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Friday, January 22, 2021

Catalytic Sound Stream: Q&A with Ken Vandermark and Sam Clapp

During our conversation this summer, player, composer, organizer, and Catalytic Sound co-founder, Ken Vandermark, who at the time was in the thick of planning the Catalytic Sound Festival, dropped some hints of a in-development streaming service. At the time it was an intriguing aside, but now the service is live. To talk about the service, Vandermark and Catalytic Sound's manager Sam Clapp took some time to answer a few questions about the service. 

As for a quick review of the service, let me start out by saying that I have always been skeptical about streaming. I still want to own, or rather collect, my music in some tangible (even if it is digital) manner. There is my bias. If I don't own it, I don't trust it. Maybe I'll use Spotify to check out the latest from say, umm, well never mind, but if I value it, I want more than a stream.

However, over the past few weeks of trying out the Catalytic Sound Stream service, I find my attitude changing - a little. I mean, I still want my mp3, but the Catalytic Sound Stream is not meant to be a typical streaming platform. It does not offer a replacement of a physical collection, rather it is more like walking into a record store. It's curated, it's not "complete", and most likely you will discover something. Sure, Spotify has its playlists and recommendation algorithms, but this type of music really doesn't seem to fit that approach, it needs to be discovered. It is album-oriented music and the smallest connections - a player whom played with this other player or label names - spark interest, and this service certainly recognizes this. After all, it is a part of their pitch:
"Each month, subscribers will enjoy a constantly rotating set of over 90 albums on the Soundstream. Catalytic Radio presents a shifting assortment of records chosen by Catalytic artists and staffLabel Radio showcases a revolving selection of albums curated by the core group of Corbett vs. Dempsey, NoBusiness Records, Relative Pitch Records, and Astral Spirits, as well as at least one guest label each month. "
In addition to the discovery factor, or really, at least as equally important, there is also the fact that you are directly supporting the artists. This isn't a platform company that is making the biggest chunk of change. For me, this approach is a sweet spot for streaming. Just enough of it to keep me discovering new things to then collect.

Ok, now let's let turn this over to some folks who actually know something...

Paul Acquaro: Can you tell us about the streaming platform? (i.e. when did you start thinking about it, what was the catalyst that made you decide to create a streaming platform? And did you build your own platform?) 

Ken Vandermark: We first started thinking about building a music streaming platform at Catalytic more than two years ago.  Some preliminary design ideas were developed before 2020 (such as using Soundcloud technology to house the music files), but the real development took place throughout last year.

The main driver for me was anger and frustration toward existing streaming platforms for their lack of compensation to musicians whose work these platforms profit from.

With the help of two brilliant and generous web designers, Santiago Quintana and Max Oppenheimer, and with the assistance of Catalytic's head designer, Fede Peñalva, we were able to construct a system that works like a streaming platform for listeners, but utilizes technology we could afford.  Out of necessity it is more "hands on" from the organizational standpoint, which allows us to curate the albums, and give listeners more information about the music.

Paul: What makes this streaming effort different than say individual artists or labels using Spotify? I think there are some obvious answers here but I think it will be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Ken: In addition to having access to a rotating selection of more than 90 albums every month, subscribers will be supporting this group of artists and labels directly, with the knowledge that 2/3rds of the money they spend will be going to the musicians and the work they love, not into the pockets of corporations that profit off of content they don't create and who don't compensate the artists fairly. (1/3 of the Soundstream profits go to Catalytic to cover overhead expenses.) Also, this is a group of musicians working together as a collective, pooling profits and sharing them, not single artists or bands being represented separately from each other, presented as part of an algorithm.

Sam Clapp: Like Ken said, the financial disparity between Soundstream and a conventional streaming service is stark. For example, Spotify pays an average of $.003 - $.005 per stream. With only about 40 users so far, we’re already able to pay each of our co-op artists about $10 in streaming revenue each month. To receive that same amount in Spotify royalties, each artist would need to receive over 3,000 plays per month on Spotify. And that’s the situation just two weeks after Soundstream was released! As subscribers continue to sign up for what we believe to be a unique streaming site curated for a specific musical community, our payouts will far outpace any conventional streaming platform in artist support.

On top of the financial difference, there’s the fact that when a new album appears each day on the service, you’ll know that it has been hand-selected by a human being knowledgeable about the music. Spotify and other streaming keep listeners plugged in with a never-ending sequence of machine-generated playlists, which is great for serving listeners ads, but maybe not so great for presenting works of art.

Paul: What is available on the service?  

Sam: There are currently four different playlists on the Soundstream. Catalytic Radio showcases thirty albums every day, with a new record being rotated in every night. This playlist presents material featuring members of the Catalytic Sound co-op, and all of the albums are available in the Catalytic Sound store. 

The Label Radio playlist was added thanks to Astral Spirits Records’ Nate Cross. Like Catalytic Radio, this playlist features a rotating selection of thirty albums per day, and features a core group of NoBusiness Records, Astral Spirits Records, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and Relative Pitch Records. Each month, we’ll also feature guest labels. This month and next, the guest labels are Astral Editions, Notice Recordings, and Family Vineyard.

The Catalytic Artist Album playlist features the whole series of Catalytic-exclusive records, which are released to members each month.

Finally, the History Is What’s Happening playlist (an homage to The Ex) features a handpicked set of ten albums released before the year 2000.

(In case it’s useful, here’s a list of artists who are partners in the Catalytic Sound co-op, whose albums will be featured in the Catalytic Radio playlist on Soundstream. Each artist's label is in parentheses next to their name: Luke Stewart, Ig Henneman & Ab Baars (Wig), Andy Moor (Unsounds Records), Joe McPhee, Joe Morris (Glacial Erratic, Riti), Mats Gustafsson, Nate Wooley (Pleasure of the Text Records), Paal Nilssen-Love (PNL Records), Terrie Hessels (Terp Records/The Ex Records), Ken Vandermark (Audiographic Records), Tim Daisy (Relay Recordings), Ikue Mori, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (Sonic Transmissions), Elisabeth Harnik, Dave Rempis (Aerophonic Records), Ben Hall, Sylvie Courvoisier, Bonnie Jones, claire rousay, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jaap Blonk (Kontrans Records), Brandon Lopez, Chris Corsano (Hot Cars Warp Records).  Six musicians have just joined Catalytic in January, and their work will be added to the Soundstream shortly: Tashi Dorji, Christof Kurzmann, Damon Locks, Paul Lytton, Zeena Parkins, and Tomeka Reid.)

Paul: How do you choose what is available to stream?  

Ken: Because albums are added manually, we're able to have the musicians curate the programming, choosing albums from the Catalytic catalog that they find remarkable, and letting listeners know why.  The process of selecting albums by the Catalytic artists is limited to recordings we have access to in a digital format.  The labels on the independent label tier mentioned above curate their own programming.

Paul: What do you think subscribers will get from using the Soundstream? 

Sam: I’ve been using Soundstream for the last two weeks to get a sense of the listener’s experience. One of the best features of listening in this way is the flexibility—you can bounce around between wildly different artists, sampling whole albums that you might previously have had to mail-order. In some ways, Soundstream re-creates the loose, free-associative experience of hanging out in a record store, flipping through bins of records, but with the advantage of being able to hear each album as you go.

PA: How does the streaming platform support the Collective?  

Ken: It creates another revenue stream for the group, in addition to the physical and digital albums they sell through Catalytic, the Artifacts Membership, which offers monthly exclusive digital albums, and Full Membership,which combines the Artifacts Membership with Soundstream access.  Also, the Soundstream creates a new way for listeners to learn about the music, musicians, and independent record labels.  Through sharing musician-sourced information in addition to the music itself, the Soundstream helps to create another means of support for the collective- more understanding and knowledge, and possibly a deeper awareness of what's at hand and what's at stake for musicians everywhere.

Paul: What are your hopes and/or plans for the platform? Any “KPIs” so to speak?  

Ken: Primarily, we hope that the Soundstream's popularity will be another way to generate income for the musicians of the co-op.  In addition, we want to show that it is possible to pay musicians fairly for their work, and the content that they provide to streaming services.  And we hope that the creation of the Soundstream will motivate other musicians to organize and get more control of their work, how it's used, and how they can profit from it.

Paul: Did you ever think that you would be an internet entrepreneur?  

Ken: Ha, ha, ha- no!  But the way Catalytic has always worked was to be musician-forward, and to look at how we can be an added income driver for the musicians in the collective.  This leads to asking questions about what steps to take next, to look at the problems musicians are facing now, and to try and solve those problems.  It's an organic process, and we're fortunate to have some of the most creative minds in the world working with us to help create solutions.  So the Soundstream is an example of this group collaboration and problem solving.  We saw the problems with the existing streaming platforms and how they treated musicians unfairly, so the solution was to create musician-run alternative, and to show that it could be done.

Sam: Former Catalytic manager Brock Stuessi, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and writing about collectives like Catalytic, has the illuminating perspective that part of succeeding as an independent artist is engaging with the logistics of distribution. When vinyl records were the norm, musicians learned to engage with music publishing, record production, printing, and printing to get their work out in the world. Now, for better or worse, digital technology and the Web are the central mode by which most listeners consume music. Learning to work with platforms like Bandcamp and streaming services is one way to distribute music on the Internet. Here, we tried to go a layer deeper by working with some talented developers to create a site from scratch. As platforms continue to consolidate and monopolize the Web, it will become essential for musicians to develop technical skills and partner with technically skilled allies to maintain independence.

Paul: Regarding some of the technical/audiophile details that some of the Free Jazz collective have asked: 

Is it possible to listen offline?

Sam: As of this first release, you need an internet connection to access the Soundstream. 

What quality is the stream?

Sam: Since 2016, Soundcloud has streamed audio using 64 kilobit per second (kbps) Opus files. Opus, like mp3, is a "lossy" audio codec--basically, a piece of software that reduces the size of an audio file by removing non-essential sounds like ultra-high frequencies not audible to most people who are old enough to subscribe to a streaming service.

Some critics are skeptical of 64 kbps files because mp3s at that bitrate are regarded by some to sound thin or watery. Fortunately, Opus (finalized in 2012) is a significant improvement over mp3 (released in 1993), and most listeners would have a hard time distinguishing a Soundcloud stream from the original audio. For more information on Opus, mp3, and Soundcloud, be sure to check out this article on the subject..

Can you stream to smartphones? I.e. iPhone/Android apps?

Sam: The Soundstream is accessible on smartphones and tablets via a web browser like Safari or Chrome. As for an app: not yet. We'd love to create an iPhone/Android app, and are investigating the possibility of developing one.

You can subscribe for $10 a month for the streaming service, or $30 a month for the full membership (incl. stream). Learn more here: