opinion Opinion August 7, 2019

A user-centric streaming model could save the music industry [op-ed]

A user-centric streaming model could save the music industry [op-ed]

Musicians cannot make a living wage from services. It’s a topic I have written about on numerous occasions, and it’s often cited as the main reason the music industry, despite cheery proclamations from record labels and governing bodies that things are actually on the upswing, is dying fast.

Being a musician and expecting to make a living is now considered a fool’s dream, despite the bar to entry being lower than ever, distribution channels being open to all, and the chance of widespread exposure being basically democratised – in theory if not in reality.

Streaming is good for everyone but the musicians hoping to make money from it. But hidden in the metrics and programs we already use to stream, is there a fairer way of paying artists, or splitting the admittedly meagre subscription costs between musicians in a way that more fairly represents the reality of who is streaming what? Can we smooth out the current long tail model and make things fairer for all?

Enter: the user-centric streaming model.

In this model, each listener’s money is split between the artists they actually listen to, rather than pooled and divvied out between every artist on a streaming service. For example, if you stream 40 songs in a month, ten of which are by Hatchie, then she (and the copyright holders of her work) receives a quarter of your subscription fee, minus whatever costs et al. would deduct from that.

It would be much of a muchness for enormously successful artists, but provide a significant pay bump for the indies who attract a handful of rabid, engaged music fans. Australian artists would see more money, local bands would begin to be self-sufficient in a way that doesn’t leave them in crippling debt, and streaming would no longer be seen as a necessary evil.

As with any model, there are clear downfalls: the more you use the service, the smaller a slice each stream earns your favourite artists, which would suggest that ravenous music consumers are worth ‘less’ to artists than fair-weather listeners who only stream a handful of songs a month. That fact is not ideal, but it’s still a more direct reward system than the one that exists currently. Users could take more ownership in how they use the service, too, opting to listen exclusively to local bands, for example, then purchasing the vinyl records of those they truly love.

Damon Krukowski is a musician from the legendary band Galaxie 500, and has written extensively about music streaming and royalties for publications such as The Wire and Pitchfork. He was one of the first musicians to break down the pittance made by a successful group in the streaming era, by opening the books on his 2012 earnings from Galaxie 500.

I contacted Krukowski to find out his ideas on how streaming could be made better for artists. His solution is extreme, but provides serious food for thought.

Perhaps we’re thinking about the idea of monetising streaming in the completely wrong way.

“This sounds facetious, but I mean it seriously: I think streaming should be copyright free,” he tells me.

“I would like to see services like Spotify in open competition with any and all other builders of competing streaming models – instead of dominating the business through secretive and private copyright deals they cut with the major labels.”

He acknowledges this would result in a drop in current digital income, but feels it is necessary in order to find models that “truly work for music and musicians.”

“I do not accept the idea that only gigantic corporations should control the way this can happen. And I don’t see how else to open it up, other than abandoning the idea of controlling copyright for streaming.”

Krukowski feels a user-centric model for streaming still ignores the major problem here – corporate control of a product they have no actual stakes in.

“There might be some marginal differences,” he concedes, “…but in the larger scale it has all the same pitfalls as the current model, because it too would be created, administered, and accounted by Spotify itself. Why should we accept their idea of how to pay musicians for their work?

“As an independent artist, I have no say in the terms of the agreement – whether it be the current one or an adapted user-centric one – I can only participate, or not. And obviously as a musician, I want my music heard. So I opt-in – as do most all of us. That’s what Spotify is counting on.”

User-centric streaming is a model that has been floated in the past, but is often shot down due to perceived complications. Deezer is considering adopting this model sometime in the near future, while Spotify’s Will Page argues the costs of implementing such a model would “arguably come at an increased cost – and the value of a stream would be more volatile, and less predictable, as well.”

The arguments against Page’s point are simple.

Each user’s streaming data is collected already. It is used for recommendations, to tally total streaming numbers for artists, and such user-centric payments could therefore easily be automated.

As for making the value of a stream more volatile, this argument doesn’t follow logic. Who said that a stream needs to have a fixed monetary value? Price doesn’t impact the sales charts. No other market seems to operate in such a manner.

“Whatever they say, in practice it doesn’t much matter because there’s no way to measure against what we actually receive in the end,” Krukowski explains. “I can’t monitor their streams. We don’t have a business relationship with Spotify, or Apple, or any of these companies, because it’s not subject to negotiation.

“‘Take it or leave it’ is not a contract, it’s extortion.”

Related articles