In 1998, the Brooklyn-based hip-hop duo Black Star – composed of animators Def. Mos and Talib Kweli— released their debut album, “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are black stars», critically acclaimed. The project was celebrated for the chemistry between the two members and their socially conscious lyrics about being a black person in America. Following this production, both rappers had successful solo careers. Over 20 years later, on May 3, Black Star released their highly anticipated second album, “No fear of time.“While the initial buzz centered around the music itself, the conversation shifted to the work’s exclusive online release on the subscription podcast network. Star. Black Star’s decision to only release the album on a relatively obscure platform ties into broader discussions about streaming platforms and high-paying artists.
Brief History of Music Streaming Platforms
The first music streaming service, Napster, was launched in 1999. The platform attracted American students who shared and downloaded MP3 files on the website for free. The songs shared were not only from publicly released CDs, but also included “rare live versions, alternate cuts and demo versions of their favorite artists.“As the site grew in popularity, the existence of Napster began to irritate the music industry and many musical artists. In December of the same year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a $20 billion lawsuit against the company, claiming “music piracy” and general copyright infringement. Metallic and Dr.Dre also filed separate lawsuits after unfinished tracks were posted online. Napster shut down in 2001. That didn’t stop people from posting, sharing, and downloading music, though. The RIAA crackdown wasn’t enough to stop people listening to what they wanted for free.
In 2003, Apple spear the iTunes Storewhich allowed consumers to purchase songs for the rock-bottom price of 99 cents and add them to their iPods – now known as Classic iPod. Because music was now relatively cheap and piracy services had become notorious for infecting computers with viruses, audiences were now more willing to pay for music.
Music streaming services have once again been a talking point with the release of pandora in 2005. The first of its kind, the platform recommended new songs and albums to listeners based on their usage history and saved preferences. Services of this nature have slowly caught on, especially thanks to music sharing capabilities on social media sites like My space and Facebook. The eventual boom came in 2013 with the popularity of Spotify and the possible creation of Apple Music in 2015. Streaming platforms continue to generate billions of dollars each year and serve a large portion of the world’s population.
Exclusive album releases
“No Fear of Time” isn’t the only album to be released on just one streaming service. A prime example is the celebrity-backed platform Tidewho at one time held the exclusive broadcast rights to Jay Z’s catalog. Certain other titles accessible only through the included platform by Rihanna “Anti,” by Kanye West “Pablo’s life” and by Beyoncé “Lemonade“; now these works are available on all music streaming sites. Each of the artists mentioned had financial interests in Tidal, so putting their new releases on the platform first helped to expand their user base and to make them more money than if they had placed them on a multitude of services.
While companies used this tactic five years ago, it is no longer common or even considered the best business decision to release an album on a single streaming site. Most of the exclusive content on these platforms are interviews, podcasts, and specially curated playlists. Music is the reason the sites are so popular, but services like Spotify and Apple Music stand out with their comment- and discussion-based content. Black Star’s exclusive “No Fear of Time” deal with Luminary goes against the grain, however, and allows the band to reassert artistic and financial control of their work. It was a deliberate decision.
Supporting artists over convenience
Music streaming platforms come with an inherent contradiction: how can these services be priced in a way that makes them affordable to the general public while paying artists what they deserve? For now, these companies have focused on the former, with most sites costing around $10 per month for one user and between $15 and $20 per month for family plans; students, if they have an email that ends in .edu, can subscribe for almost $5 a month. With these plans, more people than ever can listen to and experience more music than ever. Additionally, websites like Youtube have content that users can watch for free with occasional advertisements. These systems have greatly benefited the consumer, who in turn has made the services millions to billions of dollars per year.
The second half of the question is where a problem arises. To make as much profit as possible, music streaming platforms pay musicians at a rate per stream that can only be described as abysmal. According Headphones, the majority of these platforms will pay artists less than a cent per piece. The two platforms that pay at or above this rate are Tidal and Apple Music, with the former awarding $0.012 per game and the latter paying $0.01 per game. To earn $1,000, an artist would need 83 333 plays on Tidal and 100,000 plays on Apple Music. Spotify, YouTube Music and Pandora give much less money. For Spotify, it’s $0.0033 per play and 303,030 plays are needed to earn $1,000. YouTube Music pays $0.002 for each stream, or $1,000 for 500,000 plays. Pandora is the worst, at $0.0013 per play and 769,231 are needed to get $1,000. If you are not a popular singer with a global fanbase like Ariana Grande Where Ed Sheeranliving from these platforms is almost impossible.
These platforms’ royalty rates are already so low, but Spotify has added a feature that pays artists even less. In November 2020, Spotify announced a new addition to the service called “Discovery Mode”, which gives artists the option of opting into a “promotional royalty rate” that pays less but promotes their music more; Spotify will prioritize their music in the various recommendation algorithms, but artists lose money in the short term. There are also several sites that will not pay music artists during a listener’s free trial period. Apple Music pays the musicians during this period but much less than for paid accounts.
All of this is compounded when you consider all those who receive a cut in income; artists and bands on labels not only have to share their revenue with the record label, but also managers and producers. Almost all musical acts do their touring life, even the greatest artists, so most artists leave streaming platforms with nothing. Independent artists receive more, if not all, of the money earned, but they rarely get as many plays as major label singers.
Moreover, with the rise of self-made music and the availability of free music creation technologies, the music market has become oversaturated and more competitive than ever. Becoming a successful indie act is all about hoping for viral TikTok success. Because of streaming services, music has been devalued, which has hurt artists the most.
“No Fear of Time” on Luminary
Posting “No Fear of Time” on Luminary gives Black Star control of its earnings and a greater share of its earnings. But this choice ignores their fans who would need to subscribe to an additional streaming service, not even focused on music, to listen to a single project. Luminary costs $2.99 a month, which isn’t much but maybe not worth it for an album that a listener could probably find a pirated copy of a week from now. To add, most people already pay for more than one streaming service. For example, in addition to paying for Spotify, many also pay for netflix and Hulu; another platform would be too much to handle. The duo’s decision, unfortunately, only addressed one side of the debate.
Will this problem really be solved?
Although there is no clear answer at this time, the majority of this problem stems from streaming services. These platforms actively exploit artists and their work while keeping most of the money for themselves. Companies like Spotify and Apple Music could pay more for those who create content for their sites, but they choose not to. New platforms might be created with the aim of paying artists all the money they deserve, but these sites might not be regulated. Musical creation should be free and based on personal expression, but an uncontrolled atmosphere without established standards and practices would lead to more copyright and distribution issues.
Despite this, the industry that exists must change. However, he will probably not do so without pressure from his clientele. Gathering enough users to have a sufficiently substantial impact would be next to impossible. People should be able to listen to music if they want to and encouraging them to stop streaming wouldn’t work. Moreover, the general public is not responsible for these companies and their operation. Sure, people should be conscious consumers, but their grip on the streaming services themselves is limited. While Black Star and “No Fear of Time” tried to do something different, they failed to innovate the systems already in place for music distribution. Hopefully a solution will present itself sooner rather than later.