In 1998, the Brooklyn-based hip-hop duo Black Star — made up of emcees Mos Def and Talib Kweli—released their debut album, “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” to critical acclaim. The project was celebrated for the chemistry between the two members and its socially conscious lyrics about being a Black person in America. Following this production, both rappers had successful solo careers. Over 20 years later, on May 3, Black Star came out with their highly anticipated sophomore album, “No Fear of Time.” While the initial buzz centered around the music itself, conversation shifted to the work’s exclusive online release on the subscription podcast network Luminary. Black Star’s decision to only release the album on a relatively obscure platform relates to larger discussions about streaming platforms and fairly compensating artists.
Brief History of Music Streaming Platforms
The first music streaming service, Napster, went live in 1999. The platform attracted American college students who would share and download MP3 files off the website for free. The shared songs did not only come from publicly released CDs, but also included “rare live versions, alternate cuts, and demo versions of their favourite artists.” As the site gained more and more traction, Napster’s existence began to anger the music industry and many musical artists. In December of the same year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a $20 billion lawsuit against the company, claiming “music piracy” and general copyright infringement. Metallica and Dr. Dre also filed separate suits after uncompleted tracks were posted online. Napster shut down in 2001. This, however, did not stop people from posting, sharing and downloading music. The crackdowns from the RIAA were not enough to stop internet users from listening to what they wanted without cost.
In 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Store, which allowed consumers to purchase songs for the extremely low price of 99 cents and add them to their iPods — now known as an iPod Classic. Because music was now relatively cheap and piracy services had become notorious for infecting computers with viruses, the public was now more willing to pay for music.
Music streaming services were a talking point again with the release of Pandora in 2005. The first of its kind, the platform recommended new songs and albums to listeners based on their user history and recorded preferences. Services of this nature slowly attracted people, thanks especially to the music sharing abilities on social media sites like Myspace and Facebook. The eventual boom occurred in 2013 with the popularity of Spotify and the eventual creation of Apple Music in 2015. Streaming platforms continue to make billions of dollars each year and serve large portions of the global population.
Exclusive Album Releases
“No Fear of Time” is not the only album to be released on a single streaming service. A prime example is the celebrity-backed platform Tidal, which, at one point, held the exclusive streaming rights to Jay-Z’s catalog. Some other titles that could only be accessed through the platform included Rihanna’s “Anti,” Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade“; now, these works are available on all music streaming sites. Each of the mentioned artists had financial stakes in Tidal, so putting their new releases on the platform first helped to expand their user base and make them more money than if they had placed them on a multitude of services.
While companies employed this tactic five years ago, it is no longer common or even considered the best business decision to release an album on only one streaming website. Most of the exclusive content on these platforms are interviews, podcasts and specifically curated playlists. The music is the reason why the sites are successful, but services like Spotify and Apple Music differentiate themselves with their commentary and discussion-based content. Black Star’s exclusive “No Fear of Time” deal with Luminary goes against the grain, however, and lets the group reassert artistic and financial control over their work. This was a deliberate decision.
Supporting Artists Versus Convenience
Music streaming platforms have an inherent contradiction built into them: How can these services be priced in a way that makes them affordable to the general public and simultaneously pay artists what they deserve? At the moment, these companies have leaned toward the former, with most sites priced at around $10 per month for one user and between $15 to $20 dollars monthly for family plans; college students, if they have an email that ends in .edu, can subscribe for close to $5 a month. With these plans, more people than ever can listen to and discover more music than ever before. Plus, websites like YouTube have content users can watch for free with occasional ads. These systems have heavily benefitted the consumer, which in turn, has made the services millions to billions of dollars yearly.
The second half of the matter is where a problem arises. To make as much profit as possible, music streaming platforms pay musicians at a per-stream rate that can only be described as abysmal. According to Headphonesty, a majority of these platforms will pay artists less than a cent per play. The two platforms that do pay at or above that rate are Tidal and Apple Music with the former awarding $.012 per play and the latter paying $.01 per play. To make $1000 dollars, an artist would need 83,333 plays on Tidal and 100,000 listens on Apple Music. Spotify, YouTube Music and Pandora give out much less money. For Spotify, it’s $.0033 per play and 303,030 listens are needed to earn $1000. YouTube Music shells out $.002 for each stream, or $1,000 for every 500,000 plays. Pandora is the worst, with $.0013 per listen and 769,231 are required to get $1,000. If you are not a popular singer with a global fanbase like Ariana Grande or Ed Sheeran, making a living off of these platforms is nearly impossible.
The royalty rates of these platforms are already so small, but Spotify has added a feature that pays artists even less. In November 2020, Spotify announced a new addition to the service called “Discovery Mode,” which gives artists the chance to opt in for a “promotional royalty rate” that pays less but promotes their music more; Spotify will favor their music in the various recommendation algorithms, but artists lose money in the short term. There are also multiple sites that will not pay musical artists during a listener’s free trial period. Apple Music does compensate musicians during this time period but much less than it would for paying accounts.
All of this is made worse when one considers everyone who gets a cut of the revenue; artists and bands on labels not only have to split their earnings with the record company, but managers and producers as well. Almost all musical acts make their living off of touring, even the bigger artists, so most artists walk away with nothing from streaming platforms. Independent artists receive a larger portion, if not the entirety of the earned money, but they rarely get nearly as many plays as singers on major labels.
Also, with the rise of self-made music and the availability of free music-making technology, the music market has become oversaturated and more competitive than ever before. Becoming a hit indie act is centered on the hope for a fluke TikTok viral hit. Because of streaming services, music has become devalued, which has hurt artists the most.
“No Fear of Time” on Luminary
Releasing “No Fear of Time” on Luminary gives Black Star control of their revenue and a greater share of their earnings. But this choice disregards their fans who would need to subscribe to an additional streaming service, one not even centered on music, to listen to a single project. Luminary costs $2.99 a month, which is not a lot but perhaps not worth it for one album that a listener could probably find a pirated copy of a week from now. To add on, most people already pay for more than one streaming service. For example, on top of paying for Spotify, many also pay for Netflix and Hulu; another platform would be too much to manage. The duo’s decision, unfortunately, has only addressed one side of the debate.
Will This Issue Ever Truly Be Fixed?
While there is no clear answer at the moment, a majority of this problem stems from the streaming services. These platforms are actively exploiting artists and their work while keeping most of the money for themselves. Companies like Spotify and Apple Music could pay those who create content for their sites more, but they choose not to. New platforms could be made with the intention of compensating artists with all of the money they deserve, but those sites might not be regulated. Music creation should be free and based on personal expression, but an unchecked atmosphere without any set standards and practices would lead to more issues with copyright and distribution.
Despite this, the industry that does exist needs to change. However, it probably will not without pressure from its customer base. Rallying enough users to make a substantial enough impact would be near impossible. People should be able to listen to music if they desire to do so and encouraging them to stop streaming would not work. Moreover, the general public is not responsible for these companies and how they function. Of course, people should be conscious consumers, but their sway over the streaming services themselves is limited. While Black Star and “No Fear of Time” tried to do something different, they did not successfully innovate the systems already put in place for music distribution. Hopefully, a solution will arise sooner than later.