'Pirate infrastructures': Why more and more electronic artists are exploring new distribution tools to release their music

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  • We spoke with A Guy Called Gerald, music PR veteran Melissa Taylor and more about fairer models of distribution.
  • 'Pirate infrastructures': Why more and more electronic artists are exploring new distribution tools to release their music image
  • Electronic artists are increasingly exploring new and fairer ways to distribute their music, including some Web3 tools. The combination of the ongoing pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and decreasing rates of streaming revenue are causing some producers to rethink the way they release and promote their music. Tim Shaw, AKA Tim Exile, believes this is a pivotal moment for the industry. "The tools of the industrial media revolution are all about content creation," he told Resident Advisor. "You want tools that empower you to create single, homogenized media experiences that can be replicated millions of times. We're now at the end state of the industrial media revolution." Shaw's words are resonating with more and more people in electronic music. "The situation is extremely difficult," said French producer Maelstrom. "[The] end-goal of Spotify, Instagram, Facebook or SoundCloud (or even Bandcamp to some extent) isn't to help us. Their end-goal is to make money. And to do so, they need us to work for free, and to give away all of our rights to control any of the data and art we're generating for them." This critique is commonplace. Under current music distribution structures, artists are incentivized to keep creating more and more content to feed the algorithms. Gerald Simpson, AKA A Guy Called Gerald, has, like more and more artists, removed his music from streaming services. "You're fighting against giants," he told RA. "All I want to do is to put my music across to the people." So how can artists get music to their fans while battling these major companies? And where could that music live? Decentralized blockchain technology offers some solutions. As well as trying to change existing systems—such as asking Spotify to pay more money per stream—a groundswell of artists have been taking the means of production into their own hands. Recent examples include Maelstrom's NFT mix, Shaw's NFT-generating live music platform, Endless, and alternative streaming platforms, like Nina. Nightlife-focussed Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) such as Refraction aim to counter the effects of capitalism by giving artists and audiences control over their culture. These ideas represent a rethinking of dance music infrastructure from the ground up. But as Simpson pointed out, this isn't a novel concept: dance music has a long history of creating what he calls "pirate infrastructure." Reminiscing about the early days of jungle, he said the full music production cycle, from cutting dubplates to pirate radio, were all owned by the community in a parallel, fugitive economy. Simpson believes we're now at a similar juncture. He's currently working on his own blockchain-based platform, which remains under wraps. He's become well versed in blockchain technology and has learned to code as a way of ensuring he remains in control of how his music is consumed. But Web3 tools aren't a magic bullet. Blockchain technology is riddled with problems, from the environmental cost of minting an NFT to the current cryptocurrency crash. This is why there's room to explore alternative models of ownership that aren't necessarily tied to the blockchain. During the pandemic, music PR veteran Melissa Taylor, founder of Tailored Communication, sought out alternate music infrastructures by joining the board of streaming co-operative Resonate. It functions like Spotify (or any other direct streaming platform), but the ownership is split between artists, users (called "listener-members") and workers. "That's the big difference for musicians—ownership of the platform," she told RA. "This means they also control their means of distribution—because they own the platform, they can decide (by putting to a vote) what tools Resonate develop, the pricing structure, to sell things like stems, videos or lyric sheets, whether to go into live streaming, podcasts etc. And they can control what part of their art they make available and when—currently, using corporate platforms and digital aggregators, they're forced to make all their music available, all the time, whether they want to or not." At the heart of these new ideas is a rethinking of the relationship between fan and artist. Piecemeal and patchwork responses to the current music revenue models have failed independent artists. What's needed is more of a structural rehash. "We're trying to fix an old system and adjust a few percentage points," said Shaw. "But really we need a wholesale new solution to these problems." Taylor framed this in more historical terms. "Central to Resonate's ideals are growing beyond capitalism, the active recognition of the ongoing destructive legacy of colonialism, the embracing of privacy but also transparency, giving back artists control over their art rather than building yet another business with the sole aim of extracting and exploiting creativity for profit," she told RA. This is also what Maelstrom sees as the benefits of blockchain technology. "What's interesting to me is the possibility of deeper and more meaningful interactions between listeners and creators, where the border between both roles start to move a little, to shift, to change," he said. For Taylor, there's a tension between the old and new infrastructures as they both reshape themselves simultaneously. "There are a lot of new ideas and opportunities about—many of which I think are wonderful—but it feels like a lot of people are too burnt out or overworked to engage with them properly," she said. "So we're just doing the same old same old—festivals, labels, platforms, ideas. Then there's even more consolidation in the industry—Bandcamp being bought by Epic, Live Nation buying up festivals and venues, branding, cross promotion..." She added: "Companies that were doing well in the pandemic are now finding themselves laying off huge parts of their workforce. [There are] great little companies constantly being swallowed up, [while] tech bros build towards their pay-out exit off the back of artists' labor." As such, Taylor, Maelstrom and co. are careful not to become too messianic in their faith in Web3. "Now will [blockchain technologies] replace platform capitalism? I have no idea," said Maelstrom. "But it's up to us to try and use these alternatives, and shape them the way we want them to be (fair, transparent, permissionless)." Photo: Wes Hicks