The great streaming debate has raged on for over a decade now. While I could tell you the relative advantages of streaming vs. downloading (convenience, access to a huge library of music at any given time, the way it assists users in finding new music), I think it would be better to point out the reasons why I believe that music streaming is not merely the best option for consumers, but also the only option for future of the music industry.
Ever since Metallica’s Lars Ulrich fired the first shot in Big Music’s crusade against piracy, musicians and executives have had their backs against the wall in an increasingly desperate search for money. While Lars may have been deluding himself in how many people really wanted to hear late 90s Metallica, this conflict (and the subsequent dismantling of both Napster and Metallica’s artistic integrity – remember, they dropped that turd St. Anger just 3 years later) highlighted a greater issue within the music industry as a whole; people simply weren’t willing to spend as much on music as they had been previously. Entertainment budgets were already stretched by the ever-increasing popularity and price of other mediums like video games. At the same time, the cost of a physical album was increasing – compared to vinyl, now industry-standard CDs were very expensive.
The death of Napster didn’t spell the end of music piracy. While some artists hope to inspire a spirit of patronage from their fans, it became increasingly clear that when people are given access to free music they’re way, way less likely to pay for it. Enter music streaming – from the early attempts from music labels like MusicNet to the breakout success of Spotify, streaming helped pick up the weakened music industry as well as present a platform where listeners have easy access to both mainstream acts and smaller indie artists.
A common knock on streaming is that it is anti-artist, and to a certain extent, that is true. However, I think it’s the only way forward for an industry whose cash flow is already extremely dependent on the consumer’s willingness to pay. Music might feel like a necessity for us, but in terms of being an expense, it is a luxury for the majority of the market. In a world where piracy is as easy as a few clicks of the mouse, the only way the industry can compete is by being somehow more convenient. To that end, we’ve seen one of the biggest streaming services in Apple Music being directly embedded in iOS.
By this point, you might be thinking that the whole arrangement sounds pretty great for music executives while the poor starving artists live off of scraps. However, as with most things, the truth is somewhere in between. I would argue that streaming is actually good for artists, at least on a macro scale. Now, maybe it wasn’t always this way, but selling music is actually one of the worst ways for a musician to make money. Their royalty contracts are almost laughably small, which isn’t surprising considering the absolute wealth of great artists making music waiting to get their big break. Merchandise and ticket sales are the main drivers for artist revenue, and even the biggest artists seem like they’re always on tour these days just to make a living. If we concede that the huge music sales which generated appreciable royalties for even less popular acts are a thing of the past, the only way to go is streaming. Not only does it still give artists some royalties, it also increases their exposure to potential fans. Personally, I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve discovered from the ‘recommended’ tab in the streaming apps I use.
We live in a time where exposure is the most important capital in the music business, and giving independent artists more tools can only improve the vibrancy of the industry. That isn’t to say that streaming is ideal, especially not for musicians. But, at the same time, we have to make the best out of the realities of the 21st century. With listeners’ increasing demand for convenience, the industry has settled on an option that at least gives them some compensation. And despite its flaws, streaming has created a marketplace for smaller acts to get their name out there and pull in some income in the post-purchase era. Ultimately, that means more good music for us and a more even playing field for up-and-coming bands, which I think we can all agree is a good thing.
– Dean Cowles