Socialized Streaming

A case for universal music access

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The problems with corporate music streaming are clear. The pay is inconsequential, the power is far too centralized, the social fabrics of music communities are eroding. Corporate streaming services are more concerned with their own products and playlists than supporting the artists, songwriters, producers and others who make music possible. The recommendations are boring, the payola is boring, the advertisements are boring. Major label influence and the overall financialization of the music industry ensures the corporate services themselves won’t change.

In some ways, these are just variations on the same problems that have always defined mainstream music. But streaming’s inherent challenges also give us a glimpse at what’s wrong with how we consume and value culture today in general. Labor in cultural production is devalued, material realities are invisibilized, context is cut out, relationships are flattened. “Seamless” distribution always has consequences. The packages don’t deliver themselves overnight; meals don’t just arrive at front doors; millions of songs do not just materialize from nothing.

Music provides an outlet, as well as an archive. At best it can reflect the tenor of society at any given moment. It is a public good

Music, and the way it’s consumed, can serve as a prime example for how we might set things on a more equitable path. In recent years, a growing number of musicians have responded loudly — and collectively — to the current state of the industry. As on YouTube or Instagram, the music industry today pushes the self-starting multimedia strategist as the model creative professional, responding to trends in the data and tailoring their work accordingly. Since early 2020, newly established groups of musicians have increased participation in organizing and unionization efforts — two important steps in the ongoing process of bringing music communities together to imagine alternatives to the atomized, content-creator model of creativity that so many turn to for survival. For most, this is an unsustainable approach to creative work, and musicians are starting to send a strong message that it’s time to try something different.

Of course, “music” is a big umbrella, inclusive of a lot of different types of practices and communities that do not sound or feel the same, with a wide range of goals and labor realities. Some musicians have one clear boss, others have many bosses, some are bosses themselves. A unionized session saxophonist might see a different path toward decommodifying music and improving work conditions than would a self-releasing experimental noise artist. Ideas about what makes music culture “sustainable” might take different shapes depending on where you look and who you ask. It is increasingly clear, though, that ensuring robust music futures means imagining systems drastically different than the current corporate structure, and out from under the sway of market logic. We should conceptualize futures where music is part of the greater ongoing project of freeing art from capitalism.

As part of that work, we should think about socializing music streaming. Music is an integral part of the cultural landscape: It brings people together, it provides an outlet, as well as an archive. At best it can reflect the tenor of society at any given moment. It is a public good. What would it look like if we thought about access to music the way we thought about other important forms of culture and information — for example, books? Physical copies of music have long been available at public libraries, but we don’t currently conceptualize universal access to music as a public good, to be managed in the public interest with public funding. We should.

Making the public interest a core priority would mean more equitable payment and treatment of musicians and music workers. It also would help to repair some of the more harmful relationships with music that streaming — obsessed with boosting engagement metrics without concern for context — has encouraged and exacerbated. Socialized streaming would not be a fix-all, but it would be a step away from a culture shaped by profit motives and a step toward new logics of listening online. And it could seed paradigm shifts for the way we think about cultural consumption and how we value creative labor.

For the past few years, music lawyer and publisher Henderson Cole has been thinking about this central idea: What if the U.S. had a federal, taxpayer-funded, government-run music streaming service? The proposal, published in 2019 by the Penny Fractions newsletter, is outlined here. It is built around five core points: anyone in the U.S. could host their music on the library; songwriters and artists could upload their work directly (current corporate streaming services require distributors); the library would be paid for by a tax on the wealthiest Americans; the library would serve as an archive for long-term preservation of music files; the library would create a new royalty system with which to pay artists, separate and more collectively lucrative than the currently archaic and dysfunctional royalty system.

The basic premise of the American Music Library suggests that streaming could be less destructive to society if it were funded and organized differently — that perhaps the problem with streaming isn’t streaming per se, but the predatory industry norms that surround it. What if we severed the concept of streaming from its current economic models, and created something with public resources that belonged to and served the public? Something more in line with the functions of public libraries, which today remain hubs for free access to information, community space, educational programs and more, driven by values like privacy and preservation.

The American Music Library would have no playlists, recommendations or algorithmic discovery functions — it would just be a repository for music from around the world. As Cole writes, this would not only eliminate the biases that define the streaming environment today (where playlist curators are gatekeepers, and payola is rampant) but also reduce the overhead costs required to get the service established. In a sense, it’s like a rethinking of federal arts funding for music.

Currently, mainstream streaming models use a pro-rata payment system, where artists are paid proportionately depending on how their streaming numbers compare to the entire pool. Cole’s proposal calls for the creation of a new royalty system that would pay artists on a per-stream basis. The idea of per-stream payments is aligned with calls from many artists and organizations for streaming services to adopt user-centric payment: If someone pays $10 per month to stream Galaxie 500 all month, then Galaxie 500 should get that $10. The proposal also includes a built-in maximum wage of sorts: a cap on the amount that individual artists can make, ensuring that the government isn’t just funneling all of the allocated funds to already rich pop stars. This cap makes sense given the failures of the celebrities-take-all scarcity model. As Cole writes, “The effect of this policy is that more of the value of streaming royalties will be distributed to the lower and middle class musicians, who could badly use the payout to continue their careers.”

The American Music Library would have no playlists, recommendations or algorithmic discovery functions — it would just be a repository

Of course, any system where compensation is tied to a per-stream royalty is inheriting some of the faults of the current streaming marketplace, by tying an artist’s ability to earn compensation to popularity. It’s an unconventional way to think about arts funding — one that would be most effective as part of a more robust expansion of funding and resources available to musicians who might not elicit the type of replayability necessary to earn significant income (artists who release music that is challenging, or artists whose work takes the form of lengthy single tracks instead of short broken-up tracks, for example).

This is a particularly urgent time to be thinking about expanding federal arts funding — including funding for musicians — which, in the U.S., has long been dismal. In 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts budget was $148 million, with $8 million for music, while the population was 321.4 million people. That’s less than 50 cents per person in arts spending, and about two cents per person in music spending. During the Great Depression, one of the many ways that the federal government created jobs was through the Federal Music Project, a New Deal program that employed thousands of musicians to present free concerts, teach music lessons, and write new music, establishing regional and local projects as well. The logic behind the Federal Music Project is worth remembering and building on, particularly this year.

The idea of using a wealth tax to fund artists whose music freely circulates online has been explored before the American Music Library’s proposal. In 2003, Aaron Swartz was considering a similar approach: “The basic idea is that a large portion of the population pays a relatively small tax to the government who then gives it to the artists whose work is downloaded.” He pointed to a Harvard researcher’s estimations that “a small tax on CD burners, DVD burners, DSL, and cable modems … could pay for all the music and movies plus a 20 percent bureaucratic overhead.” This was the age of mp3 downloads and file sharing, declining profits for major labels who scrambled for new ways to continue consolidating money and power. Streaming has worked out for those at the top. But little has changed, in terms of labor value, for most everyone else outside the major label system, and so Swartz’s proposal remains relevant. (According to the 2018 MIT Press book Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Music Streaming, the company in its early days had an “ambivalent relationship to music piracy… sometimes presenting itself as the continuation of the ongoing illicit disruption, while at other times insisting on a binary opposition between illegality and legality.” When Spotify’s beta version launched in 2007, the app had “loaded its servers with the music files most easily available, namely those already on its employees’ private computers. A large portion of these files were downloaded through file-sharing services such as The Pirate Bay. Rights holders had not granted the company the licenses required to distribute the files online. Thus, Spotify began as a de facto pirate service.”)

In order to truly socialize streaming, we’d need to rethink more than just ownership. We would not want streaming services owned by governments while run just like Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music. These corporations claim public-minded values — surely most streaming PR reps would tell you that music is a universal good — and in the early days of streaming, many bought into these self-serving narratives. But as artists and listeners struggle with the model, the self-mythology has worn thin.

To truly untangle the mindset that music tech will save us, we’d also want to address power relations more systemically, and how decisions are made. We would need to think about how to truly shift power so that musicians, music workers, and music communities could have a say in how socialized streaming services are built, and participate in how they’re run. We would need to democratize the governance of music streaming. This would represent a broader move towards a cultural sphere where people have a say in shaping the digital tools they rely on every day, and in making sure these tools reflect the interests of those who use them.

The first step toward planning democratized, socialized streaming services might be a massive music census taking stock of the needs of musicians and music communities. What would musicians and listeners want from such services? What aspects of current music technologies would be more useful to communities if they were funded publicly? How could power be redistributed for more collective decision-making and community input or control?

Concerns would likely arise around surveillance: Why would we want the government responsible for all of this? Swartz, in his 2003 proposal, also pointed to issues regarding privacy and security, noting that the government keeping constant track of what music and movies you were accessing would be a horrible idea. These are all good points.

Consider how your digital music listening might change on a platform where your listening habits were not being tracked and commodified

The prospect of a socialized music streaming service, built from the ground up, gives us an opportunity to imagine how a system might be built with privacy at the forefront — and, from there, how other socialized digital experiments could be, too. What if we built a public, democratized streaming service with no data collection at all? What if data was collected in order to support and compensate musicians, but, as some libraries have done, routinely deleted to protect users? Consider how your digital music listening might change on a platform where your listening habits were not being tracked and commodified. We need to remember the immense compromises we make as streaming listeners today, and how it changes our relationship to what we consume, allowing multi-billion dollar tech companies to profit off of the surveillance of our listening. We would need to insist that any government-run service be built differently; that it remain a non-commercial space.

Privacy could also be addressed by truly safeguarding and democratizing any data that needs to be stored in order for the platforms to function, by putting that data under the control of an independent organization like a public multi-stakeholder data cooperative, data commons, or data trust, the latter being one of many recommendations recently made in a recent UK report called A Common Platform. Music streaming could be a way to introduce these concepts more widely to the public. Another idea to explore might be an “arm’s length principle,” which countries like Denmark have already enacted, where the government acts as the “architect of the framework for an overarching cultural policy” (like grants), but politicians do not get involved in “concrete subsidy allocation or act as arbiters of taste” (as described by the UNESCO).

These are all big ideas — especially in the U.S., where, as mentioned, government arts funding is nearly non-existent. Practically, the local level might be our best option for beginning to think about and experiment with socialized streaming. The public library, again, comes to mind as potentially the most effective space for beginning the work of advocating for participatory, public-funded streaming structures — and reconceptualizing cultural value and consumption in vastly different ways than the music industry does. Currently, libraries in Seattle, Austin, Pittsburgh and several more cities around the U.S. and Canada host locals-only music streaming collections accessible to anyone with a library card. They pay a flat fee to participating musicians for a five-year license, and in some cases work with folks from the local music scene to curate mixes. Increasing federal, state, and local funding for these projects — as well as rethinking their governance, to include musicians, music workers, and music community members, if that’s not all in place already — would be a step towards public democratized streaming.

Within the world of libraries, there is already a precedent for commitment to privacy — the American Library Freedom Project calls patron privacy “one of the core values of the library field.” According to the American Library Association’s Privacy Toolkit, “In libraries, the right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.”

Advocating for expanded resources for the local library streaming service is a somewhat risk-free undertaking. If efforts fall short, those involved at least spent some time and energy building support, awareness and perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the inner workings of a local cultural institution. And understanding local cultural institutions — how they work, who they serve and in what way — is crucial for reconceptualizing how we create, compensate and share culture outside of the profiteering industries.

Socialized streaming wouldn’t fix all of the problems of the music streaming era, but such fix-all solutions shouldn’t be what we’re after anyway. We should think of socialized streaming as one piece of a greater, international patchwork of shifts, toward building infrastructure for digital cultural commons — accessible and participatory tools and resources that would support artists and strengthen communities, inclusive of cooperative alternatives. It moves us in the direction of decommodifying music, setting precedents for decommodifying culture. In the U.S., public funding for streaming would be most compelling as part of a broader increase in art and music funding on federal, state and local levels: from NEA expansion and WPA-style relief programs, to city-level funding for community art spaces, grants for artists and collectives, support for residencies, subsidized studio space, and more — all of which were desperately needed even before the pandemic. Music is a public good that makes our lives more interesting and our communities stronger, and there are still so many more directions in which to expand our imagination of what’s possible.

Liz Pelly is a writer and critic based in New York. She is a contributing editor and columnist at the Baffler.