Adventures in Streaming – How the Landscape of Popular Music Changed Beyond Recognition

Gone are the old days of music consumption. In decades past, you’d hear a song on the radio or in a nightclub and, if you liked it, you’d buy the record and listen at home. Case closed. Even up to the mid-noughties, artists followed straightforward release patterns - there’d be a handful of singles, released physically and promoted via music video channels, before the album landed in shops. That was that.

There was a quaint excitement in the nascent days of digital downloads. We were wowed by the idea of buying music on our computers rather than schlepping off to Woolies, at seeing our collection on a screen rather than on a shelf. Our minds would surely have boggled if we’d glimpsed forward to 2016, where downloads are just the beginning of a dizzying array of options. But from cassettes to streaming, from radio requests to Tidal, to what extent have these advances had a positive impact?

In 2006, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy became the first song to reach #1 on downloads alone, spelling the beginning of the end for the CD single. Sure enough, physical singles vanished from the market as downloads proved quicker and cheaper, allowing users to change track with the click of a button rather than endlessly swapping CDs in their stereo. B-sides were the sacrifice for this convenience, however. Buying songs individually rendered them obsolete, meaning that curios and cast-offs are either not produced at all, or else tacked onto albums as part of cash-grabbing ‘deluxe versions’.

A proportion of album sales also shifted from the physical to the digital but, unlike B-sides, predictions of ‘the death of the album’ were thankfully exaggerated. iTunes might allow people to pick albums apart, and there are a small number of singles-focused artists, but albums are still the format by which 99% of musicians prefer to operate. Among listeners, too, the appetite for complete pieces of work remains - one chart hit is all well and good, but the artistry required to assemble a cohesive LP is what ensures longevity. Consequently, despite a decline earlier this decade, album sales have plateaued. Interestingly, there has also been a resurgence in vinyl sales. This wasn’t just driven by hipsters stocking up at Urban Outfitters hoping to look retro - as music grows ever more digital, there’s been a reactionary drive towards the big, bulky physicality of records. Likewise, as music becomes more disposable, new generations are finding an affinity with a format that necessitates listening from start to finish – literal long players.

At the other end of the spectrum are streaming services, where users needn’t even download music at all. Market leader Spotify has 20 million songs which can be streamed for free. Admittedly, not adding music to your own collection can lend it an impersonal, transitory feel, but this is outweighed by the ability to test out limitless new music. Some artists have baulked, too, at the royalties paid by Spotify; Taylor Swift refused to make her 1989 album available for streaming. for instance (although some speculated whether that wasn’t a bid to drive up sales of the eagerly-anticipated album). Among other artists, though, the effects of streaming have been unprecedented. It allows for wider exposure and even contributes to a song’s chart position, meaning that streams now hold as much clout as actual sales.

The musical landscape might have shifted unrecognisably over the past decade, but it’s largely been at the service of art rather than commerce

Following on from Spotify were Apple Music (which, despite the dominance of Apple-owned iTunes, has yet to fully take flight), and Jay-Z’s brainchild, Tidal. For a higher subscription fee, Tidal promises better quality for users and fairer royalties for artists. However, while it’s undeniably sleek, its launch - fronted by the multi-millionaire likes of Nicki Minaj and Madonna - made Tidal appear cliquey, and hardly communicated the desired “we’re here to empower struggling artists!” narrative.

With all these new platforms come endless new ways of releasing music - some innovative, and some that make you wish the artists would just go back to selling CDs from a rucksack. In the latter camp are U2, who made a deal with Apple to put 2014’s Songs of Innocence onto the account of every iTunes user worldwide. That meant some 800 million users being gifted the album whether they wanted it or not, prompting a backlash that overshadowed a not terrible album. There’s also Kanye West, who vowed to release any future music exclusively through Tidal, meaning that a) no one pitied him when he complained that his music wasn’t earning him enough money, and b) fans who shelled out for Tidal were mighty angry when he backtracked and put new album The Life of Pablo on Spotify.

In the innovative camp, however, is Rihanna, who gave fans a free download code for recent album Anti to emphasise that she cared more about making an artistic statement than sales or chart positions. Likewise, in 2013 Beyoncé did what became known as ‘doing a Beyoncé’ – that is, dropping a surprise album on iTunes with no prior warning. This affirmed her superstar status, proving that she needed none of the conventional avenues of music promotion to command the world’s attention. She risked veering too far when she released this year’sLemonade solely on Tidal - a move which made some feel browbeaten into using the service - but thankfully a physical and iTunes release soon followed, proving that new streaming technologies needn’t make an album inaccessible to more traditionally-minded listeners.

Indeed, as mind-boggling as all these new services and strategies can be (and much as I sometimes yearn for the simpler days of old), they should ultimately be seen as positives. The musical landscape might have shifted unrecognisably over the past decade, but it’s largely been at the service of art rather than commerce. Things like downloads and streams might require more navigating than a simple trip to HMV, but they offer more access to more music than ever before. They also offer one thing that should be crucial to all music lovers – variety. 

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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