Revaluing music in the digital economy: an interview with Austin Hou from Currents

Written By Jake Colvin (NKC)

Where is the money in music?

Lars Holdhus asked himself this question on a panel discussion at Sonar in 2016, and he seemed totally baffled by it. He said that he’d been trying to think of an answer for the past two years, but he was yet to come up with a good one. The closest he’d got was to observe that it was now everything around music that was making money – events, headphones, and a type of lifestyle-focused service – but not the music itself. I think Holdhus (also known for his music as TCF) was slightly ahead of the game in asking this, from a musician’s perspective, and recognising some of the major shifts in the value of music that have taken place fairly recently. The question moved me to do a bit more research when I started ‘taking music seriously’ as a potential source of income. 

"It’s also the best narrative for the streaming services to circulate to justify mugging artists off..."

I found that there are a few sides to the economic devaluation of recorded music throughout the last twenty years due to network technologies: production, distribution and consumption. The consumption aspect is the one people tend to focus on. The story goes that digital piracy, turbocharged by file-sharing through peer to peer networks, destroyed the value of music by making it all free to get hold of. Enter Spotify and streaming services, which supposedly saved the music industry by creating platforms that people were prepared to pay to use because they were better and more convenient than piracy-based alternatives. The only drawback is, because they’re apparently competing with networks where music is literally free, they have to offer the same – granting listeners unlimited access to whatever they want by paying artists fuck all.

I don’t believe the piracy narrative, it’s too simple. It gained traction because it suits major labels, obscuring the strategic errors they made in response to the disruption of the music industry the internet caused, and its initial threat to their gatekeeping powers in the distribution and consumption of music. It’s also the best narrative for the streaming services to circulate to justify mugging artists off, paying us obscure decimals and telling us it’s better than nothing.

Any more complete story of the devaluation of recorded music needs to take into account changes in its production and distribution. It’s become easier than ever to make music. Get yourself a laptop, an internet connection and a cracked DAW, and you’ve got all the tools you need to make tracks that would have previously cost a lot of money to record in a studio. You can get them mastered inexpensively by sending them to an engineer, or do it yourself. You can upload them to an aggregator like Distrokid, Tunecore or CD Baby to distribute them to streaming services and online stores as a release. Practically speaking, you don’t need a label to invest in you and it also means there’s an enormous amount more music out there. These factors reduce the economic value of the finished ‘product’.

But that’s not to say that music is economically worthless. The people making money are those with the biggest stakes in the technology that provides music to listeners. Many artists not on major labels have learned how to just-about get by on their income from gigging, radio royalties and the occasional big win when their music is synced to video for an advert. The brutal withdrawal of performance income during the COVID-19 pandemic is showing us just how unsustainable that arrangement was.

This is why I’ve been on the look-out for a platform that empowers artists in my corner of music, and why I wanted to find out more about new project Currents. For now, it’s a website that is built around direct subscriptions to artists, who can create lists of music and upload their own, like OnlyFans or Patreon but focused exclusively on music. After talking through email about the site and the team’s plans for it, I set up an interview with its founder, Austin Hou, so that I could understand the possibilities of it and how it could deal with the devaluation of music, from a musician’s perspective.

I first found out about Currents through Twitter: artists whose music I like, and who are all within the network of scenes I follow, were tweeting that they had joined the platform to share lists of music. They also made comments about why they were joining – such as M.E.S.H, Zuli, Lensk – that considered the direct-to-artist subscription model Currents offers, the drawbacks of major music streaming services, and weak revenue streams for artists. As Currents developed from its launch in January, I joined up myself, and I noticed more artists, DJs and labels from what’s often begrudgingly called the ‘experimental’ edge of electronic and club music getting involved: SVBKVLT, NAAFI, rRoxymore, Roo Honeychild and many more. Having seen this loosely connected group of musicians sign up to Currents, I talked to Austin about his musical background and how he saw his part in these scenes.

Although not involved as an artist, he says that “more than half” of his listening and the shows he goes to fall into this area of heterogeneous music. “I feel like, when I’m listening to music, I’m really interested in feeling new things, hearing new sounds, experiencing new perspectives that I haven’t experienced before. And it kind of really falls within that perfectly, this rough genre”.

The importance of newness, in sonics and standpoints, definitely unites the artists I saw drawn to Currents in its early stages. Working within electronic music, they are also linked to the sounds and histories of dance music, both embracing and messing with them. This is another factor in Austin’s background, having spent a “good chunk” of his formative years in the Baltimore area rave scene. Rave scenes and electronic music have long been associated with oppositional and counter-hegemonic values and cultures. In ‘90s dance music, the underlying economic setup in many cities with strong scenes was also, perhaps by necessity, oppositional: it was formed of decentralised networks of independent labels, distributors and record shops operating mostly outside the major label system.

Where we find ourselves now is trickier to navigate. Opposition to dominant systems and an ethos of independence have been adopted as essential aesthetic values by cultural industries at large, but the economic systems musicians are funnelled into are not oppositional at all. Maybe the drive to create and participate in aesthetic and experiential newness can be transferred into experiments with fresh economic models and ways of organising music and value that go against the grain of existing options. At a basic pragmatic level, as anyone following the newest sounds and scenes will know, it’s not easy to keep track of your listening and organise your playlists when your favourite tracks are spread across platforms. SoundCloud edits, Bandcamp releases and obscure YouTube rips might be impossible to combine in a list without doing some digital ripping yourself.

Currents first arose in response to this problem. Austin tells me that it took shape as he was trying to build a way of organising all the music he’d been listening to. He saw the potential for a new platform and began sharing what he was working on in a message group on Facebook that he’d been managing, where a loose network of a hundred or so mutual friends had been recommending music to each other. “At some point,” he says, he “started spamming them with all of these ideas and sketches and screenshots … and then gradually things started to coalesce. Some of us were like, okay, let’s work on this together”.

"It was focused on sharing music in the way that it was “meant to be listened to."

Austin mentions an important detail about the message group: it was focused on sharing music in the way that it was “meant to be listened to”. As he explains, “the focus of it was sharing full releases over individual tracks”. In itself, this goes against the logic of many streaming platforms, whose main draw is tracks detached from the artist’s intended context and presented as single songs in often algorithmically generated playlists. Finding the label that released the music is notoriously difficult on these platforms, and searching for an artist usually puts the platform’s own playlist of the artist’s music, or a list of their most popular tracks, ahead of their actual releases.

Streaming services’ detachment of music from more meaningful contexts, in favour of a ‘frictionless’ experience, is something Austin feels strongly against. He believes that “their entire model is built to encourage this… They want to maximise for number of plays, right? So they’re going to automatically go to the stuff that you’re comfortable with, the stuff that doesn’t grab your attention, the stuff that you’re just going to zone out to and let it play through, as opposed to the stuff that you react to and are like, oh, this is something that I haven’t heard before or I find interesting in some way”.

This is an issue that writer Liz Pelly has been integral in foregrounding over the past few years. She’s written about the abundance of playlists on Spotify, for example, that are themed around relaxing moods, providing an inoffensive backing track to grease the wheels of the daily grind. Austin is similarly uncomfortable with these types of playlists, and their algorithmic generation: “They don’t work really well, but also they devalue a lot of the meaning that music brings, when it’s delivered so carelessly.”

The devaluation of music’s meaning might be secondary to many artists’ concerns with streaming services. The most pressing problem for scene-focused music outside the major label system is that streaming doesn’t pay. From the perspective of artists, the rise of streaming services coincides with the economic devaluation of recorded music to the point where plays are worth fractions of a penny, which hardly ever amount to much. This is all while Spotify, which became the most valuable music company in the world two years ago, loudly proclaims they have recaptured the revenue streams that were lost in the dark days of piracy.

Austin recognises this apparent contradiction, saying that “it’s not like people aren’t spending money on music … industry revenues have been going up and up, year on year recently”. It’s that the money isn’t going directly to the artists and smaller labels people might actively listen to, but instead mostly to “big faceless corporations”. These are the three major labels who have the power to position their vast catalogues of music most effectively on playlists, through what Pelly’s sources called ‘a whole network of back-scratching and gatekeeping’. The majors have also managed to claim a stake in the delivery of independent music to streaming services, even when not on their label, through their subsidiary distribution companies (Sony – the Orchard, Warner – ADA, Universal – Spinnup), and are themselves shareholders in streaming companies such as Spotify. Artists not signed to major labels are rarely featured on big playlists, which is where the real money is, and so receive negligible income from streaming even when they have a committed fanbase.

A platform that’s provided a needed economic boost to smaller artists and labels recently is Bandcamp. It allows artists to set their own pricing, or to set the default price at zero and ask listeners to pay what they like. It’s quick and easy for artists to upload music, meaning that it contains a more varied selection of tracks that might be screened out by a distributor or aggregator due to audio quality, genre, or copyright infringement if you tried to submit them to streaming services. Bandcamp take a 10-15% cut, and PayPal take a further small percentage for processing the payment, but the rest of the money is sent straight to the artist or label running the page, without cuts from any other intermediaries, and is received within a few days. For these reasons, buying music on Bandcamp feels good. But it also feels like a tip or a nice gesture. It’s hard to shake the idea that a model built around paying for individual digital music files is a bit old-fashioned and might not be something we can rely on for much longer.

"A lot of the purchases on Bandcamp are coming from other artists or other DJs, producers, and people who are within these communities, and not nearly as much is coming from the listener communities."

Austin recognises that Bandcamp is “much more friendly to the community”, but also notes some of its potential drawbacks. One of these is that “a lot of the purchases on Bandcamp are coming from other artists or other DJs, producers, and people who are within these communities, and not nearly as much is coming from the listener communities”. To some extent, this is natural in scene music, where the lines between artist, listener, DJ, producer, fan are all happily blurred. But it’s worth thinking about how to bring more listeners and outside money into the equation. Austin points out that a platform like Bandcamp is also “focused on one-time purchases that are not super sustainable” for artists. Part of the goal with Currents is to create a more steady and future-proof source of income for the people behind the music.

This may arise from first recognising that music gains most of its meaning and value through social and cultural attachments and mediations. Music sociologist Lee Marshall has recently put forward some ideas about the value of recorded music in platform capitalism that might be difficult for artists and producers to confront. He suggests that digitisation may have ‘revealed underlying sociological phenomena that imply that music is less valued by most individuals than has often been assumed’. Start by considering the way that pricing conventionally works in music: all records cost about the same in a record store, and all digital files on iTunes, Beatport, Boomkat, etc. cost about the same as each other, or vary slightly based on the quality of record sleeve or the bitrate of the file. This uniform pricing tells consumers that this is what a record or MP3 costs, not what a specific piece of music by a specific artist costs, leading people to think they are paying for the ‘thing’ the music comes in, not the music itself.

Building on this, Marshall draws on the work of another sociologist, Antoine Hennion, who argues that music doesn’t exist as an autonomous entity – like a sculpture or painting, for example, where there is one unique original – but always ‘requires a specific mediation to be brought into being and to have socio-cultural value’, such as records, live performances or maybe a rough mastered 320 sent round a producer’s friend group. From this, Marshall concludes that, ‘if music is inherently valueless and only becomes valued through specific mediations, then any value music may have is context-dependent, relying upon the social value afforded by those mediations’. It’s a daunting idea for people trying to make money from music, that it is ‘inherently valueless’, but it may help to refocus us on centring social, cultural and contextual value as the key to recuperating economic value in digital spaces.

This is an idea that Currents seem to be attuned to. They give artists space to write about the lists they are posting, which is used by some like a blog post to contextualise the music in their lists. They have just introduced a feature where artists can upload voice clips between tracks, to provide a podcast-like format without the need for editing or copyright clearance, giving personal insights on tracks or creating a narrated showcase of a specific scene or style.

Austin is keen to emphasise how the team behind  Currents is striving to realign music’s value with its social contexts. He says that with recorded music, the industry “has traditionally treated it as in a vacuum – the sounds that an artist produces, the releases that an artist produces – when really it should be about the people”, and should instead properly reflect “the relationship between the artist and the listener and the community that that exists in the context of”.

The team want to build a digital space that interacts with how the most exciting, scene-focused music is actually organised IRL. They have introduced a collectives feature as an initial solution for artists working closely together, which allows listeners to subscribe to groups of musicians who have joined up to offer their lists and content under one subscription fee, because, as Austin says, “there’s no real space that acknowledges this, as far as the larger platforms go, that [collective] relationship that is so core to our communities on the ground”.

Recontextualising music online and reshaping digital spaces to have positive benefits for music creators is essentially a political and ethical struggle. The streaming services that dominate now didn’t evolve of their own accord, they were shaped by the values and cultures of the people who founded them, and the economic model of platform capitalism that emerged in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. It’s important to consider the ethics driving any new project before you get onboard with it.

Austin is based in San Francisco, but he doesn’t have much admiration for the platforms that have emerged from the Californian tech industry: “if you look at these other companies, you can kind of see where it all starts from, where there are these variations on the ethos of: ‘move fast and break things’, ‘growth at all costs’, you know, ‘smash through everything’”. He links these cultural and ethical starting points to the negative impacts these platforms can have on their users, saying that “what this results in is some engineer at Uber will change around their algorithm a bit and then it will screw over the real people who are driving on the streets, on the other end”. By contrast, Austin tells me that the team at Currents want to move forward “in a way that is ethical and in ways that larger tech culture has ignored or has not placed an emphasis on”.

Dominant tech platforms have broadly resulted in precarity and the weakening of employment rights for the workers they depend on. The global coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the precariousness of a large section of the music industry. With the performance side of all music halting indefinitely almost overnight, everyone can see how heavily musicians’ income, and by extension the income of artist agencies, management, labels, music media, and more, has been on events. As Austin puts it, “we’ve had the collective realisation of how deep these cracks in the industry really run” now that it’s so obvious the vast majority of artists can’t live off their income from recorded music. This wasn’t really news to many people involved. Before the pandemic, “these problems were just as real but the cracks were papered over with everything else that happens in the industry. But when all of that’s gone, it’s like, what’s left?” I’d say this makes the task of working on new economic models all the more urgent for regaining the possibility of economic stability for scene-focused musicians in the future.

Although new platforms are shaped to some extent by their founding team’s values, having the best intentions doesn’t stop things from going wrong. Every new technology creates its own set of unexpected outcomes and accidents. Austin admits that “the problems are huge, and the solutions are not always clear, but as we learn more we’re really baking it into the core model of Currents”. It’s also an intensely difficult market. The success rate of digital music start-ups was recently reported at 4%, far lower than similar entertainment market sectors. Austin tells me that the Currents team are under no illusion as to how hard it will be, but, if it doesn’t work out, having been able to help a few musicians pay their rent won’t be a bad result.

The way that they plan to address issues as they go is through constant communication, with Austin saying that “it’s almost every single day we have conversations with artists and listeners and community members, where we run through the problems and their experiences, and what has been happening”. For now they’re focused on keeping the basic principles and design of the site close to the values of the team and what’s important to the networks they’re embedded in: “it is a very quiet and personal space, everything you see is intentional, and there are no ads”. They have also been giving 100% of revenue straight to artists since the global pandemic began.

At the moment, Currents aggregates uploads from other services. It’s reliant on them because the listener is usually streaming music from elsewhere. But it also facilitates artists uploading files directly, and some have started sharing alternative mixes of their tracks in lists. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities of an online space with uploading and streaming functionality being driven by people who value artists and who are embedded in music communities.

In 2017, at the coincidence of the blockchain hype and the economic woes of SoundCloud, Mat Dryhurst suggested people come together to develop a collectivised streaming platform using cryptocurrency tokens. It’s not hard to imagine how something like Currents could realise a similar vision. It will depend on the ownership models they pursue and the improvements they can make to the functionality of the site. But it will also depend on the active involvement of artists and listeners, and our willingness to get behind and use something new. It might take a collective withdrawal of effort from major streaming platforms. Save that energy you’d spend making a playlist on Spotify or organising your presence on SoundCloud, and redirect it towards a system that might help build a better future, or at the very least be more fun.

This article draws on research and writing by Lars Holdhus, Lee Marshall, Liz Pelly, David Hesmondhalgh, Leslie M. Meier, Antoine Hennion and Mat Dryhurst, and was informed by interviews with Luke Dubuis, Gabe Meier, and David Turner (author of Penny Fractions) I carried out in 2018.