The Music Streaming Paradox

Nowadays almost everyone listens to music through streaming platforms such as Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music, Google Music or even YouTube (even tough it is technically a video streaming platform). This of course, has not always been the case. Before the advent of the internet, and even during its early stages for that matter, one had to buy a record or CD at the record store. Some audiophiles still swear by it that it’s worth to do so, because the audio quality is supposed to be better, but that’s a topic for another time. These streaming platforms allow us to carry a library of music with us that physical stores usually can’t rival. This convenience of streaming music has won over the average consumer and become ‘mainstream’.

This word, mainstream, is interesting when talking about the topic of music, because it is perhaps the field where the word is used most often. Before the sixties, large record companies had so much power and influence over what music was listened to by consumers, that it was very hard to get a foothold as an independent musician or record label. However, with the punk-revolution and other similar developments, the underground music scene started to blossom. This led to the rise of many new genres. This liberation of music even lent its name to one: indie (rock or pop), which in time became mainstream.

‘What does this have to do with music streaming platforms?’ I hear you ask. Well, these platforms do not only give consumers the convenience of listening to a broad array of artists and genres, but by extent it also gives way for artists to publish their music more easily. This again, however, comes with a cost. Maybe even a paradox of some sort. One would assume that if it would be easier for up-and-coming artists to share and publish their music, that they would benefit from it. But this might not be the case. It has become easier for consumers to explore new music, especially through algorithmic based exploration playlists (think of discover weekly on Spotify), but there is also a lot (and I mean A LOT) more music to discover. Getting picked by an algorithm to feature on someone’s discover weekly or to show up on someone’s recommended page on YouTube is almost like winning a lottery. It does not only come down to your talent, but also on luck. Lots and lots of luck.

We should also consider the impact streaming has on revenue for career artists. I think everyone can agree that these platforms are great for people that just want to put their music out there and don’t really care about becoming famous or making a living of it. But for musicians that rely on the money they make form their work it can be detrimental. Streaming is notorious for its low revenue output. Everything comes down to royalties nowadays. Actual sales of physical copies are steadily declining. There are a multitude of royalty calculators online that can show just how much (or how little) you can expect to be paid per stream (here is an example, try it out for yourself). To compensate, this has perhaps also led to an increase in productivity, as artists make more music on average. Live performances and tours, as well as merchandising, has also become more important to fill this drop in income for many.

All in all, the streaming platforms of today have made the lives of consumers easier, but it might have made the lives of your favourite artists harder. So next time you see an actual, physical record store (yeah, they still exist), maybe buy a physical copy.