The topic of ‘fake artists’ refuses to go away. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, fake artists refer to artists who release under a streaming pen name but do not build any artist profile around the music. Most of this music comes from production music libraries (typically ‘royalty free’) and is seen by the traditional music business (record labels especially) as a means of gaming the system – especially as the assumption is that DSPs pay less for such music (even though record labels have started playing the game themselves). Although the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ might seem like a pragmatic solution, it, of course, only exacerbates the problem. Because the problem is not fake artists, but it is, instead, the way in which streaming is killing fandom.
Streaming is racing to be radio, not retail
Streaming is fast becoming more of a replacement for radio than it is retail. Retail used to be where (engaged, smaller scale) fans went, while radio was where (passive, larger scale) audiences went. As streaming got bigger, there was always going to come a point in which its focus would be the large passive audience segment rather than the smaller engaged fan segment. But what has happened is that streaming is turning everyone into the passive massive, even fans. Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water coming out of the tap. This might have helped drive global scale, but it came at the cost of fundamentally eroding the cultural impact of music, by making it about consumption rather than fandom.
Streaming music soundtracks our everyday lives. There are playlists for everything we do (study, fitness, relaxing, cooking, working, etc.). By becoming pervasive, music has lost some of its magic. The fandom that was inherent in people buying music because they loved it is gone. The biproduct of ubiquity is utility. In the immortal words of Syndrome from the Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one will be…”
The problem is that, from the ground up, Western streaming is geared for consumption not fandom. From playlists through to economics, streaming is all about consumption at scale. Songs fuel consumption, not artists. Which is the breeding ground for mood music, of which ‘fake artists’ are but one sub-strand.
Streaming’s torrent of ubiquity
This is not to say that there is anything inherently bad about consumption, after all, radio has been a corner stone of the music business for, well, pretty much forever. Labels have had a love / hate relationship with radio, but they valued the way in which it drove sales and delivered exposure for songs and artists (especially as DJs talk about the music being played, interviewing artists, etc.). With streaming, though, the discovery journey is the destination. So, the post-consumption part of the equation just disappeared. And a consumption-first environment, tailored to individuals’ daily lives and shorn of the artist context delivered by DJs, is fertile ground for mood music. In fact, mood music is the natural evolution of a consumption-first system. A system in which artists get washed away by streaming’s torrent of ubiquity.
Add poor remuneration for mid and long-tail artists into the mix, and you have a perfect storm. Why? Because artists are compelled to diversify their income mix to eke out every extra dollar they can get from their creativity, with production music libraries being eager customers of their ancillary work.
Fandom has moved up the value chain
Streaming may have killed off fandom within its own environment, but fandom itself has not died. It has gone elsewhere (Bandcamp, Twitch, TikTok, etc.). It is TikTok that has arguably done the most to reinvigorate fandom in recent years. But, crucially, it has inserted itself before consumption instead of after it. You will be hard pushed to find a mainstream music marketing campaign that does not include TikTok as the place to kick start discovery and (if all goes well) virality. TikTok has thus become the top of the funnel for consumption. Yet, rather than filtering out what is valuable, the process is more like panning for gold, i.e., filtering out what is not valuable – consumption. Fandom, identity, recreation, engagement, and connection are all left with TikTok, while consumption flows through to streaming. Little wonder, then, that TikTok is diluting streaming’s cultural capital.
It does not have to be this way. Chinese streaming services demonstrate that streaming can be fandom machines too. Tencent Music Entertainment makes around two thirds of its revenue from non-music, fandom revenue. But perhaps the most startling example of just how much is being left on the table by Western streaming services, is found in NetEase Cloud Music’s inaugural earnings release. 212 million music users generated RMB 3.6 billion. 0.7 million social entertainment users generated RMB 3.7 billion. Yes, that means an audience that is 0.32% the size of the music audience generated more income in fandom-related revenue than the music audience did in music revenue. Right now, if anyone in the West is going to be streaming fandom machines, it is probably going to be TikTok (a Chinese company) and Epic Games (a company 40% owned by a Chinese company).
Fandom remains the under-tapped resource in the West, but its value is not simply in the revenue potential. Fandom is the essence of what makes music move us. Under-invest in it, and music will continue on its path of commodification. Which might serve the streaming platforms well, but not the wider music business. ‘Fake artists’ will become the norm, not the exception. To misquote syndrome “when everyone is fake, no one will be…”