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Protest Platforms: Music Streaming Cooperative Restores Agency To Artists

What does it mean for music to protest in 2017? The inherently politicized nature of music means there have always been countless ways to answer that question.

How does music embody or interrogate history? What is said and not said? Are the sounds new or challenging? How was the music released? Who gets a platform and who does not?

Platforms have always been part of shaping the potential for music to protest: the physical formats, the record labels, distributors, media outlets, shops, the vessels through which songs get from musician to listener, etc. Independent artists, punk labels, and do-it-yourself (DIY) organizers have long suggested that the means through which music is created and distributed carries as much political weight as the content of the songs—by subverting the status quo, making their own platforms, and creating alternative worlds.

What do these ideologies mean in today’s hyper-mediated, corporate digital culture? New enemies of agency now surround music communities in the form of centralized and exploitative platforms that musicians and listeners increasingly grow beholden to: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Spotify, and the list goes on.

In this three-part Shadowproof series, “Protest Platforms,” we will feature individuals who work on and advocate for platforms that confront the issue of whether autonomy and self-empowerment for artists can be achieved on digital platforms.

Along the way, the scope of the “Protest Music Project” will expand to show how music communities challenge business and power structures with more than their words and instruments.

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The idea driving Resonate, a music streaming cooperative established in 2015, is that everyone involved in the service, from the musicians to the labels to the listeners, own the business together. They vote on how to run the cooperative and share profits.

“We have to, for so many reasons, start taking economic arrangements back into our own hands,” says founder Peter Harris, an electronic producer and web engineer based in Berlin.

I first came across Resonate in 2015 at the Platform Cooperativism conference, an annual meeting of a greater movement by the same name.

Within the “platform cooperativism” movement, a wide range of companies and organizations work to create a more fair and worker-friendly internet via platforms that adapt the infrastructure of cooperatives to the digital realm, pushing back on the inequitable arrangements of the deceptive “sharing economy” and monolithic digital marketplaces.

A movement directory lists over 200 active organizations, ranging from ride-sharing companies and childcare co-ops to cleaning services and collective decision-making apps. One of the cooperatives listed is Resonate.

The most common understanding of cooperatives might be co-op grocery stores, where members work shifts, receive discounts, participate in decision-making, and sometimes receive dividends at the end of the year. It is an economic model increasingly associated with the concept of “solidarity economies,” models where communities work together to ensure more equity and fairness for all involved.

According to organizations like the New Economy Coalition, “Centuries of economic extraction have undermined aspirations for a democratic society.” Cooperative, ethical, and community-rooted enterprises are needed.

“Concentration of power in the hands of a privileged few is incompatible with the long-term health of our communities and our ecosystems,” the organization’s mission statement reads. (Natalia Linares, the communications manager at New Economy Coalition, is a Resonate board member.)

The participatory structure of Resonate is one member, one share, one vote. As a member of Resonate, this past week I received an email where I was asked to vote on the platform’s potential future design updates: “More song details, “Artist / Label browsing,” “File downloads,” and “Easier favorites” were among the choices I could select.

Screen shot from Resonate of streaming service’s goals as a cooperative

Since the late 1990s, Harris says he saw the rise of the tech sector and hyper-centralization claim a stronger and stronger hold on how music functions. He watched more power put into the hands of corporations unconcerned with making sustainable careers for artists while artists struggled to adapt, make money, and generally survive.

With Resonate, members aim to push back against centralization, against a music world dominated by Amazon, Google, and Facebook. “These business environments musicians find themselves in are really dictated by the needs of these very large corporations and/or Wall Street,” he adds. “The decentralization movement is really our only hope.”

Resonate is particularly interesting for the way it advocates for broad decentralization of data, power, and money in music.

The platform attempts this in a three-fold approach: the cooperative structure; the “stream-to-own” model, and the use of blockchain technology.

With the “stream-to-own” model, one pays for what they listen to rather than a flat fee. It pays artists more fairly than subscription-based services. Listeners eventually own the track (as an unlimited stream or download) after nine paid-for streams.

As for the blockchain approach, this involves the technology behind bitcoin, which allows for the decentralization of currency away from one central bank while also maintaining a secure, un-editable record of every transaction.

The technology allows for all sorts of data decentralization. For example, imagine if the data owned by a streaming service was not sitting on one central server in one room somewhere but instead existed everywhere.

As detailed on the Resonate website, blockchain helps facilitate the cooperative process but also presents new opportunities for artists managing and automating music metadata and licensing related work: “Being decentralized and distributed across the entire network, a blockchain-based system for music distribution could therefore solve many of the industry’s fundamental problems, everything from inconsistent credits to more effective payment distribution.”

Harris recognized the potential of a music streaming service based on its decentralization possibilities but wanted to incorporate its ideology with a similarly decentralized business model.

“I thought maybe there’s an opportunity to build something that can, at its very core, from a technical point, avoid this process of centralization,” Harris shares. “As I was just toying around with those ideas a lot, I realized very quickly, oh, there’s already a business model that’s been around for 150 years that matches up pretty quickly to that. And that’s the cooperative.”

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Screen shot from Resonate streaming service

But is Resonate a form of protest?

Like other collectives, different members are there for different reasons, with varied motivations and goals. Some members are most excited by the collective ownership model, others are most excited by the stream-to-own model. Harris says there is a “strong vocal minority” who view the project as “a protest against the current establishment.”

To Harris, it feels “as much an act of pure activism” as a solid business venture.

“I think there’s a sound business model behind our stream-to-own concept, but the cooperative nature of it is a protest against the dominant form of capitalism as we have it,” he argues. “It is a protest against these models that take advantage of artists” and a protest against the “existing relationships that major labels enjoy as the dominant centers of power.”

Of course, Harris has dealt with a fair bit of push back from the music industry. He’s become accustomed to those who will make comments like, “Oh you’re trying to take on Spotify? Oh you’re trying to take on Soundcloud? Good luck with that!”

Artists like Mat Dryhurst, who serves on the platform’s board as a decentralization advocate, see such statements as a cop out.

“It’s surprising to me, the conservatism, and how defeated people are,” says Dryhurst. “Why did you get involved in music in the first place if you cannot imagine something other than Spotify? It’s like not being able to imagine anything other than going to Walmart.”

Whether or not Resonate is a viable alternative to Spotify, which is currently the largest existing music streaming service, actually matters very little. Music does not need the next Spotify or any type of one-size-fits-all answer for all artists, as Spotify tries to posit itself. It needs a proliferation of alternatives of all types for all types of artists, and spaces for experimentation and learning.

Spotify recently introduced a new “emerging artist” platform focused on introducing listeners to the “next wave of superstars,” and its first round of artists were ones with existing connections to major labels and the mainstream music industry. That reveals a lot about whose futures Spotify concerns itself with and how Spotify is more interested in pop stars and the power centers of major labels in the industry.

In the face of a service like Spotify, it is easy to feel like there is no sustainable future for independent artists. But one is possible, even if it will take work from everyone who cares about independent music to get there.

Navigating a platform like Resonate, for example, is not currently without obstacles or bugs: the platform is currently in beta, and only hosts music by around 500 artists currently. Yet, navigating it feels more adventurous and interesting than other streaming services.

The tech world has sold society on the idea that everything about engaging with digital space should be convenient, easy, and seamless. But has operating on your own terms ever been easy?

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Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly