In the past decade, streaming services have entered the music scene with a vengeance. In this week’s opinion Point/Counterpoint, writers Zach Scruggs and Sam Zelin try to answer the question of whether the emergence of music streaming has been a net positive or a net negative.
Zach Scruggs, Contributor: Streaming has turned the music industry into a story of haves and have-nots. For the biggest artists and labels, it’s a huge new source of revenue. But for the vast majority of creators, it’s made making a living as an independent musician impossible.
The process through which streaming revenue is distributed is frankly unfair and it ignores how users actually listen. In the so-called “Pro Rata” model, all revenue is pooled and then distributed to artists based on their listening numbers. This means that users don’t individually support their favorite artists when they stream them. Before streaming, when listening to music meant buying a physical release, it was easier for independent musicians to make a living from recording revenue. Now, more and more musicians rely on touring as their main source of income, something which is much more demanding and not a stable market. The COVID-19 pandemic also revealed how a touring-centric model can easily fail and leave many musicians without their main source of income.
Sam Zelin, Managing Editor: When I think about the benefits of streaming, accessibility immediately comes to mind. I remember a time when if I wanted unlimited access to a song, I’d have to pay 99 cents or even $1.29 each on iTunes. Prior to that, some kind of physical recording was necessary — along with the equipment required to actually play said recording. The ability to pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited access to a vast catalog of music is something a person from even 20 years ago could have only dreamed of.
When it comes to the artist’s side, the accessibility of streaming is a big plus too — According to Statista, Spotify alone reported 489 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter of 2022. This means that by putting one’s music on Spotify, a feat much simpler and cheaper than producing physical copies of music, a musician can make their work available to all those people without anyone having to leave the house.
Zach: It’s true that recorded music is more accessible than ever now, and I greatly enjoy that. But I wouldn’t underestimate the accessibility of music in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Radio, MTV and print music journalism were much bigger then than they are today. Nothing rivals the ability to play any song whenever you like, but it’s wrong to think previous generations didn’t listen to as much music as we do.
Also, don’t ignore the importance of physical media. As music is put on streaming services, it loses quality and its ability to be preserved. Physical releases of music sound better and you actually own the music, rather than just paying for a service to listen to it. Spotify has removed plenty of my favorite albums, but thankfully I own them physically so I have access to a high quality version of them.
Sam: While all of the points made in your first paragraphs are valid, I think the concerns raised are not necessarily with music streaming itself. If independent musicians are struggling to support themselves on streaming revenue alone, changes absolutely need to be made to the pay structure. If Spotify can deliver Spotify Wrapped at the end of every year, the company clearly keeps a close eye on the statistics of each listener. With this data, it could seemingly allocate revenue based on what each paid subscriber listens to instead of using the Pro Rata model. This would hurt the bottom line of the top artists on each streaming service, and give more money to independent artists. The reason this doesn’t happen isn’t because of streaming, but because the music industry has been creating systems that hurt the little guy since way before streaming was even a concept. Just look at the current issue with vinyl pressing plants, where large labels often take priority over independent artists, leading to long wait times.
In short, the music industry is designed to benefit the biggest names, no matter what medium is in question. This is a classic case of ‘don’t hate the (web) player, hate the game.’