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How the Streaming Era Killed the Artist

It’s difficult to come up with a facet of the media and entertainment industry that has developed into a more ruthless, exploitative, and discriminatory environment than the music industry has. As the era of streaming barreled headfirst into the music and film industry in the early 2010’s, it was hard to predict how services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal would create an even more potent atmosphere for the artists pushing to keep authenticity in their craft.


Streaming services have defeated the artist’s previous role in the music industry as being the mysterious, larger than life persona behind the songs their fans love. Streaming has forced the artist to peel off their rigid individuality and artistic persona and sacrifice it to the omniscient algorithm. It has been pointed out time and time again that streaming services saved the business element of the music industry; “saved” the massive record label conglomerates that have been poaching artists into mismanaged 360 deals since the 70’s. Deals that offer the artist no creative freedom and the facade of riches, when in reality all that money is budgeted and must be spent on the creation of an industry-curated sell out record. 


So, why has the streaming era killed the artist in the music industry? Essentially, an artist in this day and age can’t gather the traction, streams, and money they require to be independent and self-sustaining as an artist. Millions of streams translate to pennies for the artist and record labels have become increasingly less trustworthy for musicians, especially in the hip hop and R&B genres, which have become the most listened to genres since the mid-2010’s, claiming the throne as this generation's pop music. 


Now, obviously artists like Drake and SZA aren’t sharing the complaints being aired out in this article. Artists of their stature have reached levels of success that align them more in the business side of the industry than the starving artist side. However, at the end of the day, music is still meant to be an art form, one of the most ancient art forms and one that can speak to emotion in incredibly unique, personal ways. 


Hip hop has had a turbulent history with the music industry, as there have been countless instances of wealthy, white music executives poaching up and coming rappers into deals that strip them of their ability to tell their story and narrative through their music. The label ends up with a controlling hand over the finished product and the record ends up being more profitable for the label than it does for the artist who created it. This has been seen countless times with prevalent artists such as Frank Ocean, Lupe Fiasco, and Danny Brown. A fascinating early observation of this new age artistic suppression in the music industry was through Little Brother’s 2005 record, “The Minstrel Show,” an intentionally industry shaming record that boiled the white label executive / Black artist power dynamic down to a modern day minstrelsy. The trauma that the Black artist conveys is sold to the masses as palatable and energetic. 


This dynamic of interconnectivity through social media and the trivial, economic nature in which record executives view Black death and profit from trauma has turned the healing, artistic nature of hip hop, and music itself, into something else entirely. It has turned the art form from a medium to express oneself while the masses get something in return, to an algorithm driven machine with a business model that’s as simple as spamming a song on TikTok and Instagram Reels until enough people have it stuck in their head to stream its numbers to the moon. It would be a sound business model if, like previously cited, a single stream on Spotify did not equal out to $0.0043. 


The streaming era and record label’s complete inability to see where this industry has strayed from its path feel like simple consequences of late stage capitalism. Art being sacrificed for wealth and unoriginality. Perhaps I am sounding paranoid or overanalytic, but it is disheartening to see art and human expression boiled down to pennies and monthly subscriptions.


With this predicament of inconsistent money and a lack of industry appreciation for independent creatives in the music industry, a few beacons of hope have shone through. The music service BandCamp emphasizes a time in music history when everyone paid $9.99 on Tuesday mornings to purchase an album they had been waiting on for months. BandCamp has also played a significant role in the recent resurgence of vinyl collectors purchasing their favorite new albums on wax. Some daring musical entrepreneurs have taken full advantage of this resurgence of vinyl lovers, especially in the hip hop sphere. Haitian-American rapper Mach-Hommy has developed a fascinating marketing plan to bring artistic relevance back to the music industry, choosing to sell his records for upwards of 400 dollars to his dedicated, albeit small, fanbase. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about Mach-Hommy’s diabolical schemes is that these records almost always sell out, funneling 10 times more income directly to him than if he groveled to music executives to help him get a couple hundred thousand Spotify streams. 


All of this is to say: there are still creatives and visionaries in the music industry, and it is important that these creatives, especially in hip hop, continue to apply pressure to the backwards nature of the music industry and what it stands for now. Culture inspires art, in turn art pushes culture into the limelight. Artists selling out and letting labels puppeteer them is a reflection of the modern culture of instant gratification and underpaid, uninspired art.

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