Back in 2020 – at the height of the COVID pandemic – Spotify CEO Daniel Ek famously stated: “…you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.” Coming from a non-musician with a net worth of 2.8 billion dollars, that didn’t go down too well – but it’s 2023, and the streaming monopoly is at least as entrenched as it was then. Today, we present the second half of Christoph Benkeser’s interview with Affine Records founder Jamal Hachem – about how the streaming economy is eroding the music industry, the self-inflicted demise of FM4, and how we can go about changing that. (Read Part 1)
You wanted to talk about two further aspects of the streaming problem – the creative aspect and the mental-health aspect.
Jamal Hachem: When you’re stuck in a system with hardly any perspectives, you look for distractions, and – unless you belong to the priveleged class – you’re forced to create ‘side hustles’ to make money. “Make your own merch!” people say, or “start a Patreon channel!” They don’t mention that those things also take time, energy, and money – and for various reasons, they usually don’t make sense anyway.
“it’s no wonder the burnout rate is rising”
You have to earn your art, otherwise you can’t afford it anymore.
Jamal Hachem: Yes, and at the same time, you have to keep getting louder in order to get noticed, which leads to desperation marketing. The fear of being forgotten or ignored is constant for a lot of people. It can be debilitating, and it often results in mediocre art, because people spend the bulk of their time on other things than art. Or they spend it making art, but under difficult conditions. Today’s technical standards and artificially shortened attention spans have much too large an effect on creative processes – no matter whether you’re producing EDM, indie rock, or pop. It robs art of its integrity. If songs only count as a full “play” after 31 seconds, we shouldn’t be surprised when people structure their songs accordingly. If you’re constantly defending your position in a toxic, turbocapitalist environment, it’s no wonder that the burnout rate in the music industry is rising, and it feels like every third promotional campaign is about mental health.
This ties a number of aspects together – but how?
Jamal Hachem: The dynamics of the streaming economy have effects on other areas. Take for example public broadcasting systems throughout Europe: far too often, incompetent decision-makers enter into competition with streaming services – even though it’s not necessary – because they think they can get young people interested by imitating the streaming monopolists. But in the end, they become copies of a copy of a copy, and then they wonder why young people are losing interest, or never even take notice of them in the first place. And in the meantime, they’ve established structures based on the market and not on their public service responsibility. The public broadcasting model is clearly beneficial; it’s a laboratory for new ideas and a potential unique selling point. The fact that it’s being voluntarily given up is a scandal. FM4 is unfortunately spiraling downwards right along with the rest of them.
So, public radio is destroying itself.
Jamal Hachem: Yes. If people working in radio fail to defend themselves and define the boundaries of what’s acceptable, you abolish yourself. Particularly when the music and format overlap too much with the mothership (in FM4’s case, Ö3), it gives people looking to downsize an excellent argument for consolidation. And there’s another effect caused by drawing the wrong conclusions: institutional support for Spotify. When label X in Vienna curates a playlist under the pretext of promoting Austrian music, but the purpose is actually to push their own catalogue, it’s deceptive. And the worst thing about it is, they’re directing public funds into the wrong system.
So that’s where we are now. At the beginning, you mentioned a way to change the system. How can that work?
Jamal Hachem: First: we need to stop being victims. We need to get out of the back seat and into a self-conscious position in order to start taking control. The tipping point is already here: the issues might be somewhat different, but the so-called Hollywood strike may be a good opportunity to generate more public awareness. In any case, the point is to create a new reality. This present streaming economy isn’t a natural law.
“We shouldn’t create a new monopoly that creates new dependencies.”
We’re getting to the new collectivism you were talking about.
Jamal Hachem: Yes. The first step is to get into the relevant national committees – in Austria, the indie label trade association and FAMA. When that’s accomplished, you assess and describe the status quo. That shouldn’t take too much time. If there’s the political will to change something, the third step is to develop sustainable positions, so that the branch is nop longer fragmented, but speaking with one voice.
Grassroots work, from the bottom up.
Jamal Hachem: And developing a position that the majority can sign on to, that is robust and sustainable, a position that questions the existing hierachies – that’s the main point. Ideally, this process serves as an example for other countries, their committees and associations. If the thing is to gain real momentum, primarily the big countries – Germany, France, Great Britain – have to get involved. Because the decisive step is developing enough force to put pressure on Merlin, the international indie label representative.
Jamal Hachem: It won’t be enough if just Austria, Luxembourg, Slovenia, and Malta band together. It has to be as large a region as possible, with the largest possible partners – like Merlin – to communicate the positions and reasons to drop out of the streaming economy. At the same time, you have to generate public interest for the process; it has to be open and transparent. Platform and web developers have to realize that the potential of independent catalogues – which are still 30% of the entire market – is being redistributed.
So that a new platform arises?
Jamal Hachem: Yes, but one with new rules, where indie players can retain control. It shouldn’t become a new monopoly that just creates new dependencies in order to blackmail them. The point is to develop solid standards – a mutual basis that new platforms can build on. Like a Bandcamp for streaming – except that, ideally, it won’t be just one player but several, coexisting with one another.
Make indies Independent Again
A co-op of independent labels.
Jamal Hachem: You could call it that. In any case: independent labels, working with new platforms or with existing outlets that support exactly these new standards – Soundcloud has a new user-centric model that has made a positive impression – and make their own rules, instead of the majors dictating them to us. We turn the process around.
That ‘we’ requires real solidarity – ‘we, the independent scene’.
Jamal Hachem: Exactly. It’s about the collective rejection of a system that almost nobody profits from. I’m positive that this position can be formulated, with plenty of facts and experience to back it up.
What seems inevitable has to be shown to be just one alternative.
Jamal Hachem: It’s about creating new standards to break the current mold, and it can be done if we all rebel. I don’t mean going on strike against like Spotify; it’s about no longer recognizing that kind of company as a legitimate participant. I’m tired of feeding a machine that pushes us ever closer to the edge, a machine that will consume us in the end.
Translated from the German original and edited for length and clarity by Philip Yaeger.