Let’s first look at the facts, owning music in the form of downloading albums and songs is on the decline. Digital sales declined for the first time in 2013 and are continuing to decline this year. Unless some unforeseen change happens to the music business this trend will only continue. This is obviously due to the rise of streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud, YouTube, Beats Audio, etc. Is ownership of music dead? Should it be dead? Is streaming music the better option? What effect does streaming vs owning music have upon the independent music world?
We are not taking a side here, but presenting a look at two different arguments on this subject below, and we encourage you to let us know your opinion or feedback on the subject in the comments below.
[Note: this article only deals with music streaming of official album versions of songs, not video streaming (of live performances or otherwise), which actually brings up a multitude of different realities and is a completely different conversation.]
In favor of owning: Is streaming music really the way to go versus owning your music? Yes, one can spend $10 a month with Spotify, the equivalent to purchasing one album on iTunes, and you’ll basically get access to listen to every album out there. The current economic incentive of streaming all of your music is clear, but does that really make it a better option than owning music? No, it does not.
The first thing to consider is what are we doing to the artists who create the music we love and consume. When iTunes sells a song for $1.29 approximately $.20 of that goes to the recording artist and $.09 goes to the songwriter (which could be the recording artist and could not be). When a song is streamed on Spotify an independent artist makes approx $.004 (we don’t know what major label artists make because those labels are shareholders in Spotify and their contracts are secret, but one would have to assume it’s a bit higher). This means that if an artist is also the songwriter they would need close to 73 streams to equal the payout of 1 song download in iTunes. Yes, Spotify and other streaming services can act as a great way to discover artists, you can’t discount that most people will listen to music on Spotify that they would not normally just purchase. Yes, artist may at least get streaming revenue from people who would just otherwise download the music freely and illegally. But does that make up for a 73x difference in the payment from streaming to owning? That’s doubtful.
So clearly the foremost reason to purchase and own music is that in doing so you are supporting the musicians exponentially more so than when you stream. You can feel good about owning that music and listening to it. You are helping to actually keep the musicians you enjoy employed much more so, increasing the chances that they’ll be able to continue to bring you more of what you already love. This does not imply everyone should use iTunes as a music discovery platform or that streaming services shouldn’t be used to expose oneself to music you wouldn’t otherwise listen to/buy – but it does mean that once you’ve discovered the artist and enjoy them that you are then doing them a disservice by continuing to just stream their music instead of owning it.
But while artist support is a large part of the argument in favor of music ownership it’s not the only one. There is also the discussion to be had around the environment in which you enjoy your music, as well as the quality of it. First, there is the physical ownership of music in the form of CDs and vinyl records. And while CDs may be going the way of the dodo bird, vinyl records aren’t going anywhere. To be able to hold the music you love, to see and feel the artwork the band choose to go along with the music, is not a replicable experience. It’s unique and it’s wonderful. And while physical CDs are disappearing, their music format (.WAV) is not. And I don’t think anyone would argue that the quality of MP3s is equal to that of .WAV files or the beautiful analog sound of a vinyl record (if you need any convincing on this subject, please check out this article on Vinyl vs CDs vs MP3s).
Lastly there is the fact that when you own music, even if just as a digital file, it’s yours to do with how you see fit. You can listen to it on any number of devices in any number of ways, you can manipulate it and play with it as you see fit, even changing the file format. It’s yours now and will be forever. Plus, you won’t need a constant internet connection to enjoy your music! When you consume solely through a streaming service you are consuming solely within their environment. Even if you “download” an album through Spotify, you must listen to it within Spotify, it won’t be your file to do with as you see fit, it won’t be in any format you see fit. You are essentially leasing the music from them. You must stay within their world to get your music, and the rules of their digital environment can change at any time (see: Facebook), so can the relationship artists have with the services (see: Taylor Swift). This is an often overlooked aspect of music consumers today, that something special is lost when you give up owning your music.
This is not to say that all music streaming is bad. Again, it can be used as a great way to discover new music and listen to music on the go when you just have your phone. But when it’s your only way of consuming music you might be jeopardizing the careers of the artists you enjoy the most, especially if they aren’t major label successes. In fact this phenomenon is already beginning to be seen, as the top 1% of artist make 77% of the revenue from recorded music due to the single-centric effect of streaming services. This also means that now the 10 best-selling tracks command 82% more of the market than they did ten years ago. This feels like a step in the wrong direction, and could be countered by more people caring about owning the music from the lesser known artists they enjoy. And then again is the obvious point that when you stream you loose out on the option for higher quality music as well as that feeling that comes along with personally possessing the music, especially if you are comparing it to the singular experience that is vinyl records.
And if anything else, if you are relegated to only streaming your music, you really should decide to “own” something else of the musicians you enjoy – whether that’s a concert ticket, a t-shirt, or a poster. Because the whole idea behind music streaming services was to lead to more sales for artists, and we should help make that reality instead of a lie.
In favor of streaming: Streaming radically changed my music consumption for the better. For years, hours untold were spent toiling away in iTunes, curating my library like it was a science; updating it and transferring it with meticulous detail to each newer, larger hard drive. After all, the MP3 collection had grown to staggering proportions. Even the largest 160GB iPod was full. All of that now feels like a painful, distant memory.
Spotify has made music consumption so much easier. Instead of obtaining MP3s (legally or otherwise), filling hard drives, loading songs into iTunes, plugging in a device and attempting what amounts to a triage situation with my music, most recorded music is at my fingertips with the opening of an app on my phone or computer. If a user doesn’t want to pay anything, then this will be interrupted by commercials yet still accessible, making it similar to television.
If the user wants to pay a measly $10 a month, that person can now listen as much as she wants with no interruption. Artists, songs, and albums can still be searched until the desired music is found, just like in iTunes. To gather your favorite music together, playlists can still be created, only now they can be shared with friends with the click of a button instead of burning onto a mix CD or creating a .zip of MP3s that have to be put into cloud storage to be downloaded, unpacked, and put into a music player themselves. Work with your friends on a collaborative playlist that each of you can add to from your device, giving multiple people the opportunity to contribute to a sweet party mix. Can non-streaming do that easily?
What about music that’s not available on the streaming platform of your choice? Deals with major holdout bands are being made all the time, such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath in the past year or two. It will likely only be a matter of time before most artists strike an agreeable deal and sign on with Spotify. For those few that seem incredibly unlikely, such as Garth Brooks, AC/DC or The Beatles, well there’s space on your smartphone or laptop for those few artists in this category. In the desktop version of Spotify you can even import the music on your hard drive into your Spotify account, filling out the few gaps in your collection. Of course there’s always YouTube as well.
Listeners who just want good music they like without having to carefully create mixes or manage the increasingly frustrating and limited iTunes have great options like Pandora, Songza, and Slacker Radio. Radio stations can be created based on bands, genres, or even moods and activities. It’s customizable and passive in a way that owning music doesn’t allow for. In our increasingly busy digital lives, the time to carefully curate a music collection is getting much more difficult and some people don’t want the hassle involved with ownership. They just want the sweet jams continually played on their The Smiths station.
Of course there’s also the quality issue with streaming. While nothing will beat the quality and warm, fuzzy feelings of an analog vinyl recording, streaming is not too dissimilar from the quality of a CD and especially no different than listening to MP3s. The paid version of Spotify offers high quality streaming, with output the equivalent of 320kbps MP3s, which is what most MP3s offer in sound quality.
Don’t talk to me about the technicalities of compressed MP3s vs. the audio from a CD. While there is a scientific difference, I challenge you to a do a blind listening test. Most listeners will not be able to distinguish the difference. In time, streaming sound quality will only improve as Internet connection speeds improve and can handle the bandwidth required to stream lossless audio, which will then eliminate any gap between it and any digital file on your hard drive or spinning from your compact disc (or SACD or blu-ray audio, even). In fact one company called Tidal already offers lossless song streaming.
Let’s finally get to the elephant in the room: the morality of it, AKA whether you’re supporting hard-working artists. Many artists and users feel like streaming robs the artist of money they would otherwise pay to listen to their music. However, to operate under this ideology is just paying lip service to a broken paradigm. Let’s face it, younger people don’t like paying for entertainment. The majority of music listened to is stolen (digitally), not bought.
Evidence enough is provided in the fact that only one album this year even reached platinum: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ album. But even Swift was going to miss out on millions of sales regardless of pulling her music from Spotify. As one astute article pointed out, Swift has 72 million fans on her Facebook page. Yet only one million people bought her album. But wouldn’t you be willing to wager the majority of those 72 million people obtained the music somehow? Even if artists only get paid an egregiously unfair fractions of a penny per listen, at least that’s more than they would be paid if everyone just illegally downloaded the MP3s. Plus those listens will continue to add to money extracted from each listener over time, whereas with owning, artists get a one-time portion of 99 cents a song their label says they get.
Let’s return to the subject of YouTube. An entire article could be written solely on the impact of YouTube upon the music and movie industry. People stream music from YouTube everyday. Many studies have already proved that most young people don’t even care about quality or any physical product. They just pull up a song or album on YouTube and stream it through their ear-buds or tiny computer speakers. This phenomenon alone proves that streaming is the chosen method of millions, it’s just the older people in the recording and media industries that haven’t come to grips with the fact that the concept of music ownership is quickly disappearing.
The only thing left to address is the critical lynchpin of streaming: a stable connection. Without a connection to either a cellular or wi-fi network, streaming music becomes increasingly difficult. Spotify allows saving playlists for offline listening, provided you have the available space on your device. Provided you do, you’re back in business. It’s also important to remember that our world is becoming increasingly connected and wired-in, so it’s not outrageous to say that within a decade a user would have to go into the darkest reaches of the jungle or deepest areas of Amish territory to be considered “off the grid” and be unable to receive a signal.
With so many advantages and only a few disadvantages that will disappear in the foreseeable future, streaming is the choice of the future. If you can’t be bothered with the meticulous and costly (yet oh-so-satisfying) route of vinyl, then streaming is the way to go.
Written by Sean Brna & Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Editor & Associate Editor
[Again, let us know your comments, thoughts, or feedback of any kind in the comments section below.]