Despite its shortcomings and opposition, streaming is here to stay. And like every other time a new music distribution system/format is introduced, streaming is creating some interesting changes in consumer behaviour.
One of the things that worry me about algorithmically-programmed music recommendations is that we’re often led down on familiar paths. The “if you like that, then you’ll probably like this” approach tends to keep us in a safe music bubble.
I’ll say it again: Sometimes you need repeated unintentional exposure to unfamiliar music before the penny drops and suddenly get it. For example, no one likes modern jazz the first time they hear it. It’s too complicated, too dense and requires careful tutelage for it to be fully appreciated. But if something from, say, John Coltrane suddenly showed up on the music stream of someone unfamiliar with the genre, the skip button would be hit in nanoseconds.
So how do we ensure that we’re not missing out on music that we may eventually learn to like? That’s the topic of this Pitchfork column by Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. How can we all become more responsible music fans? One answer to this question provides and interesting side effect.
In 2012, I wrote a piece for this website breaking down the payments my first band, Galaxie 500, was receiving from streaming services, which were just starting to become a dominant force in the music industry. Spotify had sent songwriting royalties of $1.05 for the 5,960 times our single “Tugboat” was played that quarter—split between the group’s three members, each of us had made 35 cents. Not exactly a promising new source of income.
For years, disruptive digital businesses have countered complaints like mine with assurances that everything will be different in the future, once millions and millions of people around the world adopt their application. Well, here we are. Spotify now claims 140 million active users, 70 million of whom are paid subscribers, and the total consumption of audio streams in the U.S. jumped by an estimated 50 percent last year. But while it’s clear that some are earning significant paychecks from streaming as a result—“Happy days are here again,” Billboard gushed last March, reporting the fastest growth for the industry in decades—most musicians are not.
The basic reason is simple: According to the data trackers at BuzzAngle Music, more than 99 percent of audio streaming is of the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks. Which means less than 1 percent of streams account for all other music. That makes streaming more concentrated at the top than current album or song sales. Of course, the most popular releases have always dominated the music market, but it seems these new services increase that disparity rather than reduce it. The rising tide is lifting only certain boats.