Photo courtesy of Black Star/Luminary

Real music shouldn’t be hidden behind a paywall as a podcast and neither should great journalism. Please support our efforts to give you the best writing about the world’s best music by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

Will Hagle: big fan of Chicago, big fan of canoes.

Have you heard the new Black Star album? Me neither. Why not?

Don’t want to give your credit card to another subscription service whose business model is praying you to forget to cancel? Lost all previous pirating knowledge? Vaguely remember Mediafire and every blog you ever loved shutting down? Already listen to too many podcasts? Get your weekly dose of real hip-hop from People’s Party? Just don’t want to change your habits enough to listen to your favorite podcaster and your favorite actor’s first album together in 20 years? If it were available everywhere, would your algorithm even display it for you?

Black Star’s new album No Fear of Time is exactly what A.I.-generated, SEO-targeted press releases want you to believe: a revolutionary disruption of the music industry’s stagnating model, produced entirely by Madlib. An exclusive podcast, downloadable via the Luminary app or a Luminary subscription in the Apple Podcasts store. The “music industry” has died exponential digital deaths, but look at the charts! The “audio industry” is in the green and trending up! Why shouldn’t an album be a podcast feed? In the streaming age, both are organized sequences of digital audio files. What’s the difference?

Out of all streaming media in 2021, “Digital audio captured the highest YoY growth, up 57.9% to $4.9B,” says an iAB article referencing a study by Deighton Associates (this is the ad industry sucking itself off, so take this with an earful of salt). Podcasts are increasing in popularity and consumption: Riverside.fm cites a 2022 study that claims 62% of Americans will listen to a podcast in their lifetime, an increase of 5% from 2021, which still seems low. Advertisers are desperate to impress their filth upon every available corner of global society, and corporations will take whatever scraps of that shit-stained gold dust they can scrape off. Downloadable mp3s have somehow become the most attractive target for the cash-spewing cannons of fiscal year 2022’s asinine corporate budgets. No Fear of Time is a podcast, and an album, and neither, and both, because it is nothing more than a packaged bundle of “digital audio.”

Just as the concept of an “album” has deteriorated in meaning over generations, the original definition of a “podcast” has been eradicated in the past half-decade scramble to monetization. When “podcasting” achieved widespread adoption in the mid-aughts, the underlying technology of the medium was the RSS feed.

RSS is the last bastion of Web 1.0. Introduced on Netscape in 2000, RSS stood for either “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary,” and offered a standard for users and content publishers to organize feeds of data from around the web. As anyone who once used Google Reader or Feedly or another aggregator to subscribe to news outlets and receive notifications for updates from those publications will recall, RSS is open and “decentralized,” (although it has to be hosted on a server somewhere) so therefore not inherently profitable. Google admitted that one of the reasons they shut down Reader in 2013 was, as Wired phrases it, “to leverage artificial intelligence techniques to learn your tastes and habits so it can deliver headline news you’ll want to read, when you want to read it.” Rather than allowing consumers to see only the content they choose to let in, Google returned control to the proverbial and literal algorithm, pushing users toward the content that keeps them there the longest. They can control what you click on, and monitor your behavior after clicking. Trackable engagement data is the sauce advertisers and investors want. If the goal was to develop a better understanding of our tastes and habits, and show us what we want to see, how is that working out so far? Our well-being is an impossible metric to track or sell, so it’s ignored in favor of the cold data of clicks and engagement.

Google was one of many major companies adapting to the times by following the money. Copying each other to stay afloat, social media companies collectively redefined the “news feed.” Over the past decade, social media users have bore witness to the unquantifiable metrics of that shift we all feel: a spike in anxiety and depression, increasing polarization and emotional outrage, the downfall of humanity (as well as some good things!), etc. It’s still possible to seek out content, but there’s a huge difference between opting in and opting out. The new default is the endless scroll: automated recommendations from servers running constant systematic tests with a simple goal of keeping us staring.

Despite the pulverization of “weblogs” and news aggregators, RSS feeds have survived two decades of internet consolidation and evolution in the form of podcasts. While RSS did not reach widespread adoption the way tech evangelists predicted in the late 90s/early 2000s, the success of podcasting did prove that the technology had lasting practical appeal. Apple played a foundational role in popularizing the medium, adding RSS audio and video support for “podcasting” with an iTunes update in 2005, just a year after that term was coined. As the dominant podcast platform, iTunes (later separated and rebranded as Apple Podcasts) established the consumer habit of “subscribing to” (now, to fit social media trends, “following”) RSS feeds that continuously update with downloadable and streamable mp3 files.

Apple is the name brand, but RSS is “decentralized” in a slightly different manner than the crypto definition. An RSS feed is not much more than an XML file with text and metadata that can reference images or videos or audio. It’s platform agnostic. Once a “podcast” is online, any podcast player or web browser should be able to access it. That’s why you’ll hear hosts encourage you to listen “wherever you get your podcasts.” The definition of a “podcast” in the medium’s formative first decade essentially became: a DIY talk radio show, distributed everywhere. (side note: talk is emphasized here because music licensing in podcasts is a whole ‘nother nightmare)

From the medium’s inception, “podcasting” was free and open. This contrasts with recorded music, which companies have been selling as purchasable, own-able products since Edison’s phonograph. While podcasting grew in the late aughts and 2010s, Spotify emerged and, in response to shifted consumer expectations, forced the music industry to accept their analytics-driven royalty model. Then, probably in response to some circle jerk of an industry event claiming “digital audio” is more financially valuable than “music,” and some competitive data about how Apple has a monopoly on the market, Spotify decided to go all-in on podcasts.

Like Google with Reader, Spotify’s approach was to suppress the ease-of-access to RSS feeds out of pure corporate lust. By paying Joe Rogan an alleged $200 million for exclusive distribution, acquiring The Ringer for nearly as much and shelling out investor money for the rights to other titles, Spotify changed the longstanding definition of “podcast.” A “podcast” is still, by the commonly-agreed-upon definition, a “DIY talk radio show,” even if major media companies are the ones doing-it-themselves. The difference is that “podcasts” are no longer distributed everywhere, and are no longer free and open. Once again the vision of really simple syndication across the web has been suppressed by the consolidated Big Tech companies of Web 2.0.

Lacking the relative semi-integrity and innovativeness of their fallen demigod Steve Jobs, even Apple has failed to rationalize the dollars lost from opting out of non-exclusivity. Apple Podcasts now allows podcasters to put their feeds behind paywalls for subscribers. Luminary, which holds exclusive streaming rights to the new Black Star album, is an extension of this business model of exclusive subscriber-driven content. The cable-ification of podcasts. The company has their own app, and also integrates within Apple Podcasts’ new subscription framework.

Luminary could be viewed as another company cashing in on the “digital audio” shit-stained, dusty gold rush, attempting to build a gate where one isn’t needed. Or—if they earn a relative level of prestige the way HBO or Netflix have in the “digital video” industry—they could be an example of how investing in quality art benefits both creators and audiences. Creators can focus on their fans, who are more invested than the average listener and therefore willing to spend money on creations.

Audiences don’t necessarily prefer advertisement as a monetization model, even if the content is free. Spotify subscriptions rose in popularity in part because many consumers are advertisement-averse, and will opt for an ad-free experience even at the expense of their favorite artists’ wallets. It’s a classic debate. One that’s been raging unanswered since the advent of cable television: should media be free and advertiser-driven, or exclusive and subscriber-driven? Like Hulu and every other company in American history has shown, the answer is whichever makes more money right now, so why not both? If being a musician is running a business, then why shouldn’t musicians be benefitting from all of digital audio’s available monetization models? What’s wrong with the new Black Star album?

Photo courtesy of Black Star/Luminary

The issue with Luminary releasing the first “album as a podcast” by major artists is that it bungles what could actually be an intriguing template for both musicians and music fans. An album behind a subscription paywall is not a “podcast” according to the medium’s original definition. It’s another streaming service luring you in with a subscription to listen to one album, and maybe some Dave Chappelle thing.

What if more musicians began releasing albums like the original podcasts, via RSS feed? What if “The Danny Brown Show” isn’t a new talk radio program on the Your Moms House network, but a feed full of a rapper’s continuously updated new songs (or, in the form of “seasons”: “albums”)? What if you could follow “YOUR FAVORITE ARTIST” and get instant updates about new songs they post, with the occasional RELEVANT, TARGETED ad thrown in?

Despite their forays into exclusivity, Spotify and Apple both still host non-exclusive podcast feeds. It costs $20/year on Distrokid to submit albums to Spotify, and more through competitors. Anchor.fm—the most popular podcast hosting platform in the world, owned by Spotify— is free. Anchor has a built-in ad monetization platform, which plays “automated ads” from the Spotify Audience Network and connects podcasters with advertisers interested in their demographics. In 2019, Spotify admitted they pay “between $0.00331 and $0.00437 per stream” for musicians. Anchor pays $15 CPM to advertise itself on its own platform, in addition to other opportunities from other advertisers with varying CPMs. CPM, for the record, means “cost per mille,” or the amount an advertiser agrees to spend per 1,000 impressions. Spotify counts a music stream as a song played for 30 seconds or more.

I’m honestly horrible at math so forgive me if this is wrong, but that works out to $7.50 for an artist whose song is streamed 1,000 times, compared to $15 for a podcaster who gets 1,000 impressions on their ad. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like double.

A downside of uploading an album as a podcast, of course, would be the fact that musicians would have to become salespeople. The worst outcome would be artists’ salespersonship superseding their craftspersonship. Record labels shouldn’t have to become ad sales companies, even if some of them kind of already are.

Music fans, of course, no longer take issue with what your grandparents’ favorite ska band Reel Big Fish called “selling out.” We know how difficult it is for artists to exist with the insurmountable cost of housing, food, gas and other essentials, plus the difficulty of finding a job despite an alleged worker shortage, the ongoing airborne virus, and every other horrific outburst of violence, cruelty, and political ineptitude that the A.I.-driven news feeds keep us focused on. The truest fans want their favorite musicians to be financially comfortable enough to keep making music. We also don’t want to listen to ads, or pay too much for ownership of music.

Time and time again music fans have proven that they just want to be able to listen to whatever music they want. Spotify profits off this, and there’s no reason why musicians themselves can’t join in. Ad-supported, RSS-distributed ‘audio content’ could just be another potential revenue stream for artists who need them. There is no reason that music should be classified or conceptualized as any different. Interrupting an album with an advertisement for devices that didn’t purchase an ad-free experience would not be an unusual occurrence. Spotify already does this to non-subscribers.

Comedy fans have adjusted to standups hawking boner pills, ball-shavers, mattresses and online therapy. Podcast hosts will read whatever copy their producers put in front of them, as long as the checks clear. Everyone is in on the secret. These hosts don’t actually care about these products, but as long as they say that they do, advertisers will be willing to spend more for the personal endorsement. Why shouldn’t artists release two songs on one mp3 file as a “podcast episode,” and slap an ad for Lion’s Mane Tincture in the middle? The quality loss between mp3s (supported by most podcast hosting platforms) and wavs (not usually supported) is not as significant as Neil Young wants you to think it is. It’s all digital audio, and you’re probably listening on shitty phone speakers regardless.

While arguing for an ad-supported model for the music industry sounds disgusting as I type it out, the ad money in my utopian vision of an RSS-dominated music streaming landscape would simply be a bonus for artists that opt into it. Not all podcasters are successful enough to make ads, and some utilize Patreon or comparable services for a more direct subscriber-driven monetization from fans. Musicians shouldn’t necessarily need to be dependent on stream money to pay their bills. But releasing music via RSS would re-introduce a more decentralized distribution model, while also (during this particular digital audio shit-gold rush, at least) giving musicians the opportunity to bring in a new revenue stream that inexplicably pays more than what they make uploading to music streaming platforms directly.

If artists uploaded their albums as podcasts, it would also reverse the “news feed”-ification that Spotify has inflicted on music consumers. It would return control to the fans. We could choose which artists we want to—ugh, ugh—“follow.” We wouldn’t have to rely on Spotify to auto-generate playlists based on our listening habits. We wouldn’t have to use Spotify at all. We could create our own “podcast players,” or use any of the many free alternatives.

In terms of hosting platforms, for inspired musicians somehow still reading this who are eager to get started, Anchor is free but owned by Spotify so maybe not worth using unless you want to game their nonsensical monetization differences. There are, however, plenty of other audio hosting services with RSS functionality. SoundCloud is one! SoundCloud built its own internal RSS-esque network for users to subscribe to musicians they like and receive regular updates when new songs are posted. They’ve also always had a “Submit to RSS” button that lets artists send every upload directly to a podcast feed. If you’re regularly uploading music to SoundCloud anyways, why not take the extra two seconds to set up an RSS feed? Maybe someday you’ll be a successful enough musician that a meal-kit service will sponsor you! That’s the American dream.

The RSS feed isn’t a magical cure. It’s been around for so long that it’s clear corporate greed will win. The rare nostalgic purist Web 1.0 nerds clinging to what Spotify called in their recent “Investor Day” presentation “outdated technology” aren’t capable of saving anything but their own remaining shreds of dignity. While RSS hasn’t been implemented at the scale Web 1.0 visionaries imagined, the suppression of RSS in favor of algorithmically-driven news feeds clearly delineates the onset of humanity’s ongoing collapse. The news feed seems to be having a direct negative impact on society, but perhaps that’s just the conspiracy theory data suggests I’m most prone to believe.

The new Black Star album could have been a reminder of the web’s great potential, rather than another easily-mockable example of its worst qualities. Web 3.0 might be moving closer to the RSS-inspired decentralized utopia of yesteryear, but it’s still too polluted with profit-seeking tyrants like NFT-invested major labels at this stage to offer any clear and obvious solutions for musicians.

RSS to have a tangible impact on music it would require either widespread adoption at the underground level or experimentation and risk-taking from a more high-profile artist. Like Bomb the Music Industry! and Radiohead leading the shift to free downloads. Black Star opened the conversation for an album to be a podcast, albeit in a misguided way. As did Kanye with Donda 2. Both feel more like marketing gimmicks for other paid products rather than an organic reclamation of artistic ownership over distribution and access. We are all searching for the next thing, for the most optimal method of monetization. We haven’t been looking in the right places. RSS feeds have been here. RSS will continue to be here, with no fear of time, until society actually does collapse.

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