Dare to Stream: Artists wrestle with the pros & cons of music streaming services

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Neil Young takes a stance against streaming music. Photo credit (AAP)

Canadian-born folk rock icon Neil Young recently decided to remove his music from streaming services like Pandora & Spotify, joining other major artists like Prince, Tool, Bob Seger and Taylor Swift.  Members of this amorphous group have either parted ways with streaming services, or have out-right refused to allow their music to touch the digital realm.  For Young, the issue simply rests with the compressed quality of music that streaming services deliver.  Taylor Swift claims her departure from Spotify was about standing up for “the superfan” and making a statement on the current status of the music industry.  However, she has recently reached an agreement with Apple to stream her latest album on their service.  Of course, when you’re an established artist with a cadre of lawyers and a back catalogue that pre-dates streaming music, it’s easier to take a stance against “the powers that be” for a noble cause.  But chivalry aside, what about the money made from streaming services?

The Rethink Music initiative at the Berklee College of Music’s Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship recently released a study examining the business practices of the music industry.  Business World Online examined the Rethink study finding that the flow of money, which begins with a streaming service and ends at the artist, can often involve a convoluted web of licensing agreements and third-party side deals.  Major artists have vast resources and industry leverage to help navigate multilayered and confusing agreements.  Smaller artists simply don’t have the resources or influence.  Artists such as Taylor Swift can sign lucrative exclusive deals with specific streaming services or, in the case of a band like Tool, can afford to forego digital releases all together in favor of vinyl.

On the other side of the album you have smaller independent artists who draw a certain amount of cache and exposure from streaming entities. These artists are willing to accept the small penance generated by streaming services in order to garner attention for live shows and merch sales.  The perception also exists that smaller artists are facing the same challenges they faced in a pre-streaming era: major corporations consolidating their power, money, and influence to divert money from the artist.  In many ways, it’s the same old song, just compressed to fit the new digital era.

Depending on which side of the digital divide an artist camps relies on their core philosophy regarding digital music. And for folks like Neil Young, the philosophy is quite clear: “streaming sucks“.

Facebook, We Have a Problem

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Facebook drives a hard bargain and a Raw Deal for rockabilly band  Hillbilly Moon Explosion

Engaging fans has always been at the heart of a musician’s success and social media platforms are proving to be both a virtue and a burden.  The ability to promote shows, music and merch through social media has proven to be a long hard slog for some independent musicians.  For a while, Myspace was the preferred choice as it allowed musicians to “control” their own image and conversations, not to mention it was easier than maintaining a website. But now, in the never-ending struggle to follow fans, musicians have invested their time and resources into Facebook.

The multi-billion dollar company, who has seen its share of criticisms regarding privacy and format changes, has attracted thousands of bands to their platform.  With Facebook’s policy, “always free and always will be,”  one would think that the social media platform  would be the saving grace of independent musicians everywhere. But certain independent bands like Hillbilly Moon Explosion are experiencing frustrating issues with Facebook as they begin to grow.

So much for the “it’s free and always will be” claim.        –Oliver Baroni, Hillbilly Moon Explosion

As the band’s Facebook page neared 14,000 likes, their admin began to receive messages from Facebook saying  that they weren’t reaching all their fans.  In response, HME  posted the following on their Facebook page:

Here’s the problem: Facebook tells us admins how many of our 14’000 fans we’ve reached with each post – often no more than 20%! You want to reach more people? Maybe even ALL of the fans who clicked ‘like’ in the hope of being updated about a band they really dig? Well, PAY! So much for the “it’s free and always will be” claim…

HME’s post was accompanied by a screen shot of a Facebook “Promote” window, which reads “Get more people who like your page to see this post.”  Just below the message there’s a dropdown box where an admin can select the amount they want to pay in order to get a further reach.  Like a lot of people, I had always been under the assumption that when you post on Facebook everyone who likes your band sees your post.  Apparently, that’s not always the case.

Hillbilly Moon Explosion’s Oliver Baroni wrote to me from his sick bed (the band is in on hiatus while Oliver recuperates) about how Facebook has made HME a victim of their own success.  Oliver wrote:

Well people who apparently are in the know claim, the stats haven’t changed much. It always was that only roughly 20% of your fans see your posts, due to the algorithm “worker-outer” that decides for you which topics you want to see in your feed and which not. The difference being that now an admin can actually see how many fans are reached per post. We usually hit something around the 25% mark. Rare items, such as this gallery reached over 40%. But this is probably due to the fact, that we continually added photos to the gallery and reposted over a period of a couple of days.

But Oliver’s issues with Facebook doesn’t stop there.  He also wrote about the glitches and bugs that have started plaguing HME’s account:

You used to add a couple of photos to a gallery and those shots would appear in your newsfeed. Not anymore. So we now re-post individual pictures or re-post the whole gallery to give it visibility. Nuisance. And then sometimes posts magically disappear from your feed. This one, for instance –  It’s still around, but not on our timeline.

And as if the band didn’t have enough obstacles with Oliver’s illness and Facebook sticking up the works, HME is also trying to promote their new and aptly named album Raw Deal.”

As Facebook continues to “modify” its offering to users by offering up the most “eyeballs” to the highest bidder, it will be interesting to see if they can hold onto the independent musician. From my perspective, social media platforms should be an even playing field, where megastars can mingle with independent musicians. Instead, new media looks as if its becoming another capitalist-based proving ground where the artist with the most money wins.