Streaming Services and the Erasure of Contemporary and Historical Music

Apple Music, Google Play, Spotify, Amazon Music, Tindal

Of the fifty albums I bought in 2017—which is to say, purchased as a CD or vinyl record—nine of them do not appear on Spotify, apple music, Youtube or any other major streaming service. This means almost 20% of the music I primarily listened to last year could not be heard by someone who exclusively consumes music via streaming service subscriptions. Most years, this percentage is higher because I typically buy more vinyl-only singles—right now I’m studying in another country and that restricts what I can buy. But the point stands—streaming services will have you believe that they give you access to every song ever recorded, when in fact, the music culture created by the emergence of streaming services in the past five years leads to a significant degree of musical erasure.

It’s worth saying that, these nine albums not available on streaming services were all made by underground artists on independent record labels, but contemporary artists aren’t the only ones left off of streaming services. In my area of specialty, electronic music, many of the early, groundbreaking Detroit Techno and Chicago House artists, who largely found fame through the release of white label 12” singles for spinning at clubs, have had most of their catalogue wiped out by the advent of streaming services. You can find artists like Jesse Saunders, Larry Heard, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins on Spotify, but their discographies are extremely limited—some artists’ profiles only feature remix work or compilation appearances. In this example one may notice the racial element of the streaming-service problematic—the erasure of early American electronic music has predominantly affected innovative black artists. That said, there are other remarkable gaps in streaming services’ catalogues. Small labels that predate streaming services or can’t renegotiate contracts with their artists are often completely erased; an example of this is Aphex Twin’s preeminent Rephlex Records, which had several cutting edge releases in the ‘90s and ‘00s, including early µ-ziq albums, Squarepusher’s early work, and nearly all of Richard D. James output from 2001 – 2013. More contemporary erasure still goes on today—much of the Chicago Footwork and Juke scene was almost exclusively released on white label 12”s until Planet µ and Hyperdub picked up a few artists early this decade. Other scenes, like Chillwave and Vaporwave, are so relegated to free-to-use distribution services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud that, in spite of their regarded place on the internet, they will certainly never find widespread release on streaming services, and they will therefore never be able to jump into mainstream markets. This is true of some contemporarily eminent internet labels too, like Dream Catalogue and PC Music.

I raise this issue not necessarily to place blame on individual streaming services, but the system that a culture of streaming music creates. Obviously I’ve listed several instances above in which established labels choose not to put their music on streaming services, but there are also problems for independent artists who try to make their music available on without the backing of a major label. For instance, Spotify makes it quite easy for anyone to put their music up, and if you go through an indie distributor, you can get an album of music on every major streaming service by paying under $30; a single costs as little as $10. However, streaming distribution is not always a viable option for independent artists. Though streaming services may expose musicians to a much broader potential audience, payment for an individual stream on Spotify, for example, ranges between 1/5th of a cent and 2/3rds of a cent. Even at the maximum payment (which isn’t consistently given), it would take over 1500 streams of a single to earn back the $10 investment. This isn’t a sustainable business model for full-time recording musicians, and it’s created an economy where recorded music essentially acts as promotion for live performance, and some musicians have to make their living entirely by playing shows. This obviously depends a lot on the musician and the genre, but it’s obviously highly problematic for genres like, say, ambient music or electronic listening music, which deliberately do not conduce to a live setting and are meant for home listening. This is why you can’t find esteemed artists like The Caretaker and Shackleton on Spotify. These are exactly the genres that get most suppressed by a culture of music streaming, and I think that’s a shame. It’s worth noting, furthermore that these independent artists are paid less per stream than most major-label artists because they don’t have the contractual leverage provided by major labels’ negotiations with the services. Consequently, many vinly-only, cassette-only, or CD-only labels have sprung up since the ‘00s—these small labels choose to simply not fight a loosing battle against major labels, and instead corner the market for their particular kind of music. I’ve noticed this most prominently in the genre of drone music—there’s an excellent drone label I follow pretty closely called Lagerstätte, which exclusively distributes through Bandcamp. This means they allow for downloads, but I think most of their fans buy their CDs in an attempt to better support the artists.

I have many issues with streaming services themselves, but I’ll reiterate, I’m not raising the issue of musical erasure as a way of indicting streaming services for something for which they aren’t altogether responsible. But the rise of streaming services have nevertheless created an atmosphere where most people believe they can find anything if they just subscribe to Apple Music, and that’s not true. That’s a problem, and the only way fans can solve it is by branching out and exploring alternative means of consuming music and supporting artists.

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