How was your summer?

For millions of musicians, the summer of 2020 – the summer of COVID-19 – was a make-it-or-break-it moment. Having lost revenue from physical media since people do not like buying CDs anymore, lots of hopes were set for the May-August window to recoup monies through live performances. And then the virus closed all the theaters, amphitheaters, and clubs.

Into this already bad stew came Daniel Ek, Swedish billionaire entrepreneur, and technologist, known for being the co-founder and CEO of music streaming service Spotify. In an interview published in July, Ek told Music Ally: “There is a narrative fallacy here, combined with the fact that, obviously, some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”

“I feel, really, that the ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released,” he continued.

The assertion is that if you are a musician who is not putting out product on a regular basis – weekly, not yearly – then you aren’t going to make it. There was an air of arrogance about it. It seemed to say, “It’s your laziness that’s at fault, not the new streaming model.” There are a lot of fallacies packed into Ek’s statements, the first being that just putting out a continual stream – no pun intended – of content will help. The rates coming off of streaming music are laughable. Trust me, I’ve seen the numbers, and they confirm that you’d need to do much more than flood your fans with content just to get a decent rate of return.

The second is the subtle suggestion that if you did do that flooding technique, this would be a useful strategy. It would be if you were the only one doing it, which you would not be. While not being about Spotify’s number of files coming in, it helps illustrate the Sisyphean effort before the artist to know what goes on over at YouTube (there is a reason for this narrative pivot, but we’ll get there in a moment). As of May 2019, YouTube gets approximately 500 hours of video uploaded every single minute; 30,000 hours of content per hour. If you think your latest video has a shot at becoming the next viral sensation in such a flood, you’re dead wrong.

Spotify is not YouTube, but musicians are not likely to put their hopes and dreams into one digital platform. They attempt to have coverage on as many platforms as possible, Spotify included, so one has to presume the data influx into Spotify servers is immense. If everyone has the same idea, no one has the advantage.

Spotify is the target right now but not wholly to blame. I’d argue that YouTube is much more at fault, but even they are not entitled to full ownership of the problem. I’m going to blame smartphone providers. We’ll substitute in Apple iPhones at the moment, but you can use your favorite brand if you like. It’s no skin off my nose.

The iPhone had the curious side-effect of killing off part of Apple’s product line, being MP3 players, or in this case, MP4 players as this was the company’s proprietary music file format. You couldn’t play Apple music files downloaded off of Apple iTunes on anyone else’s players, only Apple iPod products (unless you used iTunes to burn the files to CD-R, then ripped that CD-R into MP3 files with another platform). However, one of the selling points for the iPhone was that you could now download songs from iTunes and play them through said phone as well as your iPod. The public responded, “If I can do that, why would I even need an iPod?” Whoops.

It gets worse. The other neat trick from smartphones was that they could play video. You could now use your phone as a portable television, streaming YouTube videos while you were on a bus, train, in an airport, or in your car. The public responded, “If I can create a playlist of my favorite music videos and pump that through the audio feed for my vehicle, why would I need to buy MP3s?” Double-whoops.

Spotify is rather brilliant with what they did in that they sold the world on a concept, cornered the market with that concept, and it is based on giving you less, not more, than what you already had. Spotify is pretty much YouTube without the video portion of the content. It is as if Ek sold you a comic book without the pictures, and you cheered how innovative that was.

Now it all comes down to simple, grim economics. The world has experienced the joy of getting tons of music for free if they wade through the ads, or pay a monthly charge to go ad-free. They’re not going back to buying full CDs for just one or two songs they want. In this, 2020 looks a lot more like 1962, when the single 45 rpm record reigned and albums were literally collections of these singles in a unified package, the same as a photo album is a collection of snapshots. Record labels kept these artists both out on the road with live appearances, garnering name-recognition, and in the studio between touring jaunts, recording those singles. Rather than producing one 10-song collection every two years, they were churning out anywhere from 10 to 20 songs annually, sometimes more, factoring in B-sides.

Ek’s statement was delivered as elegantly as would be a fart in church, but he wasn’t necessarily wrong. His innovation was presenting something so regressive – a snapshot of the music industry at its infancy – as something progressive.

We all know the story of the little fish being swallowed by the bigger fish because, in a big ocean, there’s always a predator bigger than you. What might be Spotify’s undoing? Strangely enough, it might be Tik Tok, or whatever platform supersedes it after the Trump administration puts the stranglehold on it. By reintegrating the video component, Tik Tok reverse-engineers the reverse-engineering, but it does so while adding new complications.

First, Tik Tok videos are one minute long, and an army of Gen-Zers are quickly becoming disenchanted with the positively epic time-suck that a three-minute pop song poses, much less the virtually prog-rock drag a four-plus minute song might impose.   

Second, Tik Tok songs often are open to repurposing and collaboration. You could wind up with dozens of iterations of a tune before its lifecycle completes. The tiny song can constantly transform and transmute, becoming a whole other entertainment format, different from the static, passive song. It could be tomorrow a totally different animal than today, and that is what is attractive to Tik Tok users, well beyond just an amputated pop song, cut off at one-minute kneecaps.

This also reflects why older listeners have migrated back to vinyl records, but tellingly, reissues of older albums do much better on this format than new music. It is less about engaging with the new world of music in a supposedly superior way than reminiscing old times with old songs in an old format.

It won’t help the artists we presently know and love who are making the decision to get out before the safety fund runs dry. Modern UK prog rockers Anathema has announced they are to go on indefinite hiatus. Other artists are half-jokingly posting they need to go “back to my day job” because rock stardom has been set adrift into the social distance.

Spotify could very well be that big fish that gets to say outrageous and borderline insulting things about the ocean in which it swims, haplessly shaking its tail while the shimmer of a far larger fish stalks it. It would not surprise me in the least if it winds up as chum sooner than later.

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