Music To The Ears
The rebirth of the music industry, and the revolution in how we enjoy that music
“Streaming has gone from the music industry’s problem child to its saviour,” announced Monty Munford, a tech journalist for British newspaper The Telegraph, earlier this year – and he wasn’t wrong. For the influential American music industry at least, streaming revenues had begun outstripping digital downloads. Sometime in 2015, Munford wrote, a “tipping point had been reached” and “the stampede towards streaming has continued over the past year”.
According to the Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA), 2016 saw streaming music platforms generating the majority of US music industry revenue for the first time ever. The RIAA’s Joshua P Friedlander reported the retail revenues from recorded music in the US had grown an estimated 11.4 per cent in 2016 to $7.7 billion. “The primary driver of that growth,” Friedlander said, “was a doubling of paid streaming music subscriptions which helped the American music business experience its biggest gain since 1998.”
Not many insiders had predicted the stratospheric rise of streaming music services, not even Steve Jobs, it seems. In 2003, Jobs told Rolling Stone magazine that “the subscription model of buying music is bankrupt”. He went on to explain why: “People don’t want to buy their music as a subscription. They bought 45s, then they bought LPs, they bought cassettes, they bought 8-tracks, then they bought CDs. They’re going to want to buy downloads.” For a few years it looked like Jobs was going to be proved right, then streaming services got exponentially better.
Any collector knows that the music landscape has changed many times over the past few decades. First we collected our music on vinyl and tape, then again on EPs, coloured vinyl special editions and 12” remixes. Next came compact discs and just as we’d loyally replaced our entire collection of favourite albums on CD, MP3s arrived. Music lovers would be forgiven for turning away from physically owning a music collection simply because of ‘format fatigue’.
Michael D Smith, co-author of the 2016 book Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data And The Future Of Entertainment, thinks the popularity of streaming is more likely dictated by advancements in information and communication technology. “I don’t have anything more than gut feel on this one, but I think the shift toward streaming was less about format fatigue and more about the utter convenience of having all the world’s music available to you for less than $10/month,” he says.
Into a crowded streaming music marketplace – already boasting big players such as Deezer, Spotify, Google Play Music and Napster – burst US rapper Jay Z’s Tidal service in 2014, then came Apple Music in 2015, and last year Amazon Music Unlimited. Suddenly, in March this year, a number of media news outlets reported the rumour that American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift might be poised to launch her own streaming music service, one being called Swifties, according to Factmag.com.
The rumour seems to have stemmed from a disgruntled open letter that Swift posted on her Tumblr page. Entitled ‘To Apple, Love Taylor’, it explained why she intended to hold back her album, 1989, from the company’s new streaming service, Apple Music and described its practices as “shocking” and “disappointing”.
“I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free three-month trial to anyone who signs up for the service,” complained Swift. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months… Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”
In response, Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, announced a change of policy via Twitter: ”#AppleMusic will pay artists for streaming, even during a customer’s free trial period.” Swift’s album is now available on Apple Music, but she has long been outspoken on the matter of streaming music and in 2014 pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify.
“It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” Swift told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “And my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
However, the hitmaker has since had something of a change of heart. In June this year, Swift’s music catalogue made an unexpected return to streaming sites, including Google Play, Amazon Music and Spotify.
The timing was attributed to the ten millionth sale of 1989, and her certification from the RIAA for selling 100 million songs.
“Taylor wants to thank her fans by making her entire back catalogue available to all streaming services tonight at midnight,” Swift’s management said in a social media post dated June 8.
Others had a slightly more sinister theory. Swift has been embroiled in an ongoing feud with fellow popstar Katy Perry (the all-but-confirmed subject of Swift’s revenge song, Bad Blood), who just so happened to be dropping her new album on the same day. In re-releasing her music, Swift’s “gift” to fans was interpreted as a calculated act of sabotage.
- Library: 40 million songs
- Subscription: $9.99/month; $7.99/month or $79/year for Amazon Prime members. Free 30-day trial. Not to be confused with Prime Music, an Amazon service included with your $99/year Amazon Prime subscription that offers around two million songs.
- Library: 30 million songs
- Subscription: $19.99/month; students $4.99/month; family $14.99 for up to six people. Free 90-day trial.
- Library: 43 million songs
- Subscription: $9.99/month advert-free; family $14.99/month for up to six people. Free, advert-supported version available. Free 30-day trial.
- Library: 30 million songs
- Subscription: $9.99/month advert-free; students $4.99/month; family $14.99/month for up to six people. Free in an advert-supported version. Free 30-day trial.
- Library: 25 million songs
- Subscription: $9.99 standard; $19.99 for its HiFi tier with CD quality stream. Free 30-day trial.
Spotify, for its part, has tightened the reins on its services. In the past, paying and non-paying users enjoyed the same features. Now, only paid subscribers are able to access new albums, which gives artists like Swift more incentive to use the platform.
Clearly, these are volatile times for music streaming services – not least because of the delicate balancing act of having to keep music creatives, the record labels and service subscribers happy, something that might yet need a few tweaks. Although NME has since reported that the Swift camp are denying the Swifties rumour at present, most industry commentators are anticipating streaming to become more competitive still. “What’s next for streaming is, in a word, more,” said Pitchfork.com recently, citing iHeartRadio, Vevo and Australia’s Pandora as among those with their eyes on a bigger slice of the global streaming market. This hot on the heels of casualties such as Rdio – which filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and Songza and Samsung’s Milk Music – both throwing in the towel just last year.
Intense competition means something will have to give, and as more services launch, a bloodbath of closures and mergers seems inevitable. Despite 2016’s record music industry profits, a precarious few years of uncertainty face companies looking to be the biggest players in this game. For consumers, however, it’s a win-win situation, as streaming providers continue to push digital technology to its very limits to offer the best personalised services and an ever-evolving raft of innovations.
“In our book, Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data And The Future Of Entertainment,” Smith says, “we argue that streaming has created enormous value for consumers by giving them the convenience of easily exploring different types of music, and by customising their platform experience based on their unique tastes. Convenience and customization are powerful tools. Many people say you can’t compete with free pirated content. The genius of streaming services is that by using their platforms, their content, and their data to give listeners convenient access to music that is customised to their tastes, they have created services that are better than free piracy. That is the good news.”
“The bad news if you are a label,” he says, “is that this has shifted power away from the labels and toward the platforms. For the last 100 years, the music industry has been dominated by three to six major music labels. The labels’ power in the industry came from their ability to control three scarce resources. They controlled the scarce financial and technical resources necessary to make content. They controlled access to the scarce channels necessary to promote and distribute. And they were able to use copyright law to create an artificial scarcity in how consumers were able to access content. Because of technology – user-generated content, digital distribution, and digital piracy – none of those resources is as scarce as it once was. What’s scarce now is customer attention, and the powerful firms are the ones who own the customer data, and the platforms necessary to reach the customer.”
Who’s likely to emerge as the winner of this power struggle? It’s perhaps too early to call. Recently, Stuff magazine reviewed the best six streaming music services of 2017. From a shortlist that praised Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Music Unlimited and Napster (formerly known as Rhapsody and one of the earliest innovators), Spotify, itself a relative veteran, emerged as Stuff’s overall winner. Yet, the magazine itself admitted: “Although some services state they’ve got the odd exclusive, most catalogues are broadly similar.”
Any ‘best list’ is highly subjective, so Emirates Man’s advice on choosing a streaming service that’s best for you is to first check a provider’s catalogue to see if there are any obvious holes. A few of your favourite bands and artists or a single that you can’t live without, are obvious searches to make. I was gutted when one of my most-played tracks Caligulove by US rock super-group Them Crooked Vultures, abruptly disappeared from Spotify some months ago. I was told it was something to do with licensing when I phoned customer services and to-date it hasn’t reappeared.
Music quality is another consideration, although the quality of your speakers and headphones could make insisting on superior sound quality redundant, so it might not be worth paying the extra. Another key factor should be the extras that come with a particular subscription. Does the provider offer a radio feature or additional content, for instance? Deezer seems particularly strong on offering live albums that its rivals might lack, and Tidal – with its celebrity connection – has coaxed much exclusive content from Jay Z’s inner circle, including Beyoncé, Madonna, Usher and Rihanna. Jay Z himself is releasing his new album, 4:44, on June 30th, on Tidal. Tidal and Apple Music seem to be the only ones offering videos for now – but is that important to you? As the devil seems to be in the detail, we’d suggest taking advantage of a few free trials before settling on a subscription tailor-made for your listening needs.
Ebro Darden is the New York anchor of Beats 1, Apple Music’s worldwide radio station broadcasting 24/7. He thinks the station brings particular added value to Apple Music subscribers. “I think our ability to tell artist’s stories on Beats 1 is unparalleled,” he says. “Our strength lies in the fact that we provide context about an artist, song or project. As an anchor, I can chat about an artist, interview an artist or the artist can come up and host their own show. Having a slot on a playlist is great, but we are able to deepen the audience’s relationship with a song on a playlist by wrapping further meaningful content around it. Combining radio, on-demand, streaming and the store – we are truly a one-stop shop.”
One criticism long levelled at streaming music services is that they weren’t doing enough to promote fresh talent, so what are providers doing to keep music from going stale?
“Ultimately, Apple Music is a platform full of music fans who are passionate about the careers of artists, big and small,” says Darden. “We want to serve up music in a meaningful way and get people paid for their artistry. The Up Next feature is going to be huge for new artists.” Launched this April, the feature highlights a bunch of new artists every month. “We’re really leveraging the entire ecosystem,” insists Darden, “to impact the careers of talented folks that are missing nothing but a shot at some big-time exposure.”
“Last year, Deezer launched the industry’s first official Grime channel … which is designed to champion artists, many of whom are not currently signed to record labels,” explains Michael Krause, the company’s CEO EMEA.
Listeners can hear and discover artists and songs specific to the genre that they love the most, such as “Grime in UK”, “Gospel in Brazil” and “Reggaeton in the US”, Krause says. Most recently, he explains, “Deezer launched a global program called ‘Deezer Next’, in order to support emerging artists, taking a grassroots approach that works closely with labels, artists, to identify the next ‘Big Thing’, giving these artists a platform to be heard and discovered by our users.” So far, Deezer Next has launched in countries including the UK, France, Germany and Latin America with singer-songwriters such as America’s Maggie Rogers and England’s Rag‘n’Bone Man and Anne-Marie among the emerging acts currently being championed.
Wild Daughter is an edgy new British band known for songs like Get Gone and carefully chosen live performances that include a Vivienne Westwood charity gig in Los Angeles and British fashion designer Giles Deacon’s Autumn/Winter 2014 show in London. Stuart Mckenzie is one half of the duo and cites Bandcamp as a key service offering emerging artists a great platform and financial control of their music. “It works for us,” Mckenzie says. “At the moment we have more control and bigger profit margin. Bandcamp has a streaming service or users can pay as much or as little as they like for a digital download. So far sales have been generous. Some people are prepared to pay as much as $6.46 – just for the digital download, despite the fact they could have a physical copy in vinyl for $7.78. It’s just another way fans can directly support new music, by paying what they personally think it’s worth.”
Streaming music services are now actively helping emerging artists in ways well beyond promotion and download sales. Ukraine-born Ivy Layne is an emerging singer-songwriter whose Caribbean-flavoured pop debut EP One Love was recently chosen by Tidal to feature among the ‘Tidal Rising’ album list.
Beyond promotion, how are emerging recording artists finding music streaming services useful, I asked Layne? “In the beginning, I believe most artists were reluctant and afraid to have their music available online,” Layne told us. “As a new artist, you have to chase and discover all your new fans wherever they may be. These platforms give you access to data, which is the analytics that show you the demographics, geography and popularity of each song. It helps you to be more strategic as an artist. Having access to algorithm data and fan analysis is very helpful to the creative process, so that you can better understand what everyone is currently connecting with… it’s easier to generate collaborations, for instance, and [it] can give me ideas on where to tour.”
“People frequently say that the music industry hasn’t adapted to technological change,” says author Michael D Smith. “That’s a very narrow-minded view. Consider the role of the live concert,” he says. “For a long time, artists used live concerts to promote revenue through album sales. Today that business model has flipped and music discovery through streaming services is being used to promote revenue through live concerts. A more accurate view is that the industry has been extremely innovative in how they have changed their business model.”
For now, at least, the rebirth of the music industry and the revolution in how we enjoy that music, seems set for more changes than Lady Gaga’s stage outfits. Let’s hope they’re not all quite as alarming.