Streaming Independence: New Apps Look to Draw Listeners Toward Music Far Below the Radar

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The major streaming services have to serve their customers -- but what of truly independent artists?

The globally beloved Game of Thrones is a series focused on the ever-shifting power and politics of a small number of queenly and kingly people. Through birthright or attrition they oversee a vast population of indigent subjects whom they never really concern themselves with (outside of worrying over the violence those subjects could inflict on them en masse). The audience never hears from these subjects or their lives. They impact nothing of importance. They may as well not exist -- in fact they don't, outside of about three scenes. It's a good metaphor -- though far too late to board the hype train -- for how the world works.

Look at the front page of any streaming service and a parallel is evident -- medium-to-high popularity artists, of which there's very few, are front-loaded. Hi DJ Khaled! Hi Katy Perry! Hi The Beatles! (Wait seriously?) It's not that independent artists aren't in there, back behind the blackout curtain of the search bar, but they certainly aren't visible. This year, the 50 most-streamed songs accounted for 4.75 percent of all listening on services like Spotify, according to Nielsen Music. Now, 4.75 percent may like a small percentage, but that's just 50 songs. Spotify has a catalog, behind that blackout curtain, with 35 million of those.

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Clearly, independent artists aren't the primary beneficiaries of the streaming revolution in music. That the three major record labels each hold equity in Spotify is an easy shorthand for the obviousness of this. A few new companies are trying to bring independent artists' work to your ears via streaming, despite the deck clearly and understandably stacked against them.

One of these is MyFyx, a new app from... well, we actually can't say. "We actually, really, believe that this is an industry screaming for solutions -- and we've quietly built one," one of its founders tells Billboard. MyFyx is completely free for listeners and for artists, with a sub-focus on connecting fans with similar tastes in what its founders describe as a Tinder-like how-do-you-do feature. MyFyx has two founders and a developer, none of whom wish to reveal their their identity ("the artists on the platform are unknown, we should be unknown," they explain). They hope that MyFyx can generate enough listening and draw enough users to start bringing in advertising dollars, five percent of which will go to the artists on the platform. That percentage may seem -- is, really -- very low. They counter that this five percent is money the artists on MyFyx would never see anyways, and that the artists in MyFyx's little biome can leave at any time (perhaps when they become popular enough to make more money).

Using the app, its central problem becomes clear very quickly -- the music on it, nascent as the app is, isn't great. Finding the music and listening to it is very easy, but wanting to... This is, clearly, a problem for any app that will require both scale and free content to evolve into a sustainable enterprise. Its founders envision MyFyx as a place "where independent artists have an opportunity, a ring-fenced opportunity, where they don't have to compete with Kanye, where they don't have to compete with any major person that's gonna completely overwhelm them."

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And there's part one of the rub -- helping artists who've never gotten any help means you're going to attract of a lot art which doesn't really deserve to be heard. In the two hours I spent listening on MyFyx, I encountered some truly, deeply terrible music. And some intriguing stuff too! Part two of that rub however is, as we said, that most people aren't willing to endure a one-man metal band's bedroom recordings in order to hear something decent.

Another new company attempting a very similar -- but different! -- thing to MyFyx is the Seattle-based Gyld, a forthcoming streaming service that's also focused on very independent music. Instead of being ad-supported, Gyld is counting on artists with some marketing ambition to upload a piece of what they, in an interview with The Stranger, call "virgin-to-the-internet" work. Gyld then hopes those artists will convince their fans to pay them $5 per month, of which those artists would get a return of 65 percent. That five bucks gets subscribers access to all the music on the platform. That barrier to entry for artists may have a beneficial curatorial effect, weeding out those who wholly give no shits about establishing a career. Founder Christian Fulghum says the gist "is to drive people who want to discover new music to a place where it's absolutely not available anywhere else. So scarcity rather than ubiquity is the key."

Have you noticed the problem? Any streaming service which hopes to both help independent artists make money and/or gain exposure as well as to become a successful, enduring business will inherently rely, existentially, on the small group of people who are intimately passionate about music. Gyld's co-founder admits this fact openly -- speaking to The Stranger, he points out that in the U.S. "maybe 7 to 10 million are what we call 'discovering listeners.' They want to hear new music that hasn't been heard before... It's a very narrow band, and yet it's the future of music."

The band Fulghum is referencing can be widened with a magical word: curation. It can help split the difference between supporting independent music and avoiding wading through hours of horrible shit. To that end, another new app -- I know, I know -- called Lost takes advantage of some of the U.K.'s most-respected editorial outlets in order to frontline up-and-comers, and makes listening to the music those outlets are covering easier than their actual websites, too. These aren't bedroom artists, but they aren't Kanye, either.

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In the midst of all the newness, let's not forget about Bandcamp, which has been supporting independent artists -- and labels -- for some time. Bandcamp isn't a streaming service in the same way as Spotify or MyFyx or Gyld, but purchases are made available for streaming through its app, and discovering new music through its website is dead simple.

Of course, the global stars that greet you on the home screen of Apple Music or Spotify are there for a reason: they're what most people want to hear. A statistic that's often cited in discussions of music listening says that roughly 70 percent of people have little interest in discovering music if it requires anything more than one or two button presses. That's why, 18 years after her debut single, Britney Spears' new record can be found right in front of your eyes.

Deeply independent artists aren't a gold mine. Services like Spotify and Apple Music, however, require gold mines to operate, and that gold is achieved through scale, and scale is achieved by appealing to the most people. Challenging art, or just challenging-to-find art, has never appealed to "the most people." But creating outside the margins often yields important work -- insert citation of the artist-made-good you like most here -- that, despite the world's tendency to, shouldn't be ignored.