THR Web Features   /   August 6, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship With Streaming

James Rathjen

image by Todd via flickr

From a consumer standpoint, streaming services are the low-hanging fruit of the music industry: They are convenient, requiring little effort to listen to music and discover new artists. For a minimal fee (or, in some cases, no fee at all), users can access services that recommend new music, create playlists, and offer an extensive music catalog.

Streaming is not quite so simple for artists, who may be paid as little as thousandths of a cent for each stream. Even the massive number of plays (often in the low hundreds of millions) a most-played song receives is undermined by the tiny compensation rate; Taylor Swift's record label Big Machine, for example, claims to have earned only $500,000 in one year for all of her songs. Artists at this level rarely need the money or the exposure, but it is still in their interest to protect the music. Some artists, notably Swift and Thom Yorke, have used their clout to protest this compensation model by withdrawing their music from low-paying services such as Spotify. It is entirely possible that the resulting negative publicity is worth the savings—the service won’t have to pay the artist if they don’t offer the artist’s music.

The streaming services' large catalogs give the illusion of potentially limitless variety for playlist curators and recommendation algorithms, but using these services can also breed a sense of conforming to something. As Ben Ratliff observes in The New York Times, “I always feel like I’m shopping somewhere, and the music [on curated playlists] reflects What Our Customers Like To Listen To.” Curated playlists are publicly available to all users and thus must appeal to the broadest possible audience: one primarily interested in pop and radio-friendly songs. While there are ostensibly differentiated playlists to match different moods, times of day, or activities, discerning listeners might find any one of these playlists bland and lacking in adventure. Still, streaming flourishes because of the millions of users willing to undergo a generic experience in exchange for having their music choices made for them.

For all that they tout their vast music libraries, streaming providers sometimes find that they aren't as much in control as they thought. When an album is not available, the service usually chooses to portray this as a decision from the artist or the label and therefore out of their hands. For example, Coldplay’s most recent album Ghost Stories was unavailable on Spotify for four months after its release in May 2014. It was given a placeholder entry with a note lamenting that the artists had chosen to make the album unavailable and that Spotify hoped they would change their mind. While Ghost Stories was unavailable, it could not be used for recommendations or playlists—it essentially did not exist in the eyes of Spotify. Such passive-aggressive tactics—passing the blame on to the band—didn't reflect well on Spotify whether or not one was a Coldplay fan.

Spotify's acknowledgment of the gap in their catalog was unusual. Missing albums are more often simply skipped over without a mention. One of the bands I have discovered through Spotify has released four studio albums, but only three were available to stream. I didn’t even know a fourth existed until stumbling upon it later in another context. Clearly, Coldplay as a high-profile act merited the exception.

Not only do gaps in a streaming catalog create an impression of inconsistency and arbitrariness, they also serve to manipulate users’ musical tastes, shaping them into the “predictable contours” so necessary to algorithmic-based services. Providers portray themselves as benevolent researchers, looking into music's most obscure corners in an effort to give users what they want. All too often, however, a different picture emerges. For example, a recent Spotify ad celebrated the seemingly long-awaited addition of AC/DC: another high-profile act vigorously marketed to the service's captive audience. In many cases, it is impossible to trust the service as a friend to the unknown when its marketing decisions seem predicated exclusively on ways to attract the maximum number of new users.

Perhaps one of the most disquieting aspects of streaming is the way it strips songs of context and even individuality. Taylor Swift made this argument to some degree in her confrontation with Spotify. While her primary objection was that Spotify's free service “devalued” her music, Swift also felt uncomfortable with having her work amalgamated into a library among other songs algorithmically similar. Any one song can be extracted for use in a playlist or an automatically generated “radio station,” but this removes it from its album sequence and can alter its meaning in the context of an album. In attempting to create a model that is convenient for consumers, the streaming services often appear to leave behind the most important aspect of the music—the artists.

The idea of streaming continues to be tantalizing enough to spawn new entries in the field, but finding a solution that will keep everyone—users, providers, labels, and artists—happy is much farther away. The tools that streaming offers are powerful indeed, but streaming's most compelling aspiration—letting users explore and develop their own individual tastes—simply isn't possible in the current model. It's just not possible to love something that says “be unique, but only as unique as we'll allow you to be.”