Lawsuits, a shooting and a post-midlife crisis – Another perspective on the streaming revolution

The recorded music industry is currently sitting at a very exciting crossroads. As streaming holds the key to music’s future distribution, nobody is quite sure how to estimate the value of music from this position. The options are endless and the roads all lead into uncharted territory. Not since the recorded format first appeared, has the music industry been shook up to this extent. Even the advent of download culture didn’t hold this many uncertainties, since the record companies still continued to sell a final product for consumption, only moving that product to the digital sphere. This idea of a tangible product is now completely lost in the realm of streaming, as we drift closer to some sort of communistic division of resources from a type of hedge-fund style mentality. A sizeable grey area now exists over the distribution of subscription revenues amongst artists, labels and platforms, and this has made a few people notably upset. In the past it was simple; everybody gets a cut of the record they are involved in. As far as I can tell with streaming however, it seems that everybody gets a portion of a subscription, regardless if that subscriber has listened to his or her music. The subscription revenue is effectively stuffed into a huge hat which basically gets passed around with the most popular folks getting the first grab at it – at least this is what I’ve been made to believe through scattered reports from the Internet. It seems a bit unfair that some listeners are paying for artists they don’t even listen to, and it’s no wonder its driven the good people over at Cash Money to some rather dire extremes.

Birdman was named last week in an indictment that alleges his involvement in a coup to kill Lil’ Wayne and although tying this directly to the profit share scheme of streaming services would be a bit ambitious, there is yet another piece to the puzzle that suggests it’s in fact all related. A shooting in the hip-hop world is rarely not about money, and the fact that Birdman is currently in the process of suing tidal for $50 million – allegedly for illegally streaming Lil Wayne’s FWA album – is more than a little coincidental. There’s a clear dispute about money at the heart of the Cash Money – Lil Wayne fallout, and streaming is most certainly a huge influence here. To drive Birdman to conspire to assassinate Lil Wayne, suggests that the disputes around streaming have turned into full-blown warfare. But I wonder if they know what they are fighting over – an undetermined amount of money from a system of dividends, the details of which everybody seems a bit hazy on.

The most confusing situation around all of this is the aforementioned Tidal’s approach to this monetary share system. Cutting out the middleman, they claim to be the only streaming service that holds the artist’s values at heart, but which artists they represent, is still a little bit sketchy. With an established group of artists having an equity stake in the company, it certainly suggests there is some inherent prejudices in the way the money will get split and, like every other streaming service, they are not really too transparent with their inner workings. It’s no wonder Birdman and Cash Money is claiming foul play, especially considering that it was Wayne, and not the label, that signed on to Tidal. It is all very confusing, but completely understandable in the current situation. The record industry is breaking new ground, and there are bound to be a few hiccups along the way as everybody still grapples with the idea of streaming and how to monetise music in this new environment. What’s concerning however is the hedge-like estimations, based on market share, that big record companies are putting forward – like that infamous Sony-Spoitfy deal that recently floated over the web. Controversial as this system may be, it highlights one very important thing; nobody knows what they are doing. Sony and Spotify’s deal is essentially Sony going; “well this is what we are worth in the greater scheme of things, so we should x amount based on that worth, right? Or maybe we’ve got it wrong, so if we get more clicks, streams or whatever, we should get more money.” Spotify retorts by scratching their heads going “ok, take some of this money we don’t actually have.” Yes, and everybody’s happy. Except the independent artist, who is still wondering why he can’t make the payments on his home studio after somebody has hit play on his album 1000 times.

But you hardly ever hear this independent artist complain. For the most part, s/he is just happy that somebody is actually listening to his or her music. It’s always the big shot with the multi-million dollar studio that makes the loudest noise. Enter Neil “not-in-it-for-the-money” Young. After a very unsuccessful bid to get into the portable listening device market with that little box he made, he has turned his attention to the streaming market and removed all his music from these platforms, since he believes the sound is of an inferior quality, and not because it doesn’t equate to the some return he remembers from the old days. Granted 128kpbs is not the best quality, but have you heard what a record sounds like that was made in the 70’s? I doubt, Mr. Young’s frazzled ears would even notice the difference between You Tube rip and a Flac or AAC file today. In either case the dynamics and crispness of the top end would be so much better than any record from the past, and that’s not even going into the production anomalies of that time. Considering that Tidal has, and Apple will have, hi-fi options in the near future it seems strange that Neil Young would pull his music at this exact moment in time. It’s almost like there was some other aspect, like money, that has played its hand, but then again as he said before, he’s not in it for the money. Quite an easy statement to make if you’ve already bled your audience dry, isn’t it? What Neil Young alongside artists like Jay Z and corporations like Sony highlight, is that there is a certain type of player in the music industry that has a gripe with streaming services. These are artists and institutions born in the world of the physical media product, people that have been raised on the comfortable situation of a return for a material product, and with streaming completely changing the face of this product they are like a fish out of water, and very upset about it. Any money that is to be taken from the end-user is in the streaming provider’s hands today, the people who own the subscription fees and not the labels and established artists, who are in turn very pissed that they can’t control every aspect of their monetary flow. So what do they do? If they’ can’t muscle in on the action with a Spotify-Sony type deal, they sue. It’s why Soundcloud, the originator of the streaming platform will soon fall to the wayside as it faces million dollar lawsuits from Universal and Sony after a deal fell through between these players. Warner Bros settled with a 5% deal in exchange for turning a blind eye, but again that makes you wonder where the artist is in all of this. Has Warner filtered this down to the artist? I sincerely doubt it.

Meanwhile most artists and independent labels seem to be content with the fact that somebody is actually playing their music, whether its through a mix on Soundcloud or a stream on Apple. It’s these people that are truly making streaming work for them. There’s a direct link to their audience now, and the big-time players can’t hinder them any longer by denying them a platform for distribution, or flooding the market with their over-played product. The Internet is a wondrous thing and streaming has opened up so many ears that were previously stuck in the restrictions of label-dictated radio play. Nobody seems to know what they are doing and this means the independent artist and label is for once on an equal footing with the giants of media publication. They in turn are very confused and on the verge of a post-midlife crisis if they can’t control every aspect of what we are listening to. They think they might be tapping into something by signing these ridiculous deals with the streaming platforms, but I have a feeling the bottom will eventually drop out when they realise there is a finite limit to how much money they can get each month through subscription fees, and it really can’t be enough to cater for every recording artist if you think about. 10$ a month from those who are actually able to afford it, and the 3G network they need to make it happen? That’s not a lot of money, so they’ll need physical sales to bolster the drop in revenue, and who’s going pay for a release if they can just stream it infinitely on their phone.

No wonder people are trying to kill each other. It’s absolute chaos and only looks to be getting worse, because nobody has yet been able to put a price tag on a stream. So it begs the question; why do we need to put a value on a stream? I am with Mr. Young on the fact that the quality is seriously wanting on streaming services, especially Apple Music, and I am curious why we are paying for it like we do when we buy music. I mean, in the past if you were to tape a favourite song from the radio, it would always be a severe means to an end, like you couldn’t afford the album yet, but wanted to listen to the single until you could. So why are streaming services not used more like the promotional tool that it was first intended to be with the likes of Soundcloud. It should really just be a way to get into a new artist or a new piece of music, not the be all and end all of your music experience. The streaming fee should be no more than a magazine subscription fee and its only role should be to make you go out and buy the piece of music you enjoy on whatever format you prefer.

In amongst all the embroiled controversy streaming is stirring up, one platform is quietly going about its business doing exactly that. They offer a streaming service, where the label or artist can set which songs would be available for unlimited stream. If you still like the music or want to hear more you can eventually buy the music in everything from a MP3 to a lossless file, with an option of a name your own price always available to the artist that might want to get as much of his music out there as possible. While all the other streaming services are still trying to decide which way is up, Bandcamp have come along and already reached the next evolutionary step in musical distribution. They offer streaming, but only as the doorway it needs to be. There’s no monetary value attached to the device and in the way they allow the artist/label, and not the market, to set the price, they’ve also adopted some of the download culture’s sensibilities. The artist get’s to name his/her price, not by speculating wildly, but merely considering the cost to make the record from what is most likely a bedroom studio, and what he’d ideally like to make out of it. For those audiophiles like Mr. Young, you can get your favourite music on AAC and Flac files, and if nostalgia is too much to bear, just look out for the many tape and vinyl labels on there. It sounds ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? But as everything in the music industry it’s not quite as straightforward as that. Bandcamp is still an alternative option at the end of the day and streaming is still the only option for the average individual that prefers the experience of music in a casual, everyday sense. People, who like music in the sense you and I might like food, enjoyable but with no further vested interest other than that of nourishment. These are the people that started the download generation and ripped music from You Tube. People who listen to music for the pure sake of leisure and refuse to invest anything other than a subconscious stream in music. This is the man on the street, and it’s because of him that streaming is the future.

The record industry needed this shake-up. We can’t plough on forward with the same archaic methods of music distribution that first bore the industry. It’s very exciting to see the major players scramble and the independents finally be on an equal footing with them, measuring each step and in some cases, like Bandcamp, forging their own path forward. It’s the blank slate we needed, because in an age where the multimillion-dollar record deal is no longer necessary and the producer doesn’t need a state of the art studio to make music, there is no need to hang on to these practises of an older generation. We are in a new era of possibilities for music and its distribution, and if the established industry can’t catch up with this new way of thinking, shedding some of its dusty philosophical practises, it’s going to fail, and I would love noting more to see the giants of the industry fall and make way for the true pioneers of music. Because at the end of the day, the gap they are leaving is letting truly magnificent artist rise above the sludge of everyday music. While the big-time players are still squabbling about the “correct” way to distribute music, the independent avant garde has been there for some years, and it’s their music that we are listening to while the industry is still scratching their heads. We are at an interesting crossroads for the music industry, and it’s a most exciting time for music.