Artists have long complained about measly earnings from Spotify, the popular streaming service, and royalties have continued to fall even as company revenues rise. The more profits reaped by the owners of the means of production, the more that productive workers are exploited. Under the current system, producers of music are doubly alienated from their labour. The architecture of musical discovery in Spotify is dominated by playlists, and increasingly those playlists are a form of advertorial sponsored by global corporations like Nike, Starbucks, or BMW. Where once bands may have agonised over the rights and wrongs of ‘selling out’ in order to sustain their living; today artists can be included on such branded playlists, appearing to ‘endorse’ the brand in question, without their consent or even their knowledge — and without earning a penny for it. The system amounts to what the writer Liz Pelly calls ‘the automation of selling out’.
It is not just practising musicians who should be concerned about the rise of platforms like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora. In 2017, Damon Krukowski of the groups Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi wrote a book called The New Analog about listening to music in the digital age. For Krukowski, online streaming strips music of its rootedness in a particular time and place. Streaming platforms, he wrote, create ‘a stream of sounds that seem to exist only in the present . . . which leaves a clear field for an entirely new set of identifying markers’. Companies are able to replace the songs’ original context with a new one, determined by advertising.
Yet there is an untapped utopian potential to music streaming, which links back to the ‘Sound Houses’ in Francis Bacon’s idyllic tale, The New Atlantis, capable of generating ‘all sounds’ and conveying them through ‘trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances’. The oldest direct ancestor to today’s online subscription services is probably the New York Electric Music Company founded by Thaddeus Cahill in 1906. Cahill played music on an electronic musical instrument of his invention called the Telharmonium, supposedly capable of reproducing the timbre of any known instrument. Concerts from Telharmonic Hall on Broadway were transmitted via telephone wires into the homes of subscribers.
In many respects, the New York Electric Music Company was just another Gilded Age industrial concern. But the journalist Ray Stannard Baker saw in it the dawn of a new ‘democracy of music’. At a time when recorded music was still in its infancy, the Telharmonium promised ‘a complete change in the system by which a comparatively few rich people enjoy the best music to the exclusion of all the others’. Baker presented the new technology as the realisation of a scene in Edward Bellamy’s hugely successful utopian fiction of 1888, Looking Backward, in which the novel’s time-travelling hero is invited into the family ‘music room’ where anyone can enjoy the fruits of the cooperative music service, direct by wire.
So how might we, today, fulfil some of this utopian potential and start thinking about the creation of a socialist streaming service? Last summer, when it looked like the popular music sharing site SoundCloud was going bust, audiovisual artist Mat Dryhurst suggested opening the platform up to its users through a process of ‘tokenisation’. Tokenisation would see shares in the company replaced with ‘Sound Tokens’ underwritten by the blockchain, the distributed ledger which underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Tokens would not only be distributed amongst the company’s current owners, but also to users of the site, thereby collectivising ownership and control.
Dryhurst already serves on the board of a cooperative streaming service called Resonate, which uses blockchain technology as a means of decentralising control across its network of users. Unlike Spotify’s monthly subscription packages, Resonate uses a pay-per-play model, with a cap of nine paid streams before a song is offered as a download, a model which Resonate’s founders believe gives a fairer deal to independent artists. For Resonate founder Peter Harris, the site’s cooperative model represents not just a ‘sound business model’ but equally ‘a protest against the dominant form of capitalism’.
But do we really need blockchain in order to democratise music? Existing cryptocurrencies are notoriously volatile, and their environmental impact is appalling, with the energy required to process one Bitcoin transaction producing a quantity of CO2 comparable to a transatlantic flight. What if a simpler solution was already staring us in the face, every time we walk through the centre of town? Imagine a technology like Spotify stewarded by our public library service: publicly-owned, open access, and linked to a catalogue of information providing more context than even the most elaborate album sleeve notes. If it was accessible to everyone, such a service could offer a true democracy of music.