Controversy around music streaming and the haphazard distribution of royalties certainly didn’t start in 2015, but it’s heated up over the past year. As the almighty SoundCloud—one of the world’s most popular embeddable platforms—began to crack under the strain of corporate pressure, the need for alternative means of archiving and circulating music became critical. After being repeatedly served with takedown notices or issued “strikes” for copyright violations, some nodes in the electronic music underground, like NTS and Berlin Community Radio, defected to comparable hosts like Mixcloud. Others, however, are exploring entirely new paradigms for decentralizing music streaming and seizing control over their own work. One example of this is producer TCF’s (AKA Lars Holdhus) Futures Along the Blockchain project, which explores the possible applications of the blockchain—the technology behind the crypto-currency Bitcoin—in peer-to-peer music-sharing networks.
As debates flame on around what rights artists and labels have to their output once it’s released into the world, which platforms will fill the vacuum created by SoundCloud’s fall from favor? We brought this question to two multimedia artists and on-the-pulse technologists: Peter Kirn, the editor of Create Digital Music and the founder of the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, and Mat Dryhurst, a PAN label affiliate and Holly Herndon collaborator. As Kirn sees it, the decentralization of the web on a wide scale isn’t going to happen, but it’s time for artists to seek out new, more specialized tools. Dryhurst takes this a step further by suggesting that not only do artists need specialized tools, they could actually build those tools themselves. Dryhurst is the creator of Saga, a software designed to let artists control how their work is consumed. His explanation of why self-hosting is necessary reads something like a call to arms. “We hold the power and create the value,” he has written, “so perhaps we ought to start dictating the terms.”
You can’t argue with the scale or reach of big streaming services, so they’re not going anywhere. But we’ve also seen in 2015 what happens when they try to do too much. Apple Music’s artist features don’t offer any compelling reason to invest time when artists are already using Facebook, Tumblr and the like. SoundCloud’s attempt to be all things to all people is showing signs of strain, from legal and licensing woes to the experience of using their apps. Spotify and YouTube have become necessary evils for getting music heard, but hardly form a lasting relationship between artists and music or useful data between artists and fans.
2016 seems ripe for new, more focused tools. And SoundCloud’s legal burdens suggest it’s time to break out two different workflows: what producers need, and what DJs need. A platform for sharing mixes needs to be properly licensed (cough, SoundCloud), and it needs a way of connecting mixes to artists. Beatport is uniquely positioned to make that happen, and this year seems to be the time to do it. For producers and labels, services like the newly-announced Octave and WeTransfer’s streaming tools promise to be easier to control than what SoundCloud can provide.
I would love to see a more decentralized web, of course. But even if you desire that, it’s important to understand why massive centralization has occurred. And that’s because centralized service can provide discoverability and reduce technical and logistical friction. So, if musicians are going to decentralize their music or roll their own players, they need a really easy (non-technical) route to sharing and to people finding what they share. I think some of the technology is in place for that to happen, but ease is important. So I’m more optimistic about specialized, impassioned service providers solving these problems for musicians than I am about a completely open web, desirable as that might be.
The pie, overall, should grow. Because of the forward march of mobile, people will just be streaming more music all around. The fear will of course be that music becomes even more disposable, more like wallpaper. But then you could also see this as an invitation to make music that’s more genuinely different, to stand out on that landscape.
I’m bored of handing control of my work to centralized platforms that have no interest in representing the community of artists I identify with. An independent music industry was built by artists for artists decades ago, and I think that we need to devise an equivalent infrastructure for online media. That doesn’t mean SoundCloud with a different name and font, but an entirely different logic that is as nuanced and distinguished as the independent communities that use it.
The decentralized web is happening, and I think it represents a major opportunity to construct a viable and more compelling alternative to the streaming warehouses. I think it’s painfully dull to think of the future of music as being new and shiny ways to listen to an album online as you may have done with a CD in the ’90s, and am more interested in acknowledging the narrative ways we engage with artworks online, and modifying our interactions and expectations to play with that.
I released a piece of software, Saga, that allows you to self-host your work, track each location where it is posted online, and make alterations to every discrete instance of the work where it lives. By this logic, the spaces where your work is hosted become yours to play with. What if a song objected to the ads being sold next to it, or a video responded to its critics? The idea of fixed work, petrified in time, does not seem consistent with the real time web that I enjoy. This framework also lets you do things like charge someone after a song has received 500 plays, or set a piece to self destruct. I think that seeing the work as an extension of the living artist online is really exciting, and Saga is my first gesture towards that alternate reality.
My hope is that by experimenting with the possibilities of the decentralized web, centralized streaming warehouses will seem as dry and contrived as the major labels the indie pioneers fought against back in the day. Why should the way we publish work be so conservative, or so tethered to the decisions of a few people who are primarily concerned with selling Bieber to teenagers? Educate yourselves about Ethereum, the blockchain and peer-to-peer protocols such as IPFS, and think about how you would like your work to exist within such an ecosystem before those choices are made for you. Perhaps only 10 percent of people reading this will find that proposition important, however 10 percent of the existing music listenership could represent a thriving parallel independent industry. We can and ought to build something better, on our own terms.
For a more in-depth discussion of Saga, read this recent interview with Mat Dryhurst on RBMA.
Published December 21, 2015.