The free online mix is a staple of electronic music culture - Features - Mixmag

The free online mix is a staple of electronic music culture

In the digital age, though, nothing lasts forever

  • Words: MICHAELANGELO MATOS | Illustration: Lawrence Abbott
  • 21 January 2020

The free online mix has been a key part of any DJ’s promo arsenal since the days of MySpace. And up until now most of the conversation has been around copyright issues for the music used in them – especially as automated recognition technology and legislation start to make takedowns and claims more common than ever. Stephen White, CEO of Dubset Media Holdings, says the Wild West days of online DJ mixes are numbered. “Article 17 passed in the EU requiring copyright filters, and labels have become more educated about mixes. YouTube and SoundCloud will continue to operate under UGC licenses, which give them cover for mixes in exchange for takedown rights. But otherwise, the mass availability of free content will go away.”

For White, this has been in the works for a while. Dubset is based on technology that clears and reports to the rights holders of music included in mixes uploaded to the platform, aiming towards seamless distribution across major streaming platforms. In 2016 Dubset signed on with Apple Music, and over the past three years they’ve added Spotify, Tidal, and Claro to their client list as well. In spring, they announced a partnership with Pioneer, a shift from streaming provider to DJ gear producer that essentially covers two ends of the same pipeline. “Their integration allows seamless upload by the DJ of mixed and remixed content from the Pioneer software,” says White. “They were excited to be first to market with this feature.”

Not everyone uses those particular pipelines, though; far more DJs offer their sets via free streaming sites like Mixcloud and SoundCloud than on paid platforms. SoundCloud’s efforts to move to a subscription model have been well-documented – one side-effect was a swathe of DJ mixes disappearing after the company began making deals with major labels.

Since its launch in 2008, only a year after SoundCloud’s, Mixcloud has been a platform for DJs: it disallows uploads of individual tracks, and sets with more than a handful of tracks from the same artist or album are spiked on discovery. Their latest initiative is aimed at monetizing mixes for the DJs themselves, rather than just the artists whose tracks are in the mix. In December the company launched Mixcloud Select, a subscription model of what we’ll call the Patreon school: you subscribe to individual DJs (inevitably, ‘creators’) and get exclusive goodies in return, with 47 handpicked DJs and 200 more in February. “Now there’s over 3,500 creators using it, and... more every day,” says Lisa Roolant, Mixcloud’s head of communications.

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Select subscriptions begin at $2.99 a month. Of that money, 65 per cent goes to paying artist and songwriting royalties and five per cent pays a transaction fee; the remaining 30 per cent is split 60/40 between the DJ and Mixcloud. Not a lot of money, even for a popular DJ – though according to Roolant, “A substantial number of fans, even at this early stage, are pledging more than the creators’ [price] setting, which is remarkable. What we’re most excited about is scaling up and seeing where it goes.” For Dubset’s Stephen White, Mixcloud Select has “an interesting approach”, but he adds, “The problem is consumers don’t want multiple music subscriptions. We believe it will serve a niche market of hardcore fans, and that’s great for the DJ.”

At least two Mixcloud Select DJs are pleased with the service so far. “It was a no-brainer to collaborate with them on this,” says John Digweed, one of the original 47. “I’m really impressed with the engagement of fans and how the radio show has a true community behind it.” Digweed’s Select page has been a steady money earner, he says: “The important thing for me above all is that I support the artists and producers whose music I play on the show.”

“I think that Mixcloud Select is probably best suited to radio stations, purely because they can broadcast the subscription message on a regular basis,” says Mr Scruff, another of the original 47. “Plus, in America, people are very used to the idea of financially supporting community radio and their whole ‘funding drive’ approach.”

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Digweed hasn’t abandoned the old-fashioned mix CD entirely. In May he released the six-CD ‘Last Night At Output’, not just a keepsake from his longtime residency at Brooklyn’s Output (recorded on, you guessed it, the club’s final night of business) but a beautiful object, too. “It would be very easy to just upload the recording to Mixcloud and job done,” says Digweed. “But I’m still old-school and these albums are more a labour of love than a money-earner for the label, with many, many hours spent putting them together. As long as we don’t lose any money on these projects we’ll continue to do them.”

At the end of July 2019, Mixcloud published an open letter on its Medium page explaining some changes for people who just listen for free, most of which had been in place in the US for years: no scrolling back on a set and a maximum of three listens every two weeks per set. As with SoundCloud, any move towards a subscription model seems to have consequences for casual users who aren’t interested in paying for premium access. But for many, a more equitable payday for everyone concerned seems like a better deal in the end. “The difficult groundwork that’s been done over the past few years to get the licensing agreements in place that recognise the DJ and the long-form audio creator’s part as part of those deals,” says Roolant. “What we’re trying to do is create a model that sustains that, and also respects the labels as they’re trying to shift their demands through the constraints of digital streaming.”

Paying for online DJ mixes might seem like a paradigm shift, but if fans can support their favourite DJs in a way that’s fair, transparent and offers good value, it might be a necessary one.

Michaelangelo Matos is Mixmag's mixes expert, follow him on Twitter

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