The idea of listening to music that you don’t own isn’t new. It was originally called radio. But you were limited to whatever the stations that you could receive were willing to play. Sure, you could choose a top 40 station or a rock or jazz station, but that was the extent of your control. Radio stations are funded purely by advertising dollars.
The model of having people subscribe to get more choice and greater access over a wider geographic range isn’t new either. Satellite radio services offer hundreds of stations that you can receive over a wide area if you are willing to purchase the equipment and pay a monthly fee. But you are still limited to what someone else decides to play. Satellite radio is funded by subscriber fees.
With both radio and satellite services, there was still a desire for the consumer to control what they listened to. The only way to do this was ownership of your music. The advent of the Walkman portable tape player in the eighties allowed for the mixtape. Consumers owned vinyl or cassettes, but they could record their own playlists that were mixtapes back in the day. And you could take them with you. The key point here is that you had to purchase a physical product at some point – vinyl or tape. The CD arrived and had a significant impact on tape and vinyl sales, but again, a physical product was being purchased. Once you owned it, you no longer had to pay again to listen to it. Skip forward to the next millennium and we have the MP3. You could “rip” your CDs, vinyl and tapes into MP3 format and listen to them on a wide variety of devices. Apple and others caught on to this evolution and started selling music as MP3 downloads. While you were not purchasing a physical product, you were purchasing a real product that was your’s to use as often as you wished.
With broadband internet and cellular data services, it became not only possible to quite practical to broadcast over the air radio stations through the internet. Cable TV services have been doing this for decades taking network television services and piping them into your home via cables. There was more selection for the consumer and much higher reliability. For the cable companies, once the infrastructure was there, they became quite profitable.
Then came TV that was only available through your cable television. Probably the most notable being CNN – Cable Network News.
The evolution for music from the ownership model (vinyl, tapes, CDs and MP3s) to streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music etc.) has been similar. but perhaps a bit slower. The primary reason for this is the difference in this evolution is our consumption habits. Television is much more single use than music. True we watch re-runs of our favourite shows, but even this terminology speaks to the single use nature of television. I don’t refer to my second, third or hundredth listening to my favourite album as re-listening. I’m just listening. So there is an inherent difference in our desire to own music compared to owning what we watch on TV.
In spite of the greater desire to own our music so we can control our listening, streaming music is here and ownership is declining. Revenues from streaming have eclipsed those from purchased digital and physical products. In 2016, 51% of music revenues in the US were from streaming services.
The reasons for the popularity of streaming music over ownership are straigh forward – huge variety, high quality audio (services such as Tidal and Deezer offer premium quality formats), control over what you’re listen to through the use of playlists and the ability to download to our devices, and cost (at ten bucks per month it really can’t be beat).
I also appreciate the playlists that Apple music creates for me based on what I say I like. True I wonder sometimes how certain music arrives on my tailored list, but I also remember having a friend excitedly drop the needle on his newest piece of vinyl while telling me that I had to buy this one immediately and wondering a few tracks in what he possibly liked about this album. Some will argue that having a computer algorithm choose my music is limiting. I agree, so I go to the lists of new releases and listen to music that’s not on my computer generated list. In my teens I went to the record store to see what they put up on the wall for new releases and hear what they were playing.
Streaming services, I find, make it easier to find specific tracks when compared to searching through my hard drive. It takes time to properly organize your computer-saved music files and ensure they are properly tagged. Pay for a streaming service and they do this for you.
Warning – the next statement could elicit horrific memories if it has ever happened to you. If your hard drive crashes and you don’t have a full back up, you may have lost thousands of songs. Even if everything was ripped from your owe CDs, there will be a significant investment in time to rip them again. Streamed services are in the cloud. You are paying for someone else to worry about back ups.
One of the most pervasive arguments against purchasing physical or digital music is that its available for free through pirated downloads. Of note here is that I stated this is an argument against “purchasing” not an argument against ownership if you consider having an illegally obtained digital copy ownership. This is a problem for music creators since they receive no compensation either through a portion of the purchase price or a streaming fee. It was a problem for companies that were selling physical and digital formats as evidenced by the huge decline in CD and MP3 sales. However, streaming services have put a dent in pirated downloads. For ten dollars a month, its really not worth your time to torrent MP3s any more.
But are there still reasons to own your music? Some say – yes.
1 – Compensation
Better compensation to artists and song writers. When a song is sold on iTunes the artist earns about .20 of the $1.29 sale while the song writer earns about .09. The same song streaming on Spotify would have to stream some 73 times for the artist and the song writer to earn the same amount. So the argument is made that the singer/songwriter makes objectively more from a purchase than a steam. I’m not convinced this is a sound argument for ownership. I’ve got lots of songs, albums and CDs that I’ve listened to more than 73 times so it cold be argued that streaming would have been financially better for artists and song writers if I was paying a small amount for every time I listened. But I actually don’t pay a fee for every stream. I pay ten dollars a month whether I listen to ten tracks or ten thousand.
There are problems with compensation for music creators under the existing streaming model, but it is more complex than just the ratio of compensation for purchased versus streamed consumption (Music Creators’ Revenue)
2 – Quality
Audio quality is generally better with purchased formats. CD quality is definitely better than streaming through most services; however, Deezer and Tidal do offer high resolution formats that are near CD quality. Beyond just audio quality, there is the issue of reliability. Streaming services are dependent on your internet connection while CDs are not. It is frustrating to have songs dropping out during play back.
3 – Format and Environment
Ownership allows you to listen to your music on any device in any format and in any envirnoment (no internet connection required – but Apple music and Deezer allow you to download music to listen to when you don’t have an internet connection, but you are limited to using their software/app which may or may not be to your liking).
There will be music that is not available on streaming services that you can still purchase in a physical or digital format.
4 – Packaging
This one applies only to buying the physical medium: vinyl album, CD or even a tape. Especially the 12 inch vinyl LP. That’s 144 square inches of art work that you will never get through a streaming service. Even with the smaller format of CDs, you get liner notes with lyrics and credits. Sure you can hunt for most of this on line, but that’s just not the same as having it all in one neat package.
And you can’t get a streamed song autographed!
5 – Control
For me, this is the number one reason for owning music. I’m not suggesting abandoning streaming services – I love Apple Music – but I believe there is a case for selective ownership of music in a variety of formats: CD, DVD, vinyl and digital.
When you own a CD or a digital copy (legitimately purchased), you own the right to listen to that music as often as you want, on whatever device and whenever you want. With streaming services, you are at their mercy to decide what music they will be serving up. For a long time Prince’s music was not available on Apple Music. Since his death, his estate has released his music to all of the streaming services, but what if they have a change of heart or the courts decide that’s not what Prince wanted and all that music disappears from the streaming services. If you’ve got it on CD, vinyl or digital format, no worries. When Jay-Z started Tidal, he removed all of his solo music from the other streaming services forcing fans to either buy into Tidal or purchase his music.
There is also the issue of regional rights to stream certain tracks. I often find that a track is listed on Apple Music, but its grayed out because Apple does not have the rights to stream that music to Canadian subscribers. I have never encountered a situation where I was advised that I could not purchase a CD or LP from outside Canada because it was not licensed in Canada. Maybe this happens and I’ve just been lucky.
We also have to consider how long streaming services will be around. I have vinyl from the sixties and it still plays. Can Apple guarantee Apple Music will still be streaming fifty years from now? I don’t think so.
6 – Appreciation
Along with the control of your music is the inherent appreciation for something that you actually have made a decision to purchase. I’ll be honest that I’ve downloaded music illegally and the vast majority of it I’ve never listened to or listened to it only once. I believe it is difficult to really appreciate music when you have a digital deluge of it.
Ted Gioia article on The Smart Set best makes this case, so I’ll leave it to you to check it out.
“The music industry was built on the passions of record collectors. The album wasn’t just a physical object, but a lifestyle accessory, almost a fetish and talisman. People didn’t just listen to their records, they displayed them as quasi-holy relics. The album cover might seem irrelevant — a baby swimming after a dollar bill, a painting of a big banana, or even a blank white slate with only tiny text (The Beatles) emblazoned on it. But to the owners, these served as supercharged personal emblems. The image could change, but the message stayed the same: This is my music. This is who I am.”
Ted Gioia – Why Music Ownership Matters – The Smart Set (https://thesmartset.com/why-music-ownership-matters/).