Meet the Experimental Musicians Who Built Their Ow

Unsatisfied with the corporate streaming model, an idealistic group of avant-garde improvisers created a small-scale alternative—and want other artists to do the same.

Talk to enough musicians about the problems they see with corporate streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, and you’re bound to encounter a version of the following proposition, usually presented as a far-off hypothetical, if not an outright unattainable dream. What if we got together and built an alternative platform that prioritized the needs of independent musicians? What if we made the rules about who gets paid, and how? And what if we owned the company ourselves?

Catalytic Sound, a cooperative organization comprising 30 avant-garde instrumentalists and composers, is attempting to actualize this dream—and hoping to help other similarly minded musicians do the same for themselves. In January, the co-op’s partners launched Catalytic Soundstream, a small-scale streaming platform that charges listeners $10 per month for access to a rotating library of albums from the fringes of improvised music. The catalog is much more curated than the neverending buffets of the major platforms, with between 100 and 150 albums available at any given time and new ones swapped in and out every day. Most of these records feature one or more of the players who operate Catalytic and share equally in its revenue, an international and multi-generational roster of out-jazz and free improv luminaries that includes Joe McPheeTomeka ReidTashi DorjiIkue Moriclaire rousayChris Corsano, and Luke Stewart.

Within the bounds of experimental improvising, these musicians cover vast aesthetic territory, from McPhee’s strong roots in the jazz tradition to rousay’s use of field recordings and found speech. But according to Stewart, a D.C.-based organizer and bassist whose groups include Blacks’ Myths and Irreversible Entanglements, Catalytic Sound’s partners share an “underground aesthetic—one that has historically been ignored, but has also historically been fiercely independent, taking it all the way back to Sun Ra.”

To draw a comparison to video streaming, listening to music via Catalytic Soundstream feels more like browsing the Criterion Channel than Netflix. The records on offer, even at their most accessible, are well to the left of mainstream taste. (Someone wandered into the room as I was deep into Broken English, by the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet—a group that includes several Catalytic partners in its membership—and remarked, not inaccurately, that the music sounded like “screaming, but with instruments.”) You shouldn’t expect to find the album everyone else is talking about, or even to find any particular album at all. You’re better off picking something you don’t know and following the platform’s thoughtful curation, which generally includes a note from one of the partners, much like a staff pick write-up at a bookstore.

If your ears are open to this sort of music, and you’re willing to trust your guides, you are all but guaranteed to hear thrilling, challenging, and mind-expanding sounds that you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Though many of the releases are also available on other platforms, Catalytic Soundstream surrounds each album with far more context and less competition for your attention than traditional streaming platforms, allowing you to approach the music closely on its own terms. And as a condition of their partnership in the co-op, every musician is asked to make one record per year for exclusive distribution through Catalytic. As a result, a substantial part of the catalog—55 of the 135 albums listed, at the time of this writing—is not streamable anywhere else, including Bandcamp.