Does the past hold the key to the future of online music?
There is a lot of debate about the role of streaming services. On one hand, they provide instant gratification to consumers. All the music, TV and games you want -right at your fingertips. But then we all know the story – bands getting paid peanuts for millions of plays. Artists are at a sort of crucible – while music production costs are at an all-time low, so is the profitability of the music industry. The next decade will see a great change, just like the decade before it. The last 10-20 years has shown us a plethora of release platforms; DVD-Audio, digital, streaming e.t.c. – it’s changed everything – and just like the formats themselves, the industry will evolve. But a lot of what happened came down to piracy, I’m not here to point fingers at anyone, or make any kind of moral judgment, but this is just where our story begins. This isn’t a search for an answer, this is just a discussion about what has led us to this point.
The Age of the MP3
In the mid-’90s a new phenomena appeared. Your favorite songs (or albums) contained within easily downloadable files. Although the format is considered low-quality when compared to CD’s people weren’t so fussed. We were a generation who was making mix-tapes from songs on the radio. Quality wasn’t our concern, it was just about being able to hear the music we liked. Websites sprung up to deliver all the songs we liked, and for a brief moment, no one really notice. It wasn’t until Napster appeared that the world got its first taste of what was to be a game-changer. The ensuing legal battles over music piracy made Napster a household name, and maybe even helped inspire the next generation. But as quickly as it surged to the top, it was shut down. Although Mp3 players were floating around in the late ’90s, it wasn’t until the iPod surfaced that the Mp3 format really took hold. It seems as though their fates were somehow entwined. The Mp3 was the content, and the iPod was the platform. One without the other held no real power, but together they took over the world.
Streams Become Oceans
But all good things must come to an end. It’s not to say we are in sight of seeing everyone ditching their Mp3s, but the landscape, once again is changing. Although music streaming has been around for a while, it seems to still be in its infancy. The concept muddies the lines between internet radio and downloadable music. The idea is simple enough. Your entire music collection and everything you could ever want, plus everything you don’t only a click away. The platform comes in many flavours, be it the quasi-legal style of YouTube, which has become a firm favorite for ‘sharing’ music on social media, or the juggernauts like Spotify and Pandora. The technology is in place that someone can hear a band for the first time, and within minutes have free access to their entire catalog of music. And that’s the problem. We have gotten used to paying nothing for music, or at least ‘choosing’ if we pay for it or not. We crossed an ocean, and things can never be the same.
The Death of the Album
The negative connotations of the phrase thrown around by music industry types couldn’t be any clearer if they just straight up said “fuck you internet”. They’re pissed off, and with good reason. They aren’t making as much money as the used to. The term album has been around for a pretty long time, but it wasn’t always the be-all and end-all of releases. Until the ’60s the single reigned supreme, then the album took over. While some would argue that there are musical influences that made this happen, there were also financial benefits for labels – albums had higher profit margins. But this is no longer the case, or at least not for labels. Now, there is a lot of people pointing the finger at the record labels telling them that it’s their fault. For years, they forced artists to release sub-par albums with ‘only one good song’ – if at all. And there’s no denying it, there’s plenty of examples of bands recording shitty records just to satisfy a contract. People have long argued that this is why people started pirating music in the first place. It’s probably a stretch, but as far as justification goes it makes enough sense. So now we’re at the root of the issue. The rise of the streaming service has seen a return of the single. And despite hundreds of millions of plays per song, no one is particularly happy. They just aren’t pulling in the kind of money they desire.
The Next Big Thing
So while consumers are generally pretty happy with the current situation, there is discontent in the industry. Netflix, and it’s contemporaries have shown that people are willing to pay for streamable content, but the balance between what we’ll pay, and how much profit that will allow, continue to be an area of debate. History has shown that necessity breeds creativity. Piracy, torrents, media formats and an onslaught of technologies that are associated with them have all been born out of a need. Right now, there is a need for artists to make more money from their craft, and the answer is out there waiting to be discovered.