Turning Back the Tide, Part 1: How the Streaming Economy Erodes Music

15 Years Affine Records (c) Zanshin Kuge
15 Years Affine Records (c) Zanshin Kuge

No cake, no candles, probably no bouncy castle, either: Affine Records – the label that has brought us artists like Dorian Concept, Cid Rim, and Wandl, among others – is turning 15. But according to label founder Jamal Hachem, “there’s nothing to celebrate.” He does have something on his mind, though: “I want to make an appeal for a broad withdrawal from the streaming monopoly – for too long, we’ve been feeding a machine that’s devouring us all!” Hachem recently talked to Christoph Benkeser about ghost artists, the dangers of curated playlists…and how to replace a failed system with something better.

Let’s talk about the streaming economy.

Jamal Hachem: I’d like to use Affine Records’ 15-year anniversary to describe the effects of this streaming monopoly and what we can do to break it. And I don’t mean just taking stock of the situation or having an academic discussion about it: I’m talking about solutions, about finding a way for us as independent labels – and the artists we represent – to collectively get out of this streaming straitjacket and develop a better system.

You’re talking about getting out of the streaming system completely, not just changing existing structures. Why?

Jamal Hachem: For over a decade now, we’ve been living and working with these streaming giants. It was a dysfunctional system when we stumbled into it, and we hardly questioned the relationships and perspectives. They seduced artists and labels with the old “infinite growth” trick. And now we’ve had ample time to gain experience and reflect on it.

I want to identify three major reasons why the streaming economy doesn’t work for the huge majority of the music business, probably more than 90%. One reason is economic, of course, but there’s also an artistic or creative component, and connected to that, a mental health aspect.

“We’re working for drake and taylor Swift”

Let’s start with the economic aspect.

Jamal Hachem: To understand that, you have to understand the pro-rata model that streaming platforms have always worked with. It’s the worst of all possible payment models – together with the playlist fetish, it’s led to a massive devaluation. Essentially, we’re working for Drake and Taylor Swift, and we’re apparently satisfied to be useful idiots.

Video: Kenji Araki – “SUBSTR8”

Then why do so many people cooperate?

Jamal Hachem: One player controls the market. This dominance makes it difficult, if not impossible, to pivot to other areas – unless we break it with a new collectivism. I say ‘new collectivism’ consciously, because it’s going to require a new approach – and a lot of persistence – to make it happen.

The streaming services say that the music business has to speak with one voice, which is difficult when everyone – from the CEO of Universal Music to the indie label association – has a different perspective.

Jamal Hachem: That statement is calculated: while some people waste their time on infighting, conditions continue to get worse. For instance, now there’s “Discovery Mode”, an invention that basically legalizes payola. The monopolist’s long-term goal is to reduce all payouts to artists and labels by as much as 30%. That’s why they offer artists and labels a deal: if you waive part of your streaming income, Spotify’s algorithm will treat you preferentially. It’s like the carrot held in front of a donkey’s nose, but it’s a false promise. A better share of nothing is still nothing.

“You can wipe your ass with what you get from them”

But some musicians still hope for a competitive advantage over others.

Jamal Hachem: That’s why so many people participate, and that false hope will lead a lot more to join up if no one stops it. A lot of people really believe that they’ll get more, or lose less, that way. In reality, though, the vast majority have lost as soon as they sign up – it’s a game that de facto can’t be won. But offering this phantom hope is a strategy that works very well for Spotify.

Separating artists from labels is another of their goals: they want artists to deal directly with them because it increases their dependence, because it cuts down administration, and – in the end – because it will reduce their payouts. We can’t naively continue to believe that this ecosystem can work for us; that’s clearly not the case. Spotify has misused indie culture’s values – remember, companies are primarily responsible to their investors. They don’t care if some indie band from Hamburg is getting what they deserve. In reality, the curated playlist system has created an artificial scarcity; it’s the perfect manifestation of this rat race.

Photo of Jamal Hachem (c) Clemens Radauer
Jamal Hachem (c) Clemens Radauer

What do you mean?

Jamal Hachem: Imagine you have 50 buckets, and you empty sand over them. At the end, they’re all full, but most of the sand is actually scattered on the ground around them. Also, most of the buckets were already full before you started pouring the sand – with major-label repertoire, ghost artists, and – increasingly – AI productions. The buckets are playlist placements – which are in huge demand; they’ve become like money in the streaming ecosystem, though they encourage passivity in the listener. And if you do manage to land a song on a big playlist, it doesn’t necessarily lead to more ticket sales; there are a lot of different factors at play.

What you’re describing…

Jamal Hachem: …shows that the system can’t function for the vast majority! Individual success stories just prove the rule; they get promoted because the system needs them in order to uphold this “anyone can succeed” narrative and survive.

“this system was never for us, and it never will be.”

Who does this narrative work for?

Jamal Hachem: For big major acts, for individuals who develop a business template and tailor their creative output to it. It also apparently works for people who make kitschy, easy-listening piano music. Spotify has no interest in creating a system that works for the majority. They’re increasing subscription prices now, which will reportedly increase their revenue by a billion dollars. But at the same time, they’re firing hundreds of employees.

And with everything else, it’s easy to forget that Spotify isn’t even concerned primarily with music – their main focus is the lucrative podcast business. That’s why we players in the indie market have to recognize that this system was never for us, and never will be. We have to stop chasing a promise that will never be kept; to finally rid ourselves of the illusion that we can change a monopolist from the outside. It’s a waste of time. The recent (re)sale of Bandcamp should be warning enough that we can count on nothing when it comes to investor-driven platform capitalism.

The same goes for TikTok, which is positioning itself as Spotify’s new competition. TikTok is the biggest social network in the world, and now it’s rolling out a streaming service in selected markets. The difference is that here, the promise of visibility will be much greater. A gigantic carrot that will be waggling everywhere soon. It’s a kind of a re-education of artists to become content creators.

Video: Noayama – “Unpopular Nostalgia”

That means artists won’t be competing against other artists anymore, but instead…

Jamal Hachem: It’s been everyone for themselves for a long time anyway; a downward spiral of content snacks. But when streaming services and social media platforms continue to merge and 15 seconds becomes the new standard, the dopamine kick from the preview buffet will be enough for a lot of people. How do you establish a fan base like that? I don’t blame users for frequenting these platforms; they’re often well-designed and seductive. Especially the generation that has grown up with them – blaming them is simplistic and it smacks of snobbishness. I think that’s wrong. It’s about creating attractive alternatives – these established mechanisms aren’t carved in stone.

To find out how a sustainable music industry could be built – with more variety, more quality, and more fairness for music creators – read part 2 of the interview.

Translated from the German original and edited for length and clarity by Philip Yaeger.