Feb. 21, 2022

Jeen-Yuhs walks away from streaming

Music Technology

Two Sundays ago, the day of the US Super Bowl, Kanye West made himself a global trending topic on Twitter. (Thanks to a domestic issue.)[1] A few days later, he made another splash by announcing that his next album, which comes out tomorrow, will not be available on any major streaming platform. The only way to consume it will be via a proprietary music service and physical media player called Stem Player. The player costs $200.[2]

Kanye said the decision was due to how little artists are paid in streaming royalties, as well as a want to fully control his art. But will fans actually return to the model of shelling out like they once did for CDs and cassettes? Most people can listen to any album they want for free. (That's $200 cheaper.) But now that Kanye has everyone paying attention, maybe he can change the devalued state of albums.

Albums weren't always the way to listen to music

They aren't really the way now either. Before the mid-60s, music was mostly sold in the format of singles. (Think of early Motown hits.) That changed when the Beatles started putting their music on LPs.[3] Singles then bounced back when Napster and iTunes came out. And with the rise of music streaming services and curated playlists, the single still rules the day.[4]

Artists that release albums know this, and do not expect their listeners to even play the tracks in order. Ed Sheeran recently asked his fans to listen to his latest record all the way through, at least one time.[5] Even Adele campaigned Spotify to make the default listening experience of all album pages sequential rather than shuffled. (They obliged.)[6]

So while artists have always had changing expectations for how their songs would be packaged, until fairly recently, they would also have expected that those songs would cost something. A unit price per-song, if you will. (The songs shared by users on Napster technically did have price tags, even if the sharers weren't paying.)

Only with streaming does a song or album have no such unit price. Listeners no longer pay to own a recording. They instead pay a monthly subscription fee to a streaming service for the right to listen to a vast music catalog. That fee does not change based on how much music they listen to. The streaming service then pays a per-stream royalty — a fraction of a penny — to artists and songwriters.[7]

Where's my income?

This change in consumer behavior has meant a big shift in how artists make a living. As Kanye pointed out in his announcement, artists need to tour, sell merchandise and court sponsorships to pay the bills. For big artists, this can work out OK. But for artists with mid-sized fan bases, they really need to get creative. From my experience working with successful indie artists, I've seen how selling instructional music lessons directly to their fans — in the form of one-on-one lessons or videos — has been one such way to make up a meaningful part of their income.

But is it really fair that artists have had a historically important slice of their finances just disappear? What if our bosses told us that our paychecks were being reduced, while the work we are asked to do would be staying the same? I don't think we'd be comforted if they told us, "at least you're still getting some of your paycheck."

It's harder to buy music

Even if you'd like to support artists by directly purchasing their songs or albums, it's gotten harder to do so. If you use Apple's Music app (formerly iTunes), you might have noticed that you can no longer find the iTunes music store. Where'd it go?!

Since Apple made the pivot to center its music player around its streaming service, viewing the iTunes store is now an opt-in feature. You need to go to preferences to enable it. Even if you do, all iTunes store search results contain prominent "LISTEN NOW" buttons that tempt you to stream what you're looking for instead of buying it. I personally think that's a lot of friction.


…that's not to say that I think friction is inherently a bad thing when it comes marketing music. Vinyl records require lots of (literal) friction, and that market is growing, now surpassing CDs.[8] And while I'll never win a scientific argument for this thought, I do think that friction and memory are connected in a way that artists could take advantage of.

I remember the first cassette I bought. I remember the first CD I bought. I even remember the first song I illegally downloaded on Napster (it took over 24 hours to complete on dial-up). But I do not remember the first song I ever streamed — I doubt most anyone could. The streaming experience can often feel passive. There's just no friction in free, on-demand music.

Those CDs you went to the store to buy, or even those iTunes downloads you got for free with a code from a Pepsi top,[9] don't you remember them strongly? I do, and I think that those strong memories about the music carry over to strong feelings about the respective artists too.

Will this work out for Kanye?

And if so, would other artists follow suit? A few hours after his announcement, Kanye did post some figures indicating that there was a market interest in this. (6,200 units sold with revenue of $1.3 million.) It did cost him something though. The rogue release method, Kanye claims, appears to have made Apple pull out of an exclusivity deal that would have paid him $100 million to release the album on Apple Music.[10]

It's worth noting that the lump sums attached to exclusivity agreements and paid features are a big reason that artists and labels even put their music on streaming services in the first place, since per-stream royalties are so low. As you can imagine, those kinds of agreements don't exist to most artists, just the big, big ones.

At any rate, Kanye says this isn't about the money.

Today's artists make 12% of the money the industry makes. It's time to free music from this oppressive system. It's time to take control and build your own.[11]

Maybe this leads to other artists being newly interested in owning the listening experience of their music, and in reattaching a unit-price to it. (Hopefully less than $200!) I would definitely encourage artists to experiment with taking their music off streaming services, especially artists that directly manage the relationship between themselves and their fans. Even if they continue to give their music away for free, they could do it in a way that allows them to own the communication channel, and perhaps even introduce some light friction. (Mailing lists, etc.)

In the end, I guess I think of free, passive music like the faint noise coming out of a loud speaker at a busy grocery store. It's "exposure" to an uninterested audience. And as they say in the arts, people die from exposure.