The digital age is well and truly in full swing and streaming plays a big part in that.
If you’re reading this your parents (or possibly you) have spoken about, or still speak about, listening to and buying vinyl. But not in this new age ‘hipster’ way – like legitimately used vinyl to listen to music. I was not part of this vinyl wave, growing up in my house we bought VHS tapes to watch films at home, bought cassette tapes to listen to music, and bought whatever format cd or cartridges to play games on. With time technology developed and we moved from that to cd and dvd’s, then BlueRay came along but that was pretty much the same thing but with better picture quality. At the same time as cd’s where at their peak, Apple launched iTunes – the predecessor to Apple Music.
iTunes was a digital store to buy and download music (initially) directly to your computer. As time went on this expanded to include other forms of media such as tv shows, films, books, and audiobooks. But at its core, iTunes was synonymous with music. iTunes revolutionised the way we interacted with music and started Apple’s meteoric rise to dominance through device-specific compatibility between the music bought on iTunes and the becoming increasingly popular iPod devices.
Now, this is not about Apple, iTunes, or any other dated form of music consumption – it’s about streaming. But streaming didn’t come from nowhere and in the aftermath of the big move over to digital platforms streaming culture was birthed to where we now have Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal for our music needs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu for television and films, and on the gaming front Xbox and PS4 have just announced Xbox Game Pass and an update to PlayStation Now, their respective moves towards streaming based gaming. We now have access to more content than ever, easier than ever, and all of it neatly arranged and organised with algorithms based on what we have engaged with on the respective platforms in the past. This is great…right?
Well as with all things sometimes in order for innovation sacrifices must be made and streaming is no exception. With streaming quickly on its way to becoming the most popular way to engage with both audio and visual content it is becoming ever more important to both artists and consumers. Artists gain the benefits of reaching more ears and having to spend less on promotion, allowing them more budget towards actually producing music. For an audience it means there is no delay between music coming out and being able to hear it, it also means music and what music algorithms think we would like is at the tip of our fingertips at a moment’s notice. None of this sounds bad, but the trade-off for this on the consumer side is that we no longer own any of this content.
So let’s give you a scenario. You have Spotify and all your favourite music on their as well as tune into playlists to find new music. All is good. You can access it whenever you want. Updating it is easy. You never have to look for a CD or CD player – ever. Worst case scenario you might need an aux cord. Now imagine growing comfortable with this over years – or maybe don’t imagine just substitute Spotify for whatever your current streaming platform of choice is. Now imagine that tomorrow that streaming platform doesn’t just crash, the entirety of the data that makes it up is made private by the company or worse deleted in some freak accident. Your previously vast music library now consists of everything you downloaded or bought prior to streaming, which if we take a wild guess means at least the past 3 years worth of music you’ve listened to is gone. Worse than that no more playlists – so who’s going to tell you what the next big song will be, who the next big artist is, or even just suggest another song you might like? Well in this case, not a streaming service. So here we see the trade-off we have made for all the instant access and vast libraries is ownership. If we still bought music be that digitally or in a physical copy, we would own it and nothing and no one could take it back – except thieves (like literal thieves or your family and friends depending on their habits). In the simplest terms buying music gives us permanent ownership of the music, streaming allows us to rent music but only for as long as the streaming platforms want to let us.
Case and point of how streaming services are firmly in control is the Netflix model of constantly removing, bringing back, and adding content from its library. Nothing is stopping music services from doing this. But these are just the problems faced by the consumer, but the artists also suffer too.
On streaming services, artists make a percentage of every stream of their track. If you wrote recorded and released anything would you be happy with just a percentage being your return? Not to mention that for some artists even getting into Spotify has been an issue due to funding or lack of inside knowledge or label backing. What also affect artists on the playlisting side of things is that some artists and labels pay streaming services to not only boost the amount of playlists tracks are featured in, but to boost artists visibility. Case and point is when Drake dropped Scorpion – Drake was suddenly the face of every playlist and had songs almost anywhere you could fathom, even where he had no right to feature.
Now granted there is a trade-off on this playlisting aspect. It can work either in your favour or against you as an artist. For the unknown artists, it levels the playing field as so long as their track is doing well enough and can fit into some kind of category it will get playlisted – further shining light on that track and therefore the artist, which then increases their reach and fan bases. However, the negative side of that is that playlists become a source which consumers rely on to show them new music meaning that artists who aren’t getting on them consistently are missing out. This is not to say that artists not on playlists can’t do well they are just at a disadvantage. What makes it so much more of a disadvantage at the moment with our streaming culture is the fact that there is constantly new music coming out every single day. This means artists are in constant competition to capture some kind of audience. As a consumer and music writer even I find it difficult to keep up with music these days and this is despite my inbox being crammed with tracks and projects from artists/PR’s/management teams.
One way that makes it significantly easier to digest all the new music is in playlists, hence the reason not being on them ends up being a disadvantage. If you need the numbers to back this up, at the beginning of 2018 BuzzAngle Music did some research on music streaming in the US based on the data available from 2017. Whilst people consumed 377 billion streams, 99% of those streams were of songs in the top 10% of the highest streamed songs of 2017. In even simpler terms as an artist, if you didn’t have a song in the top 10% of most streamed songs in 2017, you likely didn’t get listened to all that much. You might think those figures don’t mean much but remember who is in control of what songs and artists we visibly see – the streaming platforms. This is why the playlisting model is such a double edged sword as this small group of playlisters at their respective streaming platforms essentially control what is popular music.
Obviously, you can see that streaming does huge numbers just based on looking at the US. As such this makes it an extremely lucrative market to make money, but likely not for who you think. As we move in such a fast-paced time period where streaming makes up over half of all audio consumption artists can’t escape streaming. Music isn’t isolated at all as noted before, just think of all the social influencers and vloggers that have had their careers skyrocketed beyond their previously assumed limits due to YouTube as a streaming platform. You would think that artists and YouTuber’s were making most of their money from streaming? But if we look at the numbers this is definitely not the case. Spotify the biggest music streaming platform offers $0.00397, Apple Music offers $0.00783, and YouTube pays $0.0006 per play on YouTube for unsigned artists with the numbers being slightly higher for signed artists. What this means, in reality, is that if your lucky enough to have a track get a million streams on Spotify as an artist you make $3,970 which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that much money.
So what now right? Well, streaming has both its positives and negatives as with all things.
For consumers, convenience at the expense of ownership. So in terms of the consumer, streaming isn’t killing anything, it’s fuelling industries that were on the verge of collapse just 9 years ago. In 2009 annual revenues in the US, music’s biggest market, were at $6.3 billion – sounds like a lot of money doesn’t it? Well just 10 years earlier than that in 1999, annual revenues in the US were $14.6 billion. Fast forward to 2015, Universal Music Group alone posted revenues of more than $5 billion dollars with a rough estimate being that $1 billion of that came from streaming. So in that sense streaming is revitalising what was not too long ago an industry on a very steep decline.
For artists, streaming provides an ability to do it all yourself but at the expense of a large percentage of the money, they could be making on songs. More than just losing out on a large proportion of their earnings, streaming culture is possibly killing off the artistry in music. Where artists were once concerned with creating great bodies of work and singles now the emphasis is more ongoing viral than quality. This can be seen in the number of breakout stars we have had in recent years who have cemented careers from themselves of a single song going viral (think Ramz – Barking). But because of how little the returns on individual tracks is for artists there is a pressure to follow it up with another viral hit not only to satisfy the fans they captured with the first hit, or to prove that they aren’t a one-hit wonder, but to continue to create revenue for themselves. This coupled with the issues around playlisting make it so that viral singles are the best way to create a constant stream of income as an artist, whilst being meticulous over creating great music will no longer get you to those same heights – especially in the current incredibly oversaturated market. Being good is no longer enough artists must now understand how to constantly draw in huge crowds. Now granted this is an oversimplification and speaks more to unsigned artists in terms of revenue as signed artists will usually have deals with money on the table from labels as well as earning money on merchandise, tours, endorsement deals and so on. Unsigned artists can benefit from those streams of income too with the exclusion of the label money, but it will tend to be less than a signed artist’s potential earnings unless they have built up a significant profile and following in which case there is room for unsigned artists to earn more than signed artists.
All in all, streaming is something that is going nowhere anytime soon so regardless of where you sit regarding it’s good or bad it’s here to stay. That does, however, give us scope to see what the future holds for streaming. Personally, should streaming platforms increase the amount artists earn and somehow come up with a solution to the playlisting dilemma – I will be all for streaming. However, I equally am always going to be sceptical over the lack of ownership involved in streaming as a consumer just because we all want to always be able to access the content we love. So whether these issues do get resolved or even addressed time will tell, so all we can do is wait and see what happens.