The future of streaming music

April 9, 2015, 12:28 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Rahim Ullah.

From LPs to cassettes to compact discs, recorded music has undergone a significant metamorphosis over the course of the 20th century. Now, in the Internet age, the way we experience music is evolving faster than ever. Download-centered platforms like iTunes have become passé, and even customizable services like Pandora have struggled to remain relevant. Digital streaming, a technology that allows users to bypass downloads and access music with unparalleled immediacy, is becoming the new normal.

Offering a multitude of songs at your fingertips, platforms such as Rhapsody, Soundcloud and, most notably, Spotify have surged in popularity. At the moment, Spotify boasts 60 million subscribers, 15 million of whom pay between $5 and $10 per month to browse a broad catalog of albums, artists and songs. In addition to this breadth of musical choice, the service features new releases and customized playlists. It’s also social — users accumulate followers and can share their favorites with friends and strangers alike.

Given these features, it’s easy to see why many have chosen Spotify as their primary browsing and listening medium. It’s particularly popular among students, who receive a substantially discounted subscription rate. David Lim ’18, an avid user, explained the appeal: “It’s convenient … you can look a song up in seconds. Back in the day, you’d have to buy it or torrent it. You can explore a lot more within the catalog.”

The main opponents of digital streaming appear to be artists themselves. CD sales have been plummeting, and in 2013, downloaded purchases also began to decline. Although Spotify’s biggest expense is licensing fees, much of the recording industry is crying foul. Many artists, especially independent groups short on funding, are complaining that the revenue they receive from streaming services is far less than what they would gain from downloads and CD sales. Vocal opponents include Taylor Swift, who withdrew her catalog from the site after it refused to offer her music solely to paying users.

Nevertheless, many in the industry are beginning to recognize that if they can’t fight the trend, they should use it to their advantage. Enter Tidal, Jay-Z’s newly unveiled streaming service. In addition to offering higher-quality audio and “expert editorial from experienced music journalists,” it’s been hyped as an artist-centered operation — one that will make musicians more money, even at the expense of its ultimate profits.

However, the precise logistics of how this might work are fuzzy. It’s hard to imagine how Tidal could fairly remunerate artists and operate in the black. Though its revenue is rising, even Spotify has failed to turn a profit since its 2008 founding. In addition to this challenge, the service faces formidable competitors such as Beats Music, a recent Apple purchase. Despite high hopes and a host of celebrity supporters, Tidal faces a difficult journey towards relevance.

Digital streaming platforms have revolutionized the way we experience music. Empowered by the ability to search for precisely what we want to hear, we tend to seek out specific tracks and listen to them on repeat or shuffle. With this approach, our listening experience no longer centers around traditional albums — coherent, sequential collections of musical content. Instead, we treat albums as arbitrary categories from which we choose our favorites, assembling playlists that we listen to again and again. By isolating and repeatedly listening to such playlists, or even individual songs, listeners eschew new musical discoveries in favor of the familiar. In this way, Spotify might be preventing its users from enjoying the full breadth of what it has to offer. Convenience and freedom can narrow the listening experience.

As the popularity of digital streaming rises, it’s threatening to eclipse both traditional album purchases and radio as the go-to music medium. In an age where we’re used to having everything at our fingertips, it’s easy to see why. I sometimes marvel at the fact that I can listen to practically any song I want to, at any place and time. But even the most efficient streaming service can’t replicate the joy of chancing upon an incredible song while listening to FM radio. I fell in love with many of my favorite artists by overhearing their music on my hometown public radio station. Confined to my own set of Spotify favorites, I’m not sure I ever would have discovered them.

Spotify’s erosion of the traditional practice of listening to coherent albums may also reduce the depth and nuance of the listening experience. Is the impact of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, the masterful “To Pimp a Butterfly,” really as profound if users pick it apart, ignoring deeper, less popular tracks as they cut and paste their favorites into separate playlists? I would argue that the way to draw the most meaning and satisfaction from albums such as these is to listen to them from beginning to end — an approach that doesn’t quite mesh with Spotify’s emphasis on immediacy and convenience.

In spite of these drawbacks, I plan to continue using to Spotify, and there’s no doubt others will, too. Though traditional albums and radio remain important to me, I could not imagine life without such broad access to the world of digital music. Comparing streaming to my 7-inch singles, it’s remarkable to see how far the experience of listening to music has come. As digital streaming services continue to develop, it will be fascinating to see where it goes next.

Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’

Clare Flanagan is a desk editor and writer for the Music beat. A former band geek, she specializes in popular music and new releases. Clare is a sophomore from Edina, Minn. considering majors in Psychology or English. To contact her, please email [email protected].

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