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New Hegemonies: Streaming Platforms and Music Production

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"Sound Mixing desk" by Gerrysan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

At the end of last year, everyone’s Twitter timelines and Instagram stories were alive with the influx of ‘Spotify Wrapped’ graphics. Platform users shared icons showing they were in the top 0.05% of an artist’s listenership. Many more proudly shared the endless numbers of hours they had clocked up on Spotify that year. Yet, this fan loyalty and hours of listening amount to pittance in terms of remuneration for the artists themselves. It’s almost impossible for music fans to financially support their favourite artists through Spotify streaming. This is because the payment model of the streaming platform, combined with its use of auto-play algorithm, means that for each play, an artist receives a tiny percentage of a penny.

Simply put, Spotify pays all streaming artists from an overall pot of money, which is divided by the total number of plays on the platform and redistributed accordingly. This naturally means that those artists with millions of streams get much more. But it also means that the more a hit song is played, the further it devalues the payment-per-stream of less commercially successful music.

“I am a successful musician, but I’m just not being paid fairly for the work I make”

– Nadine Shah to Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, UK Parliament, 24th November 2020

Nadine Shah, a Mercury Prize-nominated musician and songwriter, has spoken recently on the effect that lack of revenue from Spotify has on musicians, especially within the context of a pandemic that has cancelled gigs. By many metrics, Shah is a successful artist. Her songs are widely played, critically acclaimed, and she has a dedicated fanbase. Nevertheless, she is struggling to pay the rent.

Streaming has been extremely equitable for some in the music industry – the owners of streaming services, and those with already established influence. It has turned an industry that was in decline due to falling CD sales into a profitable one once more. This turnaround, however, has been shown to benefit only a small number of artists, and those who make money from them. In 2017, the top 1% of musical artists took home 78% of music sales revenue. Whilst it is not news that earning disparities exist in music, it is interesting to note the lower levels of monopolisation in different aspects of the industry. That same 1% group were also making 68% of live revenue, and 56% of merchandise sales in that year. The overall picture for the other 99% of artists is bleak across the board, bleakest within the context of streaming.

While, technically, anyone could upload a song to Spotify and ‘make it’, the reality is that the industry continues to be controlled by a few, including the platforms themselves. Spotify’s platform gives users the illusion of choice through its searchable interface, its expansive catalogues and playlists. In reality, its algorithms often dictate the music people listen to, and the way that they listen to it.

The influence on how music is listened to is clear when streaming is compared to any previous mode of musical consumption. The physical process of removing a record from a shelf, taking it out of its sleeve, and playing it on the turntable is a deliberate action. Similarly, if more recently, CDs and iPods required that the user downloaded specific tracks and albums which were then chosen from a library to be played.

Streaming offers a completely different way of experiencing music. Not only does it tell listeners what to listen to in easy-to-use playlists, the platform will also then auto-play ‘similar’ songs. Crucially: music is heard that the listener has not chosen to play. The experience is based on an inherent contradiction: ‘all music ever made is available on your phone, but here’s the few songs you should listen to’. Both sides of this contradiction impact artists.

It makes sense that Spotify is not just a nebulous database of all music ever; that wouldn’t be user-friendly or profitable. Such databases, such as Every Noise At Once, exist for those who deliberately seek obscurity in their listening. It makes sense that there is an element of curation involved in Spotify’s presentation. But the extent to which this influences the experience is both coming to define the way that music is listened to, and therefore the way that it’s made.

When songs are uploaded to Spotify they can be ‘pitched’ to the platform, in the hope that they would make it onto playlists. This is an artist’s main hope for exposure. In order to make these playlists a song needs to capture the imagination of those at Spotify who curate their playlists within its opening seconds. Because of this, many have noted trends emerging of shorter songs which encapsulate their choruses within around ten seconds. For example, Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’, released in 2017, clocks in at 2:04. The chorus of the songs hits by 16 seconds, preceded by an intro which teases the hook. This a condensed form of music which is built to gain exposure through streaming services.

This trend in pop writing represents a hyper version of the ‘standardisation’ in pop music written about by Adorno in 1941’s ‘On Popular Music’. Adorno’s critique, while much maligned for its belittlement of pop music, does contain an important truth. Modes of production exist within pop music, which affect the overall composition of the work. Right now, the dominant mode is music produced for streaming success. Elbow’s Guy Garvey, participating in a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in UK Parliament asserts that the form of songwriting promoted by streaming success works well for some genres and not others. For instance, a sprawling art-rock track that begins with two minutes of ambient noise doesn’t sell itself in the same way that Gucci Gang does. Garvey’s right, and his point is not that he wishes noodling 15-minute art rock tracks got as many plays as a Drake single, but simply that those art rockers should also have the opportunity to live off their art.

Streaming sites are an example of what Nick Srnicek calls a ‘product platform’ in Platform Capitalism. These are platforms which ‘transform a traditional good into a service by collecting rent or subscription fees for them’. Subscription services have come to define many industries in the 21st Century, and music is no exception. Srnicek notes that the rise in subscriptions is likely linked to wage stagnations that have made large one-off purchases nearly impossible, reducing spending to small amounts each month instead. What this does is flatten a product that was once hugely varied in terms of its creation, production and distribution, into one subscription service.

In the streaming world, it seems as though the mode of cultural consumption overrules ‘taste’. In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argues for the importance of taste in solidifying class structures through cultural hegemony. In this analysis, his focus is on the greater levels of cultural capital possessed by the bourgeoisie in comparison to the working classes. Historically, hegemony has been maintained within music through the creation of a canon. Cultural production has since diversified through the democratisation of some of the means of production. Anyone with a computer has the means to make a two minute Soundcloud hit. To an extent, this slightly punctures Bourdieu’s point, that cultural hegemony is controlled by those with greater material possession. Or at least it would, if the class-based cultural hegemony that he proposed in the 20th century hadn’t been eclipsed by platform capital in the 21st century.

The new hegemony is one that subverts traditional ideals of ‘taste’. In fact, those art forms which might traditionally be associated with that word are not the ruling forms on streaming platforms. The cultural hegemony created by Spotify is one driven by capital accumulation above all else. So, whilst the means of cultural creation might be more easily accessible than before, the rules by which musical creation is financially viable are still controlled by those with greater assets.

Spotify is not a project content on controlling cultural output, and defining the way music is made. It has successfully kept some within the music industry afloat at the expense of others. Many worried that the advent of illegal downloading would ruin the chances of those wishing to make an income from music. Streaming, and Spotify in particular, might have saved it for a few, but for many more that struggle continues. 

Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek is worth $4.5 billion. Nadine Shah can’t pay her rent.

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Ted Mair is a musician and writer based in London, interested in the politics of sound, cinema and football.