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Gary Suarez is a New York-based music critic and industry expert. Here, he argues it’s time we adjust our listening habits online to support independent artists and labels.

With more than 140 million active users worldwide and an official presence in 62 countries, Spotify pretty much owns streaming music.

A data powerhouse, the platform not only tracks its users’ music consumption and habits but, in practice, seeks to guide and direct them. Curated, frequently updated playlists with global followings in the multi-millions like Rap Caviar and Viva Latino serve the function that terrestrial radio once did, delivering the latest genre hits and driving charts. It also provides personalised playlists and recommendations daily, all driven by complex algorithms. With option paralysis – what should I listen to? – systematically eradicated by computational convenience, Spotify users need to do very little to find the music they’re interested in.

Not surprisingly, these easy options tend to favour major label content. In December 2017 the widely shared ‘My Spotify Wrapped’ feature revealed the striking conformity of listeners’ top played artists. And that’s hardly limited to Spotify. With over 30 million subscribers, Apple Music emblazoned its apps with the declaration that 2017’s most streamed artist on the platform was Drake. Global SoundCloud figures show that Lil Uzi Vert had the top hip-hop track and album of the year in XO Tour Llif3 and Luv Is Rage 2 – both released via Atlantic. Of the site’s non-rap material, the most played RnB song was SZA’s Love Galore (RCA) and the top rock cut was Linkin Park’s Heavy (Warner Bros).

While debating which oligarchy has the most power in today’s industry – content deliverers versus content providers – deserves its own article, it remains fairly clear that independent artists and labels still operate from positions of tremendous weakness and competitive disadvantage. Perhaps even more so now than before, the economies of scale that separate a major label record’s success from an indie’s become more glaring when faced with the relatively meagre royalty realities of streaming.

"An ethical responsibility looms over those who care about supporting artists and labels"

Beginning with Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing, the digital revolution was supposed to make music more democratic, with a levelled playing field for music discovery devoid of payola and handshake deals. Yet that little bit of online anarchy shook up the music business just enough for it to reappropriate those illicit models into serving the profit motive. Simultaneously, as listenership shifted away from retail record stores, indies suffered disproportionately with the emergence of industry-sanctioned streaming platforms, where it takes an exceptional number of plays to match the revenue earned from a single CD or vinyl purchase. Generally oblivious of the economic impact on indies, consumers have little incentive to change their behaviour to compensate for the disparity. While the best thing anyone can do for an indie is buying the music outright, most simply won’t.

Taking all of this into account, an ethical responsibility looms over those who care about supporting artists and labels. Paying for downloads and physical formats, direct from the source or via middlemen like Bandcamp whenever possible, is the most straightforward way to materially support indies. But with the dawn of a new year, now seems a great opportunity to do a little more in a time of increasingly passive consumption. Though streaming income can look quite incremental on an indie label’s balance sheet, that’s no reason to not stream these releases.

With its normalised ease of use and low barriers to entry thanks to free and low-cost tiers, streaming rules the day. Yet Apple Music, Spotify,and Tidal all depend on usage to ensure their platforms stay current, recognising patterns and trends. Making it a point to stream indie releases – especially advance singles and new albums – at these places can feed the algorithms and prompt the decision makers to take notice. As such, labels that direct their social followings to pre-release content are potentially improving their artists’ profiles on those platforms, which may have a lasting effect for subsequent releases.

Despite fundamental flaws, there are ways to use streaming to promote real music discovery, none perhaps more powerful than playlisting. According to Nielsen Music, 74% of streamers utilise playlists and 58% create their own, making it one of the most viable ways for an artist to generate the plays payout. Spotify sees when songs are added to playlists, even private ones created for personal use, and won’t pass up the chance to feature music gaining momentum that way. When fans opt to be active participants driving conversations instead of receptacles
for major label marketing content, indies win. And that’s precisely the kind of positive result a new year’s resolution ought to achieve.