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Member blog: Stream on

ISM member Noah Max examines the origins and philosophies behind music streaming, and explains how he believes musicians can reimagine their use of streaming services to reignite live performance.

It’s 1999. Internet traffic is doubling year on year, revolutionising both art and commerce. Most people view the internet as a tool, just another by-product from a technological revolution which gave us other innovations like flight, antibiotics and refrigerators which seem much more significant. David Bowie knows better:

I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable… [the] context and the state of content is going to be so different… the interplay between the user and the provider will… crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

Bowie’s interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight in 1999 proved to be prescient. As a change-maker, he saw that the coming disruption would have a cost. His prophecy raises uncomfortable questions about music streaming.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Wind forwards 22 years. The internet is an all-pervasive presence in our lives. I tried living without my phone for a month and noticed that people assume you are contactable 24/7 and own a smartphone which can scan barcodes for Test & Trace. Many of us have forgotten what a life without the connectivity offered by the internet feels like.

In 2002 Bowie elaborated that ‘music is going to become like running water or electricity’ and that copyright would cease to exist by 2012. In effect, he was correct: copyright still exists today but the meaning and value of intellectual property are shifting dramatically before our eyes. We use social media to digest news and search engines to perform research. We enjoy the learning and entertainment YouTube, Netflix and Scribd offer us. Musicians know the many benefits of IMSLP… and we love discovering new artists on Spotify. We as humans are naturally collaborative beings who are wired to be generous with our knowledge, connections, data, entertainment and other resources - except when it comes to our own ideas and creations.

The Government recently launched inquiry into the economics of music streaming. I think they are missing the big picture, as are those who calling for an overhaul of the existing system. This issue transcends both music and national politics; it is about technology and philosophy. If the content of the entire internet were assessed for what previously constituted ‘fair use’, the vast majority of it would be stripped away. The genie is long out of the bottle; it is too late now to reinvent streaming services and doing so will not make a tangible difference to most artists’ lives. However, the ubiquitousness of these streaming services can be harnessed as a springboard to launch unlimited creativity now that our audience and our collaborators are only a click away.

'The state of content is going to be so different’

Steve Jobs introduced the world to a digital music marketplace with iTunes in 2003. YouTube was launched by Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim and Steve Chen in 2005 and SoundCloud followed in 2007, set up by Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss. (SoundCloud actually charges its contributors to unlock more upload time and use its most creative features; nevertheless, it’s a hugely popular and diverse platform).

Musicians express their creativity and collaborate with others through the medium of music. Spotify was founded in 2006 and launched in 2008 by CEO Daniel Ek. Ek is not a musician. He is an entrepreneur; business is Ek’s vehicle for creativity and collaboration. During the first decade of the new millenium musicians were looking inwards while Ek, Jobs, Hurley, Ljung and their teams looked outwards.

Had we as musicians been more attuned to the rapidly changing world around us, we would have invented streaming services that were designed to benefit us. Ek didn’t design Spotify for this purpose. He set up a business whose product allows anyone, anywhere to explore all the music they want. Putting the audience at the heart of the experience brought Daniel Ek success as an entrepreneur. Once again, artists are too close to the issue: creativity is as diverse as our audience, as diverse as the world itself, reaching far beyond that which is musical or even aesthetic. Classical music is criticised for being ‘stuck in the past’; if we want music to be part of the future we must now broaden our creative and collaborative horizons.

Sculptor Anthony Gormley said that ‘there is no intrinsic value in a work of art until it is experienced’. I believe that creating art is first and foremost an act of service to others. If we artists want to enjoy success in our endeavours, we should follow Daniel Ek’s lead.

‘Interplay between the user and the provider’

Human beings have been trading since the dawn of time. In 1995, eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar. Virtual marketplaces where people could trade online were nothing new but eBay introduced one pivotal feature which changed the world irreversibly: customer reviews. Nowadays we wouldn’t buy anything from a £2.99 item on Amazon to a £20K car without first checking feedback shared by other customers to verify the traders we are buying from are trustworthy and have good wares to sell. We rarely visit a restaurant, stay in a hotel or go to a play or movie without first reading TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes or checking Twitter.

There are parallels with the inevitable shift the music world is currently experiencing. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Merely a decade later the technology was sophisticated enough to give birth to what we now call the ‘record industry’. Music is an eternal phenomenon which predates the invention of recording by millennia. Before the 1880s, musicians had no option but to perform live to earn a living. Returning our focus to live performance for live audiences would be a welcome shift at a time when everyone is feeling ‘zoomed out’. Crucially, a live performance is not possible without a live audience, putting the people who choose to share the music with us at the centre of the experience.

Recordings sound exactly the same however many times you play them. Live performances forge a direct connection with audience members who are physically present - and what’s more, their exclusivity to a specific time and place means we can monetise them. Our goal should not be to ‘fix’ streaming because streaming is not broken: it is functioning as it was built to. Our goal should be to imagine new ways to engage live audiences and encourage them to value the live experience so that all musicians can earn a living from performing live. Even if we can’t monetise our content on Spotify, we can use it as a tool to connect the world with the unique content that we can monetise: live events.

Spotify has given rise to a new creative activity: playlisting. Listeners weave together music which they feel makes a statement about them into a tapestry which others can appreciate. This has become a way for emerging artists to get discovered and then grow their fanbase exponentially, as well as for listeners to take ownership of the music they love and absorb it into their identity. My dream as a composer is to walk past a group of teenagers on a street corner jamming to my music. What I love about this dream is that they don’t see it as my music. They have no clue who I am. They see it as their music

‘Crush our ideas of what mediums are all about'

The ego protests that if we share more of our work and our ideas, they will be stolen, imitated or monetised by somebody else. When we quieten these protestations and accept that nobody else can make our unique contribution as an artist, this generosity of spirit will enable us to come together and support each other in creating a cultural shift that resonates throughout the Arts and far beyond.

Collaboration is the language, currency and philosophy of the 21st century. The world we live in now demands that we become better collaborators and help each other more in order to succeed together. If we welcome the world into our process and reframe streaming services as a conduit for sharing then we can enjoy the deeply fulfilling creative future that lies ahead. It is towards this future that our energy should be channelled. To change the culture, we must focus not on being paid back but on paying our creativity and generosity forwards. We will be amazed by what we receive in return.

More than two decades ago, David Bowie articulated a vision of a future which we now live every day yet still struggle to accept. We should take courage in turning what looks like adversity into a new golden age of creative collaboration. Once again, Bowie put it best all the way back in 1971 in his song Changes:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Don't want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange
There's gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time.


Noah Max
London, UK
February 2021

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