With Spotify in the crosshairs following Neil Young’s exodus from the music streaming service over the disinformation the site’s podcasts are enabling, it may be time to look at how we receive, buy and listen to music these days. Gone are albums and CD’s, in any meaningful numbers, because 84 percent of music sales revenue (in the U.S. alone) comes from streaming. It may also be time to reconsider the idea that online music sources are living up to their promises of the “democratization of music.” Paul Bisbort clues us in on the playing field.
In 2017, Egor Shkutko, Roman Komogortsev, and Pavel Kozlov formed a band in Minsk, Belarus, which they dubbed Molchat Doma (‘Houses are Silent’). Their self-released first album, S krysh nashikh domov (‘From the roofs of our houses’), arrived the same year. Their second album, Etazhi (‘Floors’), was released the following year on Detriti Records, a small indie label based in Germany. Molchat Doma’s cold, gothic and minimalistic sound—influenced by the Soviet/Russian music icon Viktor Tsoi—had achieved a reasonable success among young listeners in Belarus, many of whom were disillusioned with their country’s political state.
However, in early 2020, the band’s song “Sudno” (“Vessels”) began appearing in videos that were posted on the social media platform TikTok. Clips of people trying on outfits or various pet videos are accompanied by the gloomy but catchy song. The cheerful users seem unconcerned about the fact that the song’s lyrics are about a man contemplating suicide while being surrounded by crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure. Despite this jarring contrast between the music and the visuals, “Sudno” has now been used in almost 200,000 TikTok videos and even peaked at No. 1 on the U.S. Spotify charts in May of 2020.
This anomalous hit song could only have happened with the help of the Internet. Platforms such as TikTok and YouTube helped put the song right in front of millions of users who would have, without these venues, likely not even known the band existed. This same phenomenon has occurred elsewhere and with other musical artists. Similar social-media-generated fame, for example, came to Leyland Kirby for his melancholic ambient project The Caretaker.
Ditto for the Illinois-based twinkly rock band, American Football, whose late 1990s’ recordings were rediscovered via social media, leading to the band’s reforming, touring and recording new material in 2014. Even songs from decades past are seeing a seemingly inexplicable surge in popularity, such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”.
With dozens of online services for streaming, downloading, indexing, and discussing music [see below for a list], accessing music from different countries, genres, and time periods has become easier than ever before. In theory, this would, or should, result in the democratization of music production—without industry gatekeepers, anybody can upload their musical vision to a vast digital audience. For a few music creators, such as Molchat Doma, it certainly has done just that. But even while it has leveled the playing field a bit, there are still major areas of inequality that make it difficult for underground and independent creators in the digital era.
SPOTIFY RULES, FOR NOW
In 2006, Swedish tech developers Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon founded a digital platform based around the idea of a legal online distribution of music. The program would come to be known as Spotify, and after Mark Zuckerberg gave the platform his blessing to run on Facebook in 2009, the service skyrocketed in popularity to become, today, the biggest music streaming service on the planet, with 172 million subscribers (more than 30 percent of the world’s music subscriber total). However, being able to convince music artists to make their music available essentially for free was no easy task (Business Insider magazine estimates that Spotify pays recording artists “between $.003 and $.005 per stream, meaning you’ll need about 250 streams to make a dollar”).
Many musicians resisted the streaming giant, but by 2022, nearly every major artist had most of or all of their music catalog available in Spotify. The recent headline-grabbing standoff with Neil Young—followed by his exodus from Spotify, along with Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Nils Lofgren and popular R&B singer India.Arie, has likely shifted that dynamic a wee bit (we shall see or, rather hear…).
The impetus for this exodus partly stems from Spotify’s decision to expand beyond music to include podcasts. On these podcasts, self-proclaimed experts of all political persuasions can opine and pontificate and jibber jabber endlessly—the sort of content that used to be the domain of talk radio. The podcast that particularly got Neil Young’s goat was The Joe Rogan Experience and the host’s repeated broadcasting of misinformation related to COVID-19, vaccines, masks. The less said about Rogan (or politics) the better, other than this: Rogan signed an exclusive deal with Spotify in 2020 worth about $100 million, according to the New York Times.
And, to be fair, Neil Young wasn’t the first recording artist to leave Spotify. Mega-selling Taylor Swift left the music streaming service in 2014 over its implementation of a “freemium” platform, which she said unfairly cut into the pay of artists. She did return to Spotify in 2017 and has been there ever since. Cardiacs, the enigmatic cult band from England, removed their music earlier this year, before the Neil Young fracas with Spotify, while retaining it on other streaming services. From their Facebook page: “we no longer wish to be affiliated. We have no desire to enter into a discussion, here, about the reasons we have made this decision.”
Lost in the discussion over the Rogan show on Spotify was what was probably Neil Young’s real beef with Spotify: the music-streaming giant’s sound quality. He insisted that the company can tinker with the sound, in its digital form, in ways that would be impossible with analog recordings. In an open letter he sent out after leaving Spotify, Young wrote, “…[B]usiness people like those who run Spotify cut the quality right down to 5% of the music’s content…It’s easy to do that with digital, thus allowing more songs and less music to stream faster. That’s because 95% is missing…Spotify then sells you this downgraded music.” This is not just some old cranky hippie’s beef with the corporate state because Young quickly touted Apple Music, Amazon and Qobuz for delivering “the real thing” with their sound quality.
Apple Music pays musical artists (or rights holders) about one penny per stream, according to the Wall Street Journal, which is two to three times more than Spotify. However, Spotify’s user base is much larger than Apple’s, thus generating far more streams. Spotify has over 365 million active users and 70 million songs in its archive, in addition to the expansion into podcasts. Everyone from pop superstars to ‘whatever this is’ can upload their music to the platform to a potential audience of millions.
However, this fantasy of easy exposure tends to be just smoke and mirrors. Infinite shelf space can quickly overwhelm the user—there are just too many choices. Therefore, users tend to stick to what they know, which most often is whatever is popular. This effect is exacerbated by two things: 1) Spotify’s recommendation algorithm, and 2) its official playlists.
The recommendation algorithm has an extreme popularity bias, meaning that users who listen to popular artists are more likely to get better recommendations. It also means that popular artists are more likely to be recommended to a user than more obscure ones. This is mostly because more data are available on popular artists, though Spotify has admitted that it will sometimes boost a certain artist’s exposure rate for a fee paid by the artist. Spotify’s recommendation algorithm also has an extreme Anglocentric bias. Artists who sing in English are more likely to be recommended to users around the world, even in non-English speaking countries. Artists who speak a language other than English are likely to only be recommended to people from the country where that artist is from. This can risk minimizing location-specific sounds, techniques, and languages. It doesn’t help that Spotify separates hits around the world by country.
Spotify playlists also prevent democratization of music on the site. Popular playlists are based on extremely refined algorithms that are calculated by using data such as “skip rates” and “completion rates”. Songs that don’t make the cut are dropped from the playlist. Algorithms like this favor pre-established artists and trends. Artists who offer unfamiliar and unconventional music are likely to be dropped from the playlist. Studies also show that a bias exists in these playlists as well, with major “global” lists generally favoring American and major-label music. Listeners are also more likely to skip an artist they haven’t heard before, making it more difficult for a relatively unknown artist to break into a Spotify user’s listening queue. “Democratization”? Not so much…
While the previously mentioned Molchat Doma and American Football may seem like exceptions to this rule, they are actually able to benefit from Spotify’s ‘skip-ability’ calculations. Both “Sudno” and “Never Meant” (an American Football track from their self-titled 1999 debut album) have an immediately catchy, danceable instrumental melody that starts at the beginning of the song, instantly offering a hook to the listener.
When asked about songwriting in the digital age, pop musician Charli XCX told The Verge that a song must have a “Chorus within the first 30 seconds. No weird self-indulgent intro … Hook at the top in the intro, maybe even start with the chorus, under three minutes … It’s all about: did you grab them in that first five seconds? And did they add it to their playlist?”. Considering Spotify only pays an artist for a stream if the listener lasts more than 30 seconds, this advice is all the more important—but it also shows how, in some ways, Spotify has a hand in shaping the music that artists record.
As for Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker, the ‘hook’ of his music is more in its overall concept, and Kirby does not put his music on Spotify, anyway. Which leads to another point. Spotify’s catalog itself can be a limiting factor to certain artists. Spotify promotes the idea that they have ‘all the music out there’ but this just isn’t true. Plenty of albums and artists besides Leyland Kirby are missing from Spotify, from underground artists to major artists refusing to collaborate with the platform. Considering the vast user base of Spotify and that this medium is the only medium through which many listeners get their music, not being on it can put an artist at an extreme disadvantage in terms of exposure. There are also albums that are region-locked and only available in certain countries, which amplifies the separation of music taste based on nationality.
Streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music aren’t the only way in which people get their music online. Services such as YouTube, which is mainly a video platform, also serves as a popular way to exchange music. Since its inception in 2005, people have been uploading rips of music to YouTube. Most of YouTube’s most viewed videos are for music. A vast quantity of the music that is not available on Spotify can be found on YouTube, making YouTube’s library more substantial than Spotify’s. YouTube has a notoriously mystifying algorithm, with videos that seemingly have no reason to be recommended to the user being recommended anyway. If you browse YouTube frequently, you are likely to recognize at least one of these album covers from your recommended tab. There doesn’t seem to be any related genre or theme between any of these albums, though many do have a focus on ambient, atmospheric sounds. Of course, even while a few dozen pieces of music get blessed by the YouTube algorithm, thousands of pieces of music don’t enjoy that benefit. But, of course, this phenomenon is one that could never have occurred in the pre-Internet era.
Two platforms that significantly encourage user-generated content are SoundCloud and Bandcamp. SoundCloud seems to be a factory for putting out major pop musicians, partly due to its emphasis on the social media aspect of the platform. The layout of the site presents songs as a waveform and allows users to comment on specific sections of a song they particularly like. With this setup, the gap between music creator and fan is significantly reduced. Major genres that SoundCloud focuses on are pop, electronic, and most notably hip-hop. Entire new subgenres of hip-hop, referred to as ‘mumble rap’ or ‘emo rap’, have been created by users of the site. These genres usually have a lo-fi, gritty, distorted sound as a result of the DIY production value. Some artists who’ve become successful on SoundCloud have signed with major record labels, while others prefer the creative freedom of being independent. However, some artists who claim to have gotten their start on SoundCloud actually have been revealed to have pre-existing industry connections. This leads to nearly every major artist to come out of SoundCloud getting accused of being an ‘industry plant’. As SoundCloud’s popularity grew, users began to get concerned that those with industry connections would muscle out grassroots musicians.
While SoundCloud is mostly a home for hip-hop and pop, Bandcamp, founded in 2008, is more focused on alternative genres such as rock, indie, and experimental tracks. Unlike SoundCloud, Bandcamp is not a streaming service but more of a storefront-type website where users can pay a fee to download a musician’s work directly. Some musicians feel Bandcamp gives them a greater ability to express their artistic vision and that it is the closest, in digital form, to a physical album release. Artists can even sell physical releases and merchandise through the website. Bandcamp also allows artists to set their own prices, and artists can even “sell” their music for free if they so please. Compared to Spotify, Bandcamp is a lot more artist-friendly, which explains why many have migrated to the website. In 2010, for example, Amanda Palmer left her label and instead put her catalog up on Bandcamp for sale using Twitter as promotion. Within three minutes, Palmer had brought in more than $15,000 to the website. Other major musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Björk, and Radiohead have made their catalogs available on the site as well. Major indie acts of the 2010s such as Car Seat Headrest, Alex G, and Clairo have also got their start on the platform.
REDDIT, 4CHAN, ETC.
Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo also attributes his success to his music being shared on online discussion forums such as Reddit and 4chan. While both of these sites are somewhat controversial, especially the latter, they each offer unique ways to promote lesser-known music. On Reddit, ‘subreddits’ can be created to discuss specific niches of music that may not be general public knowledge. And on 4chan, the lack of upvotes, likes, or even accounts ruthlessly democratizes every post so that every topic and opinion on the music board, from pop superstar to obscure regional music, gets relatively the same amount of attention. Sites like Reddit and 4chan, as well as music-specific sites such as Discogs, RateYourMusic, and last.fm, have helped preserve and even grow fanbases of certain musicians. Bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Duster, and the aforementioned American Football have reformed in the 2010s due to having a far larger fanbase, mostly online, than they ever had while active.
The Internet can also serve as a way of preserving music that might have been lost entirely otherwise. Groups such as Dust-to-Digital, The Numero Group, and Light in the Attic Records are dedicated to reissuing old music in remastered, digital format. Amateur digitizers can be found on the previously-mentioned sites such as 4chan and Reddit. Examples of this include the rediscovery of Panchiko, an obscure late-‘90s indie band that only put out 30 physical copies of a demo they made before a user discovered a CD of theirs in 2016; or “The Most Mysterious Song on the Internet”, a song which has yet to be identified but has various Reddit and Discord communities dedicated to learning the origin of the enigmatic yet captivating tune.
Since music streaming is here to stay, there’s no use pining for the fjords of the days of vinyl albums, tantalizing cover art, detailed liner notes, or even CD packages with their squished-down graphics. Those things still exist, of course, but in such small numbers as to pose no threat to the digital revolution. As Neil Young put it in his “Open Letter”, “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information. I am happy and proud to stand in solidarity with the front line health care workers who risk their lives every day to help others. As an unexpected bonus, I sound better everywhere else.”
The World’s Most Popular Music Streaming Services, 2022