What’s the problem with streaming?

spotify logoAnother artist has withdrawn their work from Spotify: Taylor Swift witheld her latest album from the streaming service and has then decided to remove her entire back catalogue. Something I was not aware of is that her latest album has been breaking sales records i.e. in absolute terms she is selling more albums more quickly than anyone has before, even in the supposed heyday of the LP.

But anyway, the readers’ comments following the Guardian article contain some bitter complaints about how Spotify is devaluing music and destroying the music industry. But is it? Or would the music industry be in decline regardless of the existence of streaming services?

The Perfect Arrangment?
Before audio recording was invented, musicians could only play to live audiences of a few hundred, maximum. Then not much more than a century ago, the artists’ audiences multiplied a thousand-fold through the introduction of recordings, and radio. A system evolved whereby the public could hear an artist on the radio for free, but if they wanted to listen to the music on-demand, they had to buy the record for real money. It was the perfect arrangement for the recording industry and a select group of artists and, many would have us believe, for the public. Huge sums of money were concentrated on a relatively small number of privileged artists, and they and their record companies were able to develop their art to an extraordinarily high level. In Iggy Pop’s recent John Peel lecture he spoke of the purchasing of a record as being the “anointing” of the artist by the purchaser, suggesting that the listener’s enjoyment of the music was actually enhanced by the financial sacrifice.

The internet disrupted that cosy arrangement. Illegal file sharing is thought by many to have started the process of killing the music industry, and maybe it is true. While home taping was superficially similar to illegal file sharing, maybe Iggy Pop’s point is correct and without some form of sacrifice like spending an evening cueing-up LPs, putting fresh tapes in the machine, setting the levels and pressing REC-PLAY, the listener loses their imaginary connection with the artist, and the music loses its meaning. And its value.

We all have recording studios now
The digital revolution does not apply only to listeners; the recording of music has also been democratised. In the previous era, only certain people had access to ‘the means of production’. Now, any bunch of kids can commit their efforts to 24 bit 192 kHz quality and can even release them on Spotify in a form that looks and sounds just like the major labels’ releases. Smaller labels have proliferated. This means that the listener’s attention – and money – is now spread far more thinly and this must surely be the most significant factor in reducing the major recording artists’ income, rather than the streaming services cynically ripping them off.

The streaming services have been criticised by Thom Yorke et al for doing special deals with the major labels, paying more per play to some artists more than others. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. If anything, it may be a way of restoring something like the previous regime where bona fide artists made a viable living.

The genie is out of the bottle
So in the digital age we have paid-for downloading, and streaming. I have never bought a download, as far as I can remember, but I have been a streaming subscriber for many years; first Napster and now Spotify. In my case, I think the average amount I pay into the industry for recorded music is pretty much the same as it would have been without streaming, but of course the breadth of the music I now listen to is much wider. I spend a large amount of my listening time on minor artists that I would otherwise never have heard of, and I have developed more of a taste for classical music. I still have quite a large collection of CDs, but the temptation to play them is diminished. An irony is that I am continuing to channel money to those artists if I play the same tracks on Spotify, even though my on-going contribution to their coffers would have been zero in the previous era.

Just as I now don’t like reading printed newspapers because they seem instantly-obsolete and disconnected from the rest of the world, I don’t like the dead ended-ness of a CD. There are no ‘Related Artists’ to browse, and if it is an old CD, there is some question of the quality – it may have been cobbled together off a fifth-generation tape copy running at 3.75 ips. With Spotify I may have access to several versions of the same track, and can choose the one I think sounds best. Do I prefer the original, or the 2012 re-master? With CD I would be stuck with whatever I had got, and could never justify spending money on buying several CDs in order to find the best version of one track – the thought of it makes me shudder.

How many CDs did I buy for £15 (because that’s what they used to cost) and then found that I hated them on the first play and never played them again? The Iggy Pop argument is that this helped me to value the ones I did like all the more; that the thrill of gambling (because that’s what buying music used to be) would enhance the listening experience. He may be right.

And then there’s the physical inconvenience of LPs and CDs which influenced our listening directly. To play music involved physical effort as well as the initial monetary sacrifice. We had to play whole albums, one side a time. Maybe we would replay an album side because we couldn’t be bothered to turn it over. By being forced to listen to what I might have dismissed initially as “filler”, I might have discovered slow burn tracks that I came to love.
The common theme is that maybe we cannot experience real pleasure without pain.

The free market

But surely these are all very touchy-feely and hand-wavey arguments. The bottom line is that no one forces artists to release their music via Spotify, paying only 0.00000000001p per play. As a society we supposedly believe in the power of the free market to innovate in a way that is beneficial to us all, so shouldn’t we just embrace whatever comes along? It’ll be good for us all in the long run (might go the argument).

Taylor Swift’s withdrawal of her albums from Spotify seems to be the free market at work. If I were a successful artist’s manager, I would of course weigh up the pros and cons of putting her work on Spotify versus selling albums. If I controlled the rights to the back catalogue of a once-respected artist from the 1960s I might also think about this. At face value, it might make more sense to hold out in the hope of selling even one album per month rather than making 50p from a few Spotify plays. But on the other hand, in doing so the artist is absented from the ‘zeitgeist’ and fails to benefit from the free advertising that Spotify provides.

Kids in a sweetshop
For people like me, I can’t help but think that Spotify and its ilk are the high point in our music-listening lives. We grew up in the era of LPs, and if Iggy Pop’s argument is correct, the enforced scarcity of music when we were kids taught us to be deeply passionate and enthusiastic about it. Then, approximately ten years ago we discovered that someone had taken our fantasy of a huge home jukebox, and made it a reality, but much better than we could have dreamed of. So we both cherish the music, and have it endlessly available on tap. A well-kept secret in the audiophile world is that the audio quality of Spotify Premium (and presumably some of the other services) is just fine*.

I would still subscribe to Spotify even if it was just classical music and artists’ complete back catalogues. What would kill it for me would be artists and their labels using Spotify as a ‘sampler’ in the hope of persuading me to buy whole albums. Spotify subscribers are already aware of the curse of the ‘greyed-out’ track, and in the online forums this clearly irritates people a lot. Competition is such that I would guess the average subscriber doesn’t go out and buy the album, but simply switches their allegiance to other artists instead.

I know people who buy albums and tracks on iTunes even though they are fully aware of Spotify. My eyes glaze over at the thought of spending real money on a limited selection of digital downloads that, as far as I am aware, are inferior in quality to Spotify Premium. Their eyes glaze over at the thought of spending real money on ‘renting’ music. Never the twain shall meet, or so it seems.

So I see streaming as the best thing since sliced bread for people like me. I also see it as a mystery in that I can’t quite work out the economics of it, nor why artists should allow their work on there while at the same time complaining about it (I realise that because of contractual arrangements this may not be as simple as it appears). I can also see the argument that streaming breaks the perceived connection between financial sacrifice and the music, and may help to reinforce the perception that recorded music should be ‘free’ – surely we could educate ourselves to transcend this perception..?

The way I would like to see streaming develop would be that the amount going to most artists increases such that they stop complaining and don’t have an incentive to withdraw their work from it. Streaming (and paid-for downloads) means that all the costs of manufacturing and distributing physical media disappear, so profits should remain healthy even though the subscription costs are low.

Do we need new recorded music?
The idea that recorded music may have no future is actually being discussed. But despite all the gnashing of teeth about the state of the recording industry, perhaps the ultimate question is: do we actually need any new recorded music at all? Maybe we need new records because we are bored with all previous music, having heard it all before and are so sophisticated and jaded that we crave brand new musical vistas. Or maybe music should be a reflection of contemporary life – and vice versa – and therefore music from the past is often irrelevant.

If I thought that there was anyone out there creating fabulous new musical forms I might just sympathise with the first argument, but the reality is that today’s youngsters seem to have few moulds left to break. Synthesisers can make any sound imaginable, but we rarely now hear ‘a new sound’, because most of the useful ones have been done already. And guitars still proliferate in popular music, just as they did fifty years ago. A youngster could spend their entire life just listening to the existing music on Spotify, and much of it would be more varied, sophisticated and interesting than anything being recorded today. I am not sure where I stand on the second argument. The purist in me thinks that good art is still good whenever it is ‘consumed’, but I can also see how art influencing life and vice versa gives it a whole other dimension.

A little-mentioned possibility could be that effectively all the best tunes and sounds have been done, anyway. I know that this is regarded as naive nonsense by people who like to think that 12 semitones can be permuted infinitely, but I suspect that, just like Peak Oil, we reached Peak Music some time ago.

Conclusion
I cannot say that streaming is here to stay, because I am not entirely convinced that it is, in its current form. As a ‘consumer’ I am a big fan, but I note the backlash against it. I really hope that it continues in its current form, rather than becoming a mere ‘sampler’ for promoting paid downloads. I believe that the fundamental problem for (some) musicians is that increased consumer choice is spreading the same amount of money more thinly than before. If that means the end of recorded music as a golden goose for a lucky few, then that is just a reversion to the situation before music recording was invented, and is a result of ‘progress’ and the market in operation. Maybe it’s just fortunate that we already have the extraordinary recordings from the 1960s thru 90s which, although we oldsters are familiar with many of them, youngsters can discover as though brand new.

*Spotify settings: ensure that the option for high quality streaming is selected and that ‘play all tracks at same volume’ is de-selected.

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2 thoughts on “What’s the problem with streaming?

  1. I wouldn’t be able to get through a night’s work without Spotify on my desktop; however, I can’t listen to it through my home stereo without getting a headache in five minutes. My speakers are just too revealing to allow me to forget about the source the way I can at work on my tiny Audioengines at low-to-medium volume. Also, I’ve noticed that stuff I’ve favorited isn’t there any more, just like on You Tube. It’s way to easy to take down an album or an artist’s entire repertoire. That’s why I’m very happy to own my music collection and play it on dedicated playback equipment rather than on a computer. I’d also rather not rip my collection to ‘the cloud’ only to have that disappear one day as the result of a court ruling, accident, or major hack. Nobody will ever be able to take away my music.

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    1. Cheers for the comment. I don’t have a problem with the quality of Spotify Premium (are there any particular tracks where you notice actual artefacts, or is it just general fatigue with the sound?) but I agree with the problem that your stuff can just ‘disappear’ overnight. I think it is a general problem that means that as soon as we begin to rely on any internet-based service, or any PC operating system, we are entirely in the hands of commercial organisations who can shut their services down at any time.

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