Music History

What’s the Future of Streaming? Let’s Go Back to the Beta vs. VHS Battle.

There’s no question that streaming will continue to be A Thing in 2018. The question is, how much will streaming decimate physical sales over the next 12 months? And will fans beyond those of R&B, hip-hop and pop finally start streaming in meaningful numbers? (I’m looking at you, rock fans.)

There are other questions, too. Which service will dominate? How will Spotify continue despite hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars a year? Will Apple start phasing out the iTunes Music Store? Where do smart speakers fit into the equation? What about radio?

Forbes tries to prognosticate a little by looking back on the Beta vs. VHS battle. Is there something we can learn from the days of the VCR that will help us predict the future of streaming? And you do remember VCRs, don’t you?

In 1975, Sony introduced Betamax, a revolutionary concept into the home entertainment market. Betamax was the first consumer-friendly, simple and affordable technology that allowed consumers to record video broadcasts for viewing at a later time. The product was so revolutionary that many stalwarts in the entertainment industry, including Universal Studios, sought to have its use declared an illegal act under a copyright law in 1979. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that “time shifting” of viewing content in a private setting is “fair use” and not copyright infringement.

Betamax — and subsequently, VHS, DVD and DVR — were part of a sea change in the consumption of television away from a broadcaster-dictated schedule to a consumer-friendly “on demand” approach that let viewers dictate when and where broadcasts could be viewed. In an interesting perspective, Hacking HR founder Enrique Rubio wrote in 2016 about why Betamax, which was first to the market, was ultimately eclipsed in popularity and rendered irrelevant buy JVC’s VHS technology.

There are important lessons that can be learned from history, and those content creators and distributors who are willing to listen may be able to save themselves untold billions in losses from nano-piracy (i.e., using live-streaming apps to pirate). Rubio posited three reasons why Betamax failed and VHS flourished: 1) VHS was developed with a consumer-centered design, 2) widespread, simple licensing of the technology allowed it to quickly gain market share globally and 3) Sony failed to focus on its core technology.

Fast-forward (excuse the pun) to 2018, as the entertainment industry now faces another pivotal turning point: the proliferation of live-streaming technology. Simply put, the days of content creators being able to control the consumption of their products are over.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ 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.

Alan Cross has 38446 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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