On September 28, 2023, music licensing startup Songtradr sent shockwaves through the indie music world by announcing the acquisition of audio distribution platform Bandcamp from previous owner Epic Games. While I didn’t expect the Fortnite company to treat Bandcamp as anything more than a profitable asset (acquisition after 2022), it took a big nosedive when I saw it sold to a company that writes essays praising how “rock meets Taco Bell’s brand. Recently under Songtradr, Bandcamp laid off about half the staff. Nothing says “spreading the healing power of music” like firing the people who make it.
Of course, Bandcamp isn’t dead (yet), so it’s a bit rash to make assumptions about what will or won’t happen with them under Songtradr’s belt. Bandcamp continues to succeed in its niche: It focuses less on streaming and more on directly supporting artists, becoming a haven for indie musicians. But his current situation shines a light on the dire state of the music industry. How does an independent music platform fall under the boot of companies that seek to devalue art while corporate music streaming platforms continue to dominate our cultural landscape?
Eighty-four percent of the US music industry’s revenue comes from streaming. It is easily recognized why streaming is so hegemonic. Capitalism makes things expensive, so when you see almost all the recorded music in the world available for $10.99 a month, why I would not did you take it? But convenience doesn’t make music streaming sustainable. Since its inception, Spotify has never turned a profit. And it’s not just them; other streaming services are experiencing this. They seem designed to lose and fail; most of their revenue is through monthly subscriptions, and millions of dollars in royalties and operating expenses usually offset any cash profit.
If you’re researching music streaming business models, you’re sure to come across dozens of articles from amateur business analysis blogs that partly blame their failed models on prioritizing artist compensation. This is incredibly disingenuous. While it’s true that most services keep most of their revenue for the rights holders (labels, distributors, artists), the way they distribute royalties makes it a losing business for artists as well. Both Spotify and Apple Music distribute royalties through a “stream share” model: Rights holders receive a share of total revenue based on their number of streams, proportional to the total number of streams on the platform.
This results in an extremely low average pay-per-stream that differs between platforms: Spotify’s average pay-per-stream is a measly $0.003, while Apple Music’s is a comparatively higher $0.01. Despite Apple Music’s improved pay levels, the streaming sharing model is too dependent on streaming distribution to be viable in the long term, and artists signed to a record label are likely to get even less.
Although most of the burden falls on musicians, music streaming platforms have fundamentally shaped the way listeners experience music. The iron grip of algorithms and the art of “curation” over music recommendations is largely responsible for this change. I use Spotify to listen to music, and although I sometimes search for curated playlists, they often sound watered down and homogenized. One example is the “hyperpop” playlist. While the term was briefly used to describe songs on the PC Music label, today’s broad genre classification is rooted in the proliferation of playlists. The playlist assimilates tracks ranging from bubblegum bass to digicore under one label.
This homogenization creates a “correct” idea of what a genre “should” sound like, making commercial sounds more likely to be forced into our ears than unique music. This treatment is inauthentic and sanitizes music scenes for a wider audience. It’s also hindered the careers of many indie artists whose exposure can be determined by how “playlist-friendly” their music is.
Streaming services also minimize active musical engagement in favor of relegating music to the background. To some extent this is inevitable. With the access that streaming provides, it’s easier to put on a playlist while you cook or study. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But it is less satisfying. Sometimes I forget what the songs sound like, as my memory of them is reduced to an ambiguous, beige blob floating in the depths of my brain. I feel like I’m almost losing my personal connection to music, so I end up going back to my comfort music to validate it – sometimes it’s Charli XCX, but lately it’s the Indian music I listened to in my childhood.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the music industry needs a new model. Meeting the demands of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers that Spotify pay at least one cent per stream would be phenomenal for artists. Accordingly, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. introduced a bill that would force streaming services to adopt a royalty program that pays a fair amount of flow, unlike streamshare models. Another potential solution is the Bandcamp model, where artists can set album prices (including a pay-what-you-want option). This will allow artists to earn more money from direct album purchases. Features similar to Bandcamp’s editorial sections would also give users the ability to discover and learn about different music.
But streaming isn’t inherently bad; after all, digital platforms allowed easy access to music and other entertainment. Musicians have talked about how streaming has allowed for a fairer distribution. Ranking success isn’t limited to UMG’s top echelon, nor is career stability. The problem arises when streaming is defined by corporate interests, prioritizing shareholders over true passion for culture. This is not limited to streaming, but is interconnected. Major labels have an 18% stake in Spotify. While it is imperative to strive for a society that is not dictated by profit, current issues require current concerns.
We can champion industry struggles and champion alternatives individually, but how do we shape the future of our culture(s) if not collectively?
Daily Arts writer Thejas Varma can be reached at [email protected].