Entertainment lawyer Henderson Cole had spent years studying music’s tangled payment system, frustrated by how ill-adapted it was for the streaming era. In 2017, he had a lightbulb moment — when his girlfriend took out an album from the New York Public Library and downloaded it. (It was Swear I’m Good At This, by the indie-pop band Diet Cig.)
“I said to myself, ‘Imagine if you could just have a library that’s just streaming, and it could pay artists!’” Cole remembers. “That would be a much better system: Everyone would have access to it and, just like the library, it could be funded by taxes. It wouldn’t have to worry about going out of business, or advertising, and it could just focus on doing what it does: playing music for people.”
“That,” says Cole, “was the genesis of the idea.”
Cole’s bold plan is called the American Music Library. The proposal — that the federal government invest in a streaming service, free for all users and funded by taxes on wealthy Americans — is as simple as it’s ambitious. Its most radical element is a completely reworked royalty system that delivers payments directly to musicians. Such a streaming service would, Cole estimates, cost $10 billion a year at most (roughly 1.5 percent of the annual U.S. defense budget) Cole envisions the state-sponsored streaming project to live alongside the existing streaming services, like Spotify and Apple Music, offering artists a nationalized alternative. “This streaming service will not have algorithms… but instead be a repository for all music from all over the world,” Cole wrote in his proposal. “The U.S. government could manage a streaming system much better and more efficiently than [corporations].”
The idea may have seemed far-fetched when Cole first started pitching the idea in 2019, publishing it officially in the music newsletter Penny Fractions. But over the last year, a number of factors have led to a growing sense that the structure of the contemporary music industry — with profit-hungry tech companies serving as its backbone — is increasingly unsustainable. When the pandemic hollowed out touring revenue, the music industry faced a moment of reckoning; venues were desperately lobbying for bailout money to stave off bankruptcy and musicians were holding protests outside of Spotify headquarters, showcasing exactly how broken the system was.
Cole’s idea is now starting to gain rapid steam in media and music circles. “The basic premise of the American Music Library suggests that streaming could be less destructive…if it were funded and organized differently,” journalist Liz Pelly wrote earlier this year. “That perhaps the problem with streaming isn’t streaming per se, but the predatory industry norms that surround it.” Mainstream media outlets have also started advocating for reimaginings of steaming corporations that are conversant with the American Music Library idea.
“These ideas have been bubbling below the surface,” Cole says. “But people are just now starting to realize how important it is that we start making changes… If this is going to become real, it’s going to be because we demand that the government creates it.”
Cole has a kind, unassuming demeanor for someone intent on restructuring the entire underpinning of a $20+ billion industry. Wearing a Joyce Manor t-shirt in a recent Zoom interview, the attorney — who represents indie acts like Bartees Strange and Dogleg — has a talent for outlining his concept in digestible, friendly terms: He sees the A.M.L. as a natural extension, in a sense, of recently proposed legislation like Biden’s $2 trillion transportation proposal.
“Just as we would invest in infrastructure for highways, we want to invest in entertainment infrastructure, too,” he says, mentioning countries like Canada and South Korea, which spend much more than the United States on per-capita governmental music funding.
Cole, who came of age in the North Jersey D.I.Y. scene, has a keen understanding that his proposal is worth nothing without the support of musicians themselves. “If this is going to become real, it’s going to be because we demand that the government creates it,” he says. “Who’s going to make that demand? An organized group of artists and people in the music industry.”
Cole knows his plan needs artists on board, and he already has the support of one musician union. In a statement to Rolling Stone, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which represents a growing number of independent acts like Frankie Cosmos and Speedy Ortiz, says that the organization “is in support of the development of a nationalized streaming system… which fairly compensates the labor of everyone involved… We believe such a system would address the issues we are currently campaigning against in Spotify and other streaming services.”
Cole is keenly aware of just how much his plan would shake up the current framework of the music business; he says he’s received messages from others in the industry accusing him of threatening to destroy their livelihoods. As a lawyer, he’s also well-versed in the amount of bureaucracy and the uphill legal battle he’ll face in trying to push a government-run streaming service.
But he remains motivated by the power of the A.M.L. as a pure concept that could upend the status quo, and the last couple of years have made him even more resolute in the proposal. “You’re putting these ideas out there, challenging the current system and encouraging people in control of that system to do better and people who live with that system to demand better,” Cole says. “The older generations, especially, have always done things the way they were, and honestly, it’s not really working. So we have to make changes.”
Says Cole: “When I talk to other music lawyers, a lot of them say, ‘Do you know how hard that would be to fix? Don’t even bother.’ I get that. We all have limited energy. But this is a big thing. This might be worth fixing.”