First Floor #38 – What About YouTube?
a.k.a. Attacking Spotify is all the rage right now, but there's another company that also deserves our collective ire.
|Shawn Reynaldo||May 19|| 2|
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and (usually) some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the newsletter by clicking the button below.
ON MY MIND
I don’t like Spotify.
I don’t have an account, I’ve never been a user and I see the company as a net negative for music, especially underground / niche / local music.
None of that will be particularly shocking for anyone who’s even a casual reader of this newsletter, and in the current climate, I don’t even think it’s a particularly controversial position to take. For all of the company’s success, the general idea that “Spotify sucks” has become pretty widely accepted within music circles, and that includes artists and listeners who use the platform.
Spotify certainly hasn’t done much to help its cause, whether it’s battling against mandated increases in royalty rates or responding to the COVID-19 crisis with a pledge to match user donations up to $10 million (instead of just donating $10 million of its own accord, no strings attached). More recently, Spotify rolled out its Artist Fundraising Pick, which allows artists to add a donation button to their page on the platform. The idea has been met with some harsh criticism, especially since the entire program is a tacit admission that Spotify itself isn’t paying artists enough to survive, but even for those willing to take a more generous view and believe that the company is trying to do the right thing, its execution to date has been poor. Just yesterday, the invaluable Cherie Hu published an article as part of her Water and Music newsletter detailing why the Fundraising Pick program has fallen flat; moreover, she demonstrates how it’s clear that the whole thing clearly isn’t a priority for Spotify. (Just FYI, the article, which you should definitely read, will only be available to the public until 5pm Eastern Time on Wednesday; after that, only people who’ve subscribed to Hu’s Patreon will be able to read it.)
So yes, Spotify sucks. At the same time, it’s not the only bad actor in the streaming space. Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal, Napster, Pandora, even SoundCloud—none of these companies are compensating artists fairly, and they’ve all contributed to an environment in which music is increasingly viewed as a disposable, low-value and utterly interchangeable lifestyle accessory. Spotify might be the biggest bully on the block, and effectively serves as a stand-in for the entire streaming industry, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.
And frankly, it’s amazing that so little of that blame falls on a platform which is arguably worse than Spotify by pretty much any conceivable metric: YouTube. While Spotify is fast approaching 300 million active monthly users, YouTube (which is owned by Google) already has more than two billion. Granted, most of those users aren’t using the platform exclusively for music, but I think we’d all be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t listened to music on YouTube, at least on occasion. Those obscene play counts aren’t emerging out of thin air.
YouTube does have a subscription-based streaming service (YouTube Music, which is also included as part of its YouTube Premium bundle) that works more or less the same as Spotify, but it’s only just reached 20 million subscribers. (Spotify has 130 million.) As such, only a small percentage of the revenue that YouTube generates comes from subscription fees; selling ads is YouTube’s real money maker, and that is where the problems begin. Unlike Spotify, YouTube is a platform that allows users to directly upload content. (A digital distributor or song bundler is generally required to get music on Spotify and other streaming platforms.) As such, it’s a hotbed for people posting content (e.g. music) that they have no legal right to, and sometimes this is done in bulk by “channels,” which then monetize by allowing ads on music they don’t own. YouTube has made efforts to combat this phenomenon, and automated file scanning can catch more obvious copyright violations, but when it comes to smaller or more obscure releases, the practice continues largely unchecked.
When it comes to electronic music, the vast majority of which is released on tiny labels that often only exist for a short amount of time, the problem is particularly acute. Unlike major labels, which have entire teams devoted to this stuff, most electronic music artists and labels don’t have the time or resources to constantly monitor and maintain control over the use of their catalogs online. Even if we narrow the focus to active artists and labels, a significant portion of today’s electronic output is effectively “off the grid” as far as royalties and licensing are concerned, and the problem is even worse for music that was originally released before the streaming / downloads era. For many of those releases, YouTube is essentially a legal free-for-all, especially for artists who are no longer active and labels that are now defunct.
As much as we might all enjoy being able to go to YouTube and quickly find a stream of almost any obscure old track we can think of, it’s highly problematic that the actual owners of that music—many of who are getting older and could probably use the money—aren’t getting paid. It’s easy to say that the artists themselves should be keeping track of their material, but is it really fair to expect, say, a former techno producer from Detroit who’s no longer active in music and is now pushing 60 years old to properly navigate the streaming landscape and the complexities of being properly compensated?
Perhaps there would be more of an incentive for artists and labels to be proactive about this stuff if the potential compensation was higher. But even for tracks whose licensing and rights are in order, YouTube generally pays an even lower royalty rate than Spotify. Though rates vary and aren’t made public by the streaming platforms themselves, it’s generally accepted that Spotify is paying about $0.003 per stream. YouTube does pay a higher $0.008 per stream on its YouTube Music service, but averages only $0.0016 for streams through artists’ own channels. For music on other channels that was identified through its Content ID software, the rate drops even lower, averaging $.00087. As for music where the copyright hasn’t been identified, we can probably presume they’re paying nothing at all.
This vacuum, in tandem with YouTube’s “any user can post content” functionality, has allowed third-party actors to manipulate the platform for their own benefit. While it may not make much sense for that single Detroit techno producer to get their old tracks properly registered, it does make sense for someone to set up a monetized “Detroit Techno Classics” channel with hundreds of tracks that they don’t own. They may run the risk of having that channel shut down (or simply demonetized) if too many copyright violation notices come in, but in the meantime, there’s ad revenue being generated, and it’s not going to the artists.
Why is this acceptable? Why is YouTube getting a pass? My guess is that it’s because YouTube is free, easy to use and, most importantly, became an ingrained part of our online consumption patterns long before these public conversations about streaming services and fair pay became commonplace. For the average person, and even the average diehard music fan, YouTube has been around a long time and it works, so there’s no need for further discussion. It fills a void, and in many cases is the only place where certain pieces of music can easily be heard. (There’s a reason that YouTube is the default player on websites like Discogs.) In comparison, Spotify and other subscription-based streaming services feel like something “new,” which makes painting them as evil boogeymen a whole lot easier.
To be clear, I’m not the first person who’s raised this point, and I’m also not suggesting that Spotify isn’t all that bad just because YouTube is arguably worse. Both companies are part of an inherently unfair system, one in which artists and labels are receiving very little money despite the fact that their work is being used to generate billions of dollars in revenue. Spotify might be the easiest and most fashionable target right now, but YouTube also deserves a hard look, especially considering that it’s a part of Google, one of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world. The critical conversation around streaming platforms is a good one, and absolutely must continue, but while it’s fine to continue to focus on Spotify, we ought to start holding YouTube’s feet to the fire as well.
ANOTHER THING I WROTE
Josey Rebelle is one of the finest DJs around, and last week I had the pleasure of reviewing her new mix compilation Josey in Space for Pitchfork. It’s the second installment of the Beats in Space-curated mix series, and Rebelle does a great job weaving together different sounds, styles and eras while highlighting a cross-section of black dance music from both sides of the Atlantic.
A round-up of the week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Drexciya fandom is one of those things that only seems to swell with each passing year, and this Friday the Tresor label will be releasing a limited-edition graphic novel illustrating the legendary group’s storied Afrofuturist mythology. Entitled The Book Of Drexciya, Vol. 1, the project was headed up by Abdul Qadim Haqq, a visual artist and longtime member of the Detroit techno community who first collaborated with Drexciya back in the 1990s.
With festivals postponed or cancelled for the foreseeable future, many events have announced their intention to take their activities online. The viability of this idea remains an open question, but one of the first major tests (at least within underground electronic music) will be the upcoming San Francisco edition of MUTEK, which has organized a two-day online happening they’re calling the NEXUS Experience. Scheduled for May 23 and 24 (i.e. this coming weekend), it’s free and open to the public (with RSVP), and promises live performances, DJ sets, installations, short films and artist workshops. Participating artists include RP Boo, Jensen Interceptor, K-Hand, Drew McDowall, Minimal Violence, Solar & Mozhgan, and many others; a full rundown of the line-up is here.
For the first time, excellent NYC fanzine Love Injection (full disclosure: I have previously been a contributor) has has published a digital-only issue, which can be downloaded here as a free PDF. (Just FYI, they are accepting donations if you’re so inclined.) It’s an expanded edition of the magazine—some of it is even in color, which is a nice change—and it includes a variety of New York artists addressing the highs and lows of life in quarantine.
Bristol bass don Pinch, who heads up the Tectonic label, has just announced a new album, his first in 13 years. Entitled Reality Tunnels, it’s slated for release on June 26, but will arrive one week earlier on Bandcamp. In the meantime, LP cut “Accelerated Culture” is streaming here.
Regular First Floor readers are likely aware of my affinity for the Ilian Tape label, and the Munich outpost will soon be releasing a new record from UK producer Walton, who first appeared on the imprint last year with the excellent Depth Charge EP. His latest effort, Debris, is set to arrive on May 28 and previews have been made available here.
English punk / prankster / producer Powell resurfaced last week with two new albums, Flash Across the Intervals and Multiply the Sides. Part of a collaborative new multimedia project he’s calling a ƒolder, the music has a more experimental bent than much of what he’s released in the past.
Genre-busting Portuguese producer Nídia, a core member of the Principe Discos roster, is headed back to the label this week, as she’s lined up a new album, Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes, and a separate 7” called Badjuda Sukulbembe. Ahead of their arrival this Friday, you can stream LP track “Capacidades” here and both sides of the 7” here.
Benefit compilations have been a staple of the new music landscape over the past two months, and last week saw the release of CAREBOT$, a collection from UK label Bass Agenda that brings together tracks from 143 (!!!) different electro and techno artists, including Anthony Rother, Carl Finlow, Radioactive Man, Delta Funktionen, Dez Williams, The Hacker, Kronos Device and many, many more. All proceeds benefit the NHS and Médecins Sans Frontières.
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. As the head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
EN X PL is a new tape series curated by Nick Klein (who runs the Psychic Liberation label) and Glyn Maier (a.k.a. Lack, who heads up Enmossed), and I’m really into this first tape! I just ordered it, although I possibly won’t get to listen to it on my tape deck back home for a couple of months. “Crystalline State” is the title track, and Karabasan Drane is the Swedish duo of Jin Mustafa and Robin Smed Mtattila. Strange as it sounds, I’m finding these slow, abrasive industrial swells oddly relaxing.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. Click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
Having already slathered her new Josey in Space mix compilation with praise in the Pitchfork review I mentioned above, I’m admittedly running the risk of sounding like a total Josey Rebelle fanboy. That said, I’d be remiss not to highlight a couple of my favorite selections from the mix, beginning with this slippery, R&B-infused rework of Uschi Classen and Robert Owens’ “Only in Your Eyes.” The original 12” dropped in 2002 and included the original track, along with two remixes by Nwachukwu, who’s perhaps best known as the founder of the famed CDR nights at Plastic People. Owens’ voice is downright iconic, and still sounds silky smooth here in tandem with the track’s off-kilter rhythm. Forgotten gems like this one have long been a staple of Rebelle’s repertoire, and her ear isn’t limited to a single genre. (Trainspotters should take note that unmixed versions of all the tracks on Josey in Space are available digitally.) The Nookie Remix of “Dance of the Sarooes” is a dreamy, diva-powered jungle cut from Rogue Unit (a.k.a. Steve Gurley); originally released in 1994, it appears toward the end of Rebelle’s mix, providing one last shot of energy before she winds things down and brings the session to a close.
Jensen Interceptor is a machine. Over the past two years, this Australian producer (who now resides in Berlin) has unleashed a torrent of hard-edged electro, and that streak continues with his first EP of 2020, Strings of Fear. “First Day” is actually more of an industrial techno cut, and there’s a lot of wallop in its metallic clangs and churning EBM crunch. This sort of dark, unrelenting stormer may not be in high demand for quarantine listening, but for anyone who’s hungry for an updated take on the sounds that made groups like Nitzer Ebb so incredible, this tune is sure to hit the spot.
There’s a simple reason why I included this track: it reminds me a bit of Grouper. (Sometimes, that’s all you need.) There are no ethereal vocals, but the gentle guitar and reverb-soaked atmosphere do make for a solemn (and rewarding) listening experience. The intermittent sounds of children playing are also a nice touch. This one appears on the Berlin producer’s latest EP, Hope U Are Well, which also includes guest appearances from Sofie and Catnapp.
A Heart So White is the latest album from these frequent collaborators, but the two Amsterdam-based ambient(-ish) artists have changed up their approach this time around. Recording inside a converted synagogue in Holland, they moved away from virtual instruments and the digital realm, focusing instead on acoustic instruments and organic sounds. As such, the LP isn’t particularly electronic, but its sparse organ and piano compositions are quite beautiful. “Some Water” actually closes out the album, and its simple organ melody—which does remind me a bit of DJ Shadow’s classic “Organ Donor”—is the kind of subtly hypnotic riff that’s perfect for a meditative, late-night listening session.
Speaking of late-night listening, this one feels like a proper lullaby. “Dreaming of the Kelly Pool” is a collaboration from harpist Mary Lattimore and guitarist Paul Sukeena, who tours with Angel Olsen. The two first met in Philadelphia, and are now next-door neighbors in Los Angeles, where they made this gloriously languid tune in quarantine. Inspired by an actual pool back in Philly (and the lazy summers they spent in the city), the wonderfully unhurried song features little more than Lattimore’s delicate plucking and what sounds like the gentle squawk of a pedal-steel guitar (it might be a regular guitar though), and it honestly doesn’t need anything else.
De School resident Oceanic is best known for his dreamy synth explorations, but he’s also capable of constructing tunes that are geared (at least somewhat) for the dancefloor. “Live at De School (Club Version)” isn’t a straightforward DJ tool, but its broken rhythm is perky enough to inspire a bit of body movement. There’s something of an IDM vibe at work, and the song’s glassy synth melodies have an orchestral quality that’s just exquisite. The Live At De School Club Versions EP also includes two quality remixes from Upsammy and Pariah, along with a percussive “Beat Tool” from Oceanic himself, but at the end of the day, there’s really no topping the original tune.
Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986 was one of 2019’s most loved compilations, and now the Light in the Attic gang has returned with a sequel that digs even deeper. The collection is available in a variety of formats—there’s even a special Pacific Breeze beach towel—but only four of its tracks have been made available digitally. One of those selections is “Blind Curve,” a glamorous slice of boogie-pop from 1984 by Momoko Kikuchi, a pop idol who later transitioned to acting. With its breezy vibe and funk flair, this just might be the most fun song in this week’s round-up.
After a few years in Berlin, Urulu returned to his native Los Angeles last year, and though it may just be a coincidence, his music seems to have improved as a result. I don’t mean to imply that it was bad before, but his more recent efforts, both as Urulu and his new-ish Liquid Earth project, just feel a bit lighter and more self-assured. Here he’s remixed London producer Kincaid, and while the original “Provisional Disturbance” is a slightly psychedelic piece of synth-driven dance music, Urulu has dialed back the intensity, giving the tune a melodic bounce that recalls late ’90s progressive house. There’s still a psychedelic wiggle at work, but it feels organic, leading the listener into trippy territory without them even realizing what’s happened.
Three years after the original track was released, Toronto label Aquaregia has commissioned a remix pack for “Aurora Centralis,” enlisting the likes of Schacke, nthng and Tin Man in the effort. This is actually one of two different Tin Man remixes, and I’m guessing what prompted the “Detroit” tag is his use of dramatic strings, which were often a staple in old Underground Resistance records and other missives from the Motor City. As techno tracks go, this one resides on the dreamier end of the spectrum, although Tin Man’s signature acid bloops are of course present, lending the song a slightly melancholy vibe, or at least a pensive one.
I’m not sure what I expected from the new Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith album, but it wasn’t The Mosaic of Transformation. That’s not a bad thing, but the new record does expand significantly on her past Buchla experiments, branching out from new agey soundscapes into something that resembles a cross between synthedelic, Tangerine Dream-style journeys and an ethereal, almost alien strain of pop. (I know that’s an odd combination, but I swear it makes sense when you hear the music.) “Expanding Electricity,” the album’s closing track, is also its longest, a 10-plus-minute excursion that’s full of distended vocal harmonies, kaleidoscopic synth melodies and tinkling bits of vibraphone. There’s a lot happening, and at times it sounds like something that would have soundtracked a ’70s art film, but there’s an enticing elegance to this winding journey.
And with that, we’ve reached the end of another newsletter. Thank you so much for reading, and, as always, I hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Until next time,