Skee Mask's Spotify Snub Could Be A Fork In The Road For Underground Music

Skee Mask's Spotify Snub Could Be A Fork In The Road For Underground Music

In many ways it signals a split by artists who are tired of being exploited...

It’s 08:59 on the first of the month and I’m sweating. I’ve picked up two pounds and thirty two pence this month from people streaming my music and my zero hour contract at work entitles me to nothing. I’ve never tried this before. I’m nervous, what if my landlord doesn’t accept this form of payment? My phone buzzes and the screen flashes: can you send your rent please? I reply, “sure, do you take exposure?”

The exposure argument seems to have been around forever. As long as there has been art there has been those who do not understand it yet seek to exploit it. When Spotify launched in 2008 it was viewed as the beginning of a new era. No longer did we need to rely on dodgy limewire downloads that metaphorically set your desktop alight. For those already adopting the ‘I want it now’ culture that has been so normalised in contemporary society, the appeal may have been not having to get into the car to drive to HMV. I can remember recording songs from the radio on my flip-phone. There’s an argument that we needed this.

In 2018, in a feature for The Guardian, editor Ben Beaumont-Thomas argued that the Spotify concept was virtually utopian, stating that the fact that it was free (if you can stomach the ads, hi Capitalism!) made it so. Utopian for the casual listener indeed, but as the counter-argument from co-editor Laura Snapes suggests - perhaps not for the artist.

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Munich artist and Ilian Tape affiliate Skee Mask released his 'Pool' LP on May 7th via the label. He posted on Twitter a few days before explaining that the “next project won’t be on spotishyte or any other streaming business” as it would be launched as a Bandcamp exclusive. Viewed through a modern-day lens, this is a prescient move.

A year before Spotify launched, Bandcamp were underway creating a model that would allow artists and labels to control how they sell their work. It has always been bubbling within the underground circuit, but the platform's recent Bandcamp Friday’s brought it into the fire of a very important conversation.

Artists such as Osgut Ton’s Barker and acid-house spearheaders Posthuman have been very vocal about their views of Spotify’s exploitation of artists, the latter taking to Twitter to rightly reveal that buying an album on Bandcamp is the equivalent of someone streaming the same artists music everyday for three years. New York City artists like DJ Swisha and Kush Jones have also taken to the social media platform across the last year, showing their sales graphs and statistics illustrating how drastically the waving off fees on one Friday a month has impacted them, from being able to pay their rent to becoming two of the hottest names on the underground circuit.

Such incredible results, and when coupled with the fact that 99% of streams on Spotify are dominated by the top 10% of artists (looking at you, Ed Sheeran) it does beg a few questions.

We are very quick to talk about how working for free is a crime - about how young people and creatives are exploited in an industry that lacks paid opportunities - yet we’re all too happy to throw our most personal and intimate work onto a platform that is reportedly doing what those hustlers have been doing for years?

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Spotify is very much the modern exposure argument. There are obviously positives to the platform (free to use with ads, instant streaming, one hundred and fifty five millions subscribers, the possibility of blowing up overnight, personal playlists allowing artists to showcase their own sonic personality and taste, being able to pitch to Spotify directly), but it’s hard decipher who this benefits besides the casual listener who wants to listen to a ‘chill’ sequence while they answer their morning emails, and the top tier of high-earning artists who don’t really need any more money. Sure, your music might get added to a playlist, and it will get streamed a whole bunch of times, but if the listener isn’t actually paying attention to what’s playing does it even really matter?

To be honest, there’s no point arguing for the dismantling of Spotify. Too many people use it, enjoy it and benefit from it. I have a subscription and use it too, and I’ve helped artists get onto playlists through my work as a PR. Maybe the argument shouldn’t be one or the other, maybe it should be both? Does it really hurt to be on Spotify if your music is also on Bandcamp for people to buy? These are questions that I do not have the answer to, but may aid in fueling the conversation.

The Skee Mask experiment is an interesting one as, in many ways, it signals a split away by a new generation of artists who are tired of being exploited. It can be viewed as something like a digital revolution. Now artists must ask themselves, do they want to join? Or do they keep the best of both worlds?

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Words: Ted Hastings

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