…and the Predatory Nature of the Music Industry (that’s the end of the blog title but it seemed a little wordy).
Recently I tried to log on to Sessions Live for my normal semi-regular livestream sessions to find that the website just doesn’t work anymore. The links lead nowhere and there’s a DNS error in place of what used to be a pretty elegant and easy to navigate interface.
Of course, I knew this wasn’t great news.
Okay wait, what’s Sessions Live?
If you’re not familiar with the platform Sessions Live, it is (or was) a live streaming platform that exclusively caters to music artists. The goal of Sessions was to be a 24/7 music live streaming platform with a global reach.
As someone that has dabbled in other live-streaming platforms (like Twitch), I liked the idea. One of the challenges with a platform like Twitch as a musician is that you’re not only competing with other musicians but virtually every other type of content creator, too. This makes building a platform pretty challenging because even though the platform would have you believe that you’re pitching yourself to their entire user-base, you’re really only pitching towards the much smaller percentage of people who have chosen that platform for the same purpose as you. The result is a tediously long process trying to pull in new listeners when the majority of users are there to watch someone play Call of Duty.
So how did Sessions Live work?
There had to be some sort of benefit outside of just being a music platform, because so many other platforms otherwise already exist, right?
Sessions Live was entirely game-ified, meaning there was a certain element of “gaining points” or “winning” and a reward system for participating (because wanting people to hear your music is simply not enough for most musicians, I guess). This reward system of course was money based.
And there was a weekly leader board where you could watch your stats climb and your level or “experience” points increase, entering you into higher leagues with higher stakes.
It’s like, say, you just start entering poker tournaments but simply by entering the lower-tier poker tournaments you’re given points that allow you to enter those higher-pot tournaments; There’s no $5000 buy in here, just a 10,000 hours one.
Now I could get into a whole other thing about how the seemingly game-ification of industry on this planet is literally killing every industry because I used to write for a company that specialized in exactly this type of work (turning any boring old workplace into a “fun” reward-based one), but that’ll take a lot of time to get into and without any real incentive to do-so right now, I just can’t be assed.
What I want to focus on is Sessions and similar platforms in music that have adopted this as an effort to attract new musicians.
How did I find out about Sessions?
From the jump, I didn’t believe Sessions was going to last and that’s because of the way I found the platform.
Sometime in 2021 while I was still determining the best way to go about regular livestreaming as an independent musician I got a message from someone with a Sessions Live logo in place of their profile picture.
Because of the amount of scams and bots going buckwild on social media targeting musicians, I was immediately apprehensive.
The user explained they were from Sessions Live and had come across my music, thinking I might be a great fit for their platform. They explained the platform in brief and after my questioning, that it was free to join.
Okay, no harm no foul if it’s free to join.
They didn’t explain that they’d receive some cash for recruiting me and there wasn’t an obvious affiliate link, they just told me where to go to sign-up. When I eventually made my way to the platform a couple weeks later after mulling it over and spending some time on the website, there was an empty field in the sign-up form where you could name your referrer.
I went back into my messages to find the name of the person and threw them in – it seemed a small gesture and after all, I really wouldn’t have known about the place without them.
I also went ahead and messaged that person again to let them know I did that and when they didn’t respond I felt like this platform was probably at least a little shady.
Call it instinct, but whenever people ghost-off on you like that, there’s probably a problem.
After initially creating my profile I went back onto the website to check out the caliber of artists using the platform and this was an important step because it didn’t take long for me to realize that most artists on Sessions Live were not Canadian or American. Most of them were based in places like the Philippines or Malaysia and this gave me pause.
With so many artists trying to break into the American music marketplace every single day, there was something to be said about the lack of American independent artists on this platform as a whole.
On the one hand, I loved this about Sessions. I love the idea of artists from far-away communities like in India discovering my music from an acoustic livestream. There was at this time no better platform to introduce yourself to markets like this in a very controlled and targeted way without purchasing ad space.
On the other hand the more I learned about their monetary-reward based system, the more it felt like Sessions Live was preying on vulnerable artists from small towns without their own active music scene and something about it felt… icky.
And then there was the other realization that I’d notice when I joined other artists’ livestreams; Most of them weren’t actively playing any instruments, they were effectively doing live-karaoke and the sound quality was generally terrible.
Needless to say I found myself weary of using the platform at all after I’d done what I felt was reasonable due-diligence poking around the website.
It would be months later before I really bothered to build some sort of presence on the site.
The Live-Streaming Perspective
So eventually I did. I went on Sessions, I navigated to their livestream panel and I went ahead and downloaded OBS so that I had software to run my streams on.
Sessions works just like Twitch in that they give you a Stream key to plug into your live streaming software and otherwise it’s pretty much click-live-and-go. It’s very easy to hook up even if you’ve never done livestreaming like this before. (They were also beginning to roll-out their own web-based streaming interface but, I tried it once and it wasn’t in any way ready for a full roll-out).
I also took advantage of one of Sessions Live’s complimentary customer service calls. I hopped onto a virtual call with one of their agents who walked me through the entire process from start to finish and was there to answer any questions I had. They were polite and courteous and seemed knowledgeable about the platform and reasonably optimistic about its potential.
This level of care for artists using the platforms is not something I want to undersell – so many companies and platforms lack this now and it was arguably Sessions Live’s strongest asset.
When I first started to use Sessions Live I’d mostly just run my own streams which mean you were pretty much just hoping that someone would join and listen in, which isn’t unlike my experience and approach to Twitch.
You can go weeks without someone joining your stream, especially when you factor in the time difference between yourself and most of the user base here.
In the early days of my Sessions Live “career”, I’d get regular e-mails from a person named “Sam” who would encourage me to sign up for one of the platforms online festivals.
This was another selling point of the platform that other streaming services don’t offer.
By participating in the online festivals you had the potential to be seen and heard by significantly more people than if you were just running your stream solo.
You’d start your stream as normal, but once your festival slot came up you’d be automatically dumped into the main stream and its audience.
The nice part about this is it makes you as a virtual performer feel like you’re actually part of a real show, especially when you start to notice viewers jumping into the chat with their comments.
And of course, if you’re well received by the audience who have the ability to send tokens of “love” which translate after a certain amount to real money, you’ll feel better after your performance, too. It’s the virtual equivalent to a cheering crowd at your local bar; Not the same, but it’s something.
And there are other rewards of course, like the top artists can receive big payouts or be entered into lotteries.
Again, the entire platform is very “just by being here you can win big” which is not unlike the marketing towards Ontario LottoMax tickets.
The more festivals I’d participate in, the more my follower count would rise (faster than on Twitch), and my level kept increasing and my piggy bank was slowly creeping up. At $100, you’d be able to cash out.
Sessions also ran streams that could get you (allegedly) one-one-one’s with big time producers. This took me back to my first days starting out playing shows locally in Ontario where music promoters would make the same claims to pitch their battle of the bands competitions (which effectively was our entire market for indie artists for a while here).
And over time the platform was growing, eventually offering subscription-based services once you reached a certain level via the rewards system and the ability to sell your music directly from the Sessions homepage.
I’ve seen a lot of other platforms like this since and it seems like everyone is just offering web-space for you to post your paypal links and they hope that you do it with them instead of their competitor so that they can take a cut.
I’m not at all sure how most of these platforms intend to survive when I can literally just put up my paypal link on… virtually any of my social media platforms and my own website, but at the risk of getting into a whole thing about what sucks about subscriptions for musicians, I’ll move on.
The Red Flags
By now I think you have a pretty good idea of Sessions Live’s model so I want to focus instead on the key moments where I felt I was noticing significant red flags about the company because I think these things are important to acknowledge as we’re no doubt going to see more and more companies like this as more artists more towards virtual spaces to promote themselves.
So the first red flag, I’ll remind you, was when that recruiter didn’t respond to my message. If you’re someone making some sort of living or cash by doing this type of work, you’re well versed in the customer relations side of the hustle and you’d almost always respond to this type of message. A quick thanks goes a long way in potentially securing even more clients.
The second red flag was when I started to receive messages from a fella named “Sam” who’s picture was included at the base of the e-mails. For a company that seemed to cater to a specific type of marketplace, they sure had a very English-American customer service base via e-mail and online messaging – unless of course you jumped on a virtual call like I did and got one of their live agents where they couldn’t hide behind an avatar.
Eventually “Sam” stopped emailing me although I was performing more and more festivals and was replaced by obvious automated messaging that was wildly inconsistent. They were clearly having difficulty retaining back-end staff.
The third was when, again in the earlier days when I first started streaming, I’d receive weekly e-mails which disclosed the leaderboard positions. These are supposed to encourage you to stream more by showing you how other very real and totally legitimate artists are dominating the weekly league, and that can be you!
I received one back to back one week and something about it stood out quickly.
On one of the listings, the same artist was listed in both the 1st and 4th place slots.
How could this be, I wondered, given the platform’s point-based system, it should be absolutely impossible for any one artist to appear twice on any leaderboard. You’re either 1st or you’re 4th. I noticed this about more than one artist on the follow-up e-mail and so I reached out to Sessions Live to inquire.
It was innocent enough, something like, “hey, I noticed that these artists are listed twice and can you just explain to me how this works again because I’m a little confused?”.
I was surprised when they responded rather quickly within a day or so, except they didn’t really answer my question. They just sort of said, “Hey, yeah, these are the leaderboards and this is who is leading this week!” and I was all, “Hey yeah I totally get that but you definitely didn’t answer my question?”
The next day they’d send another e-mail saying there had been a “mistake” with the leaderboard and it had since been corrected. My question was never really answered and the e-mail updates on this part of the platform stopped coming into my inbox immediately.
The fourth was when I tried to locate a Canadian social media presence to find that there was only a twitter page and it was basically never updated, so whoever put that together abandoned the project quick. Canadian musicians apparently hate live streaming.
But I was still seeing money trickle into my account and I wanted to hit that $100 mark just to see for sure if this was in any way legitimate, although the process was tediously slow.
But then I got another e-mail which would become the 5th red flag.
If you were participating in Sessions Live festivals, you could earn even more money with paid promotional posts through your social media platforms. They’d supply you with a photo and the instructions on how to add a paid promotional partner to your post on Instagram, for example.
I liked that this felt legit, it wasn’t simply “post this picture and screenshot it to us,” it had to pass Instagram’s promotional partner policy, too.
If you did this and followed their instructions exactly, Sessions would put cash into your account.
Of course I did this, and I definitely did it correctly, and no money entered my account after the festival appearance.
Lift that flag, baby.
I pressed on (although it’s probably important to note I wasn’t exactly killing myself over these streams. I was doing at most 1 a week, if that, until late 2022 when I stepped up my game).
The weekly league had a $5 payout for the top 2 artists of the week within your level-grouping. You’d earn “trophies” just by performing and it didn’t take too long to grab that top spot.
The $5 payout was split of course, so the top artist would get $3.50 and the runner-up would get $1.50. This was largely how I was building my own cash-pool but I lost faith in it quick when one week, the first week I was to take home the $3.50 top prize, Sessions Live again failed to put the money into my account.
In the fall of 2022 Sessions Live had even more ways to earn extra cash.
This time you didn’t even need to do a promotional post, you just needed to participate in every single week of a month long festival.
By simply performing your 15 minutes each week (almost all Sessions slots are 15 minute sets), you were guaranteed $100USD.
Oh yeah, everything on Sessions is in USD which makes it that much more lucrative to those of us not based in the United States.
And $100 wasn’t nothing! After a year of casual streaming on Session I’d only made $30USD.
So I signed up, sure to secure a slot for every week of the fest to make my $100.
I did each show. I even got some extra bonus love from some viewers (allegedly)… and again no money entered my account when the festival came to a close.
Okay Sessions, what’s going on?
I decided around this time that it probably wasn’t worth continuing with the platform, but before I threw in the towel on it, I jumped onto another artist’s livestream from the homepage.
The platform shows you which artists are currently live so you always have something to watch. I picked a woman from the U.K who happened to be playing guitar and singing at the time.
The feed was on for only a minute or two before the oddest thing happened, though. It sort of reverted back to where it was when I started the stream and she repeated the same words she’d started with, “I’m only going to be on for a bit today”.
I thought it must be a glitch at first until a few minutes later it happened again.
These were pre-recorded streams and the server must not have been able to keep up with it, or else the people at Sessions Live assumed any viewers were too stupid to notice such an obvious error in the feed.
And then I spent a few minutes wondering how many artists on platforms like this use software like OBS to dizzy up a stream and then just let it run and re-run “live”.
And then I logged off Sessions for a while and thought about how many platforms run their business in exactly this same way preying to artists not unlike myself who are simply trying to expose themself to a new audience.
I thought how sad it was that such a great idea of community be destroyed so quickly by the game-ification of the music industry.
In one of my last conversations with a Sessions Lives customer service agent, I casually asked them how the platform was doing, even offering an encouraging, “there doesn’t seem to be platforms quite like this out there, the reach potential seems massive” and they absolutely agreed with me and they were doing great, expanding more and more all the time – and I left the conversation completely unconvinced that they were telling me the truth.
So it didn’t surprise me when I clicked my “Sessions Live” bookmark the other day and was met with that DNS error.
I googled today for an explanation but I could only find one person talking about this; they’d come across the same error on the day of their festival appearance and reached out to Sessions for a response.
And they got one.
“SessionsLive has ceased operations as of December 19th 2022”.
I reached out to them as well and got the same, now automated, message.
So what does this mean for indie artists and why does this story even matter?
Well, for starters the obvious thing that it means for any former users of SessionsLive it’s… you’ve been had and don’t expect to see any of that money that you might’ve had sitting in your account.
You could try to go after the company for what’s owed to you, but I’m willing to bet that if this was ever even incorporated properly, it was done so in such a way to make that damn near impossible.
If you spend any sort of significant time on this platform, come to peace with that as a loss. You won’t get that time back and there’s nothing you can do about it now.
Welcome to show business, baby.
But what does it really mean in the grand scheme of things?
SessionsLive is not the first platform to operate on this type of model and in my eyes as I mentioned above you’re likely to only see more and more of this as livestreaming becomes even more popular.
There’s no real regulation of this type of platform or any real guidebook on how to know if a platform is worth your time as an independent artist. Websites now are so remarkably easy to put together that these types of companies are only getting more and more sophisticated with the way they’re able to attract emerging artists.
This entire culture of seeing artists as dispensable tools to get rich off of rather than promote their art and message is absolutely not new, it’s just even more insidious now because instead of ripping you off to your face at your local gig, they’re doing it from Malaysia.
Like I explained briefly, the play-and-get-rewarded model is one that was used ad nauseum by Ontario music promoters when I was starting out in my teens – there are more of them now and the rewards appear more lucrative, but they’re still doing the exact same thing as Sessions Live was doing and you should be super apprehensive about all of them.
And sure more artists are speaking out against “pay-to-play” but the discussions around the best way to really get heard and create a fanbase have largely disappeared and replaced by “you need to get on Spotify playlists!”. Gee, wonder who’s pushing that narrative.
There is no right or wrong way to promote yourself and some practices are certainly better than others (paid marketing), but the artists using those practices seem to prefer to stay quiet about the entire ordeal as if they’re coveting literal gold (they just have a publicist).
As independent artists we really need to get smarter about who and what we invest our time and energy into and in order to do that you need to spend the time to understand not just the platform but its intended audience and the audience you yourself want to reach.
We also need to loudly call out companies working off a reward-based system that serves to benefit “some guy” instead of ourselves.
And we need to stop relying on unstable reward based systems.
Great musicians aren’t great because they see themselves at the top of a leaderboard like they’re the top sales agent at a fortune 500 company, great musicians are great because they love what they do and it transcends into their music and that passion is felt by the listener whether its on Spotify, a cassette, or muffled on a P.A in the middle of a busy park.
They build an audience not by choosing a platform with potential of a great global reach but because they’re taking steps every day to reach that new audience and engage with them on a human-level by putting forward the version of themselves that they want people to connect to.
There are a lot of different ways of doing that but I can guarantee you none of them have anything to do with a points-based leaderboard.