Taking A Look At The Changing Music Industry With Cascade, A New Platform That Promotes Independent Artists

Musician Annie, who works for Cascade, courtesy

Musicians and artists have always faced an uphill battle to get a fair shake, whether that’s from consumers, record labels, or venues. As it has with most things, the internet has both created new opportunities and compounded these challenges. Labels and artists were forced to adapt to file-sharing services like Napster and Limewire in the early aughts. These services were eventually shut down over issues related to copyright infringement.  Now with the dominance of streaming services people are paying for music, but the musicians aren’t always getting much of a cut.

Spotify reportedly has 70 million paid subscribers; this tally doesn’t include the platform’s many nonpaying users. There are also alternatives like Apple Music, early players like Pandora, premium services like Tidal, and countless others with webby names like Deezer. Spotify, especially, has been the target of criticism over what are seen as insufficient payouts to artists. This will soon have to change, however. As this Gizmodo article summarizes, a recent ruling in the U.S. required an increase in royalty rates for artists. Spotify might be in a precarious position, considering that the Swedish company continues to operate with heavy losses. They’ll likely have to raise rates for paying members and hope subscription fees cover royalty increases without costing them subscribers. This continues a trend in rapid changes for the music industry, and musicians themselves have adapted to the changes in variable ways.

Trends and technological developments have always had a direct impact on the way music itself is made. For instance, the standard album length is largely a result of technological restrictions. A certain amount of music could fit on a 12 inch LP, so that’s how long albums came to be. While many albums still clock in within the range of the LP format, the dominance of streaming means there’s no longer a restriction on the length of albums. As was the case with Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, albums don’t even have to be finished by the time they’re released; West famously continued to tinker with the record after its release on Tidal.

Image courtesy of Cascade

And then there’s Drake. 2016’s Views is 20 tracks long, running over 80 minutes. 2017’s More Life is 22 tracks and runs a similar length. He’s far from the only one making such megalithic releases; albums of many genres seem to be getting longer. But it’s not just because they’re not restricted by format. Why is it then? Ever since Billboard and RIAA started tabulating individual track streams toward the success of an album, artists and labels have incentives to make long albums with lots of tracks, and even tack on older singles to new albums. Even if listeners are skipping some tracks, longer records will still ensure that an artist gets as many plays out of one album cycle as possible. Surely not all newer long albums are made with this view in mind, but it’s hard to imagine that labels would not try to capitalize on this rule change.

The dominance of playlists on streaming services is also changing the ways music is being produced and distributed. Spotify has its own very popular playlists, and a track getting exposed on “New Music Friday,” for example, with over 2 million followers, can be a big boost for a new artist. Additionally, artists will release new versions, features, and remixes to try to gain as many streams as possible and land on as many different playlists as they can. Two different Guardian articles suggested that artists and labels are crafting music with playlists in mind — there were even allegations that Spotify was custom-ordering tracks from made up artists to fit on its “mood” playlists, a claim Spotify denies. There are also reports that Spotify will do a trial run of sponsoring tracks on non-premium users’ playlists. Record labels will be able to pay Spotify to promote their artists directly to users, something that will presumably only benefit artists with the backing of a major label.

Compounding all of these changes is the FCC’s Net Neutrality decision, which could disproportionately harm independent labels and artists. Byzantine royalty regulations, a challenging political climate, and the rapid changes happening to the music industry writ large unsurprisingly seem to hurt independent artists the most. Without the support of major labels and the legal standing that comes with that, coupled with the decline in physical album sales, independent artists and labels can find themselves in tight spots. The dominance of lengthy albums similarly limits independent artists — studio time is hardly cheap. Small payouts on streaming services force small artists to tour more, which is costly for a myriad of reasons.

SAD performing, image courtesy of Cascade

Despite this, the internet has undoubtedly helped independent artists in massive ways. Not so long ago a studio was the only place to record music, and records had to be physically printed and distributed. Now, free or inexpensive software can be used to create tracks, there are a plethora of free platforms to share music, and internet savvy artists can promote themselves on social media for free. The control of large corporations over the music industry has certainly not ended, but with some talent, luck, and a smartphone, it can be circumvented. This has led to an innumerable amount of artists of every genre on sites like Soundcloud who are sharing their talents with the world without the support of even a small record label.

The internet is also giving birth to new services catered specifically toward these independent artists. I asked the director of nascent streaming service Cascade.fm, which exclusively features independent musicians, about the challenges of the music industry and the solutions she sees her company bringing. The issues related to Spotify, the FCC,  and record labels have dense legal and political implications, and arguably have more to do with the changing culture of music as it does music itself. But Alessia Canonico, Cascade’s aforementioned director, seems to believe the solutions lie with putting artists and music first. But before that, a brief explainer.

Cascade is a New York based start-up that combines the worlds of streaming and music licensing, and fans can listen to the 2,000 independent artists signed to the platform for free. Further, Cascade helps these artists gain exposure by coordinating with small businesses to play a curated mix of music within business establishments. Whether they’re bars, cafes, restaurants, or any other kind of place where music would be played for customers, businesses are required to have licenses to stream. Many businesses are either not cognizant of that requirement or choose to flout it, which can potentially put their business at legal risk. Not to mention, the artists being played are not getting properly compensated. Cascade seeks to rectify this by offering inexpensive licences to these businesses to stream artists from their platform. 

Musician Jay Mickens, image courtesy Cascade

This is one of the key things that separates Cascade from other independent music platforms — the legal and business acumen that they provide. Canonico describes their platform as a mix “between a Pandora/Spotify and an ASCAP. So it’s a pretty new concept that combines the aspect of music and the legal aspect of music that nowadays people tend to ignore.”  ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) is a century-old organization that represents artists in negotiating licensing deals with businesses like restaurants and bars. Where ASCAP represents many big names, Cascade solely works with unsigned acts. By connecting independent artists to small businesses, the platform hopes to generate a mutually beneficial system by which companies stay above board legally, independent artists get promoted, and patrons can discover new talent.

As for finding that new talent, Canonico explains that their team of music curators search places like Soundcloud and Reverbnation and listen to thousands of tracks. She stresses that quality is important; they won’t add just any artist to their platform. If their standards are met, the team will directly reach out to musicians and ask if they want to join the service. They’re now getting to the point where artists are reaching out to them. So far they’ve signed 2,000 artists, and are in the process of coordinating with businesses around the United States. They promote certain artists based on the needs of the companies. She explains, “If you go in a coffee shop or a spa you’re walking into two completely different environments, which means that the music is also going to be different…We go into the local business, we have a look at the surroundings, we have a look at the food that they’re selling, we have a look at the amount of the customers they have during a regular day… We literally curate the music based on the business we walk into.”

All of these considerations factor in to making sure the music is promoted to the right clientele. For all the work that goes into doing this, they only charge $5 a month to the musicians. While song-sharing platforms are free, they don’t come with the potential to reach a new audience that Cascade seeks to provide. The agreements Cascade reaches with artists are also non-exclusive; artists can promote their music on any other service or platform. As Alessia explains, “freedom for the artist is our main concern.” Canonico’s team can put musicians first because they are musicians first; all curators for Cascade are artists too. The company hasn’t even formally launched yet, but Alessia sees it going far. This artist-centric approach, legal understanding, and the changes to the corporate music world places Cascade in a unique position in the crowded streaming field. It also makes her bold claim about Cascade easy to believe: “In the next few years, surely, I surely see it everywhere. I see it everywhere in the world.”