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The Vault Verdict: Can James Blake's New Platform Fix the Industry?

Is this a new platform a lifeline for struggling artists, a temporary band-aid for a broken entertainment industry, or simply an empty promise?

Photo by Felix Koutchinski / Unsplash

The long-running discussion about the broken business model of the music industry has been sparked again by James Blake's recent Twitter rant against the unjust pay artists receive from streaming services.

In his passionate post on March 3rd, 2024, Blake revealed the terrible reality musicians endure, alleging that labels, streaming services, and even TikTok are not paying musicians enough. (Fair point!)

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Many people shared his frustration, which gathered over two million views just for one of the posts in a ranting series—a viral moment by Blake's standards. But Blake moved beyond merely venting his complaints.

On March 20th, a few weeks after his first tweets, he revealed his partnership with Vault, a new site that promises to provide musicians greater control over their unreleased songs and a larger portion of the earnings.

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Blake gave some depressing statistics in a video outlining his collaboration with Vault. He says that musicians only get paid between $0.003 and $0.005 per stream, so a million plays come to about $3,000. When the label takes its cut, that sum is cut in half for those signed to a label; management fees, taxes, and recording expenses further reduce the artist's portion.

Even if they are eye-opening, Blake's figures might be a little high. According to my previous research and data obtained through the royalty exchange marketplace that I’ve shared in my article about Apple’s push for spatial, even for well-known artists like Lil Uzi Vert, compensation on Apple Music can be as low as $0.0000873 per stream and a pitiful $0.0000364 on Spotify. Call me paranoid, but this begs my personal concerns about Blake's sincerity. If he really wanted to show how bad things were, why not provide a breakdown of his own royalties instead of using highly publicized generic numbers?

Even with these warning signs, a lot of fans and industry insiders are cautiously enthusiastic about Vault's prospects. "James is right, artists should be paid more, but users are too used to paying for unlimited music for $10 USD a month," says Asher Fishman, Web3 & Music Founder. “Re-educating users to get used to new habits or, in this case, having to show them or explain to them why this might be valuable is very very tough.

But I definitely think there is room for locking special access to certain music."

Co-founder of Feed Media Group Lauren Pufpaf provides a more balanced analysis. "From my perspective, the idea isn’t actually that novel and just represents another potential avenue for artists to go directly to fans. I believe that new distribution opportunities are always a good thing, but I don’t foresee any big impact on the industry writ large," she says.

Mainstream media has surprisingly been unenthusiastic about Vault. For instance, the Guardian called it “a fantasy that disadvantages fans and musicians.”

Fans’ opinions on social media were mixed. Some declare it to be revolutionary. Some tweets said, "This could be a gamechanger,” and “You’re changing the landscape for people like me.”

A few, though, were less excited. Some doubted the model altogether, claiming that artists need growth and fanbase, not earnings, at first.

Some were questioning the timing and circumstances of building the product. Blake posted his rant on March 3, as one perceptive observer pointed out, and less than two weeks later, he seemed to have teamed up with Vault and was prepared to launch. Like the author of this take, who found the quick turnaround questionable.

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Is Vault real?

The timing of Vault's launch and Blake's clumsy promotion of it is fishy, to say the least. But let's take a closer look at Vault itself. The platform's Twitter feed only started on March 20th, with a post "Thrilled to launch with @jamesblake." Since then, there's been little activity aside from a retweet of San Holo's announcement about sharing unreleased music on the platform. The company also has TikTok with one video posted since the page was created till the moment of writing this. And an Instagram page that had some new posts and announcements while we were editing this text. For instance, on May the 7th, they announced the Vault of Belis ((42,971 monthly listeners on Spotify). And on May the 15th, Vault of Ayokay (831,157 listeners on spotify). For some reasons none of those announcements were cross-promoted anywhere else.

On Vault's website, there have only been six artists listed since the launch (and it’s been a good eight weeks at the moment of writing this). Even Ayokay, mentioned above so far, has not been added on the page part that lists all available artists, even though he has a separate landing page.

Credit: Vault

Apart from James Blake (9,065,291 monthly listeners on Spotify) and San Holo (1,265,698 monthly listeners), there are some other artists: Monica Martin (176,777 monthly listeners), Alexander 23 (3,382,160 monthly listeners), Emily Bear (232,227 monthly listeners), and Belis (42,971 monthly listeners).

To be fair, none of them could be called a streaming success. For comparison, Taylor Swift has 113,804,892 monthly listeners, while even a less trendy (but my favorite) Daft Punk has 20,576,780 monthly listeners.

Another red flag is the existence of another platform called Vault, with a similar mission of allowing artists to release limited runs of singles, albums, and more for their top fans. However, this Vault operates on a crypto model, with the slogan "The Rare Music Platform. Buy, collect, and trade limited-edition music, and support musicians in the process." According to Crunchbase, this Vault has already raised $21.6M in venture capital and seems better positioned for success with a larger number of signed artists.

The similarity in names and domain extensions ( and raises suspicions. Was it deliberately chosen to confuse potential internet visitors not yet familiar with both platforms? Who knows.

That's not all, though. A more thorough look into the history of the domain reveals some interesting facts. According to the Wayback Machine's April 12, 2010, first snapshot of the website, it was formerly an "Underground music community."

Then it evolved into an electronic music community and later went off for years. Then, on December 21, 2023, someone grabbed the domain on Namecheap and kept it empty until the March 20, 2024, launch of the new Vault website.

There are doubts over the ultimate purpose and creation of Vault given this unexpected revival. Possibly, the domain was selected more for SEO reasons, since it has tons of old backlinks. But again, who knows?

Was James Blake's Vault, then, a brilliant altruistic idea, a scam, a money grab, or just a poorly planned venture? It's unclear. But as of now, the platform doesn't seem to be making waves, even compared to its crypto-based dupe.

Shannon Herber, Head of Artist Strategy & Music Business Development at Campaign, a solution that leverages off-chain data from social and streaming platforms to enable on-chain value creation for consumer apps, believes that ultimately appearance of the companies similar to Vault is a good thing: “I think these types of platforms, like Vault, Campaign, Medallion, Even, etc. are great for the industry. They are helping musicians make more money and start to reconnect them to their actual, dedicated fan communities. Those are the folks who actually care about the art that an artist makes, who identify with their music and see their art as something to own and help sustain, not just as background music.

This methodology isn't new, it's just a return to the direct-to-fan approaches that existed prior to streaming. The reality is that streaming has decentralized and democratized the creation of music to the point where anyone can do it, but then they think that they need to get a viral hit to get fans. But those views represent passive listeners, not fans. Views and streams do not immediately lead to merch and ticket purchases, which is currently where artists make their money. We need to return value to the recorded music itself.” she explains.

Lauren Pufpaf, co-founder of Feed Media Group, echoes this sentiment, stating that the real question is whether Vault will actually help artists make money. "There is a very high bar for subscriber satisfaction when you’re asking for money on a monthly basis from people. If an artist is going to leverage Vault to make more money, it will be entirely up to them to make it successful. Without an existing fanbase or a team to help with marketing, it will be a slow road to incremental revenue.

Artists are increasingly looking for ways to get compensated for their art outside the traditional label model. In the traditional model, the label advances artists so they have time and money to create, and the labels handle the business side of a release, but they also often own your master sound recordings and the ability to make money from those moving forward. Many musicians are moving toward an independent model where they retain control and artistic freedom, but it means they must take on the business side of their art.

One of my favorite artists, Queen Herby, has made that transition and I’ve been following along as she continues to evolve her career. She had a successful stint as a member of Karmin and got signed to Epic Records, but is now an independent artist. If you look at her website, it’s easy to see exactly how she is utilizing all the tools in her direct fan engagement strategy to promote and monetize her art. I’m a huge fan, and she’s actually the first artist I’ve supported via Patreon.

A direct fan engagement platform that makes it easiest for artists to monetize and attract new fans could ultimately stick around, but it remains to be seen whether that will be Vault." she cautions.

Alternative ways to directly support your favorite artists

Thankfully, there are other ways for fans to support their favorite artists beyond platforms like Vault. Patreon is one of many, and even some grumps on Twitter claim it doesn’t work for musicians. As Pufpaf pointed out earlier, many are finding success with a direct fan engagement strategy that utilizes tools like Patreon to promote and monetize their art.

Patreon: As of April 2024, this OG of fan support was pulling in 96.48M visits, according to Similarweb (the same source and timeframe are used now and later in this section). And some artists are absolutely killing it on Patreon. Take Postmodern Jukebox, for example. With 1,643 subscribers paying anywhere from $5 to $100 per month, they're probably making more money than most of us see in a year. Then there's Pomplamoose, with 5,777 members shelling out between $5 and $50 monthly. These guys are proof that if you've got the fans, Patreon can be a good and easy place to start a direct commercial relationship with your fanbase.

Ko-fi: If you're allergic to fees, Ko-fi might be another option to look at. They don't take a cut from donations, so every penny goes straight to the artist. Plus, fans can sign up for memberships, giving you a steady stream of income. In April 2024, the platform had 11.59 M visitors.

Buy Me a Coffee: Next up, we've got Buy Me a Coffee. This clever little platform allows creators and artists to accept support and membership from their fans, all for the price of a fancy coffee. It had 4.980M in April, so it seems like plenty of people are happy to trade their daily latte to support their favorite creators.

Even: Less mainstream, but pretty similar to Blake’s Vault. Even lets you buy art directly from the artist, so you know your money is going straight into their pockets. With 15,140 visits, it's not quite as popular as some of the others, but hey, quality over quantity and progress over stagnation, right? Not to be confused with James Blake's Vault (seriously, who came up with these names?), is a place where artists can release limited-edition music for their most die-hard fans. It's like collecting vinyl but digital. It has 9,726 visits in April, so it seems to be hanging in there, but it’s way too early to talk about mass adoption.

Medallion: Medallion is all about helping you build a community around your work. And with less than 5,000 visits, it seems like a cozy little corner of the internet, yet to blow up and grow in popularity.

And what about This platform saw 120,810 visits in April. Sure, that's a 32.43% drop compared to the previous month, but hey, that's still more than most of us will see starting our own internet venture. Are they all listening to those 6 musicians listed there? Or is it just a temporary spike in traffic thanks to quite a successful PR campaign? Let’s get back to itn in 6 months.

Vault and beyond: the future of artist-centric approach

Can James Blake's Vault really fix the music industry's broken business model? In my humble opinion, the answer is a solid "meh."

Sure, Vault's appearance wasn’t unnoticed and got people talking. But let's be real: with the company's Twitter account in radio silence and the platform failing to gain any real momentum, it's looking like Vault can hardly start a revolution. We reached out to the company for comments to get some clarity on Vault's plans and roadmap for the product going forward but got no response.

But the questions Vault raised are still worth contemplating. In a world where artists are getting paid in peanuts (and not even the fancy, salted kind), are we heading towards a future where every song comes with a price tag? Will we have to bid farewell to our beloved Spotify subscriptions and start shelling out for each track like it's 1999?

It's a scenario that's got some fans sweating. With inflation making people's wallets lighter every day and the cost of living skyrocketing, the idea of paying for every song separately is enough to make even the most passionate music lover consider joining a local choir instead of searching for new artists to listen to.

But according to Shannon Herber, Head of Artist Strategy & Music Business Development at Campaign, this might not be such a bad thing. "It might [lead to a pay-per-song model], but again, that's just a return to the way music used to be valued," she says. "When vinyl and CDs are sold, the fan spends about $20 - $50 for the entire body of work that an album represents, which is normally between 12 - 15 songs. That's about $2/song that goes mostly to the artist (depending on their label deal), whereas they're getting cents on the dollar right now for every stream."

Herber points out that in the early days of digital music, when Apple Music was still called iTunes, songs went for $0.99 a pop, with most of that money going directly to the artist (after the label took their cut, of course). "The point is that paying for songs is the model that brings value back to the recorded music itself, which is the art that a musician creates and fans consume," she argues. "Not TikTok videos, not Instagram reels, etc. Musicians have been forced to become content creators, but we need to get back to valuing their craftsmanship and the years it took them to become a good musician who could craft the songs that you love that become the soundtrack to your life's memories. That is worth paying artists a living wage per song."

It's a compelling (and expensive for fans) argument, but not everyone is convinced that a pay-per-song model is the way forward. Lauren Pufpaf, co-founder of Feed Media Group, doubts that we'll see many artists putting their music behind paywalls. "Independent artists usually need a portfolio of potential revenue streams, and this would be another one to add to the mix," she explains. "It is not easy to make money as an artist, and for those operating outside the old label model, they need to find many different ways to meet their audience. Touring, Patreon support, direct merch sales, streaming, and exclusive fan releases all play a part."

So, where does that leave us? Is the future of music a choose-your-own-adventure, where fans can pick between streaming, buying individual songs, or supporting their favorite artists through platforms like Patreon? Or will we see a return to the days of paying for each and every track we want to hear?

The truth is, nobody knows for sure. But one thing is certain: as fans, all we can do is keep supporting the artists we love in whatever way we can, whether that's through streaming, buying merch, or chipping in a few bucks on Patreon. Because, at the end of the day, your favorite music is worth being grateful for.