"It’s easier to standardize and mass reproduce mediocrity."

As the power of streaming services continues to grow, the internet’s impact on the music industry is clearer than ever. But with tech corporations like Spotify, Google, and Facebook exerting ever more influence and major labels holding their own, what becomes of independent music? How are our listening habits affecting music’s most unique and individual artists? And will we ever see another musical revolution? Complementing XLR8R+, our initiative to support independent music and culture, writer Sam Davies digs in to offer his thoughts on today's music climate.

XLR8R+ is a monthly subscription service to complement the main XLR8R site. Each month we share three unreleased tracks from three different artists—both known legends and lesser-known pioneers—that we feel are pushing the scene forward in inspiring ways. These tracks will be available for download in high-quality WAV format for the duration of one month; only subscribers for that particular month will have them. They will not be available anywhere else and there will be no access to archived material. You can find more information here

"The company owns nothing, the musicians own their music and everything they do, and all artists have the freedom to fuck off."

The above statement was once true. Or rather, the above agreement: it’s a quote from a contract written and signed by Tony Wilson in his own blood when launching his record label Factory Records in 1978. It was true not only in what it promised (to Joy Division, Factory’s first signees), but also what it symbolised, at the start of a new era in independent music when punchy upstarts with nothing but fresh ideas could become the biggest artists around.

Four decades on, independent music has been all but engulfed by the mainstream. Artists who would once have been celebrated for standing up against ‘The Man’ are now at the behest of major corporations. The impact on the industry has been drastic for both musician and fan, with a void of radical new ideas and a diminishing sense of what music is even for anymore. 

Defining an independent artist used to be fairly simple. Signing to an indie label rather than one of the Big Six (BMG, CBS, EMI, MCA, PolyGram or Warner) aligned musicians with a collective sense of fighting back against ‘The Man.’ The perception was that independent record labels gave their artists complete creative control, in contrast to majors, who promised far bigger financial gains at the cost of signing away your soul to the corporate machine. 

Majors soon picked up on the romance surrounding the notion of independent music and began using it as a marketing tool. A number of sales and mergers have left just three major labels, Sony, Universal, and Warner, each of which has several subsidiaries that are equipped to behave and appear like independents by catering to particular niche demographics. Meanwhile, established indies like Domino, Warp, and XL have become more like majors, structured around album release cycles and creating public profiles for artists. 

The corporate enemy is no longer embodied by major labels, but by giant tech companies like Google, Facebook, Spotify, Twitter. The internet democratised music, allowing fans access to an almost infinite universe of sound. Yet how often do we listen without using one of those services? The mainstream was once bureaucratic and slow, unable to respond quickly to the rapidly changing tastes of the public. But services like Spotify can meet every listener’s needs in a millisecond. Or at least appear to… 

The world wide web is, in theory, ideal for the emergence of independent artists. Anyone can upload music to YouTube, Soundcloud or um, Myspace — and millions do. But in a market where everyone is technically independent, who rises to the top? What determines the music we are recommended on Spotify, that pops up on our news feeds? Rather than provide a clear explanation, the internet overlords point to ‘the algorithms,’ complex coded processes which ostensibly match us with suggested clicks based on our browser history. 

Increasingly however, users grow suspicious. Artist and outspoken champion of independent music Mat Dryhurst has argued that a lack of public knowledge is allowing tech companies to carry out their will or—perhaps more likely—the will of the highest bidder. It remains a mystery why the algorithms prefer certain artists to others (I am asked to watch Jamie xx’s “Gosh” every time I’m on YouTube, for instance). 

While the mystery looks unlikely to be solved anytime soon, Spotify recently announced plans to begin licensing music themselves, bypassing the need for record labels entirely—and, quite possibly, spelling the end for physical releases. Although Spotify CEO Daniel Ek denies that the move will turn his company into a label, it’s inevitable that Spotify’s financial pulling power would dwarf that of any independent. Like Uber and Deliveroo, the system would benefit anyone with alternative sources of sustainable income looking for freedom to work as they please; but anyone reliant on music for a living would be enthralled to the will of a platform they can’t control.

Its will, of course, is for music that gets plays, music that gets past the magical 30-second mark and music that can be added to playlists, which attracts users, generates ad revenue, and makes money, of which roughly 12% goes to the artists. So musicians and labels, now more reliant on streaming than physical sales, are forced to make Spotify-friendly music and we’re left in a perpetual cultural malaise. Check out Spotify’s top songs of 2018 and you’ll find an almost formulaic homogeneity: hyper-polished vocals, predictable chord progressions, and endless big-name collaborations. And if you think pop is shit now, imagine an industry that’s been all but monopolised by Spotify, with music made exclusively in its image. It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror, and one with a bloody awful soundtrack. 

The old mainstream’s response to Spotify’s growing dominance has been defiant. In a recent interview with GQ, Warner Music Group CEO Max Lousada indicates that his main competitors are no longer fellow labels, but tech giants like Google and Spotify. Yet at a time when it’s easier than ever for huge artists to license their music directly to streaming services, a series of big moves reminds us the majors aren’t dead just yet. Taylor Swift’s recent deal with Universal is the label’s third with a global star this year, following the expansion of its deal with the Rolling Stones and a new agreement with Elton John, all of which represent wins for the major label industry in the streaming era.

In the same GQ article, Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer discusses the huge promotional campaign behind Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories, which the band knew would have been impossible without major-scale backing from Columbia (a Sony subsidiary). Encompassing billboards, television ads, and months of suspense, the campaign arguably eclipsed the music, coaxing the music press into almost unanimous appraisal for what is, if you ask me, easily Daft Punk’s worst album. 

In some ways, RAM epitomises 21st Century music. With its celebrity checklist and ‘70s funk sound, the album, like its promotional campaign, did little but remind us just how good these huge, established artists used to be. Stringer’s marketing was a triumph, but it was only possible because Daft Punk were already global megastars. The same can be said of Universal’s deals with Elton John, the Stones, and Taylor Swift. They paint an image of a major label industry in no immediate peril, but as unlikely as ever to take risks on new and emerging talent. 

The present era’s circumspection extends back to a time before Spotify, and is symptomatic of what the late Mark Fisher termed capitalist realism, the belief that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. Arguing that the 21st Century is yet to produce a culture by which to define itself, Fisher lambasted contemporary music’s inability to generate new forms without relying on tropes from the past. (It’s not just music by the way: cinema listings are dominated by sequels and remakes, while sport can’t stop making overblown tributes to supposed heroes of yesteryear.)

This has long been the case in rock (Fisher wondered why the Arctic Monkeys were never officially deemed a retro band despite basing themselves on post-punk styles of the 1980s), but electronic music is similarly retrogressive, dependent on its halcyon days of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. A fruitful trend of the modern era is deconstructionist club music, in which artists engage with the perceived brashness, earnestness or cheesiness of old genres while maintaining an impression of being ‘deep’. Acts like Sophia Loizou, Lorenzo Senni, Shed (under new alias The Higher), DJ Python, and rkss have taken choppy, sampladelic approaches to jungle, trance, hardcore, reggaeton, and EDM respectively, while deconstructionist schools of thought permeate the experimental pseudo-pop of SOPHIE and Grimes. My love for all the aforementioned makes it hard to be critical, but deconstructionist music’s reliance on old forms makes it equally hard to consider it entirely new.

There isn’t really room for the next Autechre anyway, largely because, well, we’ve still got the old one. Autechre’s decision to upload 13 hours of electrical fluff to YouTube was one of the biggest news stories of the month in electronic music. This was overtaken by the announcement that Aphex Twin has released a new line of umbrellas and beach towels. Other 20th Century heroes like Jeff Mills, Moby, and Orbital remain relevant through constant reissues and rehashes of old ideas, which gain more coverage and more sales than anything released by new artists. 

Further to this, promoters of electronic music, such as clubs and online platforms like Boiler Room, are increasingly dependent on funding from huge corporations, which makes new styles less likely to be discovered. In a panel discussion at this year’s ADE festival, RA’s Will Lynch suggested that an act as radically new as Autechre were in 1991 is unlikely to be successful in 2018 because companies like Ray Ban, who have targeted marketing campaigns at clubbers, would never attach their branding to such a potentially divisive artist. It’s also hard to imagine the next Autechre making it onto many Spotify playlists, crucial revenue spinners for today’s artists tending towards inoffensive music to fit certain moods.

None of this is necessarily the fault of the old independent labels. Warp was born in a largely pre-internet era when an indie could sell (actually sell!) enough records to break into the UK Singles Top 20 (as Aphex’s “Windowlicker” did in 1999). Those sales made Warp and other indie labels like 4AD and Ninja Tune enough money to invest in other projects which suited their ethos. No matter how much vinyl sales may currently be on the rise, the simple fact is that an independent label can no longer generate anywhere near the same income as it would have done in the ‘90s. 

With very little investable income, it’s increasingly difficult for new labels to create brand identities and give new artists the lucrative legacies of those from the ‘90s. Instead, their best bet is to make music that maximises streams, turning their art into commodity. “It’s easier to standardise and mass reproduce mediocrity,” said Fisher. And so instead of radical innovation we’re left with a stream(!) of lukewarm mulch, or "Spotifycore," as the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica has termed it

Tony Wilson’s Manchester club the Hacienda was the birthplace of acid house and the beginning of rave culture, out of which grew crazy new genres like hardcore, jungle, trance, gabba, and UK garage. Since then what has been the most notable new movement in music, the most notable scene?

When dubstep emerged from London’s Big Apple record shop in the ‘00s, the community was vibrant and produced some great music, the aftershocks of which remain prevalent. But dubstep was indebted to its preceding era in every way. The genre’s crowning moment, Burial’s Untrue, triumphed by conjuring memories of rave heroes like Goldie and Todd Edwards, while Burial’s Hyperdub label-boss Kode9 called dubstep “the ghost of jungle.” Footwork, a focus of Hyperdub’s later years, remains a promising micro-scene among originators in Chicago and innovators like Jlin and a host of Japanese artists, though its appeal is niche. 

The exception to the dearth and apparent death of music scenes, perhaps, is grime. Like dubstep, grime grew out of London’s garage scene in the ‘00s and became a thrilling new genre in its own right. It has also achieved what few underground genres have had since the ‘90s: mainstream success. What worries me is that many of grime’s foremost stars sound increasingly likely to go the way of American hip-hop, ditching innovation in favour of assimilation to the vapid mediocrity of pop. The ascent of Stormzy, grime’s first superstar, to Glastonbury headliner status is to be celebrated, but is there anything particularly new about his Number 1 album Gang Signs and Prayer? Starlets like AJ Tracey and JayKae represent reasons for optimism, but we can only hope grime doesn’t devolve into the Spotify-conquering fat of Stormzy collaborator Ed Sheeran. 

One of few stars bigger than Sheeran is Drake, the reigning King of Spotify responsible for 2018’s most streamed album, Scorpion. By including the phrase ‘happy birthday’ in a track title and listing Michael Jackson as a featured artist (because of a supposedly genuine, definitely weird sample from an unreleased recording), the artist—or franchise—ensured the album would appear in as many searches as possible. A Spotifycore album if ever there was one, Scorpion encompasses a shameless 25 tracks, an attempt to land a record number of songs on the US Billboard Chart at the same time—and a successful one at that. 

Yet as Rolling Stone recently pointed out, 63% of Scorpion’s total streams are accounted for by just three songs, “God’s Plan,” “In My Feelings,” and “Nice for What,” meaning that the current biggest album in the world isn’t even being listened to as an album. Instead fans are just listening to their favourite songs, or Spotify’s most popular songs, or the songs that appear in whichever playlist fits their mood. And who says they’re even finishing those songs? Streams register after 30 seconds, so from that point onwards the listener is free to move on whenever they please. Musicians’ creative focus is shrinking to accommodate this: they know that just a few seconds of brilliance—a line, a drop, a mix between tracks—could have them circulating on social media in seconds.

And it’s not just Spotify. iTunes favours a track-based listening culture too, asking you to give star ratings to tracks and delete unused items for storage. I would love to keep entire albums on my phone, but I want a broad range of stuff, so I edit them down to just my favourite few tracks, or just the ones I want on my playlists. Being stubborn and a loser, I make playlists myself, sometimes downloading songs just to add to a new collection, designed to match a particular moment in some half-imagined future. 

Usually built around moods rather than genres, playlists encourage eclecticism. In what many consider a post-genre world, the contemporary music fan’s fondness for a broad spectrum of styles is in stark contrast to the tribal days of pre-internet listenership. Once, fans’ tastes would be limited to what they could find in a record store and what they heard on nights out, which led to genres growing out of geographical locations. These tightly knit communities produced radical innovations, as artists tested the limits of what a genre could be and then tried it out in clubs the same night. It was testament to Brian Eno’s theory of “scenius” — where groups of people, rather than an isolated individual, achieve moments of inspiration through collective, complementary talents. Artists today are catering to an invisible listener who could be halfway around the world and who probably likes a little bit of everything; as a result their music is likely to be neither one thing nor another. The internet has made music global, but turned scenius into a relic of the past. 

The Importance of Independent Music2

I should stress that I, music writer and obsessive listener, am not blameless. I’m probably worse than most. I use Spotify all the time. I leave a unique online footprint all over Google and Facebook, liking niche Instagram pages like technothegathering, following obscure labels on Bandcamp, and subscribing to HATE on YouTube, allowing the corporations to target me with whatever they want me to listen to. Invariably I oblige. 

I’m as retroactive as any artist. I obsess over early Jeff Mills records like they were released yesterday. I’ve listened to more of Autechre’s 13-hour YouTube splurge than I’ll publicly admit. I spent £40 on an Aphex umbrella. I even listen to pop. All the time: Spotifycore anthem “God’s Plan” might just be my favourite song of the year, although I’ve never listened to it all the way through!

I’ve written about songs being worthy of this playlist or that; I’ve complained about music being stuck in the past and, in the same piece, moaned that things were much better in the old days. I started this article with a quote from 40 years ago. 

Music criticism continues to suffer at the hands of the corporate machine. Media outlets are increasingly dominated by sponsored content. Scenes were once documented by thriving music magazines like NME, Melody Maker, and a host of smaller fanzines which were unapologetically opinionated, knowing that criticism could benefit both them and the music. Now writers are constricted by a fear of upsetting the suits who fund them, or alienating big-name artists with industry backing. 

And if you, reader, agree with anything I’ve said here, then you too, undoubtedly, are a hypocrite. You probably found this article on Facebook or Twitter, thanks to the algorithms. You probably still download music illegally. You probably use Spotify too, and if you’re really bad you probably use it on web-player mode, with a particular kind of ad-blocker installed so you don’t have to pay for it or sit through ads. You’re probably listening to a playlist, skipping songs after 30 seconds or less, right now. 

The point is it’s not easy to stand up against 'The Man.' It’s more complicated than indies vs majors now. As much as streaming services like Bandcamp and Saga offer innovative alternatives, expecting listeners to boycott Spotify is unreasonable. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter, or Google for that matter, because no other service can offer anything close to theirs. 

All we ask is an understanding of the contemporary music landscape; an understanding of the harm being done to independent music by the major corporations on which we rely so heavily, and a willingness to think of ways we can improve. And understand that the independent musicians, labels, clubs, writers, and record store owners of today are more sacred than ever. Stay locked on XLR8R in the coming months to read about the people keeping independent music alive.