appreciate it. This week’s newsletter starts with a second look at the user-centric streaming model, then turns left, right, and ends up with some punk lyrics, so let’s have some fun!

User-Centric Music Streaming

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted an article in The Ringer that discussed the user-centric model of music streaming. Though this model could take various forms, the most common one is the idea that the money an individual pays to a streaming service would payout proportionally to the artists that an individual streamed that month. Here’s what I wrote directly addressing this topic:

Zoë Keating offered a different model for how music streaming payouts should work that would be user-centric, where one’s money goes directly towards the artists one listened to that month rather than a single lump sum. This limited band-aid says, “If I only stream The 1975, then that would be the only artist to receive money from my monthly subscription”. This is a model that Deezer considered adopting at one point, so this isn’t outside of the realm of possibility for “fixing” a perceived to be a broken system.

A number of you emailed me in support of my dismissal of the user-centric model, but far more were frustrated at my casual indifference towards this potential form of music streaming. I wanted to clarify a few thoughts.

Even if not perfect, an argument for the user-centric model would increase fan consciousness about how their music consumption habits connect back to their favorite artists (the number of mental hoops it currently takes to explain how a single song stream makes it into the pockets of artists is almost bizarrely cruel). I’ve stressed this point throughout my newsletter because I’d love to see increased connection between fans and artists, which the user-centric model does address. The system would also be a great boost to genres like classical music, where the current model isn’t shaped to help them when the monetary take away from a two-minute stream is equal to a fifteen-minute one.

Still, I push back, because I often tease through thoughts in this newsletter even if they’re a bit out there, just to see what could potentially stick. The incrementalism of the user-centric model in music streaming would be better than what exists now, but even still, this system would leave too many core issues of contemporary streaming right there. The payout-per-stream would remain too low—though that’s also a label issue, as the disconnection between fan and artist remains and it continues to narrow the ways in which people conceptualize music consumption. I genuinely do ask: If user-centric streaming was adopted tomorrow, many of core business issues would remain, so what are the next steps after user-centric streaming?

I was captured by an interview that Mat Dryhurst, an academic and musician, gave to the Creative Independent, where he said:

I’m not after modest working DJs or people who post their music to Spotify or whatever, but it’s more of a macro approach. I’m interested in systems, and narratives. So yeah, these great stories that we have told ourselves, about independence, and about free circulation of information and music, are worth challenging. Not in a reactionary way of embracing DRM and antiquated hierarchies, but it is worth experimenting with some new logics that haven’t yet been tested, and might work out to be more equitable and healthy. We can’t be imprisoned by these old narratives when they clearly aren’t working out.

The American Music Library

This is why I wanted to offer a little bit of outside thinking for how to approach this topic. Henderson Cole, an entertainment attorney and newsletter reader, talked to me last year about this idea he called the “American Music Library”. The proposal was a fairly radical rethinking of the contemporary music streaming ecosystem. I allowed him a little bit of space below to describe his idea and provided a link to his longer proposal here:

I grew up in the tail end of the CD era and experienced what it was like to be priced out of listening to music, so I’m a big fan of streaming—but the current system is a nightmare. Mainstream streaming services lean on major label dictated song selection or personalized obtuse algorithms, leaving artists and songwriters not making enough money from the royalties that have cannibalized other album sales. These issues reverberate across the entire music industry from shrinking with record industry profits funneling back up to the top.
A dramatic problem needs a drastic solution. My idea would unlock the potential of music streaming, while also supporting artists and songwriters. The current workshopping name is: The American Music Library. It is, in basic terms, a government-controlled music streaming service that anyone can access for free, similar to the public library system. This streaming service will not have algorithms or service generated playlists, but instead, be a repository for music across the globe. Artists and songwriters would be paid fairly, and no labels, publishers or other industry figures would be able to wield power over the service.
Yes, this is possible. If something like this is going to be built, it will be because creatives and music fans demand it.

I’ve talked to Cole about a number of thoughts on his idea before, but one of the reasons I was initially drawn to it was because it helped open my mind about how much the current system could potentially change. Certainly imagining an idea like this being implemented in the United States, in this current political climate, is extremely hard to do. However, I'm not in the position to snap my fingers and make this happen but rather I'm interested in seeing where these ideas could go.

There might be a reason why one of the songs I listened to a bunch in 2017, when diving more into the space of music streaming, was the Washington D.C. band Priests and their track “Pink White House”, where the lead singer Katie Greer sings:

A puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate
Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2
Consider the options of a binary
Consider the options of a binary
Consider the options of a binary
Consider the options of a binary

Last year spring, I spoke at a Northeastern University symposium, where one of the speakers was Kelly Hiser, the CEO and co-founder of the company Rabble. The company created an open source platform, called MUSICat used at public library systems across the country to allow local artists to upload their music onto it. There are a number of differences between Rabble’s work and Cole’s proposal, but both helped me imagine how music could revert back toward a public, rather than a private, good. I certainly wouldn’t expect this to be a path for all music, but one of it's greatest strengths is inspring people to from communities. Thus it's exciting to imagine these large digital platforms being used to strengthen, rather than crush, the emergence of such groups.


In last week’s newsletter, I mischaracterized the Fortnite and Marshmello event a bit. I wrote:

This wasn’t an optional event when a user launched the game. Rather, Epic Games pushed its thousands of players into the singular event. 10 million players experiencing an in-game event shouldn’t be compared to a concert—it’d be like saying that a musician playing in Times Square in New York City performed to thousands of people.

Since I didn’t play the game during the event, my assumption of how it went down was a bit off. Players weren’t forced into the concert. Instead, players needed to land at the digital concert site to experience it properly. I’ll admit this might be a small note for those that haven’t played Fortnite, but this was a far more organic in-game experience than my description implied.

Will Record Labels Soon Have a Sirius Problem? - Billboard

I’m not quite sure how anyone could view the consolidation of Pandora and Sirius XM – two companies with an extensively long record of attempting to screw over artists and labels – without identifying a few red flags.

‘Spotify Teardown’ Is the Book Spotify Didn’t Want Published - Rolling Stone

This interview with the authors of the Spotify Teardown only reaffirms that I can’t wait to write about the book in the coming weeks, as it appears to reframe Spotify’s business narrative.

Amazon Music’s ‘Reimagined’ Exclusives Roll On — This Time With Mumford & Sons - Digital Music News

Amazon, the company too scared of unions to put their headquarters in Queens, New York, continues to commission Amazon Music-only versions of songs that I’m guessing most people wouldn’t dare sign up for a new music streaming to hear. None of these versions are Apple Music or Tidal levels of exclusive, but I wonder how long it’ll take until the music streaming trend wheels hit back towards platform exclusives.

Hi-res streaming service Qobuz launches in the US today - Music Ally

I’ll admit the appeal of high-quality music streaming is lost on me, but perhaps I should keep a closer eye on this particular market of niche streaming services.

Pitch imperfect: ‘This process of trying to get on playlists is becoming borderline farcical’ - Music Ally

This write-up of a panel at the FastForward conference isn’t super illuminating for those too jacked into the music streaming conversation. However, I will say that the tone of playlisting shifted very quickly in the last couple of years, from excitement to disillusionment, once we recognized that the same issues of gatekeeping that existed in forms like radio are just simply being repeated. I can’t imagine why.

Spotify Q4 2018: Solid Growth With a Hint of Profitability But Longer-Term Questions - Midea Research / 5 of Spotify’s biggest imminent challenges in 2019 - Music Business Worldwide

I can’t put too much snark here, because these are two solid assessments of Spotify’s current position in the larger music/tech market in 2019.

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 the graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho. My personal website is Any comments or concerns can be sent to