Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The problems with music streaming services

Streaming’s infinite choice sends people back to the same old musical reliables every time – and the curated playlists are just as predictable

Wed, Jan 15, 2014, 09:26


The streaming wars are about to begin in earnest. As we inch nearer a launch date for Beats Music – leaked pages from the service for your eyes only here – and as we wait to see how existing streaming monsters Spotify and Deezer and a host of smaller players will react to the new arrival, you would imagine that the winner in all of this is you and me, the music consumer. More competition will surely mean a better service and better value for the music fan.

It needs to be stressed that it’s a much different hill of beans for music-makers and that’s a different discussion entirely. We’ve had the arguments from the big cheeses during 2013 and there are sure to be more of these ahead. It’s worth pointing out that as it becomes clear that streaming has KO’d paid-for downloads, the big winners are labels, as this piece outlines in detail. That stitch-up occured a long time ago, long before streaming came along in fact, so the music-makers need to refer their grievances to the labels they’ve signed deals with rather than the techies and geeks who’ve done deals with the labels.

When it comes to those who just want to click and listen, it’s supposed to be all good. You can understand why music fans will be putting their hands in the air and waving them around like they don’t care to mark the easy access, decent value and ubiquity of streaming.

It’s worth pausing, though, and parsing these advantages a little. The service’s big selling point is that they have millions of tracks on offer. You’d probably assume that they’ve every single track released by a label (at least, the mainstream labels) over the last few decades. Mass catalogue bundling and licensing means the streaming services can give you access to more tracks than you could possibly ever listen to in the course of your lifetime.

The problem comes in how these tracks are presented and which ones get highlighted. Time and time again, it’s the same new releases and same major label priority acts who get all the love and prominence. Similar editorial decisions are made with newspapers and magazines, but there’s a distinct difference when you look at the streaming services’ ownership structures and the very implicit conflicts of interest therein. It’s why the same stuff dominates proceedings even with millions of tracks to choose from. Even with thousands of new tracks adding to the millions of existing tracks every week, the same new releases get all the promotional love. There’s no deviation from the pack.

Don’t be surprised then if Beats Music, a service which is putting great store by curated playlists from noted musicians and celebrity music fans with big social media reach like Ellen DeGeneres, also falls short in this regard. Of course, it can only work with what it’s got to work with and the tunes from newer acts have probably yet to appear on the service. You could also argue that these acts have yet to get the traction which allows them to get on the celebrity playlist compilers’ radar (or the radar of their people who really compile these playlists), which accounts for the sameness of what’s currently available, even when the service is curated to within an inch of its life.

Then, there’s the fact that the streaming services to date, as many journalists and DJs know only too well, are very happy for specialists to create playlists on their sites, but rather reluctant to pay for the expertise. You wonder if this is the case with the bigger names supplying Beats Music with some semblance of name recognition for their launch.

Such explanations and excuses mean that we’re dealing with playlists and curation from the major music services which are very much for the casual music fan as opposed to the obsessives, the geeks and the fanatics – our people, in other words. Yes, I know, I am a snob so there is now no need to make this remark again and again in the comments below.

That targeting is deliberate, of course – there are very few services which could get by on cashflow from snobs like you and me alone. Streaming services are fantastic if you know what you’re after, but the discovery and curation aspects still leave a lot to be desired. Many may claim to be seeking a fix for this, but the truth is that such a remedy is not as profitable as simply lining up music for the masses and letting them rewind again and again and again.