Introducing a noble crusade
How much is a stream worth? Music fans were asking that question long before Spotify began its reign of dominance over our listening habits. A few years previously, we were asking if a 99p download was fair. Before that, we were convincing ourselves that pirating that song wasn’t doing anyone harm. It’s a conversation older than this magazine. I knew how to find ‘From Paris To Berlin’ on Limewire when I was nine. COVID-19 has made many reflect on these questions newly, though.
Our editor Stuart Stubbs said as much when announcing Loud And Quiet’s revamped subscription model: “This feels like a reset moment for music and the arts as a whole – for us to reassess what we consider a fair price for the things we love. Underground media and culture can survive COVID-19 if enough of us really want it to.” And as the advertising model collapses around us, rebirthed into something hopefully more sustainable, you reading this tells me that you think music magazines are worth spending a pound a week on. So what about a stream? 99p?
A lot of people a lot cleverer than me have been trying to answer this. The simple answer is that it’s complicated. How much of a cut is your label taking? How much are people streaming overall? There are a lot of variables that make it difficult to pin down.
What I’m here to tell you about is the kind of stream that feels the most valuable. If you’re a smaller artist who’s uploaded anything to Spotify off your own back, ‘<1000’ probably makes you feel some type of way. It’s the way Spotify presents tracks with streams that haven’t cracked the thousand mark yet – an arbitrary number that doesn’t discriminate between people who have just cried listening to your album, or someone who has fallen asleep with autoplay on in the background. Yet being under that threshold still feels like a dig. Not quite worth the effort of displaying in full. The algorithm’s way of saying “not very many, that, is it?”. There are thousands of great tracks in this predicament.
That’s why I’m announcing Loud And Quiet’s second biggest social campaign of the year: The <1000 Club. We’ve already helped someone break through.
Bevan Smith is a New Zealand-born musician who’s been making superb, diverse electronic music since the mid-’90s. His most recent output is under the moniker Introverted Dancefloor, where he explores vocal house and nerdy, Hot Chip-leaning electropop. Under the names Aspen and Signer, he’s made some of the most elegant and emotionally moving IDM ever released, and barely anyone has heard it.
That’s at least according to Spotify, where Bevan’s music as Aspen has sat under one thousand plays since I stumbled upon it one night. By any metric, he’s criminally underrated. Just listen to the drum sampling on ‘Are You That Retail Snob?’, from his 1999 album release of the same name. Ten different hi-hats bounce around the mix, each spaced so precisely that you can single them out. Creeping synths fill up the mix as the meditative spirit of the track takes over. It’s not showy, but the level of craft is obvious. Then there’s tracks like ‘Forgotten’, which rival Christoph de Babalon in their ability to create pure chills. Aspen is working with rudimentary drum sounds, but like the very best musicians, he knows how to draw beauty out of even the simplest tones. In another world, it’s up there with SAW II in the cultural memory.
It feels impossible that relatively little would be known about the musician that made this. We know that Are You That Retail Snob? was released under Aspen’s own label, Involve. He named himself after the tree, not the ski resort. He now finds a home on Carpark Records, alongside acts like Dan Deacon and Beach House. The shift in monikers might be cool and mysterious for acts as big as Aphex Twin, but for Bevan Smith, it means some of his best material gets lost in the streaming shuffle. Introspective Dancefloor listeners might not even know these albums exist.
But a few weeks ago, a barrier was broken. ‘Are You that Retail Snob?’ cracked the <1000 barrier. After I shared it with some mates, it sits at 1064 streams from 111 monthly listeners. I’m proud of us. If you ignore the fact that the difference between getting one play and one thousand is a few New Zealand cents, the landmark almost feels significant.
It’s difficult in the streaming age to feel like you’re having a tangible impact on an artist’s perceived value, when the value of music is calculated with vague metrics like engagement. Obscure ambient albums from three decades ago weren’t made for that. This (completely real) campaign is one answer.
Another would be to find a reset moment, away from just streaming. You could support the artists you care about on sites like Bandcamp, who have a long history of championing small acts rather than playing a numbers game, and who waived their share of revenue during the lockdown period, directly earning musicians $11.4 million as a result. Seeing Aspen added to their ‘selling right now’ page was about as satisfying as the weeks of streams it took to get that <1000 removed. Each month, I’ll be trying the same with an underappreciated artist and sharing them and my results here.
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