Opinion: Streaming - Convenience At A Price

US Guest blogger Lagrange on credit where credits due      04/08/15

Opinion: Streaming - Convenience At A Price

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This started with a conversation with my teenage daughter. "No one downloads music anymore Dad, that was so 2013. Everyone streams now".

Fair enough and indeed a quick search of the Internet will reveal enough to broadly support this statement from an end user positioned squarely in a significant target market. Despite some discrepancies in the actual figures quoted by various websites and their interpretation of those figures, it is clear that streaming is rapidly overtaking downloading. What further reinforces the content decisions being made by consumers is also to recognise that the 'download once, play many times locally' paradigm is also shifting wildly to streaming. Philosophically the notion of people maintaining their own offline libraries in favour of instant on-demand content is fast disappearing. The days of having a portable music player that can hold 10,000 songs doesn't really apply anymore.

And this on the back of a TV news story that very same evening we had that discussion about how car manufacturers are no longer installing CD players in their vehicles as they roll off the assembly line. Not only can we stream on our devices, we can do it in every room of the house via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi audio systems, and now in our cars. All in all it seems to be an attractive proposition to consumers who for a variety of reasons view the consumption of music in the same way we consume our food, most of the time also in our cars as it happens. The only contentious discussion that remains is related to revenue. While streaming in terms of physical numbers appear to be eclipsing those associated with downloading it would seem that the revenues from downloading remain strong by comparison explained easily by the significant unit price difference between each. One wonders how long that situation will continue and I suspect that whatever the result, the outcome for artists will remain forever questionable.

Streaming was inevitable really. Once servers and the network links between them and consumers reached a logical conclusion, long imagined business models can now be implemented. Personally it's a far cry from that rainy morning in the UK when I walked into my local record store with my pocket money in my hot and sweaty hands to make my first musical purchase. I bought two 7 inch pieces of vinyl. They were, as it happens, 'Message in a Bottle' by The Police and 'The Devil went down to Georgia' by the Charlie Daniels Band, the year was 1979 and they were crazy times to be sure. There's a question in itself, what was the first music you ever purchased? But this isn't a story about the well documented changes in technology, the difference between what I physically purchased in 1979 and what my 17 year old daughter streamed just now. This is a story about what we have actually lost as a result despite the on-demand convenience that my daughter has apparently inherited and argues so resolutely in favour of. And what we have lost may be far more significant than most people realise as it erodes the very heart of who artists are.

As downloading and streaming models are introduced, and bear in mind that this has been around for quite a while now, the entire music industry dialog up until this point has all been about the impacts on artist earnings. If you logically dissect the myriad of categories that artists fall into the dialog has also been interpreted, re-interpreted and misinterpreted in equally many different ways. And yet the central theme is always about the money and how it can be made. Older, very established legacy artists have adjusted with varying degrees of success during the transition from the old world to the new. Younger generation artists know nothing of how things were, the Internet is where they operate and that's all there is. Interestingly enough younger artists seem very interested to the point of reverence in how older artists made their music. But they seem much less interested in how they made their money.

The clever, or lucky ones have built followings through social media and recognised that online earnings alone are insufficient. The sheer number of streams or downloads required to generate average earnings are sobering. In recent times we have seen both established and new streaming services attempting to offset the angst generated by pitiful artist returns by marketing an altruistic angle. The problem here is that the rest of us are not overly convinced especially when we see older established artists girating across the press room table on launch day at the same time they slag off the very model the service they promote seeks to replace. You know, the old model that made them the privileged commodity they are today? Yes, that one. To be truly altruistic perhaps the marketing department for the next service that is launched should have an artist that only makes $20K a year and have them explain how that service is going to give them a little more. Now that may be the new tide I'm waiting for.

On the positive side however artists have also recognised that actually getting out there and playing in front of live audiences, if executed correctly, can be a nice little supplementary earner and dare I say pretty damn enjoyable too by most accounts. Even in my neck of the woods in the remotest city on Earth we are spoilt for choice as far as live music is concerned at the minute, may it continue. From the corner pub to the festival in a muddy field artists are doing their thing more than ever before. There is even a online service in Melbourne, Australia where you can book a band to play in your lounge room, a sort of AirBnB for muso's if you will. But again, the dialog remains squarely mired in a discussion about cash. Until now. And ironically enough we can thank a recent entrant in the streaming market for inadvertantly generating a sorely missed point in the discussion to date.

The dialog assumes that all artists are interested in is money but whether the money eventuates or not, it is only the end-game, the pay-off. Well before that point artists seek something far more powerful and important. Broadly speaking it is recognition and validation regardless of the coin that may roll their way later. Let me explain.

In the late 90's a relative of mine formed a song-writing partnership with a couple of friends. These are people who were old enough to have long ago abandoned dreams of being pop stars. Unless you are The Rolling Stones or of their ilk, evidently that is a younger person's game. You will never have heard of them but they were quite successful. Not quite like Stock, Aitken and Waterman but they got within spitting distance of that in terms of producing radio ready pop songs of great quality. Despite the allure and promise of greater success at their fingertips my relative explained to me that the greatest feeling he got was the day an established British Top 40 producer he was working with in the studio at that time told him that he was actually pretty damn good, and he is. In that moment the validation and recognition he sought was received. Sure some extra money would have been nice but in his mind, as a song-writer and producer it meant a whole lot more than that.

You probably know someone who has had a similar experience. Regardless of how little or much success they achieve they always remember when someone that matters tells them that they admire and respect their work. However this sort of recognition is usually experienced in quiet one-to-one peer environments. Far, far beyond that personal context artists also seek the people who actually listen to their music as genuine consumers to know some really important things. Things such as who they are, what drives them to make music, who they are influenced by and who helped them make the music you are listening to in the first place. Bringing this discussion back to streaming then all of these things that artists want you to know are now in serious peril. The indirect validation and recognition they get from you knowing and appreciating what they do regardless of what you paid, or worse not paid, has all but been killed off by streaming.

Back in 1979 when I purchased my first vinyl I realised that the package allowed for a canvas on which an artist could tell you a whole lot more about themselves. This isn't a pro-vinyl discussion as the same concept applied equally to cassette and CD. In particular it provided the opportunity to know how the music was made, where it was made and who was involved. It allowed me personally to track and get really interested in who the producer and the engineer was, who played on the record and even esoteric things like what gear was used. OK, that last bit isn't for everyone but you get the idea. In fact it would inform and influence future purchasing decisions in many respects and it allowed the artists to build quite an intimate relationship with the listener. But first and foremost the fact that you were reading this information added to the feeling of validation and recognition that ultimately the artist seeks. For many it goes far beyond just annotating a credit. That recent entrant to the streaming world I just mentioned are threatening to removes these credits. It's a very sad state of affairs.

When downloading came along we began to lose all of this value. The file you downloaded for example contains a wealth of meta-data but who reads this or even knows how to? The best you get is a small pixelized image displayed by your music player. Artists then compensated by attaching electronic booklets to the album download. Even if you took the time to try and read it your phone probably couldn't open it anyway and even if it did the context is largely lost on a 4-inch screen. The number of artists earning a pittance are increasingly not expending the electronic publishing effort to even creating such a thing, some have almost given up in this regard. Streaming has completely and utterly destroyed the canvas on which the artist can paint a picture of who they are and what they do and pay due credit to all those they work with. Social media attempts to fill the void but struggles on the ownership of recognition.

But don't let me give you the impression that streaming is the spawn of Satan, it isn't. It is the inevitable consequence of the endless march of technology. The only remaining debate is whether you believe that streaming is here because we want it or it is here because someone thinks you should have it, you decide. In addition I am neither a grumpy old fart who pines for the good old days. What I would dearly love to see is some clever sod enhance our current technology to recapture a vital part of the music creating, buying and listening experience, something that returns some due recognition to the people who actually create the music we listen to and allows them to give you something that only a previous generation got to experience. Surely it can't be that hard. At its very simplest level perhaps rather than have a static image displayed when the track is playing it could scroll through the cover, the credits, any other information and repeat. All it takes is some imagination, some vision and some commitment to return much needed value to artists and listeners alike.

In meantime however if you appreciate music take some time to find out who makes it and why and appreciate a bit more why you liked it in the first place. The artist concerned probably isn't making a whole lot of money but you can give them validation albeit indirectly. Even in the darkest, coldest souls of some very commercial artists these days there is still the faintest heartbeat of everything that is themselves and they want you to know about it. Stream to your hearts content but always, recognise.

Lagrange Audio is an independent blogger, suburban muso and a little bit of a synth enthusiast. Any opinions expressed by Lagrange Audio may or may not reflect current sonicstate.com editorial opinions.

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