The apparent liberty and misguided feeling of anonymity afforded by the internet have led to a shift in cultural paradigms. After a few years of dial up connections and getting excited when you received an email or managed to penetrate the ads and access the monumental porn database, broadband and 3G eventually woke us up to the potential of this international network of computers and legitimized our God given right to steal music.
“But file sharing’s not stealing – it’s like making a tape of your mate’s CD” I hear you cry, and to an extent you have an argument, but when we were younger and we made tapes this was often a way to get into something new we would later acquire, not quite the same thing as torrenting the entire back catalogue of your favourite artist now is it?
By necessity our music tastes were much more tribal than today because our access was oh so limited, so we tended to stick to what we knew we liked, and tape swapping was a way of broadening horizons and getting to know different bands or genres, albeit constrained by the limitations of the format; I miss tapes. Nowadays, the entire scenario is different – we basically have access to everything and listen to everything – now it’s actually kinda cool to have guilty pleasures or varied tastes.
This wide ranging access afforded by the internet has led to the rise of streaming; and now you can stream pretty much anything from books through to porn. We are the immediate generation, transcending “On Demand” to “Right Fucking Now”; patience is no longer just a virtue, it’s a rare commodity as scarce as likeable politicians. Attention spans are equally hard to come by, so streaming is the perfect solution, if we don’t get instant gratification we can bin it and move on, no need to invest time or money in something not instantly likeable, unless of course you like a challenge. As far as music goes, on the surface at least, the enormity of the available catalogues on streaming services is proving a raging success and is the latest chapter of the ever changing story board that is the music industry, so what’s going on and why is it the future?
Streaming services first became viable as a result of governmental concessions granting certain liberties in regard to royalty payments. In a nutshell, so as to facilitate their growth, they were given the possibility of paying lower rates than radio or tv or from physical sales; so called digital performance royalties. Basically, the record companies and independent artists license out their catalogues to digital services through aggregators like Nimbit, TuneCore or CD Baby and the royalties are then collected and distributed through Sound Exchange, with artists recouping as little as half a cent per stream. i.e You’d need 20 thousand streams to make 100 bucks, which when compared to standard royalty rates of 9.1 cents essentially equates to slave labour – in no other industry would this be acceptable.
Now that streaming is so well established maybe it’s time for a rethink on this, especially now that it counts towards sales figures and chart positions. This move is probably part of a grander plan from the conglomerates, a kind of first step towards the much more lucrative mechanical royalties, as paid on physical sales and downloads. In the meantime, at least the digital platforms provide another way to discover an artist, so there is a bit of shop window factor in return for musicians not really making any meaningful cash from their music.
Right now there are a number of players offering a variety of streaming type services, from the ubiquitous “freemium” service of
Spotify, through the dominant online radio of Pandora, which is also set to join the on-demand market using its powerful brand as leverage, to the totally paid services like Rhapsody or Napster. There are even ad-supported platforms like the extremely attractive Guvera, which is only available in about 20 countries, but set to expand. And lets not forget the tech giants like Apple and Google pimping their services to their already cornered markets.
As a dedicated non-Appler (I like thinking for myself), I know very little about Apple Music, though must admit to wishing I could access the Beats Radio programming, which I’m sure is illicitly available somewhere on the interweb. However, I find the whole Apple domination thing a little sinister – personally I like choice, flexibility and competition; running apple services on exclusively apple platforms is a little monopolistic for my taste.
Spotify is obviously the most universal entry point to the streaming market, with over 75 million users, about 20 million of whom pay for the service and provide 91% of the company’s revenue, the other 9% coming from the ads supporting the free service. In other words, one person pays for certain privileges so another 3 or 4 can enjoy the free service, hmmm. Their model is somewhat controversial as a result of the royalties thing, but from the customer’s point of view it’s an attractive option, whether you listen to their 30 million plus catalogue for free with limitations or subscribe and take advantage of being able to save albums and playlists to your devices – regardless of its brand. Personally, I prefer Deezer which offers a similar service, but their interface is not only much more attractive, but also way more user friendly – for instance you don’t need to save an album first to download it after, as well as navigation also being easier, with less polluted results.
Whatever service one uses, the whole concept of streaming has raised some interesting issues, besides artist royalties. Primarily, having such an enormous catalogue at your fingertips is incredible yet overwhelming. The realization that you can now listen to absolutely anything you want whenever you want is liberating to say the least – I’ve rediscovered old classics, got back into artists I’d forgotten I liked, checked out new releases, been recommended cool bands I’d never heard of and revisited stuff I have on vinyl but haven’t been able to play for years (when you have a young child spending money on decks is not a priority!), all without illegally downloading a thing. Personally I like not committing a crime to listen to music.
However, the limitlessness of it is kinda scary, having pretty much everything at the touch of a screen has made me think about whether or not I really need a record/CD/tape/digital file collection and to be honest that’s not a comfortable thought; as well as not getting decent Christmas presents it would be just plain weird – what would I play in the car? Imagine never studying the beautiful artwork on an album sleeve, or never reading an inlay again, or never holding the physical product! As (The Great) Chuck D says, streaming’s a fools paradise, you are basically renting music, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but a world without physical ownership of music is not a world in which I wish to live. The downloading generation are sure to super overvalue our record collections come the digital backlash. Also, can you really conceive of paying a monthly fee for the rest of your days? Again, limitlessness =scary!
Even so, the benefits of streaming are attractive, I love the “I haven’t heard it for ages” factor, I love having legal access to an album I’m curious about, and, as a subscriber, I love being able to save to my phone. And therein lies the rub. Here in Brazil, Deezer and Spotify are an easily accessible R$14:90 which in dollars is only $3:75 and comes in R$5 cheaper than Netflix over here; pretty good value huh? Especially when you consider that streaming services tend to cost around $10, £10 or €10 depending on where you are. Ten bucks would be a cool forty reais out here, twice the price of Brazilian Netflix.
Interesting discussion surrounding the issue from Consequence of Sound
Another interesting consequence of streaming is that when you search for an artist, although you get the most popular tracks you also get the discography organized by album. As such, if you are a subscriber and wish to save something to a device, the easiest way is to download the album, unless someone has already made the definitive playlist of course, as picking and choosing tracks is not only time consuming but impractical. Therefore, unless you’re a compulsive track skipper, chances are albums are getting listened to as complete works once again; in my view this is a positive thing.
Right now, the majority of users prefer the free services that are available, the challenge for the platforms is getting people to subscribe – Tidal, Deezer and Rhapsody have used a variety of techniques with varying degrees of success, Spotify’s model having had the best results thus far. It seems that people are still uncomfortable with paying for music – strange mentality if you really think about it – I mean you wouldn’t steal a book from a book shop would you? But then again, why pay to join a library?
The future, I believe, would be to make the subscription service more attractive, Spotify are already under artist pressure to do this, but keep the cost affordably low so as to increase the number of users. Basically, the free service, if you are listening on a PC with broadband or a Laptop on Wi-Fi is every bit as good as it is for subscribers; free users only really lose out on mobile devices, because as well as eating up their data quota they only get shuffle play, besides the annoying ads. So how about more ads and less flexibility on PCs and Laptops? How about exclusive content for subscribers? Make the free service less desirable, then with a higher subscription rate maybe royalties would be less laughable.
Whatever way you look at it and however you prefer listening to music, streaming services are here to stay and record companies see them as part of a coming golden age in the music industry. The big labels are already preparing for the possibility of ubiquitous Wi-Fi and super fast internet connections; and when I say super fast I mean beyond what you can imagine, thousands of times faster than today’s broadband speeds and instant access wherever you are. The information super highway is set to go supernova in the next few years and the labels are already working out how to make money from people being able to access music with such facility.
So, like it or not, subscription streaming is the future and, with any luck, the kind of money this is likely to generate may well be just the shot in the arm the industry needs; if, and it’s a big if, that money filters down to artist development and to the independent labels. After all, that the internet is a hotbed of creativity is a given, the indie/alternative/ punk scenes, fuelled by alternative streaming services like SoundCloud and artist friendly hubs like Bandcamp is thriving and is an enormous market in itself. However, too much talent falls by the wayside, as sustaining an upcoming band is quite simply not a financially viable proposition under current circumstances, but with greater investment at grass roots levels and more exciting young talent breaking through, maybe something like a Guns n Roses reunion won’t seem like such an exciting idea.