The music industry had a fantastic 2017, driven primarily by its Lord & Saviour: streaming revenues (vinyl sales also grew by 3%; meanwhile, digital download sales continue to fall). Global recorded music revenues reached $17.4 billion, putting it just below 2008’s $17.7 billion in revenues, meaning most of the decline in recorded music revenues over the past 10 years has now been reversed. Streaming was the largest driver of that growth, accounting for 43% of all revenues. In 2017 streaming revenues surged by 39%, topping out at $7.4 billion. Yet not all is rosy in Music-Land.
In 2014, Spotify’ CEO Daniel Ek said: “We’re not in the music space — we’re in the moment space”. Beyond sounding incredibly pedant, this implies that music could become a sequence of brief, discontinuous moments, like quick-fading Snapchat pictures. This bothers a lot of people, for a handful of reasons:
If music becomes fleeting as opposed to intrinsically linked to a time and place, “supermarket music” might become the norm, as the least common denominator claims the musical throne. It also means that challenging and/or avant-garde music becomes less worthy one’s ears according to a platform and disappears.
Finally, it also risks changing the way we view much of music’s history: concentrating only on chill playlists and hits makes us forget about the richness and culture behind a musical era. Think of all the modern music you currently enjoy, and realise that in 30 years god-damned Despacito will be the defining song of our era according to aggregates used by the likes of Spotify. Ugh.
The automation of selling out
Because of the cult of passive listening mentionned above, the album is culturally dead, replaced by the all-too-powerful playlist. Half of music consumption on Spotify now occurs within playlists, limiting the potential for artists to use music as a story-telling vehicle. Without a specifically built narrative, music loses much of its context and richness: putting a Tupac song after a Kendrick Lamar song sounds great and would make for a high-quality playlist, yet ignores the inherently different social and cultural influences behind their respective music.
The multi-media space
A handful of charlatans will say that music is about emotions and try to use it to prop up other media. They’re wrong. Music is also about mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. Using it to promote emotions in games and movies is interesting as it helps the industry as a whole, but it also kills music for the sake of music. Thought: what if vinyls have made a comeback because people seek something only for music and nothing else? Or maybe it’s just the hipsters…
Furthermore, the rise of Big Tech means a challenging time lies ahead for music as a concept: Google, Amazon, Apple are among the wealthiest companies on earth, and currently use music to draw traffic to their sites and keep people within their ecosystems. Amazon Music and Apple Music simply makes their respective companies’ hardware more valuable; for them, the business end of music is hardly more than a rounding error.
The label business has drastically changed. Their business is shifting away from curating music to being a copyright company either through streaming, movies, T.V, adverts… This makes it all the more complicated to cater to smaller niches of music fans: lawyers often make lousy musicians.
Moreover, thanks to streaming, artists can now arrive at the negotiating table with labels with millions of fans already to back them up, something current contracts are ill-equipped to deal with. This means less money for labels to support smaller artists (I know, I know, cry me a river, large labels have been lining their pockets for decades… but the small, niche ones haven’t).
Streaming platforms like Spotify lists recordings by song title, album title, and featured artist name. But that information is limited, as it leaves out songwriters, producers, engineers, publishers, record labels… Almost all the labor that goes into making recordings is erased from the databases used by the major streaming services. With less culture surrounding the streams, they become more bland, without context and history.
This makes it all the more difficult for the forgotten people of music to make a living, forcing them to leave the industry. When only a handful of writers are left in their field, songs will become more homogeneous than ever before (seriously, look at Pop).
According to the data trackers at BuzzAngle Music, more than 99 percent of audio streaming is of the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks. If true, this means that less than 1 percent of streams account for all other music. It could only be a matter of time until streaming companies lose interest in the 90 percent of music that doesn’t return even 1 percent of their gross.
Though their large library is part of their appeal to many, it seems likely that they will eventually jettison these less-played tracks for different content. It happened to Netflix, and it could happen elsewhere, and many fear the average listener will be too lazy to challenge that decision.
Streaming is an easy, care-free, non-challenging way of enjoying hours of music for a fraction of the price such a service would have once cost. As such, it’s hard to definitly say whether the negatives outweight the positives.
However, to save music’s soul, we may soon want to stop asking “will it scale” and instead posit “do we really want it to scale”?