Gifts of Streaming? ReverbNation Voices Strange Ideas

Commentary by Dawoud Kringle

In a recent article on ReverbNation’s website, musician, blogger, and educator Patrick McGuire espoused the idea that streaming services such as Spotify are a “gift” to musicians. 

According to McGuire, “Companies like Spotify have invested an insane amount of time and money into finding ways to help connect artists with the right listeners. Part human curation, part highly complex algorithm, Spotify’s Discover Weekly Playlist feature builds completely unique and personalized music selections to its users.” 

Those who have actually used these are left with the impression that their method of matching music with potential audiences shows an astonishing lack of imagination. It is abundantly clear that the system is designed to cater to the lowest possible denominator of musical taste. The up and coming / local artists are rarely placed on a level playing field with artists that are supported by labels with large advertising budgets. This affront to a democratic and free market is disguised by Spotify’s rhetoric of presenting new music, and accurately calculating the listener’s taste. 

The sad fact is, they are not calculating the listener’s tastes; they are manipulating it. They are not following trends; they are creating them artificially. This is not possible without reducing access to a broad palette of music, and thus reducing the audience’s ability to make informed choices in their own musical tastes. And in doing so, musical / artistic quality is diminished, and music itself is devalued.

To be fair, McGuire noted both the advantage of advanced analytics for artists, and the unacceptable lack of proper financial compensation to artists. The former has a great deal of potential as a service to the artists. An analysis of the demographics of where and how one’s music fits into the broader picture is a valuable asset. McGuire voiced this fact eloquently and succinctly. 

But it is the later, which McGuire acknowledges all too briefly (and softened with vague platitudes that the benefits of this streaming model outweigh this disadvantage) that makes the entire streaming model destructive to the music business, and those who actually create the “product” being sold. 

Mind you, I am not against the use of streaming technology. It carries a great deal of potential to share the works of great artists, and level the playing field for music creators. What is unacceptable is the exploitation of the artists who make the content. 

We live in the dark and corrupt age of “the middle man.” Facebook, the largest social media platform, creates no content. Airbnb, the largest lodging service in the US, owns and maintains no real estate. Uber and Lyft, the largest taxi services in the US, own no cars. Spotify and its like streams enormous amounts of music, and doesn’t create a single note of it. 

To add insult to injury, Spotify’s executives have publicly stated that their content is Spotify itself, and not the music. In other words, they are clearly operating under an assumption (subconscious or not) that they own the music they stream. It is common knowledge that Spotify’s business model is losing money on a daily basis. Yet their CEOs are paying themselves seven figure salaries. And ultimately it is the work of the musicians that they are leeching their wealth from – and giving nothing of tangible value in return, beyond the old and fallacious claim of “it’s good exposure.”

McGuire’s apologetics for the Spotify model are unacceptable. Musicians with a voice in the media need to point uncompromising fingers of accusation at those who are maintaining a business model – and a social zeitgeist – that devalues music, promotes and sustains the “dumbing down of America,” and impoverishes the very people whose work and creations are filling the bank accounts of soulless middlemen who clearly have nothing but contempt for us.  

And while this is being done, we must construct and build an alternative business model; one that is an asset to all and a liability to none.