Guest Post by Joe Steinhardt
It’s no secret that debates over the role and structure of on-demand streaming services continue to be a source of ongoing controversy. Unfortunately, too often, these debates are framed in terms of the impacts on the largest commercial players or net industry revenues. This can be valuable as an entry point, but it can also be flattening; streaming critics and supporters alike may have a diverse range of reasons for the opinions they hold. Part of what we try to do at FMC is encourage a deeper understanding of the full breadth of independent perspectives, and to that end, we’ll be hosting a series of guest posts exploring the streaming issue from multiple angles. To kick it off, here’s some thoughts from Joe Steinhardt, owner of independent label Don Giovanni Records and a PhD Candidate in Communication at Cornell.
We are heading rapidly toward a future with no alternative for music consumers.
Artists, independent labels, and consumers are right to be critical of Spotify and the rest of the interactive streaming music services, but we are being critical for the wrong reasons. The center of the debate around these services seems to be narrowly about money. However, this is a debate that is almost impossible to take an objective stance on, as it hinges on the question of what the value of a stream of a song is: something nearly impossible to quantify.
But while we’re trying to figure out the value of a stream, we are ignoring bigger issues about power and control. No matter what amount is eventually settled on as a fair rate of compensation, the bigger problem is that the streaming musical landscape in its present makes alternatives impossible.
The Big Three major labels have always had a “close” and controlling relationship with the infrastructure of the industry, from chain retail to radio. However, there was also always room for an alternative; independent record stores, non-commercial radio, etc. This is not true for streaming platforms like Spotify. They rely on an enormous user base, complicated software that’s expensive to develop, and massive server space. This forces mainstream and alternative artists and record labels to compete within the confines of these platforms. This is problematic when the platforms are also owned in part by, or have favorable deals in place with the Big Three. Truly independent artists and labels will never be able to compete with the Big Three fairly on platforms that the Big Three control.
For a reasonable amount of money, I can open an independent brick and mortar record store. But the costs of starting my own interactive streaming service or social network are astronomical, and require the kind of partnerships and financing that would no longer make my platform independent.
This was not the case with iTunes and previous digital music services that sold downloads. It was possible for anyone to reasonably compete with them by selling MP3 files directly through their own website. Unlimited streaming by subscription, however, requires the type of software development, hardware, partnerships, and scale that make competition impossible for small and independent businesses.
Essentially, the same technology that promised to level the playing field between big and small is now making it impossible for the small to survive on their own. If I couldn’t afford to open my record store in a large mall, I could still open it somewhere else and succeed, in part through my hard work and good business practices. This concept is a fundamental American value and one we should be striving to protect.
Instead, we are shifting toward a system that forces artists, labels, and consumers to accept these platforms, tying themselves to their boom-bust cycle, to their consolidation, and to whatever arrangements they have to offer. This future denies everything important about the free market from a consumer and business standpoint, and creates a ‘one channel’ world for consumers. This is a future that offers no room for an alternative to offer significant competition to the dominant services, and thus no alternative to consumers.
Maybe it’s time we cleared away the cloud? Broadband is getting faster and hard drives get larger and cheaper. Music doesn’t take up a lot of space. Unlike something like a film, music is meant to be portable and experienced over and over again in different locations. It seems like the main benefit of pushing music into the cloud and streaming delivery mechanisms is to quietly consolidate control into the hands of a smaller and smaller group of players. Then, of course, there is also the utility to large corporations as a massive demographic surveillance data-mining project, but we can save that discussion for another time.
It is time to stop asking how we can make streaming work, and start asking why we are pursuing streaming in the first place, Rather than asking for it, consumers are being forced into a streaming landscape. It is hardly a coincidence that the same year Apple bought a streaming music service (Beats) they discontinued their iconic iPod.
Maybe what scared the major music and technology companies so much about the digital music environment wasn’t piracy, but that it threatened to actually democratize music, turning it into a space where big and small could compete with each other more fairly. The push to on-demand full-catalog streaming as the primary form of music consumption undoes that level playing field, shifting power back into the hands of a small group of major labels and tech companies.
This goes far beyond what is economically fair, or what is good for music and culture, to fundamental American values of competition and the free market.
We need a future where alternative voices are not forced to exist within the corporate-controlled streaming music infrastructure, but can stand as a true alternative to them.