Last week, I wanted to purchase a CD. You remember CDs, don’t you? The jewel cases, the liner notes, the artwork… I wanted to own that. I wanted to feel it in my hands. I wanted to pop it in my car’s unused CD player. I wanted to study it. I wanted, after years as a freeloading pirate, to support the music industry.
As a millennial, I’m not so young to not remember this as the norm. Anticipating release dates, saving up allowances, hitting the record store shelves, trying to clear increasingly more space for my growing CD collection. But that was before streaming, back when clouds were just fluffy things in the sky. Before iTunes. Before Napster. Before the portable flashdrive and the ease of file sharing all but eradicated the inherent value of the compact disc.
The shift to the digital music era was a run of extremes: either you paid full price online for an intangible album, or you downloaded it, illegally, but for free. For shallow-pocketed music fanatics, the choice was usually clear, which is not to say free from guilt. In a downturn economy, cheap album access meant freeing up spare change for concerts and merch instead – things that, we justified, supported the band more directly than the long string of labels, middlemen, and media execs that came with every album purchase.
Downloading was sticking it to The Man, even if we knew we were hurting the musicians in the long run that we’d rather support. When streaming services came along, they seemed like a godsend for music aficionados with a heavy conscience. They’re free – or based on tiers of what you can afford. They’re legal. They offer instant gratification. And they actively cater to the pleasures of discovering new music without having to make an initial financial investment. They seemed like a way to circumvent The Man and simply get to the music.
We all thought we were doing good for the industry by streaming instead of stealing – until Thom Yorke told us otherwise. When he and longtime Radiohead producer/collaborator Nigel Godrich pulled their individual projects from Spotify and other streaming services mid-July, it opened a floodgate of debate over the financial practicality of such platforms to support musicians.
“Can’t do that no more man,” Godrich explained via Twitter. “Small meaningless rebellion. Someone gotta say something. It’s bad for new music.”
Small and meaningless for Godrich and Yorke, perhaps – removing themselves from Spotify isn’t going to damage their popularity or their bank accounts very much. But for new and emerging artists, such a move would be career harakiri. That, in a way, is precisely Godrich and Yorke’s point: streaming has become the Catch-22 of musical success.
The escalating numbers of users and subscribers to streaming platforms makes them an invaluable tool for artists to gain new listeners and greater exposure. But the measly royalties currently offered by companies like Spotify, averaging out to 0.6 cents per play, aren’t going to cover the band’s studio time, even with millions of listens.
On first glance, it’s easy to compare Spotify with the harmless charms of that other thing we used to listen to: FM radio. “Streaming has become what Top 40 radio used to be,” says David Roberts of Sunshine Music Promotion. “Traditional radio has always just been a marketing tool; once your song is on there, it’s going to drive record sales and ticket sales. Artists don’t make a ton of money from getting played on the radio.”
Yet the differences between the two are crucial. Streaming sites serve as a personalized, on-demand station. No need to phone in your requests – unless by that you mean using the app on your mobile device to access whatever you feel like listening to in whatever moment you want to listen to it.
What we failed to anticipate, what Yorke and Godrich are now trying to get us to reconcile, is that streaming would become, or possibly already is, the exclusive way in which consumers listen to music. The digital revolution has already all but wiped out the physical album; when it’s just as easy to stream anything in the world as it is to hit “play” in your limited digital library, what difference does it really make?
With the concept of music ownership already alienated by the MP3 and digital library, the cultural shift from music files to cloud streaming is probably the easiest paradigm change consumers have had to face in the history of recorded music: no new systems to buy. No gambles on an eight-track versus a cassette player. No hunting down lost titles. Unfortunately, it’s not been so easy for the industry to cope with.
“The future’s going to be complete streaming,” predicts John Seda, of Born a Musician and Rising Sun Digital artist agencies. “I believe that all of the technology that’s out there right now was designed as a business service for artists to make money – but some of that technology is not being properly used.”
Half-penny royalties aside, musicians and the industry can likely agree that streaming is a step in the right direction and away from piracy. “We’re coming around full circle now from an out-of-control free download system to better platforms that are going to support the arts,” Seda says.
Yorke and Godrich’s protest is more symbolic than it is truly effective. It’s about ironing out the kinks of a new system and re-evaluating the artist-to-fan relationship – just as Radiohead did back in 2007 when they released In Rainbows digitally with a pay-what-you-want-or-don’t-pay-at-all scheme.
Brian Message, Radiohead’s co-manager, told the BBC that he viewed Spotify “as a good thing,” which seems, at first, contrary to Yorke’s intentions. “It’s a healthy debate that’s going on right now,” Message goes on to say. “As the model gets bigger, I think we’ll find a place where artists and managers and creators can all receive what they regard as equitable remuneration… The bottom line is, technology is here to stay, and the evolution of technology is always going to go on.”
Artists’ grievances are understandable, but a luddite rally against streaming is not the answer. With the wheels already in motion, the future of the music industry – the future of not only musicians, but labels, producers, distributors, consumers – depends on finding a solution to the streaming issue, on finding a way to make it a sustainable and valuable commodity for artists and fans and everyone in between.
Because, four stores later, my search for a specific physical CD still proved fruitless. I even tried to cheat, to purchase it on iTunes and burn it to disc later, but glitch after glitch in the registration process left me still tuneless. A quick commercial later, Spotify delivered, loud and clear – even if my hands remained empty.
Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Little 02; Bernzilla; Lunken (Flickr, Creative Commons).