As we enter the new year, we look at the ways fans can help artists when the music industry is stacked against them
Being a music fan today can be a very insular experience. Massive streaming services generate playlists algorithmically tailored to your individual taste, social media companies shape your timeline in such a way that it’s harder for surprises to break through, independent publishers once committed to covering new music are shutting their doors, and the venues to experiment with unconventional musical ideas are closing down. Some artists are even calling it quits, unable to make a reasonable living out of their work, or compromising their vision to be more marketable. The financial power is held by a small group of tech companies and major labels, the cultural power by a small group of artists – and it’s the fans who ultimately lose out the most when things are organised this way.
2019 isn’t likely to buck this trend, but if you’re someone who wants to see music culture thrive, there are some small things you can do to give back. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should hopefully get you thinking about how the balance of power in music is currently held.
TALK ABOUT MUSIC MORE
Although music has never been more accessible than it is today, and social media has ostensibly made us more connected than ever, it feels like there are fewer and fewer avenues to actually talk about music in any meaningful depth. Twitter isn’t always a great place: it has a restricted character limit, for starters, and it’s also hard to find a niche community of people with a common interest when you’re in an open forum with millions of other users (plus there’s the whole Nazis thing). Below-the-line comments have become so toxic and so hard to moderate that more and more websites are shutting them down entirely, message boards and blogs barely exist anymore, and the venues where you might actually meet like-minded people IRL are rapidly disappearing.
It’s a shame, because without these sorts of discussions, being a music fan becomes a much more passive experience, and it becomes much harder to engage with a community that will push music forward. As somebody who was obsessed with music growing up, the conversations I had, either with friends face-to-face, or with like-minded people on internet music forums, shaped not only my own tastes, but my understanding of what I wanted out of art more generally.
If you’re someone who wants to engage with music on a deeper level than you’re currently being offered – beyond being served new tracks in an generated playlist, listening to the one-way exchange of a podcast, or having some terrible hot take appear on your timeline – you might need to search a little harder for your nerdspace. Thankfully, there are still places out there, from old school message boards that are, against all odds, still active (Popjustice, Kanyetothe, I Love Music), to the many Reddit communities dedicated both to genres (Popheads, Indieheads, etc.) and to specific artists (Frank Ocean). 555-5555, a new message board started by electronic duo patten, was explicitly created to fill in the “cracks” left by social media. I’ve also heard that tools like Mastodon and Discord are being used to build communities away from the mainstream internet. And there are, of course, local venues and DIY spaces. This year, find a place to shout about what matters.
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
It’s pretty much a given that, unless you’re a Drake or Travis Scott level of artist, you’re not likely to make much money from Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube streams alone. As such, younger music fans have generally been happy (or at least, not unhappy) to accept things that might have been considered anathema as recently as a decade ago, like an artist taking an advertisement sync, or doing some #sponcon. But what about those artists who don’t necessarily have an Instagrammable aesthetic, or who use their music to address the sort of things that won’t necessarily endear them to brands? They can’t make up the shortfall by touring and selling merchandise alone.
If you really, really like an artist, the boring truth is that paying for their music is still the easiest way to support them. This isn’t an argument against streaming – Spotify and Apple Music have tens of millions of paid subscribers between them, so for now at least, they’re not going away – but until these companies introduce the sort of direct fan-to-artist subscription and tipping services that companies like Patreon and Twitch offer, anyone who’s not already well-established, backed by major label money, or privately wealthy, is going to struggle to establish a lasting career.
Websites like buymusic.club, launched by Berlin-based DJ Avalon Emerson last month, offer playlists curated by established DJs while encouraging listeners to buy the music on Bandcamp, where payments are more equitably distributed to the artists. Companies like Resonate are trying to establish an alternative to the Spotify model. These are good starting points, but they’re not big enough yet. For now, if you’ve streamed something more than ten times, or you know the artist is not making music that’s particularly digestible on a mainstream level, it can’t hurt to go to shows or buy the album (or, hell, even just a few tracks) if you can afford to.
“If you’re someone who wants to engage with music on a deeper level than you’re currently being offered, you might need to search a little harder for your nerdspace”
STOP SUPPORTING ABUSERS
Last year, the #MuteRKelly campaign called for people to boycott R. Kelly’s music in light of the resurfaced sexual abuse allegations surrounding the singer, with the intention of cutting off his income streams. It was a rare moment of people power in the music industry, which, for all its talk of the close relationship between artists and fans, is a mostly opaque business. This sadly means that a lot of abusers (both artists and those operating behind the scenes) are protected and enabled by the industry, with fans unable to enforce any meaningful change. Short of a seismic #MeToo event (which, at this point, I don’t really see coming), there are unlikely to be major structural changes any time soon. However, individual stories of abuse will continue to trickle out, and fans should exercise their power, however small, to let it be known that it won’t be tolerated.
On a basic level, this means not streaming the music of people who’ve been credibly accused of, or have been found guilty of, abuse. It’s not just about preventing them from making money (as said above, only a small percentage of artists actually start to make good money from streaming, anyway), and I’m not somebody who believes that enjoying the art of bad people makes you a bad person by extension (if you really do want to listen to their tracks, get them on Soulseek). But a record label doesn’t discern between someone who streamed XXXtentacion’s music but was uneasy about the serious sexual assault accusations made against him in life, and someone who was perfectly happy listening to his music despite these allegations – they have no incentive to change either way. Just look at R. Kelly, whose streams actually went up by 116 per cent after the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries aired. These public campaigns aren’t perfect, but short of any serious, organised efforts to democratise the music industry, they can sometimes lead to short-term changes that shouldn’t be scoffed at.
REMEMBER THAT YOUR HEROES ARE HUMAN
When you’re a fan of an artist, and you have an intense emotional connection to their work, it’s easy to project on to them and see them bigger as they are. You see this most prominently in stan communities, where the language used to talk about an artist (or, on social media, talk to them) is getting increasingly absurd, but it applies to even a lot of casual fandom, too. The result is that fans often talk about artists in ways that forget that they’re human, and even when it’s well-meaning, it can have detrimental effects on their wellbeing.
If an artist hasn’t released an album for a while, it’s understandable that fans will be eager to hear more, but constantly demanding new material from artists who are already exhausted from long tour cycles and the financial pressures of releasing music isn’t especially conducive to actually getting it. Delays are rarely the fault of the artists themselves, and usually more to do with things like planning, professional obligations, internal record label issues, or exploitative contracts that were signed when they were much younger and more inexperienced, and they’re likely not earning enough to insulate them from the additional pressure put on them by fans on social media.
Fans should also respect that their favourite musicians might be flawed, and to not be in such a rush to cancel them when they fuck up. By this, I don’t mean to let them off the hook for things that are morally wrong, whether that’s flagrant racism, sexism, or homophobia, being abusive in their private life, or, well, pleading guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance (c’mon). But the internet would be a much more chill place if we exercised different levels of outrage for, say, an artist who commits a crime, and an artist who says something dumb in an interview. If we project our own ideals onto an artist, we’re only going to be let down when they inevitably fail to live up to those standards.