Angus Finlayson speaks to Avalon Emerson, Mat Dryhurst, Marta Salogni and others about the impact of streaming services on artists.
This is a full transcript of this month's edition of The Hour, edited slightly for clarity.
The dance music industry is booming right now. The Ibiza Music Summit's latest business report puts its global worth at US$7.2 billion. And we're not just talking about Calvin Harris and co. These days, even obscure dance music scenes are often slick, commercial operations. But how much of this money actually goes to the people who drive the whole thing along: the music producers? Besides contributing to RA, I make music under the name Minor Science. In the past year or so, I've seen discussions on this topic flare up repeatedly on social media. Producers, DJs and dance music fans have begun to question the mechanisms underpinning the industry, and to ask whether they're really fair. Some talk of a crisis for underground music producers who have seen traditional income streams dry up, while other actors in the scene seem to be doing as well as ever.
As a producer myself, I was keen to get a deeper understanding of these issues. Do recent changes in music distribution and consumption mean that people like me should give up on their dream of making a stable living from their music? Or is it simply a matter of adapting to the new reality? For this two-part episode of The Hour, I spoke to a range of musicians, commentators and technological innovators to find out how the economics of dance music have changed, and how they could—or should—change in the future.
In the first episode, we'll be looking at the most direct way of earning income from music: selling it to fans. In the age of streaming, this is no longer as simple as it perhaps once was. To start with, I spoke to Mat Dryhurst, a thinker, theorist, and artist with a keen understanding of how new technologies are shaping underground music communities.
Mat Dryhurst: My name's Mat Dryhurst. I work on artworks and teach in Berlin, and have an active Twitter account.
Do you think it's harder for a musician to earn money from their music now than it was in the past?
Mat Dryhurst: Yes and no. Undeniably, it is easier to publish your music online and hypothetically receive compensation for the downloading or purchase of that music. That is undeniably easier. The fallacy of that kind of logic, which we have been hammered over the head with, of this being this great democratising time, is that people don't really find that stuff. And the ways in which people do find that stuff tend to be through informal or formal organisation structures, such as labels or the press, who are in turn under threat by the very dynamics that allow people to easily publish their files online. So it's a complicated question. I think that for the communities that I care about and I suspect you care about, it is increasingly becoming more difficult, because the criteria I would suggest for the kind of things that I care about is that they tend to have a relationship with an archive. They tend to have a relationship with precedence.
So you mean an existing or a historical musical tradition?
Mat Dryhurst: Exactly. And they can abstract as far away from that tradition as they like, but they tend to be in conversation with those things. For the communities that traditionally have interacted with the curatorial bodies or institutional bodies that have determined the archive, for which there are numerous criticisms that can be levelled, it is becoming difficult. We're seeing a surge in what I call algorithmic populism. It's a very reductive way of putting it. But it's this idea of the streaming platforms exploding the idea of a release, removing attribution, repackaging one small part of something that you have created and putting it within this other form tends to be...
Mat Dryhurst: Exactly. And also going toward an up-voting, the biggest marketing campaign wins scenario, which is like a dystopian free market approach, which I try and push back on, because the people I care about generally don't tend to win in those environments.
You've quite neatly moved us onto the issue of streaming, which is obviously a big factor in this new musical landscape. Could you perhaps give a little more detail about how you think the streaming platforms are damaging to music culture?
Mat Dryhurst: Yeah. The first thing I'd like to undress about streaming is this freedom of information argument, this open accessibility, democratise-the-web idea, which has been around since the birth of the internet. That argument has been piggybacked upon by streaming platforms, whose main sell is saying: here's a world where you can access all music at any point in time. And so the argument toward communities that traditionally I care about is that we're removing gatekeepers, right?
But what is actually happening is they're just creating new gatekeepers because again, hypothetically, anybody can find your music on Spotify. But really, the things that thrive on Spotify are the things that best complement the objectives of Spotify, or Apple Music, or Tidal, or any one of these platforms. So you have new institutions, new gatekeepers, in essence. And a few of the ways that you see them butt up against this tradition is, for example, on Spotify you will see a lack of attribution or accreditation, a placelessness to the music. Your music, made in Berlin, supported by this community of people, supported financially by this label. All those contextual elements are stripped away from the music, and from certain songs. Your decision as an artist who collates songs in a certain way and has agency over the way people receive your work is all stripped away in favour of this playlist format.
And even more perniciously, I think, are the playlists curated by utility. Like "showering music." I mean, that's offensive. It's an offensive concept. And so that's one level of it. I push back against that notion, just because I think that it's offensive and barbarian. But then the other side, of course, is payment and compensation. Streaming services like Spotify, they still haven't figured this out, in making these grand promises to people, saying, "Oh, we're going to have all the music in the world, and it's going to be the low, low price of nothing if you will accept ads, or if you pay this much you can have access." Promising that leads to very, very paltry returns.
And so even though, actually—and Spotify will argue this—they give a fairly good deal in terms of the profits that they're making from subscriber fees for plays on individual tracks. The eventual payout of that is so paltry. I mean, a band or a musician with a community will make more in a year from selling ten t-shirts or something than they will from the entire Spotify ecosystem. So there's a fundamental problem with that too, where I think they've oversold it. My suspicion is that they oversold it because ultimately, the thing that's the most beneficial to Spotify, in that case, is that they become the central repository for music upload, and they have their own methods to monetize that, right? So it's like the casino model. The house will always win. Spotify will always find a way to tweak whatever they're doing to end up being profitable by the end of it. And they've only just become profitable.
But quite whether that objective is synonymous with the health of music communities or the progression of music as a medium or art form is incredibly debatable to me, and I think we're already seeing the early signs that that is just not going to happen. I think that these two things are diametrically in opposition to one another, and ought to be rejected.