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Still, the industry seems to have figured out a way to make money off streaming, enacting new plans on a regular basis. This past week, Universal Music Group made a deal with Spotify that would restrict the access of nonsubscribers to some of the more desirable portions of its music library, an effort aimed at enticing more people to get with the idea of paying a monthly fee for an almost-all-you-can-eat buffet. But even if the artists barely get a cut of the finances, the digital era has also bestowed considerable gifts to the music makers.
Foremost, it's no longer necessary to go into debt or sign a restrictive label contract to make a record. In the past, bands had to recoup their production costs, often at astronomical expense, which would have them out on grueling tours for months at a time. It is now feasible to record and distribute a professional sounding album for a few thousand dollars. A band can disseminate its work with unprecedented ease and precision and slowly build an audience without also taking on burdens of debt or embarking on interminable tours. A band or an artist can identify a strong market and pinpoint where and when to play there.
Al Riggs is one of a growing number of young musicians who have only known these newer models of music consumption and distribution and who are figuring out how to make the platforms work for them. Riggs hopes to one day live off music money, but for now he has a day job, plays shows, and releases music on Spotify, iTunes, and the more artist-friendly Bandcamp.
"In a perfect world people like James [Toth] would be millionaires, or at least would be making more money from it," he says. "But as a promotional tool, saying your record is on Spotify or iTunes has more of a professional ring than, 'I'll send you some WAV files via Dropbox.'"
Musicians like Toth and Davis, with their accrued experience, aren't as hungry for mere exposure and legitimacy as Riggs is. Though Davis has a job outside of the music world, he has the benefit of having summers off to tour and record as well as the financial padding of significant residual dividends from "Natural One"; he can make music as he pleases without relying on it for income.
For Riggs and many of his peers, online platforms enable them to get their music heard without any of the old-school hassles to go along with it. Further, these platforms provide an outlet to many who feel shut out of a mostly white, mostly male industry.
"The people that are most likely to be affected in a positive way are queer folk, women, people of color—those are the ones that are going to benefit from streaming and the accessibility of Bandcamp, and just cheap, easy ways to put their music out into the world where record labels wouldn't even touch them," Riggs says, adding, "People who would have even less of a platform have one on Spotify, and they have the freedom to put stuff out whenever they want."
That kind of freedom—to put out whatever you want, whenever you want it—sounds like a much better deal to young musicians like Riggs, who've grown up in a world where music is seen as something that is largely free, than to people like Toth or Davis, who remember a time when young people actually bought music. Maiolo doesn't buy the idea that today's youth are more blithe about theft than were their predecessors. Sure, they paid for music, he says, but only because they had no choice.
"If, back in 1975, you could have said, 'For five dollars you can listen to all the music you want,' Would they have said, 'I don't know, man, I'd be lettin' Led Zeppelin down if I did that'?" he posits.
"Nah, they'd be like, 'Fuck yeah, dude, give me that!' This whole idea that the bulk of music listeners have somehow lost their moral compass? No. They haven't. They never gave a shit."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- John Davis
The world has grown fond of the streaming option, and no one has yet developed a practical solution to the industry's many problems. Maybe it's friendlier to the newcomer or the disenfranchised musician who needs to make a name than to the many who have already made theirs.
But clearly, technology both giveth and taketh away. Streams don't exist in a vacuum; they help build fan bases so that artists can make money on merchandise and tours. Forty-six million streams of "Coffee" may not have directly made local synth poppers Sylvan Esso millions of dollars, but those streams have facilitated a global reach that's translated to the duo performing all over the world.
Maiolo's Lacy Jags is not a big name, but it nonetheless caught the ear of an Italian radio DJ, who asked them to release a new song on his show. The band complied, and is working out plans for tour dates in Europe this summer. It won't pay much, but they'll be guaranteed enough to live and get from one gig to the next. They may lose a little money, he says, but it'll be fun and worth it.
"Is it because we're really that good of a band? We're really not. I think we're OK," Maiolo admits. "But it's because we've managed to put something together that works for us, and I honestly believe the tools are there for people to do that."
Davis has his run of shows in Europe booked, too. And Toth has a new LP coming out next month on Three Lobed Records next month called Clipper Ship, while Riggs continues to issue his own songs online at a prolific pace. Their toolkits may have changed—and will surely continue to do so—but their creative missions, at least, remain undeterred.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Streams of Consciousness ."