Streaming Sites and the Abundance of Music

I recently visited a friend’s house and discussed a new album of mine that is imminently due to be released. ‘Great’ he said, ‘you must let me know when it’s out’. ‘I certainly will’ I replied, ‘I’ll let you know how to download it’. ‘No, don’t worry about that’ he continued, ‘I’ll listen on Spotify. We don’t bother downloading anything anymore – we just search for it on Spotify’. My heart sank, particularly as he is a musician himself and I thought would understand how expensive it is to make a recording involving the use of real musicians.

Around Christmas 2010, we had sent promotional copies of ‘I Saw Three Ships and other carols’ to critics and classical radio stations throughout the world so were delighted to receive extensive airplay. Gaining broadcast of a carol disc over the Christmas period is obviously a massive help towards promoting the album, so when our download sales payments came through in the Spring, we were delighted to have recouped several hundred pounds from download sales. Encouraged by this and in time for Christmas 2011, we had arranged, recorded and released the second volume called  ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and other carols’  which this time was taken up by even more radio stations, gained positive critical reviews and plenty of airplay. At the same time, both albums had been added to all the main streaming services. By spring 2012 however, instead of receiving a similar amount from album downloads to the previous year, we received the disappointing sum of approximately £12 for hundreds of streams. We can only surmise that people had heard the music on the radio and instead of downloading the album, had simply streamed it over the Christmas period.

I started to think about how this way of thinking had emerged.

Part of the problem with this is technological. If we went back to the world of vinyl in the 1970s, we would experience a way of listening to music that was completely different to the present day. There was the feel of handling a record, carefully cleaning it before waiting for the needle to slowly make contact with the playing surface (a few seconds filled with the utmost anticipation!). Ok, there were clicks and pops and the odd bit of solidified dirt which caused the needle to jump (as well as the irritating scratch that wasn’t easily identified when held up to the light) but there were also many attractions. Wonderful sleeve designs, often in gatefold (and even triple gatefold!) that mesmerized with their inventive artwork, or classical discs that possessed that rich warm sound with copious sleeve notes and photos of the recording session.

Moving forward to the early 1980s and music lovers were in awe of the clean sound and easy storage of the Compact Disc which initially retailed at the expensive cost of about £15 each, with greatly reduced artwork.Some claimed that the digital processes created a clinical quality to the recorded sound. Nonetheless, a CD remains something that can be bought as a present or a treat and all the way up to the 1990s the price of records and CD’s excluded all but the avid collector from building a library comparable with today’s average mp3 device.

The big revolution came when music could be easily transferred through digital formats. No longer did we have to make those awkward tape cassette compilations with all our favourite tracks on: in minutes we could also burn off a copy of a CD for a friend or relative. This is an important point: libraries have always existed where recordings could be borrowed and listened to and the person borrowing the record would often record their own copy onto a tape – and in so doing deprive the record company of a sale of that particular recording. This was pure and simple piracy: a theft of that particular recording, yet, there were few people who didn’t possess at least a few tapes that were recorded from vinyl.

The parallel argument is that this access to music fed an appetite which meant that people simply consumed and shared more music. As a child, I built up my knowledge of classical music by getting up early (before going to school) and setting the tape recorder to capture broadcasts from the radio which I could then listen to later when I got back home. Many of these were commercial recordings which I then didn’t need to buy, however they stimulated a desire to know more about a particular composer’s music so I would then go out and buy recordings of that composer’s works because I was too excited and eager to wait until it was next broadcast on the radio. As a result, I built up a large library of recordings that I purchased on both cassette and vinyl. Nowadays, people have an even more voracious appetite for music. There are many who take part in illegal downloading or sharing and yet also pay for a huge amount of music. Should they be penalised for piracy or do we adopt a more philosophical approach that accepts this may be balanced out by how much money the same people spend on recordings?

The big problem with downloading music (and one that may have a gloomy prognosis) is that  there is no discernible difference between owning an album or listening to it on demand from a streaming site. There’s no physical object to cherish – no gatefold artwork, no liner notes, no disc to line up on your shelf and alphabetize or rearrange chronologically (like the character from ‘High Fidelity’!). . .just a digital transference of data. Many albums won’t have the innate worth to be listened to repeatedly, and even those that do can simply be found again and bookmarked in the vast sea of music contained on streaming sites.

My big worry as an independent composer is that the miniscule amount I gain for each play of my music from an online streaming site (often a fraction of one cent) means one less sale. People don’t necessarily think ‘I love that track I just heard on the radio, I’m now going to find the rest of the album and purchase it’ as they don’t need to. After all, it’s the same album on a streaming site – there’s no reason to go out and actually own it.

On the other hand, an independent artist would never have been able to record their own music 40 years ago without a huge budget. Recording studios were expensive places that were normally the reserve of bigger record labels whereas now many terrific albums are produced in small home studios and use clever music technology to keep costs down. The manufacturing costs of producing vinyl were also high and once a composer or band had the finished article, they wouldn’t be able to sell it without distribution. The biggest avenue was local record stores, so barring driving all over the country and persuading radio stations to play your music, you could forget people discovering your album on a large scale.

So are streaming services the dawn of an age where buying music becomes a thing of the past and blanket licenses become the norm? Or should independent artists be grateful that we live in a time where most of us can affordably record and market our music throughout the world utilising the internet?

After some careful consideration, our String Quartet have recently made the bold decision to pull all of our releases from a variety of streaming sites as the amount of money they pay to the musicians for the use of their music is so low. This will almost certainly mean less exposure, but it might just mean that if people hear it and like it enough, they’ll download and respect the skill, time and effort which went into making the albums – but most  importantly, we’ll have at least a chance to break even and make another one!