Some of us have only ever known a world occupied by technology, and see no novelty or excitement to its endless capabilities. The notion of being able to converse on FaceTime is inherent to us, while, for older generations, it seemingly isn’t far from basic witchcraft. Perhaps, the industry most affected by this digital transposition is music. Vinyl records, Cassettes and Compact Disks have been replaced with apps that cost as little as £5 per month. And while releasing recorded music used to be unattainable without industry investment, it can now be achieved with just a laptop and a fiver in your pocket. So, what does this mean for music?
In 1999, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning founded Napster, an app which allowed users to share MP3 files for free. In less than a year, Napster had around 20 million songs in circulation, and had record labels quaking in their boots, trying to pinpoint a song of theirs that hadn’t already been digitally shoplifted. 2000 was the first year that record sales dipped and this was entirely down to Napster (shut down in 2001), and while Sean Parker must have enjoyed his womanising depiction from Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, he has little involvement in music sharing nowadays.
Despite having a life shorter than a fly buzzing round a dog’s mouth, Napster was crucial to the change in music consumption. Five years ago, while studying an Extended Project on the effect that our musical modernism has had, I had the opportunity to speak to the CEO of the Ministry of Sound, Lohan Presencer, on the effect streaming services have had on his company. He quickly cited Napster as the stimulation for other companies to look for online, monetised music distributing methods, such as in 2006 when Daniel Ek launched Spotify, giving users wholesale music for the price of a coffee or two every month. While this is obviously highly beneficial at a consumer level, those on the other side of the transaction are given the shorter straw, and when others such as Apple Music and Tidal followed suit, a music ecosystem was solidified that was situated entirely online.
So, who has taken the biggest loss from streaming? Presencer described a modern music ecosystem in which three major record labels snatch up the majority of the profits from streaming, with independent labels and grass-roots music losing out massively. The Ministry of Sound struggled to fight the current, and this was certainly impetus for his decision to sell the MOS to Sony for £67 million in 2016. Streaming has also meant an influx of released music in the last fifteen years, which has driven royalties into the ground. If 100,000 people listen to your new song on Spotify, you earn around £400, which equates to £0.004 per play. If an album is 12 songs, lets round that up to a whopping £0.048 for someone listening to your entire treasured piece of work. What’s more, if you’re in a four-piece band, you’re only seeing a quarter of that; I don’t think anyone can argue that that doesn’t represent a truly deplorable re-imbursement on your artform.
The fact that most people can release their own music has created a homogenous music market so saturated that, for the most part, it lacks the originality and integrity of classic records that we have all fallen in love with. Gone are the days when a 6-minute, tongue-twisting rollercoaster of a piece such as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ from a then-unheard-of band like Queen would achieve success. Monotony is not something to be desired in something as beautiful as music and, even though this is just personal opinion, I can’t help but feel heartbroken by the fact that songs that took an hour to write and record are gliding effortlessly to the top of the charts.
In light of these issues, streaming has not gone without its protest. In 2014, Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify, in protest of its unfair treatment of artists, but was talked around by none other than Spotify’s Daniel Ek. The U.S. band Vulfpeck released an album that was 5 minutes of silence, and asked their fanbase to stream it before they went to sleep, making 20,000$ in the process. While this was a clever checkmate, it only put a very small dent in the streaming ecosystem – a dent which was hastily and unnoticeably rectified.
So how do we resolve the fact that music has lost value since we all started staring at screens? Well this is a puzzle that, to my knowledge, is yet to be figured out. Five years ago, during our interview, Lohan Presencer mentioned a system of ‘Proportional Representation’. That is to say, if Drake amasses 30% of all streaming revenue one month, 30% of the profits should go to him. This idea of streaming compensation that is more focused on the artist rather than artist representation certainly seems to be fair on face value. However, the fact that little has changed suggests that there are limitations to this method and, for now, the industry will simply have to adapt to this new form of consuming content. To avoid closing this article on a morbid note, it should be remembered that there is still plenty of money in music for those who are talented and entrepreneurial, so not all is lost.