Music industry

Fake artists are what happens when the fandom dies

The subject of “fake artists” refuses to go away. For those who have been on Mars for a few years, fake artists refer to artists who stream under a pen name but create no artist profile around the music. Most of this music comes from production music libraries (usually “royalty free”) and is seen by the mainstream music industry (especially record labels) as a way to game the system – especially more than the assumption is that DSPs pay less for this music (even though record companies have started playing the game themselves). While the “if you can’t beat them, join them” might seem like a pragmatic solution, that of course only exacerbates the problem. Because the problem isn’t the fake artists, but rather how streaming kills fans.

Streaming is racing to be radio, not retail

Streaming is quickly becoming more of a radio substitute than a retail business. It used to be that retail was where fans went (engaged, smaller scale), while radio was where audiences went (passive, larger scale). As streaming grew in importance, there would always come a time when it focused on the large passive audience segment rather than the smaller engaged fan segment. But what’s happened is that streaming is turning everyone into a massive liability, even the fans. Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water from a tap. This may have helped boost the global scale, but it came at the cost of fundamentally eroding the cultural impact of music, making it a matter of consumption rather than fandom.

Streaming music accompanies our daily lives. There are playlists for everything we do (study, fitness, relaxation, cooking, work, etc.). By becoming ubiquitous, music has lost some of its magic. The inherent fandom of people buying music because they liked it is gone. The byproduct of ubiquity is utility. In the immortal words of Incredibles Syndrome: “When everyone is great, no one will be…”

The problem is that, from the start, Western streaming is for consumption, not fandom. From playlists to economics, streaming is all about consumption at scale. Songs burn fuel, artists don’t. Which is the breeding ground for background music, of which the “false artists” are only a subgroup.

The streaming ubiquity torrent

That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with consumption, after all, radio has been the lifeblood of the music industry for, well, almost forever. Labels have had a love/hate relationship with radio, but they’ve enjoyed the way it drives sales and provides exposure to songs and artists (especially when DJs talk about the music being played, interview artists, etc. ). With streaming, however, the journey of discovery is the destination. So the post-consumer part of the equation is simply gone. And an environment focused on consumption, adapted to the daily lives of individuals and stripped of the artistic context delivered by DJs, is fertile ground for background music. In fact, background music is the natural evolution of a consumer-driven system. A system in which artists are carried away by streaming ubiquity torrent.

Add to that low pay for mid- and long-tail performers, and you have a perfect storm. Why? Because artists are forced to diversify their income to squeeze every extra dollar they can squeeze out of their creativity, production music libraries are eager customers for their ancillary work.

Fandom moved up the value chain

Streaming may have killed fandom in its own environment, but fandom itself is not dead. It’s gone elsewhere (Bandcamp, Twitch, TikTok, etc.). It’s TikTok that has arguably done the most to reinvigorate the fandom in recent years. But, above all, he inserted himself before consumption instead of after this. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream music marketing campaign that doesn’t include TikTok as a launch pad for discovery and (hopefully) virality. TikTok has thus become the top of the consumer funnel. Yet, rather than filtering out what has value, the process is more like panning for gold, that is, filtering out what has no value – consumption. Fandom, identity, hobbies, engagement and connection are all left with TikTok, while consumption goes through streaming. It’s no wonder, then, that TikTok is diluting the cultural capital of streaming.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Chinese streaming services demonstrate that streaming can also be a fandom machine. Tencent Music Entertainment derives about two-thirds of its revenue from non-music and fandom revenue. But perhaps the most surprising example of the amount left on the table by Western streaming services is in the inaugural NetEase Cloud Music earnings release. 212 million music users generated 3.6 billion RMB. 0.7 million social entertainment users generated 3.7 billion RMB. Yes, that means an audience of 0.32% the size of the music audience generated more fandom-related revenue than the music audience in music revenue. Right now, if anyone in the West is going to stream fandom machines, it’s likely 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 doesn’t just lie in the earning potential. Fandom is the very essence of what makes music move us. Underinvest in it and the music will continue on its way to commodification. Which might serve streaming platforms well, but not the wider music industry. Fake artists will become the norm, not the exception. To distort the syndrome “when everyone is fake, no one will be…”