The End of Music Ownership

On May 31st 2016

by Lyle Horowitz

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Earlier this month, news broke that Apple had plans to terminate music downloads and the iTunes store within two years. Naturally, a social media uproar ensued. Could the end of days finally be upon us? Could Apple put in motion a seismic shift that would finally signal the end of ownership for good? Not quite, at least for right now. Apple representative Tom Neumayr denied this report to various media outlets in the days after the news broke, citing the record-breaking digital sales of Drake's Views (an album that was an Apple exclusive for the first week of its availability) as an example of why physical downloads are still a lucrative sector of the market and will be available for the foreseeable future. While the originally reported two-year plan may have been premature speculation, many music industry analysts are predicting that it's still very much an inevitability. In an interview with Mashable's Emily Blake, analyst Mark Mulligan predicts the shift to a streaming-only model is likely to occur in closer to five years time rather than two, since Apple is waiting until more people start paying for their subscription-based service, Apple Music, and digital sales become an "absolute minority" in their user base.

Despite Apple's effort to seem earnest in their reassurance that no drastic actions would be taken regarding the options of the consumer any time soon, their insistence should be called into question when some of their flagship services and programs (Apple Music and iTunes, respectively) strongely encourage the replacement of your files with what are essentially ID-matched abstracts floating around in "the cloud", which they would like you to believe is for your own convenience. If convenience is indeed Apple's only intention with their push towards cloud-based, non-ownership-driven libraries, and not some nefarious deception to facilitate the eradication of file-based media, recent reports say otherwise.

Apple's intentions are clear in the function of their products; it's fair to say that they're definitely doing their part to usher in the streaming-only era as soon as possible, contrary to their current stance. With Apple Music being one of Apple's most precious endeavors in recent memory, what they do with it and implement throughout it can lead to a fair assumption about their plans for the future. The fact that they hope to replace your physical media with cloud-based placeholder copies that they own speaks volumes about their intentions. As evidenced by music-hosting and independent artist hub Bandcamp's recent (and firm) statement on their stance, this phenomenon is no phantom, and it's worth the immediate attention of the consumer. The insistent nudging of the everyday music listener to trust in the idea of an infallible, ultra-convenient cloud can not go unnoticed, and it should not go unchecked. The streaming-only initiative is here, and it's as much of a threat to artists as it is to music collectors and lovers everywhere.

To be clear, streaming, as a concept, is not the enemy. Digital space is precious, and as ease of use and access to the internet has grown, becoming faster and more widespread along with the navigation of it becoming exponetionally more intuitive, streaming emerged as a natural step in evolution due to its immediacy and practicality. Who wouldn't want to stream something before deciding if it's worth the drive space a download would occupy? The issue arises as streaming is being looked to by the music industry as a golden ticket business model, a model in which they, and the services, are the primary benefactors (hoping to halt and reverse an over decade-long decline in profitability) and the consumer is left to sort through the mess they've made of the market in the process. Views, Drake's fourth studio album, was distributed exclusively by Apple during its first week of release through both Apple Music and iTunes, possibly the intended endgame of the reported $19 million exclusivity deal he signed with them last year. Given that the partnership paid off handsomely for Apple on multiple fronts, we should not only expect Apple to find more artists to protect and bolster their venture into the streaming arena, but expect battle lines in the marketplace to be drawn with more definition and frequency -- a true nightmare for the listener.

Towards the end of 2014, Taylor Swift took her catalog off of Spotify, claiming that streaming services inherently "devalued" art. However, Swift promptly announced that she was headed to then new streaming competitor Apple Music, essentially expressing that it was the lesser of two evils because, unlike Spotify, they didn't have a free tier for listeners, which kept a set premium on the art and also boasted higher royalty payouts for the artist. What was certainly meant to be a firm stance on behalf of the welfare of the artist, Swift, one of the biggest artists on the planet, only helped to further fracture the market, fuel the competitive fire between corporations, and force her fans, who may have already been subscribed to Spotify, to subscribe to yet another service if they wanted to hear her music. To date, the only place to stream Taylor Swift's multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning album 1989 is on Apple Music.

Beyoncé, Kanye West and Rihanna all saw Tidal-exclusive releases of their latest albums during their initial window of availability (West's The Life of Pablo didn't surface on iTunes until almost two months after it was first released on Tidal). Looking forward, one could expect these battles over exclusivity to spread outward in even more unpleasant ways. Who's to say we won't see mobile carriers teaming up with streaming services (i.e. AT&T and Apple Music, Verizon and Spotify, Sprint and Tidal, etc.) and inking their own exclusive deals, offering certain advantages such as discounted prices on subscriptions to their partnered streaming service or lowered/eliminated data usage costs when using said service (a hurdle which has still yet to be addressed)? Ultimately, the music industry is risking irreparable damage to the way music is consumed by going full steam ahead with the concept of exclusivity, but they're showing no signs of slowing down.

Still, why the industry's sudden preoccupation with subscription streaming services to begin with? Why the sudden and spirited reallocation of energy? Interestingly enough, when streaming services first arrived on the scene, they were despised by labels for murky distribution loopholes and viewed as a passing fad. Now, it seems that they've changed their tune, presumably because, in classic, late-to-the-party music industry fashion, they are finally seeing the utility in what they initially shunned and are looking to co-opt it. Viewing it as a way to revive an increasingly shrinking bottom line, streaming services are now the music industry's way of desperately trying to maintain a hold on the last bastion of their power and influence. Streaming services are the latest attempt to reverse financial losses instead of accepting they were washed away forever by the introduction of Napster and other peer-to-peer file sharing programs that followed in it's wake. When those programs were eventually eradicated, countless other methods to obtain material sprung up, which should have showed the resilience and adaptability of the internet. However, the industry continued to swim upstream. Instead of recognizing the internet's fluidity, accepting that piracy has grown far beyond any method of effective policing, and choosing to evolve with the rapidly changing digital landscape, they're fighting tooth-and-nail to protect a crumbling, archaic business model where they keep the majority and dispense to the artist what they see fit. The effort may very well be futile -- it's well-documented that, at least in its current stage, the profitability of streaming services is still unproven, and nowhere close to the success they'd like the general public to think it is. In an effort to get a hold of the fact that music has gone more and more independent of "the business", record labels are effectively holding music hostage from the consumer, making it so that if you want music going forward, you have to get it through them.

One must wonder how the independent artist fits into this new era of music consumption. As the growth of the internet brought along a huge influx of artists, the industry may have developed a contempt for outlets that allowed artists outside of the major label system to promote and share their work without constraints. Artists have been gaining notoriety from releasing free music -- mixtapes, EPs, albums -- boosting their visibility, gaining a fanbase, and maintaining a livelihood, often without significant assistance from any major record label. With these record labels seeing that this was something that was greatly influencing the industry without them having their hands in it, let alone profiting from it, it was only inevitable that they'd turn their attention towards it with a clear message: they "own" music, it's "their" industry and they don't intend to let go of it.

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Melvin Burch is a 23-year-old musician currently residing in Belleville, Illinois. I discovered Melvin in 2011 when he began self-releasing his music, an inspired mix of heady lyricism and sardonic pop songwriting often over a self-produced musical accompaniment, to the world via free music-hosting websites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Melvin has managed to build a small but loyal following online without any management, notable industry connections or affiliations to high-profile artists. There's certainly a ceiling for independent artists without these additional resources, but when sites like Bandcamp & SoundCloud came to prominence in the early 2010s, there was a lot of talk that the playing field had now been leveled as a result of these distribution platforms picking up steam and hosting projects and singles from major artists and unknowns alike.

Enter 2016.

Last week, Melvin contacted me, letting me know that he had received an email from SoundCloud notifying him that a track he had uploaded over four years ago had been taken down for infringing copyright. The track was recorded back in 2012 over a beat originally used by Common. The upload was for promotional use only and not for sale -- a "freestyle", if you will. What's especially interesting is that this track hadn't been availible for public consumption in quite some time, as he had it set to "private" for well over a year, prompting him to wonder what made SoundCloud suddenly take interest in it. Regardless, the track was a target for copyright violation. Perhaps SoundCloud either isn't aware or doesn't care, but there has been a long-standing tradition in hip-hop of taking another artist's musical backdrop for a spin, usually with the purpose of giving it a new interpretation. These copyright detection algorithms are egregiously flawed, not taking into account the nuance of each individual upload. With regard to DJs, one of the primary user bases that helped increase SoundCloud's visibility, the company responded with denial in the vein of Apple, claiming they won't be blocking DJ mixes that aren't fully cleared, although the way their site currently functions completely contradicts that assertion.

In the specific case of SoundCloud, if they cared about the user base that brought them to prominence, they would address their nightmare of a system, utterly rampant in its "takedowns" of tracks and artist profiles (care to explain this?), and find a way to work reason into their indiscriminate equation that was implemented to cease the supposedly extensive copyright infringement on their site that brought the ire of major labels upon them in the first place. However, instating a stubbornly robotic system to address what is the explicitly human medium of creativity and the sharing of such, doesn't seem all that thoughtful to begin with. It's quite possible that the lack of concern is absent because they're too deep in debt to start appeasing creatives and revise their wayward effort to pander to major labels chasing copyright profits. In the wake of receiving SoundCloud's takedown notice, Melvin decided to delete all of his remaining catalog, over five years worth of toiling and creativity (a prolific 200+ free tracks, both vocal recordings and sample-heavy instrumentals), as a preemptive measure against what he felt would be an inevitable termination of his account, which has, as of this writing, accrued a modest but hard-earned 413 followers.

"I figured it was the most logical course of action after receiving my first notice," Melvin said about choosing to delete the rest of his music. "For the past few years, I'd been lucky enough to somehow avoid it, only bearing witness to the havoc around me, but I knew I would eventually find myself in the crosshairs. [SoundCloud] was seemingly coming for everyone, for anything, valid violation or not. It was disheartening watching how erratic it all seemed to be. Artists with a much bigger name than mine were being hit as well, so I've pretty much been on eggshells this entire time. I'm sort of relieved I finally got [a notice]." Continuing about his observation of SoundCloud's takedowns, which he referred to as a "witchhunt," Melvin stressed that the appeal process was a "crapshoot," as most artists he'd heard from said they would try to contact SoundCloud to no avail. "Sometimes, they'd send you all three strikes at once, which meets their grounds for account termination. How is it fair to do that when they not only hardly reply to appeals in the first place, but basically negate your ability to appeal at all? You can't appeal, because your account no longer exists. It got terminated in one fell swoop."

The future of the medium going forward will affect creatives across the board, from self-funded independent artists all the way up to those who are already established as canon. In February of 2014, De La Soul made waves by releasing their entire discography as a free download for a 24-hour period to make up for the fact a decent majority of their catalog is absent or appears incomplete across streaming services and digital download outlets due to sample clearance issues. 3 Feet High & Rising, De La's seminal debut album is established rap canon, but as a result of outdated and unfair sample laws, no longer accessible to the casual listener. Perhaps most distressing is the fact that because of unreasonable copyright law and the streaming takeover, many independent artists may not even find the exposure necessary to become part of the canon conversation, much less the musical economy.

In 2016, we are witness to a gradual downsizing and disenfranchisement of independent musicians. SoundCloud, as artists once knew it, is dead, a major platform that took to its grave the means to freely share one's art. After the major labels essentially derailed SoundCloud with a barrage of copyright concerns, they bought them out and essentially paved the way for the introduction of SoundCloud Go, yet another streaming service in an already over-saturated market, and one that has a rather sizable amount of catching up to do if it hopes to reach behemoths like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, who've enlisted high-profile artists to help champion their brands. Ownership of digital files and physical media may very well be getting phased out with the co-sign of the biggest names in the industry (and to to their apparent delight). Hard drive capacity in devices is being reduced because of the increased promotion of "the cloud" being the more convenient way to store and access files. Meanwhile, for sites like Bandcamp, there's a healthy degree of optimism about the future. It's admirable, and perhaps they can be a beacon of spirited light as the music industry continues to head full-speed into potentially destructive territory.

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Lyle Horowitz is a musician, writer and podcaster currently residing in Los Angeles, California. He is one half of the rap duo Blahzé Misfits and co-host of the pro-wrestling podcast Pencil Neck Geeks.

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