To stream or not to stream. That has been the question weighing on the minds of socially-conscious music consumers over the last half decade or so as physical sales and downloads have plummeted in the pie chart of overall music consumption, and the rise of Spotify, Pandora, and a dozen other services have begun to dominate the music space.
The initial rise of streaming was met with endless sob stories about artists and songwriters getting paid fractions of pennies on the dollar, while a host of new middle man media companies absconded with most of whatever advertiser and subscription revenue was being generated. Creators must get paid, or they can’t create. Even the most passive of music listeners can understand that economic principle. Yet it’s so easy to download an app and have nearly every single piece of recorded music at your fingertips.
Let’s not sugar coat it: the economics behind music streaming are still brutal for many, especially smaller artists and songwriters. This was a problem when streaming first emerged as a new alternative to physical and download sales, and it remains a problem today. And it’s a problem that the industry, rights organizations, labels, and governments should continue to address. Yes, the economics of streaming are beginning to shift in a more positive direction, but that doesn’t mean the problems are over. For some, the move to streaming continues to exacerbate their financial woes.
But streaming is here, and dominating everything in music. Trying to fight back against the incredible appeal streaming has found in consumers is fruitless. Helping streaming music gain further momentum is the recent news that the music industry is on a dramatic rebound not in spite of streaming, but because of it, seeing the first double digit growth in nearly 20 years. The same amount of money may not be getting channeled to the same people as it did before streaming, but there is money being generated; lots of it. The fight is no longer if streaming will take hold, it’s how to fairly divvy up the revenue it is creating, and how to get streaming to generate even more to allow an even more equitable playing field for all creators.
The stigma should no longer be on consumers who stream. The stigma should be on those who stream for free on ad-supported platforms. Pony up the damn $10 a month you cheapskates, and make sure that the people who are making the music you love can continue to do so. A paid subscription to a streaming service is a measly penance compared to what your average Audiophile used to pay monthly for physical copies, while this money ensures more resources go to the artists and labels to keep new music flowing, and older artists supported off of their past output.
If you’re in someone’s house at a party, or driving around with one of your buddies listening to tunes on Spotify and all of a sudden a commercial comes on, that’s your opportunity to be like “Dude, it’s ten bucks.” That’s where guilt should enter the streaming music economy. Who wants to be driving through a picturesque desert painted in the setting sun, listening to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and becoming immersed in a musical moment, and then all of a sudden a Skittles commercial comes on? You’re giving up so much value in your musical experience when you don’t pay for streaming.
On top of that, we’re starting to see some leeway from the streaming companies in complying with the wishes of labels, publishers, and artists who’ve been asking the streaming giants to incentivize consumers onto the paid tier for years. A new deal between Spotify and Universal will allow for new albums to be “windowed” before they hit the free side, not just enticing listeners to pay for their streamed music, but hopefully to not stop buying physical products from their favorite artists.
See that’s the thing: engaging in streaming, paid or otherwise, doesn’t mean you have to stop buying physical music, or even downloading the albums you most enjoy. The rise in streaming has been paralleled with the rise of vinyl sales. Music lovers should be encouraged to still participate in the old modes of music consumption, and to stream their favorite artists at the same time. In fact the best way to support your favorite artists in 2017 is not to just buy the record, but to buy the record, and also register some streaming activity for your favorite artists while you’re away from the comforts of your home stereo.
Buy your favorite records on vinyl, enjoy them at home during your down time, purchase a T-shirt when you see your favorite artists in concert, and stream them during the daily commute. You’ll still spend just as much cash as you did before, and the artists will continue to get paid for their work. In this new streaming economy, your favorite artists actually need that streaming data to gain the attention of playlist builders and such.
Where do songwriters fit in the new streaming music economy? This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Where before a performer would release a physical copy of a new record and it would register tons of sales in the first few weeks and the songwriters would receive a handsome check, now that same amount of money takes time to accrue because of the incremental payouts behind the streaming model. Also, an album cut doesn’t mean as much as it used to, since most streamers tend to focus more on the big singles. This is where songwriters are really getting squeezed.
Some studies have shown that over time, songwriters eventually make the same amount of money off of certain songs, but it sometimes takes years to get there. Meanwhile bills are due. Perhaps an advance option, like book publishing uses, could be a way to support the songwriters. Some authors receive advances on future royalties, sometimes before a book is written, or once a book is published, to help support them through the creative process.
Maybe this is a stupid idea, but it illustrates how there are options in how we could solve some of the final problems with streaming to completely eliminate the stigma from it. It’s also worth pointing out that music is still a results an appeal-oriented business. No different than the physical or download model, creators have to put something out that’s appealing, and get the attention of the public to make money in music. Some of the bellyaching from old guard musicians and songwriters would be happening anyway in the normal progression of taste for current music, and the cataloging of older artists, albums, and songs. Making music is still a privilege, not a right.
The point is that streaming is here to stay, and nobody’s protestations at this point is going to change that. Artists that exclude themselves from the medium are only doing themselves a disservice, unless they’re Taylor Swift. Streaming is the new music economy, and it is convenient, fun, can foster the discovery process better than simple racks of CD’s or radio, and can really give artists with the most appeal an advantage in the marketplace. Let’s work to get liner notes and lyrics to become part of the streaming experience. Let’s get the songwriting thing figured out. Let’s make sure our creators are getting paid equitably, and the charts still reflect the greater commitment fans show when purchasing physical music as opposed to streaming.
But let’s also give up on the idea that streaming is a bad idea. It’s a way for music to be integrated easily in our busy lives, to share our passions for certain music with others, and, if done right, makes sure the creators still get compensated for their contributions. It’s time to stop painting streaming as a bad idea, and come together to make it a good one.