James Blake’s music subscription model is a fantasy that disadvantages fans and musicians | Music

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As a recording artist and designer, I’ve spent years thinking about digital music platforms and how they could be better for artists and fans. The current all-you-can-eat subscription model of Spotify, Apple Music and co is disenfranchising artists – the outcome a diminishing of value for music-makers and subconsciously for fans, turning music into a commodity that seems free, even worthless.

If music doesn’t cost enough, surely the answer is to pay more. That doesn’t mean you should pay more to Spotify – the model of chucking all the income in a big pot and dividing it proportionally between the most popular artists feels, to many, like a stitch-up by the major labels. Direct support of artists is definitely the way forward. But what is the best way to support them? Some will say buy merch and tour tickets, both potential loss-makers, while MP3 download figures are ever dwindling. Others, such as James Blake, have suggested individual subscription models.

Earlier this month, the British producer went viral with his complaints about the unfairness of the low payouts of mainstream music platforms and their effect on artists’ ability to support themselves. Last week, he announced that he was participating in the launch of Vault, an artist-to-fan streaming platform based around musicians sharing unreleased tracks for $5 a month. “It’s music direct from me to you, where no one can gatekeep what I release to you, or delay my releases,” he said. “And it’s got a chat section for everyone to discuss the music.” It’s a model familiar to Patreon and even OnlyFans – but while it may work for podcasters and other episodic content creators, I believe it’s not the best route for musicians, and ultimately bad for fans, too.

The reason that per-artist subscriptions don’t make sense for fans is basic maths: multiply the number of artists you really care about by the subscription fees and the costs soon seem unrealistic, resulting in fans investing in one artist at the expense of another. And once listeners are locked in, there is a level of guilt associated with cancelling: the general subscription model is described as a “dark pattern” that makes emotional hostages of fans who want to break free of the monthly commitment.

Moreover, when musicians move to subscription models, they have a certain obligation to create content that has already been paid for: dance, monkey, dance! My music doesn’t exist because it was paid for, and even if no one ever paid me I’d still try to make as much as I could. Motivation to create is no bad thing, but the pressure to meet deadlines and consumer expectations is often creatively counterproductive – not to mention suspiciously similar to Spotify, which incentivises artists to maintain a constant drip-feed of releases in order to stay buoyant in playlists and editorial content. Any subscription model also locks music behind a paywall: it’s a sad, cynical world in which you discover something you love but can’t share.

There is a better way for listeners to directly invest in an artist’s work and gain access to exclusive fan communities without walling off access to that music. The term “blockchain” has dropped out of the public consciousness since the calming of the NFT frenzy of the early 2020s. But the technology – essentially data hosting by verified authors – offers a simple solution for fans wanting to demonstrate their investment in a musician’s work. I have been working on a platform called Supercollector, where the model is $10 a track. While that may sound expensive, it essentially sells fans a one-off verification that could allow them to participate in any wider ecosystem I might create, like entry to a web community along the lines of Blake’s “chat section”. It also affirms the desires of hardcore fans to be seen as “first” to support an artist, with publicly verified dated collections and an open record of the fact that they spent money on the music. While the artist doesn’t earn as regularly as they would with a monthly subscription, it instils a behaviour of valuing music, rather than renting access to a churn of content produced to obligation.

It is one of many possible solutions – along with buying tickets and merch or using Bandcamp Fridays, when the audio distribution platform waives its fees and you buy direct from artists – though the specific platforms and products are secondary to the value of music itself. Regardless of my misgivings about Blake’s idea, he has at least opened up the conversation. Rather than take the fight to cloistered subscription cells, it’s one that requires solidarity between musicians – and fans.

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Tom Vek is co-founder of Supercollector, a platform enabling artists to sell decentralised blockchain verified release. Vek’s new single, Say/Nothing Bad, is released on 28 March. Details at tomvek.com

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