Streaming Music and Digital Disruption: What’s Coming Through Your Headphones?

19th April, 2017 by

The music industry has acted as the frontline in digital disruption throughout history. From rock n roll being the devil’s music to punk heralding total anarchy and beyond, music is never out of the headlines for very long. However, seismic disruption started with pioneering pirated music service, Napster, at the turn of the century. Napster, illegally, handed the keys to the consumer to every record label’s music cabinet and asked for nothing in return.

Fast-forward nearly two decades and the unbelievable has happened. Consumers have, by and large, renounced pirating music and instead opted to pay for it. In fact, as of 2017, there are now globally more than 100 million paid up subscribers to music streaming services. It appears consumers handed back the keys and opened their wallets.

Why are people willing to pay for music?

The answer to this question is probably two-fold. Let’s start with the heart-warming option:

As music is a great enabler, it’s always in demand and eminently attractive. It allows people just like us to make a difference. Anyone with a guitar and a laptop will be able to get their music ‘out there’ and some even make it. You just need to look at the likes of Ed Sheeran, Adele, the Arctic Monkeys and Stormzy to see this in action. Spreading their music for nothing but love, their talents have taken them to the top and the listener wants to reward that.

There is, of course, also the cynic’s argument. Governments, under pressure from the music industry, have hounded down the propagators of illegal torrenting or streaming services. This approach by the powers that be and the courts has seen some of the biggest offenders effectively neutralized. Just take a look:

Napster – which now runs as a small-time legal streaming service

Pirate Bay – which has become so fragmented as to become basically unusable

Megaupload – the founder of which, Kim Dotcom has seen raids on his multi-million pound home and the seizure of assets through the courts.

It is obvious that these have each been completely rendered harmless.

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How is streaming changing the music industry?

The story of the music industry is inextricably linked with the rise of the internet. As connection speeds have increased, so too has the speed with which consumers can download and listen to music.

In the early days of Napster and Limewire, an album could take hours or days to download. Whereas today’s listeners are affronted when a song doesn’t play instantly. Couple that with the growth of the smartphone it now means that consumers are constantly streaming music, whether at home, work or on the move.

Streaming has become so prevalent that it has forced the music charts to recalibrate their measures of success. As of 2014, and Ariana Grande’s number one hit Problem, the Official Chart Company includes streams in its calculations for the singles’ chart.

Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud was the first single to reach number one on the weight of streams alone. Ed Sheeran has also managed to break the system on the release of his latest album, Divide. All 16 tracks of his album made into the top 20 in the week of its release. This even led to Sheeran himself suggesting that something needed to be done to redress the balance.

But does the system really need changing? Or is it just obsolete?

Since 2014, the charts have been calculated with streams included – the math for which is not simple:

How is streaming affecting musicians and the music they make?

Unknown musicians are seeing penetration like never before. Never have the barriers for entry been so low. An aspiring musician no longer has to invest in hard copies of their music. The music can be uploaded to YouTube or a streaming service cheaply and with relative ease.

Then once the music is online it can be left to do its work. A stream will earn an artist money, albeit pennies per stream. Putting music on YouTube gives an artist the ability to host advertising on their channel and make money this way.

The music made is also being affected. A BBC Radio 4 segment recently suggested that the reason artists are releasing longer and longer albums is because in the age of streaming the artist has a greater chance of breaking through with a surprise hit. It also allows the artist to play with styles and have varying genres of music all sat under one album cover.

This is an accusation that has been levelled at Ed Sheeran whose album was referred to by the Guardian as “calculating”, in so far as it aims for the streaming service playlists. His song Galway Girl aims squarely for the Irish pop market, while the two lead singles Shape of You and Castle on the Hill couldn’t be more musically different if they tried.

That being said, from a consumer’s perspective the proliferation of streaming services has been an undoubtedly positive step offering a wider range of choice. Isn’t it time you jumped on the live streaming bandwagon and start some disruption of your own? It’s easy with 100TB.