The rise of music streaming means that almost every recording imaginable is only ever a click away - a situation that would’ve been incomprehensible only fifteen years ago. Artists can benefit too, as suddenly songs that wouldn’t reach beyond a domestic market are now available to the world at large.
But it’s a broken and often absurd model. How can artists continue to create when income from streaming is so low? How much is music worth in 2021?
These are all questions which have inspired Valentin Hansen’s new album ‘Crisis (The Worthless Album)’. Consisting of thirty 29-second recordings, each track falls short of the 30 second minimal playtime needed to generate a payment. And not only is it worthless in a monetary sense, but Spotify doesn’t even count streams of tracks that fall short of the 30 second minimum. It therefore also loses the boost in status that big numbers generate, and even the dopamine rush of seeing your stats rise.
“I talked a lot with other artists about how broken streaming services are,” says Hansen. “A lot of people seem cool with not making much money from streaming because they at least have big numbers on their profile. And as artists we’re very dependent on streaming services, but they don’t let you in as long as you don’t play by the rules. They don’t give you a personal contact, so you just have this pitching form online and then you have to wait. I want to show how broken the system is. When you see how worthless my album is, the critique is obvious.”
Despite estimating his income from 1.7 million streams of his biggest track to date, ‘Killing A Friend’, to be in the region of just 2000 Euros, Hansen’s ire isn’t directed specifically at Spotify, but at the sums paid out by all streaming platforms. Nor is he interested in returning to the days of exclusively physical product. His passion is about posing questions, which ultimately can inspire a future in which streaming platforms better serve the needs of artists and fans alike. He cites the success of the Bandcamp Friday initiative as a sign that a better alternative is feasible.
If you listen to ‘Crisis (The Worthless Album)’ you’ll discover it’s a remarkably cohesive experience. Each 29 second segment feels natural in its form, but it also flows entirely naturally. It’s unsurprising to discover that Hansen envisaged it as a conventional (if concise) eight-track album. As he edited it into 29 second blocks, he noticed how the tracks suddenly felt immediately familiar.
“It’s like being on TikTok,” he adds, “where you’re so used to listening to very short parts of songs that start and end in the same place. They don’t need an ending.”
Which leads us to another discussion point. It’s well established that songs have been gradually getting shorter in the streaming age to better fit into the big generic playlists. And with the rise in importance of TikTok, as well as song snippets soundtracking everything from gaming to memes, it feels as if 29 second songs could well be a big part of pop’s future. People’s perceptions of songs will naturally evolve, in which case a streaming platform’s definition will also have to change with the times.
Promoting such an unusual album poses challenges, although as Hansen jokes, “At least we don’t need to make any radio edits.” Also, how much should a vinyl cost if the album is worthless? Simple: it will cost £0.00 when it’s released in August. As for a video, if the song is 29 seconds long, its music video will naturally be the same length.
‘Crisis (The Worthless Album)’ feels like a continuation of the lineage of conceptual ideas which disrupt the business of music: see also The KLF burning £1million or Vulfpeck financing a free admission tour by streaming their silent album ‘Sleepify’ on Spotify. And Hansen can take heart in the fact that Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’, regularly cited as the shortest song in history, has also never had a single stream officially registered.
Ultimately ‘Crisis’ is a ‘Worthless Album’ with the potential to have an impact beyond which can be measured in purely financial terms. Just as well, for as Hansen notes, “If someone pays their 10 Euros a month to a streaming platform and only listens to my album, I won’t see any of it.”