The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Liz Pelly, The Baffler

December 09, 2020

Critic and music journalist Liz Pelly joins us for a fascinating interview about why the Spotify model is so bad for musicians and what that might mean for podcasters. Liz is a veteran of the DIY music community as a member of the influential Silent Barn collective in Brooklyn, and a stalwart of independent journalism with her own publication The Media and pieces published The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork.

Read Liz Pelly’s eye-opening series for The Baffler about Spotify. This podcast was recorded the week after she published her article, "Podcast Overlords: Spotify Only Works for the Stars."

During this podcast, she mentions the Resonate cooperative streaming project and Henderson Cole’s proposal for the American Music Library.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hi, welcome to re-imagining the internet. This is Ethan Zuckerman, your host. I'm here today with Liz Pelly, who's a journalist and media critic who's published everywhere from Rolling Stone, the Guardian Pitchfork, NPR, the New York Times. She often writes for the Baffler where she's a contributing editor and she writes a great deal about the impact of streaming services and platform technologies on music. She's got deep, deep roots, not only with the DIY scene in Boston and New York as a member of the silent barn collective, but also with the alternative media in sort of Indy weekly space. And lately she's someone who's really sort of opening my eyes to the way that the audio web and sort of Spotify in particular are trying very hard to reshape the world of music online. So Liz, so happy to have you here. I want to ask you the uncomfortable question we ask everybody, which is what's wrong with the internet, or in this case the music and audio web, and what should we do about it?

Liz Pelly:

Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, it's really interesting. I think that when you think about the problems with, I think this phrase you use the audio web, that's really interesting. It's not something I've heard before. When I think about the problems of music technology or the way that music exists online, it's really the same problems that we see elsewhere on the internet. Increasingly, the world of music online is controlled by a small handful of corporations that care more about their own bottom lines and their own profits then they do about the individuals and communities whose work circulates on their platform. And increasingly, the world of music is beholden to these small group of companies like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube, that really aren't concerned with the long-term health of music communities.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let's back up a little bit and talk a bit about how we got here, right? So there was this digital shift where music labels went from being these immensely profitable businesses selling us plastic or vinyl discs to a business that looked like it was going to evaporate entirely because we were all going to share MP3s on Napster and no one was going to make any money anymore. And we had this sort of stretch of time where musicians, in some ways, became volunteers and everybody had a Patrion and was sort of finding a way to make their living between gigging and donations, but now it feels like the money's back in the space. There are these huge players in the space. What led to sort of the rise of these major companies, and particularly Spotify, as sort of controlling figures within the music space or, and hey, I just coined the term the audio web, but let's use it, the audio web?

Liz Pelly:

Yeah. Well, there's a lot of different ways that different individuals and groups like to characterize what has happened within music over the past several decades. And one of these prevailing myths I think that has really propped up the streaming economy is this idea that they have saved the music industry and returned music to profitability, but the problem with the streaming economy is that similar to how the music industry has always existed, there's a really small group of major labels and celebrity artists that profit in the system and all other artists like continue struggling. Just because there's a greater amount of money being made by music doesn't mean that wealth is being trickling down to your average working independent artist or local musician. Yeah, yeah, totally. So the issues continue to exist, but there has been this narrative that has been pushed that streaming has been the sort of saving grace for our music, which it has not been. It actually, the streaming platforms, they carry out all of the same ways of creating value that other social media platforms do.

What we've seen in the streaming era is a rise of streaming services as gatekeepers that control which music gets heard and not heard. It's not this democratic process determining who succeeds and who fails in the streaming era. It's a lot of major label artists because major labels own significant shares in companies like Spotify. And through the licensing deals that they have with these companies, they're guaranteed certain advertising spaces and promotional partnerships and stuff like that. So when you open a streaming service and you look at the front page, what you're seeing is very influenced by the same economic and power interests that have always controlled the music industry. At the same time, there's also a rise of what I've referred to in articles as streambait.

Similar issues that you have to like how clickbait has affected the journalism sphere, there's different types of music that streaming services are really concerned with boosting engagement on their platform the same way that a platform like Facebook is concerned with engagement on its own platform. So they're really concerned with prioritizing music that will stream well or that people will play in the background and not really give a second thought to... Just stuff that people will just stream and stream and stream. So that has affected what types of artists can succeed on these platforms.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What do you think about this question of Spotify and other players in the podcast space as publishers?

Liz Pelly:

The article that I wrote about podcasting for the Baffler that came out this week was, the point of it was mostly to look at how musicians have struggled in the streaming environment and should try to say, "Hey, a lot of the same things that musicians have dealt with for the past decade are issues that podcasters are going to start facing as the streaming companies that musicians have already had to deal with are starting to be more centralized powers in the world of podcasting and news." The subhead of the article is the media is learning what musicians already know. Spotify only works for the stars. So I have spent a lot more time thinking about the music world. And I think that in some ways, what I'm trying to suggest is in the article, I say, "Musicians have always been like canaries in the coal mine in terms of how media trends go."

And the past couple of months, I feel like I saw a lot of critics sort of trying to parse whether Spotify is the YouTube of podcasts or whether it's the Netflix of podcasts. And I just kept thinking Spotify is the Spotify of podcasts. They're doing all the same stuff that musicians have dealt with. And I think that people are trying to figure out what to do in podcasting would be well advised to tune into what musicians have been screaming about for the past decade. I think that there's a lot to be learned. And in terms of music, I don't think it's a question of will we come up with alternatives for the music world?

It's we have to because currently there aren't a lot of options for non-major label artists to make a living or sometimes not even make a living. Just not be exploited in terms of how they distribute their music online. And there have been some signs over the past few years of new methods and practices that have been gaining in popularity that are more focused on compensating artists more fairly and working to create context in interesting ways. And yeah, I don't think that there's any doubt in my mind that the music world figures out ways to get past this streaming era.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So when you talk about what musicians have been screaming about for the streaming era or the streaming and screaming era, I know that you've talked about the incredible concentration of wealth with star acts and the fact that it just isn't a particularly good deal for anybody else. You've talked about Payola and Playlist and the fact that these are not neutral. That people are paying for prominence within these streams. You've talked about this idea of intermediating the relationship with the fans that I think of myself very much as a Welcome to Night Vale fan. I feel like I have a relationship with the creators of that and the cast behind it, but if suddenly my relationship is with Spotify and that's just a piece of content that sort of appears on it, are there other aspects of kind of the Spotify logic that musicians should be afraid of and that podcasters should be getting ready to see happen to them?

Liz Pelly:

There's been this sort of general flattening out of the experience of being a music fan in the streaming era, but it also is just sort of the way that this streaming environment atomizes and disempowers the people who are making the work that powers the whole thing, right. So I think that's also an important part of the conversation as well. And thinking about how the idea of being an independent musician I think has been really exploited by the music industry in recent years who have tried to push this narrative of, "Oh, you don't need a record label. You can just be this independent musician who uses the Spotify for Artists app and records your music and uploads it and sends it to our playlist curators and we have all these videos that you can watch where you can like learn how to hustle your way up to the top on the Spotify charts and all of this stuff." And I feel like it's a really major gig economy mindset, which in past articles I've written about is just absurd because of the extent to which the gig economy, musicians are the original gig workers.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, this isn't like Uber where the notion of becoming a taxi driver as a gig job might be new. It's been a good job for 99.9% of musicians for the last couple of thousands of years in one fashion or another. How do we fix this? So if Spotify is maybe sort of the worst example of what we might call streaming logic or digital music logic in which the really big thrive, the little players are disempowered, they have less of a relationship with their fans, but at the same time from the consumer point of view, it seems like a good deal. 80% of the music you might want to listen to might be available on these sites. And maybe you don't have to look too hard for that other 20% because there's a nice, satisfying 80% in there. What are the alternatives that we would build? If I give you money and power to build an alternative digital public infrastructure for music, what would it look like?

Liz Pelly:

So much of the thinking that has happened in the music industry on one hand has been like, "How do we fix this?" And I don't think that there's anything that any of these companies will ever be able to do to slap a bandaid on it and suddenly make it work because you're talking about publicly traded corporations that have no accountability to anyone except for their investors. And so over the past few years, there's been a lot of conversation within the music world and a lot of sort of reckoning artists aren't being compensated fairly through streaming services as this major conversation. And I want to acknowledge that I think that something really important has happened where a lot of music fans have started to pay for music more. Throughout the pandemic, Bandcamp has had these Bandcamp Fridays the first Friday of every month that have been these sort of holidays within the independent music world where people are paying millions of dollars to independent artists.

And that's great. And I feel like in terms of a short-term solution, this is really helpful, right? People who are true fans of music are thinking about how to directly support the artists that they care about. But in terms of something bigger picture, it's still this sort of situation where musicians are going on Twitter yelling, "Please buy my album." And that still is something that depends on music having value if someone will individually pay for your record. And I think that there's also another way of looking at it where music is an important contribution to society. And we fund ways of distributing it. I listened to the first episode of your podcast and I wrote down this quote, "There are lots of things that we ask society to pay for because they're public goods, not because they're turning an enormous profit." And to be able to put music into that conversation I think is really important and not something that has historically happened.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I love that idea because when I sort of look at the state of the art, I look at things like Band Camp and go, "Well, this is great. It's a much better deal for musicians than many other options out there." I know Joe Holtz, who's one of the people who has built it and he's terrific and really sort of focused on the artists. And it's clearly a smart, thoughtful team. I've been watching some of the platforms that are sort of springing up to help artists through the pandemic. And I've been indulging my 1990s addiction to Robyn Hitchcock by catching his weekly shows on StageIt and sort of paying five or 10 bucks for an hour long house concert. And that feels like a step in the right direction, but these all require me to know who I'm looking for, who I want to listen to, who I want to support.

There's so many other ways in which we encounter music. The art of the DJ, whether it's streaming in a club or whether it's streaming on a radio station, helping us explore and encounter different things the way in which music and performance sort of comes into our environment. It feels like even if we've done a decent job of creating less exploitative methods to let you support an individual artist, we haven't done particularly well with supporting music as a whole, as a cultural phenomenon, as a space. How would you, in the spirit of digital public infrastructures, I'll give you money and time. What do you want to build?

Liz Pelly:

Well, it's interesting because there has not historically been this public support for art. If you said to me just public money for music, I think the first thing that I would gravitates towards would be venues and independent venues. I know this is beyond the scope of digital infrastructure, but public funding for locally artists to run music venues is something that I think when bands go on tour in Europe, they encounter so much more regularly. And it's not something that has really ever happened to here. Venues, studio space, music, education, grants for artists to make records or to put on festivals and shows, things like that. This is the sort of stuff that I feel like we really need public funding for. But in addition to that, I also think, so I feel like there needs to be public funding for the stuff that keeps music communities alive, and then also, stuff that allows those artists to distribute their work online without anyone making a profit off of it.

And I think that that's really what's missing is the ability to share your music online with no one making a profit off of it because even some of these alternatives to the streaming status quo that are done with more of an independent spirit are still private companies that they're doing a good job, but I think that in order to fully have healthy public infrastructure for music, you also need some option that is making no profit at all and is solely working in service of music as a public good. And there are some interesting projects and alternatives and proposals that I've heard people talk about over the years ranging from just more funding for the arts to be put to use for these sorts of projects. I'm not sure how co-ops fit into the conversation of digital public infrastructure because-

Ethan Zuckerman:

They do.

Liz Pelly:

... I don't know. They do. Okay. So there are a lot of interesting conversations around cooperatives that have been happening in the music world with the, I guess, major one being this thing called Resonate, which is a cooperatively run music streaming service that has existed since 2016, but without as much support as some of the other projects. I also, if this interests any listeners, there's also an interesting proposal that was made by this person named Henderson Cole who runs this music blog called The Alternative for something called the American Music Library, which would be a taxpayer funded library for music streaming sort of in the spirit of a public library.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Oh, that's beautiful.

Liz Pelly:

And I think that is a really interesting idea as well. And yeah, it's hard for me to say which one of these projects I would want to see supported because I think it would just be all of them. I'm really interested in the idea of a cooperatively run streaming service and a taxpayer funded streaming service that has I think in his proposal is that it would have no playlists and no curation at all. It would just be a repository for anyone to upload their music. And I also think that some sort of artist-run, cooperatively-run Band Camp-like feature where artists could publish and just sell their music directly would be interesting.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One thing that crossed my mind when you were sort of talking about this ability to stream and share music in a way that wasn't necessarily centered around revenue is some of the decisions that went into the early web itself. The worldwide web wasn't the first attempt at a global hypertext network. There's a network called Xanadu, which had built into it copyright, paying for everything, compensating creators, sort of making money as you go along. It never really came to pass in part because it was incredibly difficult to implement, but also in some ways free as in beer is a good way to sell a product. And when Sir Tim started building the world wide web, he was doing it in the physics community. That's a community with a very strong set of norms around free access to knowledge.

And in many ways, those norms sort of got picked up and disseminated. It's really interesting to see the different norms that thrive or don't thrive when we move into sort of new media spaces. I think one of the things that you said inside of your prescription for the future is that music has a lot of locality to it. It really is about communities. Instead of going out and having a particular scene, having a community that go to shows again and again. I know that I prefer to go to metal shows in Boston rather than going to them in New York because Boston knows how to mosh and New York doesn't. These are all things that would be really interesting if we can find ways to sort of ensure that they survive the pandemic, but also ensure that they survive digitization. And whether that includes creating new digital public spaces for music or whether it actually recognizes that the physical spaces where we encounter music have a digital and a social component as well.

Liz Pelly:

Yeah. And I mean, it's interesting because I'm super interested in what you're working on in terms of local digital infrastructure and not to flip the question on you, but I'd be really interested in your perspective on what you think music communities could do in terms of digital local public infrastructure.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think it's an amazing moment for it because everybody is just trying to survive. And I know so many gigging musicians who understand that this probably can't be the main thing that they're doing to make money right now, but also understand it as so much of their identity and their community identity that they have to find ways to keep doing it. I actually think that creativity around what it would mean to be a club or what it would mean to be a venue online would be an amazing space for people within a scene to be having that conversation right now. How could we jointly work together to figure out who gets to play and how we feature it and how we share it instead of where we go? The interesting thing about this moment is that a lot of the old rules don't apply.

Maybe soon we're going to have the possibility of saying this doesn't have to happen necessarily on YouTube or on Facebook, maybe it on spaces that we have governance over and that we're inviting people in to use the tools that we control and we can be fully transparent about how the revenue flows and how the attention flows. So that would be my hope for the space in some ways. And I guess maybe what I would say is let's not lose sight of this sort of pandemic moment where the systems broke down and we had to think about other ways to do it. This probably will not be the only pandemic of our lifetimes. And we need to think more broadly about what it means to create spaces for music in digital space. And my hope would be that they are spaces that are cooperatively owned by the artists and cooperatively governed so that they're actually making the decisions about what are the rules of the road?

How do we share the revenues? How do we share the attention? But now that you're interviewing me, I don't really know how we sort of end a conversation here, but Liz, this has just been such a pleasure. And you've got me thinking about a whole range of issues that frankly, I just hadn't been thinking about around this work. I'm really grateful for it. I'm grateful for your thought and care looking at the space of the audio web. Thank you so much for being with us.

Liz Pelly:

It's really cool to get to think about music in this context of immense possibility, What would it look like to have a music internet that is publicly funded and cooperatively governed? These are really big questions that I think the music world should be asking. So yeah, thank you.