Spotify, Apple Music and rivals are secretly fixing your mainstream taste in songs

Music's streaming era is giving you more choice, while catalyzing independent artists and indie music companies in the process.

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Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read
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Streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music are diversifying the tunes you listen to, shoring up independent artists and music companies. 

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The world's most-streamed artists are a parade of major-label household names: Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Billie Eilish. But hidden below the top rankings are the independent artists and labels taking over a greater share of the music in your headphones. 

"If there's one thing that streaming has done for sure, it's created a new independent music industry," said Jorge Brea, founder and CEO of Symphonic Distribution, an independent music company in Tampa, Florida, that distributed music by Waka Flocka Flame and Deadmau5 in his early days. 

Why? Music-streaming services like  Spotify Apple Music  and Pandora -- and the quirks of how they funnel music you may never have heard otherwise -- are helping fuel an indie golden age just below the surface. 

Read more: Best music streaming service of 2019: Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Amazon and Google Play compared

The meteoric popularity of streaming has lifted fortunes across the recording industry. But streaming also has been quietly shoring up the indie sector that exists outside the big three major labels. By nudging people to listen to a wider variety of artists, the services helping listeners stumble upon music outside a rigid mainstream. And by reconceptualizing how we pay for music, the services help indie artists and labels take more nibbles of superstars' lunch. 

2019 Super Bowl Live

Waka Flocka performs at a 2019 Super Bowl event in Atlanta.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

The "optimism index" among indies hit its highest level this year, according to this month's annual membership survey by Merlin, a group representing more than 20,000 independent labels and music companies. Eighty-five percent of its members were optimistic about the future of their businesses, coinciding with their digital income swelling thanks to streaming.

The three major labels -- Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group -- are still heavyweights whose combined fortunes have the biggest impact on the US recording industry's numbers. Lately, those fortunes have been stellar: Overall sales have surged 40% in the four years since streaming ballooned from just one-third of the business to three-quarters. 

But the difference for indies is how much of your attention -- and streaming dollars -- they're getting now. 

"The Kool-Aid of the majors is over," Allen Kovac, CEO of independent rock label Eleven Seven, said in an interview. He referenced a Worldwide Independent Network report pointing out that indies represent 40% of the market, double their level two decades ago. "That tells you everything."

Watch this: Apple Music vs. Spotify: Music streaming battle

Stream of consciousness

Streaming is already, by far, the biggest business for the US recording industry. This year, it'll become the biggest market for recorded music in the world

Bikini Kill Perform At O2 Academy, Brixton

The popularity of streaming music has been quietly shoring up indie artists and labels. 

Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Streaming's format -- making virtually all the world's music available to hear and personalizing it to what you like -- works in favor of independent labels and musicians, said Brian Whitman, CEO of recommendation machine-learning startup Canopy, who was one of Spotify's personalization scientists for nearly three years.

"People's diversity of listening trends upwards the more discovery features you send at them," he said. "Even if not every single listener wanted to hear indie music, they're more likely to be exposed to it."

Artists with major-label heft behind them still dominate streaming services' most visible rankings. The most-streamed artists on Spotify, itself the biggest streaming music service in the world, are all major-label names: Ed Sheeran, J. Balvin, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and Khalid. Spotify's most-subscribed playlist is Today's Top Hits, also packed with major-label stars. 

But an analysis earlier this month by Rolling Stone found that the world's biggest artists have seen their share of total streams drop significantly over the last three years. More than 98% of the growth in US music streaming last year came from tracks that never broke into the top 500. 

One reason may have to do with independent music's legacy of cultivating artists, and an intrinsic scrappiness required to eke out all the value of a back catalog.

"Major labels, as a rule, are way more hits-focused and singles-focused, rather than nurturing the whole album as a piece of catalog over time," said Portia Sabin, CEO of the Kill Rock Stars label in the Pacific Northwest, known for artists like Elliott Smith and Bikini Kill and genres like punk and Riot Grrrl. "We understand the value ... constantly paying attention to the stuff that's in our catalog, because we understand that's the bread and butter."

Bikini Kill Perform At O2 Academy, Brixton

Kathleen Hanna performs during a reunion tour of Bikini Kill, a Kill Rock Star band that was a pioneer of the Riot Grrrl movement.

Ollie Millington/Getty Images

The interest in streaming catalog music, material released years or decades ago, is another tide that lifts all boats. When the Rocketman biopic about Elton John hit theaters last year, streaming of John's music jumped 84% the following week, according to Nielsen's midyear music report, released last week. 

But Kovac's independent label, Eleven Seven, had a bigger catalog blockbuster earlier in the year for one of its legacy bands, Mötley Crüe. The Netflix release of biopic The Dirt stoked a 683% spike in Mötley Crüe's catalog during the week it premiered, according to Nielsen. 

Stream of revenue

And If indie artists are being heard more in a streaming era, that means, overall, they're being paid more too. 

Since the advent of recordings, fans have paid upfront for tunes by picking and choosing specific titles, whether it was a record, CD or digital download on iTunes. In the streaming age, when you rent an all-access pass to an unfathomably deep catalog of virtually all the world's music, money is meted out to artists and music companies in a different way. 

Services like Spotify and Apple Music pool together all the money they bring in every month, and artists are paid in proportion to how much their music is streamed. That means indie artists don't need to overcome the hurdle of getting your attention before they can convince you to open your wallet. You're helping secure their income just by sampling their work. 


Netflix's Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt sparked a 683% surge in consumption of the band's music, including 30.4 million on-demand song streams.

Jake Giles Netter/Netflix

"Streaming, slowly but surely, is creating a commercial ecosystem in which more artists are able to make a living — and forcing the biggest-earning megastars on the planet to share a chunk of their annual wealth," the Rolling Stone study said. 

But that's not to suggest indie artists' livelihoods are a cakewalk. In the streaming age, Sabin said, middle-class artists have to work harder juggling their income from publishing, streaming, physical sales and touring -- in an environment where fans expect new material on a regular basis. 

"Once upon a time, if you had good physical [CD and record] sales, you could also tour and be a happy, middle-class career artist," she said. But in the lives of midtier indie artists today, "they're all just hanging on with their fingernails to the best of their ability and cobbling together a living." 

Even if it's a struggle, indie musicians have more of a shot than ever to break out.

"It was very, very difficult to be an independent label," Brea said. "But now independents are primarily going to be the industry as it continues to grow." 

Originally published June 30. 
Updated and corrected on July 1: Adds context, fixes spelling of Kill Rock Stars CEO's last name.

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