Stream Wars 1: Streaming Services and Their Effect on the Music Industry

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This article originally appeared in The Florida Basement, the former Swamp Records Gainesville-based blog. Great name.

Being a digital native comes with certain perks. Joining Facebook was probably a big moment in your life. When apps launched, so did you: Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram all serve as staples in your daily digestion of digital media. In matters of posting photos, linking up with friends, and organizing events, very little monumental change has been undertaken with some exceptions. But as we evolve, so does our technology. Recent innovations have flattened the field of listening, allowing notable torrenting site The Pirate Bay to begin offering a streaming service of its content. Jay Z runs Tidal, Amazon Prime Music is pushed gleefully on every Amazon website space not already taken up by Amazon advertising Amazon Prime Video, Amazon purchases, or Amazon Echos (please pay me Amazon, and include a note on whether it’s Echoes or Echos). Spotify, probably the premier streaming site in terms of sheer musical quantity and user base, is a decade-old application that in the last three years has experienced explosive growth, arguably because of its accessibility and awesome supply of content, but other venues like Soundcloud and Youtube exist as music platforms.

This assortment of choices evidently sparks controversy among several groups, most notably the musicians themselves. Artists such as Taylor Swift conduct media hit-and-runs on Spotify (currently #15 on Android Apps and #14 on iTunes), while Kanye West, curiously in step with the pop icon often portrayed as his adversary, is now to all inspection following the same path Swift recently pioneered: using his popularity to pressure an industry into monumental change. The Life of Pablo, West’s newest album, has released thus far — if at all, depending on the day — exclusively at a fashion show (highlighting just how wild this ride has gotten lately) and on Tidal, a streaming service West is invested in with several other members of the Roc Nation circle. To illustrate the point, Tidal’s application is complete garbage, but is also currently more popular on iTunes than Spotify. Does this bump in usership last? I doubt it. The attempts at spreading the wealth of users (and more importantly, their money) in a more equitable fashion are painfully overt, but the methodology through which it is accomplished seems still more cumbersome than sources like Spotify when it comes to execution. The opportunity to listen to Jay Z’s exclusively curated jams playlist does have a limited potential to entice, however.

Why can’t artist collectives like Roc Nation or larger-than-life figures like Taylor Swift more easily dictate the tempo of royalty negotiation? To their credit, the agitating is certainly bringing attention to the issue. Record labels, distributors, and retail stores have long been recognized as taking home the lion’s share of wealth, and Spotify’s role as a distributor integrates into the same model artists have been sick of for decades, but by their own metrics offer significantly more benefits to artists in terms of reducing piracy and accruing royalties. Taking this information at face value, Spotify appears to be the least of all evils in the rigid hierarchy of the music industry (shoutout to Soundcloud anyway), if evil could be used to describe a reliable, accessible platform with a vast array of content.

Artists like West and Swift appear to be raising the issue in a contentious light as a means of connecting with their fans more, and certainly the idea of funneling dollars directly to the artists (or “content architects” as the monetizing mammoth industry could do well to call them) maybe appeals to a simpler time when a consumer could walk out of his or her home and into a local record store, but the concept was exactly the same then as now. Spotify is offering a premier service not just to users, but to artists, and while the benefits of record labels and distribution mechanisms are deservingly called into question (everyone likes and should fight for their money, after all), it has never been easier than the present day to release music. And yet, artists have never made it more difficult.

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