Screaming for Streaming
Streaming services have changed the way we listen to music.
If you’re like one of the many millions in the United States, odds are you’re listening to music either on your computer or phone via a streaming service. The last few years have been very good—or very bad, depending on which side of the table you sit on—for music. Gone (almost) are the days of playing CDs on boom boxes and making mixed tapes for friends; and collecting records is mostly for the hipster and connoisseur crowd. Whether you’re down or not, services like Tidal, Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music are influencing everything from access and equity to taste and ownership. Welcome to the new golden age of music streaming.
Although how new is it? According to the 2014 Pitchfork article, “Station to Station: The Past, Present, and Future of Streaming Music,” the concept can be traced to Edward Bellamy’s 1888 science fiction novel Looking Backward, where a man encounters a “…‘music room,’ in which 24-hour playlists are piped in to subscribers via phone lines. With no shortage of astonishment, the man proclaims that ‘an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will’ is perhaps the pinnacle of human achievement.”
While that last part may be a bit of a stretch, music streaming is indeed an accomplishment, and nowadays, the competition is thick. The following are a few of the services that stand out for variety, quality, and impressive marketing.
The Big Players
At the time of its launch in 2005, there wasn’t much to compare it to. Listeners enjoyed the ease of access, finding music they already knew and loved, and receiving suggestions for new music. Pandora was a way to stream music online that previously wasn’t available and offered both a free option and a paid one—for about $10 you could listen sans advertisements. It also created a complicated algorithm called the Music Genome Project to curate music for more music discovery. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, algorithms and the competition matured and caught up to Pandora, which has seen its numbers dwindle.
Founded in 2006 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon and launched in Sweden in 2008, it finally came to the United States in 2011. With Spotify, subscribers create, share, and follow playlists of any kind, whether it’s those shared by friends or expertly curated ones for any mood or genre. Compared to Pandora, which has around one million songs, Spotify has approximately 30 million. It adds new music every week, which keeps excitement levels up; on the other hand, it’s not into exclusives like other services.
“Spotify has made it clear that they, like a lot of other people, are of the mind that exclusives are bad for fans,” said Hugh McIntyre, a freelance pop music journalist in New York City. “If you’re paying $10 a month for Spotify and Drake goes and releases his album only on Apple, you’re not going to pay $20 a month for that one purchase. It doesn’t incentivize people to switch as much as it makes them feel bad for being left out of the party for a week or two.”
While it’s not known for exclusives, it did add a music discovery option, which as of late has been one of its shining qualities and a standout feature for the industry. It’s a Facebook News Feed-style personalized and updated playlist called Discover Weekly, which changes according to your listening history, plus what’s new and popular on Spotify.
Another interesting progression is that in 2016, Spotify announced it would expand its existing video program with 12 new original video series, working with the likes of Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, actor Tim Robbins, and production company Gunpowder & Sky.
And then there’s the giant. In June 2015, Apple introduced Apple Music, an app that includes a 24-hour live radio station, playlists, tons of music, and exclusive partnerships with the likes of Drake, Taylor Swift, and FKA Twigs, and the much-anticipated, much-delayed Frank Ocean album, Boys Don’t Cry. After less than a year, Apple Music, formerly known as Beats, hit 13 million subscribers, which is impressive given that while they offer a free three-month trial, there is no permanent free version.
Apple Music’s playlist selections come from individual DJs on the Apple payroll. The Beats 1 Radio function also plays a major role when it comes to music discovery. It’s refreshing to see Apple move beyond sophisticated algorithms for a human approach to facilitating music discovery, but it’s likely only a matter of time before Spotify takes note.
It has also been smart with the videos and is developing a TV series starring co-founder Dr. Dre. Set to include six 30-minute episodes, it’s going to be a dark drama released all at once, Netflix-style.
And then there’s the most idealistic and perhaps problematic of the bunch. The founding Tidal artist-owners—Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire, Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Coldplay, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Jay Z, Damian Marley, Indochine, Lil Wayne, and Usher—are impressive, and they all signed exclusivity agreements with the service in return for equity. In 2015, it seemed like a perfect idea, until it wasn’t.
“Tidal’s had a lot of issues,” said McIntyre. “From speaking with them semi-often, it seems like everything is either rushed or not quite ready by the time they say they’re going to do it. It’s a good service, but I think the people at the top are either pushing things too quickly or they don’t have enough staff.”
The goals, originally, were to offer users higher-quality listening than other streaming services and curated playlists, as well as give artists access to real equity. However, the high-fidelity audio costs $20 per month, and while it’s $10 for the cheaper version, it’s pretty much the same as Spotify and Pandora. The good points? Beyoncé’s Lemonade brought in a ton of listeners, and it’s the only service offering the Prince catalog.
What’s Coming Next
We asked music journalist Hugh McIntyre for his input on what companies should be working on and what he’d like to see develop with music streaming.
1. Getting Social
I think there are a couple of areas where streaming is going to go. If one of them could introduce a seamless, great social feature like messaging or connecting with your friends in a certain way, that’d be amazing. It’s really a missing piece that nobody is able to capture yet.
2. Show Me the Video
YouTube is still the biggest place where people access music and it was never intended to be. Original content is another big place for growth— Apple just bought Carpool Karaoke and they’re going to stream it on Apple Music. Tidal has some new shows, Spotify has podcasts. It’s interesting to see some of them go after Netflix’s crown.
3. The New Record Labels
I’m waiting for streaming services to act as record labels and discover new artists. They’ve got the data to see whose becoming popular before they get popular, and they can reach out to artists and deal directly with them, so it makes a lot of sense.
A Better Way to Listen?
While some people enjoy having millions of songs at their fingertips and endless choices and playlists, there are those who think our new way of consuming music is missing the point. Ben Ratliff, the principal jazz critic of the New York Times for the past 20 years, recently wrote in his book Every Song Ever, “Algorithms are listening to us. At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.”
Ratliff believes there’s something off about how much streaming and data companies know about us, from our spending patterns and zip codes to how we’re likely to vote.
“I think we should try hard to be good listeners, and by that I mean active listeners,” Ratliff said. “The streaming services encourage us to be passive listeners. Their recommendations seem pointed and precise and so we stop looking for what we might like. I recognize the convenience in that, but I worry about it.”
Ratliff suggests that we don’t let the streaming companies do all the work for us by listening widely. Try different genres and moods outside of your comfort zone and you just may be surprised.
“I think that all that trial and error and listening to things you don’t understand at first, that’s the great promise and glory of listening,” said Ratliff. “That’s what it’s all about.”
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