If it seems like I only post when Taylor Swift has something to say, well, maybe so. Taylor just has that sort of magnetism!
In any case, the net’s been all aflutter over Swift’s decision to pull her music from the streaming service Spotify for the release of her new album. Is she behind the times? Is she a brave voice for artists’ rights? Does Spotify pay hit artists a pittance, or is Taylor Swift raking in the millions?
My first reaction is that the coverage has been terribly overblown. Swift, her label, her team, have almost certainly crunched the numbers and taken the path they expect will be most profitable. This doesn’t seem insidious or inspiring—looks like business to me.
But watching the war of words between streaming services and artists who feel ripped off by streaming services, I was struck by one way in which the business model of streaming could tend to exacerbate the winner-take-all structure of the culture industry, as compared to album sales.
Streaming breaks down barriers to listening to music that makes popular music available and enticing to a larger audience than ever before. Consumers who, in the past, might have directed their music consumption entirely to a smaller catalog with fewer chart-toppers can now also play the new Pharrell track when it suits their mood.
Anecdotally, this mirrors how I behave as a consumer. As a purchaser of new albums, the relatively high purchase price has always directed my spending toward the music I most wanted. This meant that, aside from a small handful of CDs, none of my music spending went toward the most popular music.
Today, I use a paid streaming service. I still buy albums (admittedly, fewer than I used to), and my purchasing patterns are still more or less the same in terms of what kinds of albums I buy. But when I stream music, I’m far more likely to consume contemporary popular hits than when purchasing. I’ve definitely streamed Taylor Swift and Jay-Z, along with all sorts of hit artists from the last three decades whose records I would never think to buy unless I found them in the bargain bin at a thrift store.
What this means is that some of my music dollars, and the dollars of people like me, are being diverted toward the coffers of the ultra-successful in ways they weren’t before. In some sense, I imagine this would mean that popular artists are more popular than before, even if small artists are just as popular as ever (does that make sense?). My concern is not really about what this means for the total size of the pie, but rather about how it’s divvied up. It seems eminently possible that the streaming economy is one where small and indie artists take a smaller share just by virtue of how consumer behavior might be altered when the act of consumption is distinct from the act of paying.
People will continue to argue about to whether the sky is rising or falling. But whether Spotify—one streaming service of many—is paying Taylor Swift $500,000 or $2,000,000 per year seems beside the point. There’s always money available for those at the top of the pyramid, I’d prefer to know about how things look closer to the bottom.
update: 2014-11-13 15:37
Lara writes in to disagree. At the all-you-can-eat-of-whatever-you-can-find buffet of music streaming, why should we believe that gourmands are adding funnel cake to their plates at a greater rate than the fast food crowd is sampling the caviar?
She’s right: I don’t know. This post was rank speculation pulled from an anecdote. The hope would be that near-universal access would grow interest in the long tail, but I don’t know that this is the case. Without question, the accessibility provided by broad-based streaming services is good news for the discoverability of long tail works and those who would access them, but how that translates into payments is another question entirely.