The impacts of streaming on touring, and rethinking the way we release music

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As I start to write this, it’s the morning after playing a gig live at Third Man Records Cass Corridor in Detroit (Oct 5th, 2017). Today is the 6th show of 10 on a short tour with one of my groups, The Kandinsky Effect.

For those not familiar with Third Man Records in Detroit, it’s a vinyl production facility, a retail store with a live stage, a recording studio, and is connected directly to Third Man Records in Nashville, TN. The whole operation is built on the creativity and passion of Jack White, and it’s an incredibly cool space.

And even in this place — which again could not be more centered on the production of physical albums — the topic is on streaming. After our show, several audience members walked up to our merchandise counter to ask if they could find and stream our music online. Imagine, I’m literally holding our brand new album in my hands, but getting asked about Spotify.

I know CDs have lost popularity. I don’t want to buy them, so I shouldn’t expect someone else to either… especially when it can be found online. And like most touring acts, we make up for it by selling a couple cool shirts with download codes, and have experimented with other items over the years. Ironically, the only item we don’t do is vinyl. We would love to, but our band flies everywhere and lots of airlines have weight restrictions. Plus, if you have ever toured France and had to carry all your equipment through the stairs of the Paris Metro, you would 100% agree that a crate of vinyl + luggage + equipment is not an option.

Luckily for our live audience in Detroit (and elsewhere), The Kandinsky Effect’s newest release (Pax 6) is on a label that distributes to streaming platforms. The downside is that doesn’t really solve the mystery of live sales and the void of merch income. This has become a major loss for any small-mid market touring project and I don’t see how that income can be made up, especially by streaming.

But there’s another side to these streaming platforms that I never expected, and that’s the social network connection. If success in social networks comes from aggregating content and maximizing exposures, how do we accomplish that with music, and should we?

I admit that I should have jumped on the streaming platforms a long time ago. Like many others, I took the stance that streaming was morally wrong and abstained. For me, the devaluation of music was too brutal to accept. Income from streaming will never equate to physical sales. CDs still have a street value around $10–$20 per unit, and earning that same amount through streaming requires thousands of plays (source). Anyway, this has been widely discussed, so no reason to rehash. The point is that I decided to avoid the platforms and hoped downloads and physical sales would be enough. And to be fair, a lot of us grumpy musicians made the same choice, so at least I am not alone.

Surprisingly, where this has hurt the most is with live gigs. People find new music in Spotify, and people usually go to shows for bands they know. If they don’t know you, why would they go to your show? That correlation is painfully simple.

With that in mind, what interests me now is the value behind the pervasive connection that exists between streaming and social platforms. It’s not just the “discovery” aspect that matters. It’s the connections — even to a small audience. The goal is direct exposures, which can lead to followers and hopefully bigger audiences at gigs.

Further to that, tech always changes. We see streaming platforms as they are now, but we should also consider where they might end up. Spotify is not unlike Netflix, so is it only a matter of time before Spotify starts producing their own “original” material to bypass major labels entirely? And what about the AI minds like Alexa or Watson? Already you can say something like, “Alexa, make me a relaxing playlist,” and it can compile the whole thing for you and stream instantly over your Echo device. You don’t even have to type anymore. What direction will that head?

Now that I am managing our artist profile on Spotify, I’m seeing that a paradigm shift has occurred, and it makes me question the entire concept of creating and releasing recordings.

As a producer, performer and composer, I’ve always had a deep respect for intelligently constructed albums. The effort and ingenuity it requires to make an album play from first note to last is a true sign of maturity, talent, and musical wisdom.

And now that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

AI platforms like Alexa or Pandora create playlists based on AI harmonic and rhythmic analysis, and then decide what to play based on basic machine learning. Every time you “skip” a song, that action is logged along with other people’s choices to skip songs, and tracks are constantly ranked. In short, the AI knows to replace songs from a playlist with something new whenever people start skipping.

It somewhat breaks my brain to write this… but albums don’t really matter in that model. What matters is ranking and activity, just like a social network. And if social networks and streaming platforms are valuing content the same way, does that make it possible hack this process by always having something new to release once your old material starts getting weeded out?

Unlike the Myspace era, modern social networks are smarter and people that follow your project are often blocked behind some kind of paywall. Facebook also hides gig posts until you pay for exposures, rendering all those hours spent building up thousands of “likes” a virtual waste unless you want to drop $50-$100 to promote each event.

This is where the synergy between streaming platforms and social networks can be used to an advantage. Facebook events can be synced directly into Spotify with Songkik or other event aggregation services, and Spotify will notify followers whenever you announce shows in their location. Further, you can also add photos, or post updates in your band bio profile.

The challenge is getting people to visit that profile on a regular basis. Why would they visit regularly when you only release an album every couple years? In comparison, you can’t put one photo on Instagram and wait a couple years for it to accumulate likes. You need to post new photos on the regular, and keep aggregating content to continuously collect new followers.

And yes, I understand that posting photos or tweets is one thing, and releasing new music on the regular is insane — especially when each recording requires weeks of rehearsals, equipment, recording gear, shitty mic sources that need to be re-recorded, higher budgets, etc. Totally impossible.

But this is why I think the mindset needs to change.

We’re used to the album being all mighty. It represents years of work, and thousands of dollars of investment. But once it goes online, it has pretty much the same value as a single. Keep in mind, your average streaming platform user will only hear one track on a playlist, and Alexa’s AI doesn’t really care if you release a full album or one song.

Again, we’re looking for social exposures, and dangling new carrots in front of a profile’s followers is everything.

I think the shift is to stop thinking that the product and content we create offline needs to be the same as what we distribute online. We still need albums to sell at shows, but what if we release in streaming platforms as singles or smaller groups of tracks? Instead of putting the entire album up all at once, just a few tracks can be distributed at key moments whenever there are concerts or tours to promote. This activity should attract attention and lead to new exposures, and hopefully more butts in seats at concerts.

I suppose this could lead to a discography nightmare, but who cares. I promise, Alexa doesn’t. When you look at your discography on a bookshelf, you’ll still see several CDs. The online version will be the same material, but more spread out.

Two separate release strategies.

Same music.

Same catalog.

Perhaps the only difference in the long term is one method provided online followers with a lot more carrots.

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