Whether you love it or hate it, the pervasive presence of music streaming is completely changing the music industry.
Besides giving audio technology professionals something juicy to discuss at the water cooler, online music streaming is the latest industry-shifting phenomenon—not unlike payola in the 1960s, MTV in the 1980s, and Napster at the turn of the 21st century.
Streaming music increased 93 percent in 2015, with 317 billion total streams, according to Variety. The streaming debate, which won’t likely dissipate anytime soon, has several layers:
The Benefits of Music Streaming
To many in the general listening public, music streaming seems like a wonderful no-brainer. “A la cart music, on the go? Whenever I want it? What’s the downside?”
Music streaming—both free and fee-based streaming—gives our constantly on-the-go society opportunities to listen to the music they want in a highly portable, richly customized fashion.
Perhaps most importantly, online music streaming is free in many cases, with the only “catch” being brief ads that listeners must listen to every so often. Some streaming platforms charge a small fee for the ability to bypass those ads.
Does Streaming Devalue Art?
For many artists, audio engineers, and other music professionals, the streaming debate centers on the economics of the music industry.
When megastar Taylor Swift began publicly pointing out the potential drawbacks of music streaming—especially in a July 2014 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal—one of her biggest concerns was that streaming services would devalue the art of music.
“It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is,” Swift wrote. “I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
Swift actually pulled her music off the popular streaming site Spotify and later refused to allow her album 1989 on Apple Music because of a 3-month free trial for consumers, during which Apple was not going to pay artists royalties. The company eventually relented and agreed to pay.
Streaming is a complex issue, though. Some music industry professionals, such as DJ and producer Armin Van Buuren, trumpet the benefits of streaming—especially for enabling people to listen to the music they love wherever and whenever.
Van Buuren, who has more than 1.4 million followers on Spotify, points out that free streaming doesn’t mean artists don’t get paid. It’s just that their pay comes from advertising rather than more traditional sources.
Others see the streaming model as a worrisome breeding ground for deeper inequity between big names and lesser-known acts.
Streaming Companies Move Toward Paid Subscriptions
As is the case with virtually anything valuable that starts out free, music streaming appears headed toward services available only with paid premiums, such as Apple Music.
Even platforms such as Spotify, which is well-known for its free tier, are developing ways to make more money—and to pacify artists. Spotify reportedly may allow artists to temporarily keep new releases off its free tier.
As music streaming companies evolve and expand, they undoubtedly will experience more victories like the one they struck in December, when the Beatles allowed their catalog—13 albums and 4 compilations—to be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal, Deezer, Microsoft Groove, Napster/Rhapsody, and Slacker Radio.
Effects of Streaming on the Listening Experience
Streaming presents other hot-button debates for audio technology professionals, who are always considering the quality of what’s entering consumers’ ears. Highly compressed, lossy files that take up less space—great for streaming—take away from the original composition.
Listeners who understand the problem can maximize the quality of their streaming experience by researching the specs of the available streaming services and changing player preferences. Unfortunately, only a fraction of streamers will put in this work or even recognize that they can. Additionally, there’s the challenge of cellular data costs.
Companies already are making progress toward improving the quality of streamed music. For now, sound gurus will go back and forth about what’s more important, music availability, or sound purity.
Options in the Music Industry
When Adele’s latest offering—a wildly emotive collection of rangy love-related songs—was released November 20, people wondered what she was thinking. Her decision to keep the new album off streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and more was a slap in the face to conventional Internet-era wisdom.
Everyone from music industry tycoons to audio technology MA students wondered whether forcing consumers to buy a hard-copy album instead of streaming would work. It did. While critics of all ages and backgrounds complained about the streaming void, 25 destroyed the all-time first-week sales record, and sales have continued to thrive.
To help boost the album, Adele and her label used other digital-age techniques to boost awareness. The music video version of Adele’s fantastically popular song Hello is approaching 1 billion views in YouTube. Also, Adele’s live version of Hello from late-night TV has been viewed by nearly 27 million people on YouTube.
The Future of Music Streaming
No one knows how streaming-related questions about the pay model, sound quality, and more will be answered in the years to come, but that’s part of the fun of the music industry. Constant changes to how, where, and when people listen to the gorgeous music that artists create and audio technology professionals produce are exciting, scary, and everything in between.
For the professors and master’s students in the Audio Technology Program at American University, the art and science of sound represents our careers and our joy—whether it’s heard via free streaming, CDs, or any other medium.
Those interested in advancing a career in the music industry can click to learn how to achieve a master’s degree in audio technology from American University.