We have witnessed a major change in the conversation about streaming companies.
The conversation used to be about which streaming companies could attract the most subscribers. This was understandable amid the spike in demand for online content that happened as the pandemic took hold.
But the conversation has now changed to how the streaming companies will adapt to a shrinking pool of subscribers. This change happened largely because Netflix reported hugely disappointing quarterly earnings in January and then Spotify reported yet another underwhelming quarter.
On top of all that, the imbroglio between Neil Young and Spotify has reminded us of how fragile and vulnerable the streaming industry is.
Streaming technology certainly stoked consumer demand. But streaming technology never put the consumer in the driver’s seat. (There is a difference between wanting and having.) Streaming never created a complete shift in consumer behavior toward on-demand content. And streaming technology never took over the world.
We often think of waves of technological change ushering in massive changes in consumer behavior. The iPhone made people dependent on mobile. Streaming services freed us from the burden of owning material things. And so on. Those things are true. But not completely true.
If you love watching content on Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, or any of the other streaming services that comprise New Hollywood, you know what I’m talking about. If you stream music on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, or any of the music streaming services, you know what I’m talking about.
One day you have access to Neil Young on Spotify. The next thing you know, Neil Young is off Spotify. But, wait – you can sign up for Apple Music to listen to Neil Young. Oh, hold on a minute – it turns out that Neil Young wants you to sign up with Amazon Music to keep on rockin’ in the free world with Neil.
One day you have access to Star Trek: The Original Series on Hulu. Then all of a sudden, those shows vanish from Hulu because they’re technically owned by Viacom/CBS, and, guess what? Viacom/CBS wants that content back to stream on its platform, Paramount+. Sorry, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock: you’re just an asset being moved around like pawns.
I am a huge Neil Young fan. His squabble with Spotify didn’t affect my listening tastes because I own my favorite Neil Young albums on vinyl. I literally don’t need streaming services. I am a huge Star Trek fan. When Hulu lost all that Star Trek content, I was not affected. That’s because I own the original series on Blu-ray. I never got rid of my Blu-ray discs when streaming took hold.
But wasn’t streaming supposed to liberate us from the scourge of materialism by encouraging us to buy less stuff and get what we wanted from the cloud? Weren’t streaming services supposed to open up this exciting new world of digital content that people could get what they wanted and when they wanted it? Finally, wasn’t the consumer in control? No wonder so much of the conversation about streaming created a narrative centered on insatiable consumer demand.
Well, that narrative was true, but not completely true.
Waves of technology don’t happen in a vacuum. In theory, the cloud opens up a world of content on demand. But you didn’t think the cloud would usher in this utopian world of unlimited content, did you? There are property rights to consider. Conflicts with the content creators. Business models are dependent on New Hollywood streaming companies building moats around each other. And a host of other factors.
When you look at the big picture, yes, streaming has had a profound impact on our behavior (there was no such thing as “binge-watching” before streaming came along). But when you look at the details, things are never as clearcut as they seem. The sale of Vinyl records, although representing only a fraction of overall music consumption, has been surging. Cassettes are making a comeback.
For that matter, digital content, in general, exists alongside analog (instead of replacing it) more than we think. Unit sales of print books rose 8.9% in 2021 over 2020 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan.
If you follow my writing, you know I talk a lot about New Hollywood and its war with Old Hollywood. So, you know I’m fascinated with the astonishing changes that digital has ushered in. But change never happens cleanly. And even the most powerful waves of technological change are complicated by myriad business, social, and political factors, as streaming illustrates. And consumers are never as easy to predict as we think they are.
I love jumping on to Netflix and streaming All of Us Are Dead, the Netflix original that is rapidly becoming a global cultural phenomenon. I am a customer of Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, and Apple TV+. I’m all in as much as my budget will allow. But I’m not getting rid of my disc copy of Night of the Living Dead, the great George Romero zombie movie that influenced me when I was a child. Nor Spirited Away. Nor Deadwood, which is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. And a host of other personal treasures.
And I’m not giving up my Neil Young vinyl, either. And that goes for Father John Misty, the Mountain Goats, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and a very long list of artists whose work touches me deeply.
I am a textbook case of someone who was not born in the digital age but whose behavior changed during it. But I have also learned something about the limits of digital and the dangers of relying too much on it. I cannot abide a world in which one day I wake up and I have lost access to the art that matters most to me. The cloud cannot have it all. And neither can streaming companies.
Note: I invest in Amazon, Disney, and Netflix.