News from the streaming frontline
When will we get to the stage where stories about Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and co don’t cause so much fuss?
Another week, another set of headlines about streaming’s big kahoonas. We had Apple bigwig Tim Cook announcing that 6.5 million people are now paying for Apple Music out of the 15 million who are using the service. We saw Joanna Newsom and James Blunt join the long list of permanent establishment artists having a pop at Spotify for their royalty rates, without working out that the problem may well be the contracts they signed with record labels and publishing companies to begin with. And we heard lots of rumours around a possible sale of Tidal based around a visit by its grand poobah Jay Z to Samsung (maybe he was there to get them to show him how to turn off voicemail?).
There are stories like this every single week as observers, experts and interested parties keep poking the ins and outs of streaming. You often hear good stories too – such as the number of acts who are pulling in millions of plays, increasing their profile and making decent wedge thanks to a leg-up from Spotify – but these don’t get as much ink or type or oxegen as the ones giving out yards about the services. It seems to be the case that acts by and large stay quiet about this kind of thing because it doesn’t suit the accepted narrative of “Spotify bad, vinyl and CD and download sales good”
But there is going to come a time when that narrative just won’t wash anymore…isn’t there? Surely the fact that mainstream music fans are using streaming more and more is going to eventually trump the fact that you have rock stars who had the good fortune to have record labels backing them in the first place complaining about their lack of cash from said labels? Please tell me that some lad or lass with a guitar or a harp giving out about what technology has done is still not going to be generating attention in 2020. It would be like someone giving out about CDs taking over from cassettes in 1995. Whether you like it or not, technology changes everything, especially the formats we use to listen to music. As the years go by, the stuff we regarded as high-faluting and far-fetched becomes the norm and so it is with having millions of tracks available at your fingertips.
That’s not to say that all those streaming services are perfect. Far from it in the case of Apple Music, which really only has Beats 1 as its saving grace. Compared to Spotify, Apple are just not at the races when it comes to playlists, user-friendly interfaces and especially the discovery gene. Compared to what they’ve done in the past when it comes to music – especially the iPod and the iTunes Store – it’s a surprise, until you cop that those particular innovations were about hardware and stuff, not the more nebulous idea of content and especially content strategy. Apple Music’s mis-steps have all to do with a failure to properly realise the importance of the latter aspects and the wrong-headed way they’ve approached this area.
Meanwhile, over on Spotify, they’ve got most of those areas sorted. It’s telling that there have been so many excited stories of late about Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist because it really is something else. I’m a fan because it gives me a new act or tune to rave about every single week – this week’s discovery is Ray Mang’s “Look Into My Eyes”, for instance – and the algorithm gets things usually bang on. What I really like about it is also the fact that it’s not just brand new stuff and it’s as likely to prompt me about a tune like “Look Into My Eyes” which was released in 2010 as something which went live this month.
That said, I wonder about just how much of a macro selling point the discovery and new music thing is for Spotify and co. I’m a weirdo and I hang out with weirdos so we’re forever on the lookout for new stuff, but it’s open to question if the vast majority of mainstream music fans are really just after new music. If that was the case, the new acts I go to see play live would be performing at the 3Arena or somewhere like that rather than the small rooms and hovels that are their current beat. The vast majority seem to be digging Ed Sheeran (as his recent landmark streaming figure showed) and there’s nothing wrong with that, though it does show that there is much, much, much more – milluns and billuns, if you ask Michael Noonan – to streaming than new act discovery.
Back to that point above about CDs and cassettes, apt given the day that’s in it. While we know there just wasn’t as much media space to fill when those format changes were taking place, there surely came a time when people just shrugged and got on with things. It was no longer a big deal that you were using another shape, format and combination of plastic to listen to recorded music. Similarly, the day is coming when the narrative around streaming takes a backseat and the music you hear takes over. And frankly, that day can’t come soon enough.