Black Star, Jbux and the case for selling music in the streaming era

With the release of the album No Fear of Time, available exclusively on Luminary, Black Star joins a number of artists who still prefer fans to pay for their music. Jbux, who’s one such artist, released an album, Boom Box, in 2020 that he sold directly to fans without putting it up on DSPs. “For me, it really was an exercise to find out how committed people really are to my music,” says the Eastern Cape-based rapper. 

By The Observer

No Fear of Time is the second album by the Brooklyn super duo Black Star (consisting of Talib Kweli and yasiin bey) in 24 years – a follow-up to their self-titled classic debut, released in 1998. Released in early May, No Fear of Time is an album that Black Star fans have been waiting for… for two decades.

But, unlike the majority of albums that drop in this era, No Fear of Time is not streaming on mainstream platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL and Deezer. Instead, it’s available on Luminary – the podcast platform where yasiin bey, Talib Kweli and their friend Dave Chapelle host their own podcast, The Midnight Miracle (the podcast is also available on Spotify). Luminary has been labelled “the Netflix of podcasts”, as the platform hosts original productions.

When asked who the audience for this album is – in an episode of The Midnight Miracle titled ‘Bugs Bunny Mathematicx’ – yasiin bey replied, “Anyone who values the Black Star album; the same n*ggas who spend money on iPhones and Jordans and everything else the world told them to value.”

yasiin bey’s general notion is that streaming undervalues music and the artists who create it. He feels streaming has industrialised music. He recalls words once said by a Spotify executive, encouraging musicians to produce and release music at high volumes, instead of complaining about the streaming platforms offering artists peanuts for streams. (Spotify pays US$0.0033 per stream, Apple Music US$0.01, YouTube Music US$0.008 and TIDAL US$0.013.)

“I was annoyed by that assertion,” yasiin bey says, “I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine that the owner of Spotify has ever created anything artistic. It appears that he doesn’t have a real understanding of what it takes to actually be an artist at all, whether you are professional or not. It takes time; it takes focus; it takes a certain level of dedication to even cultivate a natural talent.

“And it’s not something that’s necessarily happening on this Ford Motor Company-type assembly-line corporate robot schedule, as some people would assume. When people talk about works of art, you are not talking about inanimate objects; you’re not talking about a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans that has all of the rivets placed strategically, because it’s a dynamic, customised experience. It’s not a standardised thing.”

Black Star joins a reasonably large number of artists who are actively trying to hold streaming platforms accountable. They feel musicians should be paid more for their work – like in the “golden days” when albums were still a thing you could spend your money on.

Recently, after his acquisition of legendary West Coast label Death Row, Snoop Dogg removed all of the label’s music from streaming platforms – albums such as Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Tha Doggfather, among other albums by Daz Dillinger, Lady of Rage and Kurupt – “because those platforms don’t pay,” he explained during a Drinks Champ interview. “And those platforms get millions and millions and millions of streams, and nobody gets paid other than the record labels. So, what I wanted to do was snatch my music off; create a platform that is something sort of similar to Amazon, Netflix, Hulu. It’ll be a Death Row app. And then the music, in the meantime, will live in the metaverse.”

One of music’s biggest global stars, Taylor Swift, was a great opponent of streaming in the 2010s. She once wrote in an Op-Ed on The Wall Street Journal: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”

For the longest time, Jay-Z’s music was only available on his then-streaming platform TIDAL. Bootlegs of Jay-Z’s music are still hard to come by, to this day – even on YouTube – at Jay-Z’s request. Jay also shared the notion that fans need to spend money to listen to music.

Whereas Jay-Z seems to have since moved on, Taylor Swift, Black Star and many other artists who share the same sentiments about streaming seem to be continuing the fight against time. Not even the biggest pop stars are selling records anymore, but their streaming numbers are astronomical. Sadly, the revenue that comes from streams just doesn’t match that of actual sales, which explains why they are still up in arms.

In their early stages, streaming platforms like Spotify claimed to be pro-artist. When Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify, the streaming giant responded: “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone.” Spotify noted that 16 million of its users had played Taylor Swift’s music in the last 30 days and that she had appeared on 19 million playlists.

Playlists are one of the main advantages of streaming; they are great platforms for emerging artists to get discovered by new ears. Talib Kweli notes in the episode of The Midnight Miracle: “Most artists who are signed in the business are on Spotify just through the labels but, for an independent artist like me, I have to decide whether or not to put my music on Spotify. And, for me personally, being available in the marketplace where 95% of people listen to music, it’s worth it for me at this point. Not for every project, but I still play the game.”

Both yasiin bey and Talib Kweli seem to be consumed by the music business and how it relates to artists. For instance, Talib Kweli raps on ‘Supreme Alchemy’, a song from No Fear of Time, “You’ll always be the winner if you decide what the metric is/ Control the game, don’t be the game or the predator.”

Jbux released the album Boom Box in 2020 and sold it directly to fans without uploading it on DSPs. (Image via Facebook)

In South Africa, streaming is on the rise. But the MP3 is still in demand; Fakaza and Hip-Hop Hub are like a modern-day for (South) African music lovers. Due to high data costs and other constraints, the continent lags behind in technology.

Streaming platforms are generally considered a legal way to consume for a low price or, in terms of Spotify and Deezer’s free-tier plans, for absolutely no cents – just time spent on ads.

Spotify and Apple Music have been in South Africa for a few years. Their growth and good relationship with artists and labels prove that the country is embracing streaming. Both have come up with incubator programmes where they pick artists to promote through editorial support and playlist placements; examples include Apple Music’s Up Next programme and Spotify’s Radar.

But a few artists have decided to hold off on uploading their music to digital service providers (DSPs), and instead, ask that their fans pay them directly for their work.

Eastern Cape rapper, entrepreneur and visionary Jbux released an album titled Boom Box in April 2020 that also never made its way to DSPs. “I had fans deposit money into my account and sent them the album via Google Drive,” Jbux tells HYPE. “I also included videos that I hadn’t uploaded anywhere and a lyric book.”

He makes it clear that this should not be seen as a boycott of DSPs, which he has limited knowledge of, but rather a personal decision for his music. “For me, it really was an exercise to find out how committed people really are to my music,” he says.

He says he was also trying to prove his own theory that, if an artist markets their product in a way that resonates with their supporters, fans will be willing to pay for the product. Jbux’s marketing strategy included a series of video clips in which he broke down his process and the inspiration behind the album’s songs.

“A lot of people did actually buy the album,” says Jbux. “If you get a thousand people buying the album, that’s a lot of money for an independent artist. But a lot of times, we try and go for this mass word and look past the people who are right in front of us.”

Streaming was created as a way to fight piracy in an era when spending money on albums had become a futile exercise for fans. It may have created a good business model for tech companies, but artists don’t gain much financially from the arrangement. Hence, some artists are putting their fans to task. “The best way to thank someone is to pay them,” yasiin bey says.

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