Are We Close to the End of Free Music Streaming? Maybe

Record labels and rights holders would love nothing more than to see the “freemium” tier offered my music streaming services, saying that there’s (a) not enough to differentiate the free version of, say, Spotify, from the free version; and (b) not enough in the way of payouts. “If you want to listen to a music stream,” they say, “you should have to pay for it.” All this means that the next round of negotiations with the streamers is going to be…contentious. Pitchfork picks up the thread:

Those who share a birthday with Napster—which launched June 1, 1999—are turning 17 today. It’s an age when music often means the world. How differently, though, are these digital natives hearing their favorite artists compared to listeners from decades past? There’s always a risk of exaggerating the changes facing younger generations, but the shift undergone in this millennium feels less ephemeral and more profound than, say, transitioning from cassettes to CDs. This is because music is now free.

Before Napster, to hear whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, you had to pay for it. Pirated music still exists, of course, but the real breakthrough for the music industry over the last decade has been free, ad-supported streaming. Vast libraries of songs ready at a click’s notice? Personally customized online radio stations? It’s all there, all the time—on car trips, in the shower, while sleeping or partying or working out or studying—and it doesn’t have an obvious cost.

Stone Mills, a 21-year-old musician at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, tells me that although he prefers playing vinyl or tapes, almost of all his current listening happens via YouTube. “Nowadays, my expectation of finding music on the internet for free is so high that I feel slightly offended when I can’t do it,” he says. “It’s kind of a warped mindset, actually.” It’s also, no doubt, a common one.

For all the debates about the paucity of payouts to music makers, with ad-supported streaming—unlike with piracy—at least those payouts exist. But now, the industry may be rewriting its compact with free streamers. Streaming services appear to be approaching a point of rebalancing as they try to maximize advertising revenues from the many who don’t pony up for monthly subscriptions while at the same time finding new reasons for potential customers to pull out their credit cards.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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