Music Disownership in the Streaming Economy

By Thomas Klepacz

On January 9th, Spotify found itself in the public eye of an atypical arena. The Swedish music streaming company — whose public persona typically consists of lime-green odes to U2, Rascal Flatts, and gingerbread emulations of prominent rappers — engaged in greater Twitter-political-discourse by proposing a tongue-in-cheek offer to Barack Obama. As Daniel Ek, the founder and CEO of the company tweeted, “Hey @BarackObama, I heard you were interested in a role at Spotify. Have you seen this one?”

The link led to a position, since deleted, for the “President of Playlists,” a role generated in response to Obama’s previous quip about working for the company. “In this position you will be overseeing our music curation and playlists team, across offices around the world,” the Spotify team described. “As an organization, we are full of hope, and always open to change.”

Generally, the tweet was perceived as a wink towards an exiting president who had maintained a playful relationship with the company. As Entertainment Weekly wrote in response:

“Spotify and the streaming industry blossomed during Obama’s presidency and he used the medium to great effect, churning out savvy playlists for his inauguration, working out, and the summertime. And from hosting Lamar and numerous other musicians at the White House to praising the likes of Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, Obama has made himself known as America’s Music-Lover-In-Chief.”

These “#POTUSPlaylists” were seen as large steps for a president willing to engage in popular culture – particularly popular music – like few had before. Obama was the president who made his praises for Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Edward Sharpe, and Janelle Monae well-known; the president who walked on stage for his final public address to U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” He was the president who, eight years prior, had shared the contents of a different playlist off of his iPod. Throughout his eight years in office, the message from both the Obama team and the music industry was clear: he might be the most powerful man in the free world, but he listens to music just like you.

But listening to music “just like you” has changed over the past eight years. In 2008, iPod sales peaked at an remarkable 54.83 million units while digital and physical music sales made a combined $4.9 billion worldwide. In 2016, Apple stopped reporting iPod sales (although the last demonstrable data, from 2014, shows 14.38 million units sold), while, as Pitchfork recently reported, music streaming revenue surpassed digital and physical sales combined with an astonishing $2.5 billion made worldwide. Thus, Obama’s shift from iPods to Spotify truly seemed like the…popular choice.

Which it was. Pitchfork has covered this issue in the past: in a piece from December 2nd of last year, writer Marc Hogan broke down the implications of music streaming’s recent rise to dominance. “Going into 2017, streaming will no longer be a niche for music but the new normal,” Hogan wrote. “The big question is no longer whether streaming is the future, but what form that future will take, who will benefit, and what that might mean for listeners.”

Superficially, this future is convenient. Listeners today have instant, unparalleled access to music of all genres and eras — from recent additions of tremendously valued catalogues, to exclusive album releases, to complex algorithms that select music based off of listeners’ preferences, music consumers have every reason to belong to at least one streaming service. Streaming services have appeared to be so convenient that for the first time since the late 1990s, the US music industry grew in 2016.

While this might sound like a shift that benefits execs and listeners alike, the profitability of streaming platforms has yet to catch up with their ubiquity. Despite the growth of streaming, platforms like Spotify have never turned an annual profit largely due to royalty payment overheads. In a sense, the rapid popularity of streaming services has outpaced the logistics and legalities of what is, in many ways, an antiquated record industry. But, as capitalism does, this only leaves room for adaptation — as Marc Hogan wrote: “Labels need to cut deals with streaming services that won’t put the streaming services out of business.”

So what do these “deals” between streaming services and labels look like to listeners? For the most part, we’re not entirely sure. They could look like more exclusive deals a lá Kanye, Frank Ocean, and Drake — something that Jimmy Iovine of Apple Music has promised to do more — or they could look like the opposite. Regardless of their methods of execution, streaming companies and record labels will undoubtedly need to bridge the gap(s) between falling record sales, rising streaming revenues, and costly royalty payments.

Together, this whirlwind of music-revenue data reflects one thing: 2017 may be the first year that the common music-listener does not own most of the music they listen to. As streaming platforms rise in popularity, downloads fall, and physical purchases nuzzle with antiquity, the personal music “library” begins to look less and less personal. Take Spotify’s “Your Music” feature, for instance: by “saving” songs off of Spotify’s massive library, you add them to a “personal” collection separated by songs, albums, and artists, much like what one would see in a traditional computer library. But when one disconnects from the internet — or cancels their Spotify account — the “saved” song library becomes unlistenable. Although Spotify touts that one can download tracks off of the “cloud” and into one’s personal library (airplane listening, for instance), when that $10 per month disappears, so does your music.

Which isn’t to pick a fight with Spotify. Every major streaming service follows these same precepts: one pays an allotted monthly fee to gain full access to “the world’s largest music library.” But it’s not really their library, and when the streaming service decides to pull the plug — whether it’s for a lack of monthly payments or a label dispute — one’s music is “disappeared.” Or, at best, shuffled amongst a series of tremendous ad opportunities for corporations. What could the consequences be if an artist were to make a controversial statement, or act with any form of particular opposition?

Surely, the music industry has never been particularly privy to equitable and fair music consumption. The very act of “signing” music commodifies it, and thus, limits access only to those able to provide capital for it. But before the streaming economy, the transaction of music listening — paying an allotted amount per song or per album — allowed consumers to, for all intensive purposes, “possess” the music that they paid for. Although they may have not owned the rights to a collection of songs, their record, or cassette, or CD, or download file, was at least temporarily in their possession and to be listened to in ways they chose. Which, for many, meant generating an informal sharing-economy: copying cassettes, burning CDs, uploading tracks to free online databases. And, of course, the record industry didn’t take much of a liking to that.

So they adapted. They realized that rather than fighting this informal sharing economy, they should help establish a formal sharing economy of their own. They should join with “official” streaming services — the ones that have become the most common formats through which we consume music — to properly commodify the music of their artists. By threatening participants in the informal economy and hailing members of their own, they could revitalize a dying music industry through the very forms they once thought would kill it.

This, for the most part, has worked. The music industry is seeing growth again, and streaming services are dominating. Even video streaming sites like YouTube — a withering member of the informal shared-music economy — are attempting to join the streaming monetization binge.  And although there are sites which still provide the free dissemination of music, they’re becoming limited too. As it always does, the industry is catching up to the popular pace of change, and capitalizing upon what once was its enemy.

I enjoy the convenience of my Spotify Premium account. I’ve tried Apple Music, and Pandora, and still use the “free” Soundcloud as much as I can, though I’m now used to uninterrupted streaming, so I find the ads annoying. I, like many others, considered downloading Tidal when the most recent Kanye album was released. As a music listener in 2017, participation in these services is nearly vital, and there’s nothing wrong with having an account or few to access what is becoming an increasingly exclusive streaming world. But in interactions like those between Daniel Ek and Obama, one has to consider the implications of otherwise “playful” internet dialogues, and what these moments really mean for the greater populus. In the case of the streaming industry, it means increasing regulations on music listeners and public access. It is, concisely, the requisite of non-property of most of society in order to maintain the property of the select few — an issue impacting much more than the ways in which we listen to music.

 

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