I still remember the first time I had a discussion with a band about picking “singles” from their album. It was something neither of us had ever thought about before. It didn’t seem very relevant in the underground music scene we were a part of. Sure, some songs were better than others, but studio time was expensive and an offer from someone to help release your music (even if they were literally operating out of a walk-in closet and didn’t know what they were doing) was scarce. And so every song on the record was going to be really special. Every song was important.
Indie records were always different than pop records in this sense. Pop music was always single-oriented. If anything ever defined what the term “indie” music meant (because it certainly wasn’t independence from the major-label ecosystem or its traditions), it might have been that the format was album-oriented. Indie music also offered an alternative to the world of mainstream pop. There was even indie-pop and pop-punk for those who still wanted to listen to fun, catchy music, but without the mainstream music industry’s use of pop for marketing—to make people feel bad enough about themselves to buy something.
And then there was streaming.
There have been numerous, valid criticisms and concerns about how streaming music will affect the independent music landscape, mostly centering on the lack of viability for labels and artists to survive in this environment. But in addition to the ways streaming threatens the future of an independent music economy, it may have already taken its toll on the present dynamics of the music itself.
If it even works at all, streaming music only works for hit-driven pop music. The user-end design of streaming music systems is one based on featured tracks, playlists, charts, and seeing what other people are listening to. Full albums can be found on the services, but are rarely featured content and can be difficult to find from artists with large catalogs if you don’t know what specifically you are looking for. Comparatively, it is easy to find the most popular songs from any artist on the service, and playlists consisting of their most-streamed tracks, creating uncontrollable echo chambers even within an individual artist’s catalogue.
This design effectively turns all artists into “greatest hits” artists, even ones for whom the notion of hits and singles is laughable. Tracks are selected for playlisting using data-driven concepts like “stickiness” to measure how likely someone is to turn the track off or skip to the next track; concepts traditionally used when crafting playlists for commercial hit-driven radio stations.
Essentially, a streaming music landscape is one that forces all types of music to be looked at through the lens of top 40 pop. Even worse for the viability of non-pop music in this environment is that actual top-40 pop songs, professionally designed to be consumed in this manner, are placed right next to them. Imagine a town that passed an ordinance that all coffee had to be served the same way for the same price and could only be sold in one part of town where your local café sat right in between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. A local shop with significantly better quality coffee would still likely struggle to survive due to the scale at which chain coffee is able to market and operate. This untenable environment for an independent coffee shop is the same type of environment that independent music exists in today on streaming services as they are presently set up.
Things have been bad in the past. For example, from the 1950s to the present, commercial radio has only served mainstream pop music. However, there was journalism and criticism with the aim of exposing people to music that offered an alternative to that mainstream pop music as well. Streaming platforms provide no real critical analysis of their content. And further, while it's a positive step that consumers are now able to listen to music easily without having to buy it, music journalism hasn't figured out how to survive in this landscape and is moving rapidly toward extinction. Worse still for non-pop is that music journalism’s best method to stay solvent in this new environment seems to be catering to mainstream pop music to draw in more eyeballs. Readers have likely already noticed a shift in focus from previously indie-centric publications toward mainstream pop music in an effort to survive.
The shift toward listening to music via streaming platforms that provide access to “all music” is one which moves further away from home music libraries created via direct sales and shopping at independent music retail. Streaming seems to grow increasingly popular year over year and hardware makers have signed on to make sure the most popular music playing devices are only capable of supporting music via streaming, thus “opting out of the whole streaming thing” is unfortunately not a viable option anymore the way it may have been at one point, and recent years has seen some of the most notable streaming music holdouts resign to the format.
This leaves consumers increasingly few real options to engage with music presented in a non-pop oriented manner, nor labels with many options left to present an alternative. The café I am sitting and writing this article in would not survive very long in the town described above. All I can do is sit and wonder how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy alternatives to mainstream pop.
Joe Steinhardt is the owner of Don Giovanni Records and a professor in MSU's college of communication arts and sciences.