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James Blake and Vault: A Saving Grace for Artist-to-Fan Platforms?

Thomas Frenette

Arts & Culture Editor


Via MusicTech

In mid-March, many Spotify users were pleased by the return of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell’s discography on the platform. Though the folk-rock legends left in protest of Spotify’s failure to curb COVID-19 misinformation in The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, various other complaints have been made about Spotify’s hostility towards artists. 


In late March, electronic musician James Blake decried the depressing economic realities of a music industry dominated by streaming platforms and social media. James Blake is by no means a seasoned activist for musicians’ mistreatment; he is a mild-mannered introvert with a clumsy social media presence. He is no superstar — gaining only partial fame from tracks in collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, SZA, and Beyoncé — yet his well-established presence within the commercial mainstream is no matter of debate. If Grammy-winning James Blake is frustrated with the status quo, it is safe to assume that the musical climate has become dire for the 81% of artists on Spotify with less than 1,000 monthly listeners without a voice to groan about their financial hardship.

Issues mentionned by Blake — low streaming payouts (he cites 0.003-0.005 cents per stream, or one million plays being worth 3,000$), the growing pressure to go viral, the declining value of actual music, the looming threat of AI — have been acknowledged and discussed ad nauseam. Even the most sympathetic music fans and industry observers gloss over these topics. But, the fact remains that most musicians are struggling; and perhaps there lies a certain charm in the image of the starving artist. The success of so many great artists despite having harsh backstories convinces some listeners to label this state as authentic rather than hopeless. 


Listeners may betray their solidarity with artists by pledging membership to all-you-can-eat streaming platforms. Streaming grants them free or very cheap access to virtually endless music, and social media reels are being scored by fragments of songs in which the artists are robbed of their royalties by original sounds. In this attention economy, it is then unlikely that consumers will spearhead improvements in artists’ working conditions. 


Unfortunately, awaiting change at the hands of the music industry’s tech overlords and major labels is highly unlikely. The commodification of raw artistry ranks among their favorite displays of affection toward their signed artists. Criticism in recent years has convinced them at best to pay lip service to the sustainability concerns of working musicians. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek brushed off complaints about his company’s low payout rates by blatantly saying that artists dissatisfied with their revenue should endeavour to enter the industry’s big leagues.


James Blake’s solution to this mayhem: Vault, an artist-to-fan streaming platform that rewards subscribers with unreleased songs for $5/month. For artists, the platform is a hub for creative experimentation, a source of financial stability, a direct communication line to superfans, and an antidote to social platforms’ refusal to remunerate them. 

A monthly subscription platform with community features may seem oddly familiar to some: Patreon offers exclusive and downloadable content, Bandcamp offers subscriber-only downloads and a community page, Discord offers community mingling behind a paywalled server, including music… In other words, what makes this mainstream artist’s platform to contest label supremacy on artistic liberty and revenue management any different from older ones? 


However repeated this formula, direct-to-fan exclusives have been at the origin of great music - especially in an age where music communities have largely migrated online. In 2007, Radiohead released In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want project via their blog and sold many vinyls of the release that they gave away on digital. Aphex Twin similarly released various unreleased songs and live recordings via SoundCloud and other platforms. 


Any answers on Vault’s worthiness that have been conceived a few weeks after its launch can only be speculative. Time is required for the platform to grow and bloom into an appealing and functional alternative to established music providers. Besides, Blake promised various upcoming features, like an artist groupchat and exclusive notifications for concerts. 


As it is still in its formative phase, Vault is an opportunity for the artist to include previously unseen features on streaming platforms or physical albums. Related artwork, music videos, unused art, commentary, and bonuses from the “throwaways” may be interesting for audiences wishing to engage with artists through various degrees of intimacy. Rapper JPEGMAFIA, for example, included behind-the-scenes recordings for unreleased songs from LP!.


Hardcore fans will undoubtedly acclaim this new opportunity to collect more content from their favorite artists, but it may be limiting for the listening habits of people who enjoy a variety of artists from which to hand-pick songs. As only three artists are affiliated to the platform—James Blake, Monica Martin, and Alexander 23 (who co-produced "Good 4 U" by Olivia Rodrigo)—one can only sit back and hypothesize the future of Vault.

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