“I feel like with the history of this platform, from vinyl to where we are now, it just seems like the next logical step.” – Jay-Z
The “logical step” that the popular American rapper is talking about is, of course, music streaming. Although the ever-changing method of music distribution kept the hustle alive among musicians, technicians and marketing firms, none of them were as sweeping as the current medium. Even after a decade of streaming, the music industry still struggles to control the system and make it work in their favour. On the other hand, the people on the receiving end, the listeners, have hugely benefitted from this radical shift. However, before we move on to the effects of music streaming, we need to understand what the term means.
In technical language, streaming works by sending information from a server to a player. The songs that exist in a raw form in the server are large and detailed and, because of this, need to be compressed in order to ensure a speedy movement over the internet. Once the stream reaches the device, it decodes the compressed data with the help of an app or a plugin. However, this process compromises the quality of music, which has been recorded to be lower than the other formats, dropping progressively from 1411 kbps in CDs, 320 kbps in MP3 files to 160 kbps in Spotify’s default streaming settings. Despite this blunder, streaming has become increasingly popular by ruling out the quality for quantity. A library of different kinds of music, it has facilitated easy browsing and convenient modes of listening that none of the prior formats could offer.
But when exactly did the change set in? The process actually began back in 1999 with the advent of the digital music sharing network Napster, which operated on the tenet of free download. Although it democratised music, the collateral damage was too much to bear. Following multiple lawsuits by artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica for copyright infringement, the company collapsed in 2002, suffering from a heavy loss. When Roxio bought the company, they started charging money for downloading songs, setting the current trend of subscription-based music listening into motion. In 2005, Pandora launched the first legal and free streaming services and pioneered the creation of curated playlists; a feature that Spotify mimicked after its launch in 2008. Apple music further explored this field by starting the monthly subscription fee in 2015.
One may wonder how all of this affected the musicians, to whom music is more than a form of entertainment – it is their primary source of income too. One of the significant ways streaming has affected the artists is through royalty payments. Although a step-up from the no-profit illegal downloading, the streaming platforms give the artists, producers and songwriters notoriously little in exchange for providing them with content. Moreover, with the surging popularity of streaming, the sales of CDs, a more profitable format, suffered a steady decline. The issues, coupled together, moulded the way musicians make music. While many embraced live performances as their primary source of income due to low royalty rates, others have refused to accept the issue. In 2014, the American pop sensation Taylor Swift decided to remove her music from Spotify as it was affecting the physical album sales, a decision which offered signs of the first major artist kickback. In a Wall Street Journal, she wrote: “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and every artist has handled this blow differently…Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically.”
Interestingly, despite strong reactions from artists like Swift, the Wall Street Journal found out that artists are producing more music than they ever have. This is because the process of recording, releasing and marketing music has become much easier in the digital age, a lot of which has been accelerated by streaming. Moreover, though withholding their albums from streaming services have benefitted well-established artists like Adele and Taylor Swift, it is not viable for lesser-known and upcoming artists. With the help of Soundcloud, Bandcamp and similar other applications, indie artists have been able to share and circulate their work with a wider circle of audience. Countless young artists depend on fans sharing their tracks online that drive people to buy their albums on Beatport, which in turn attracts them to their concerts where they make the most money. Hence, the importance of streaming is absolutely relative.
The charts have also been altered by the format of music streaming. For example, the UK Official Chart company decide to equate 150 streams to one sale. This specific number is, in fact, quite arbitrary. But the bigger problem is that popular artists crowd the chart with their non-singles. A few years back, all the sixteen songs from Ed Sheeran’s album Divide contested actual singles and occupied the chart. Though new rules have been made as an amend, it still exposes the limitations and fragility of the whole system.
In recent times, when the pandemic has unleashed havoc on the music industry by completely shutting out the lucrative option of live music, streaming platforms have an opportunity to make amends. Apart from streaming recorded songs, these platforms have started organising virtual concerts. Some have even offered direct or indirect financial assistance to support the music community, such as the launch of Spotify’s fundraising option, which allows artists to raise funds through their profiles. Or the repeated ‘Bandcamp Friday’ efforts, which sees the platform hand 100% of sales to the artist. On the other hand, YouTube’s campaign “Stay Home #WithMe” has enabled artists to post and share content with their fans from home and has allowed listeners to donate directly to the artists. Despite these innovative measures, the streaming rate has surprisingly gone down during the lockdown. A statistical demonstration shows an 11% fall in Spotify streams that too in the world’s largest hits, in April 2020.
Evidently, the industry is still figuring out ways to cope with this new format that is unreliable and prone to change. Although the awareness about the hardships faced and losses suffered by the industry is increasing, there is a considerable gap between the problems and the solutions. Keeping the additional challenge of the pandemic in mind, methods of reform should be prioritised and put to action as soon as possible. The end issue remains, however; artists need to earn a respectful amount of money for their work.