Streams – Will they become rivers or just dry up?

I thought it was about time I did a post about streaming services. As I have put countless Spotify links on here over the months and have a tab (^up there) full of Spotify playlists, I think it’s about time I shared my thoughts on the whole music streaming debate.

I am going to gloss over the whole digital vs physical issue here as this is hugely subjective. One person may go to great lengths to get a particular piece of vinyl (eg. queueing up outside their favourite indie record store for tomorrow’s Record Store Day), another may have no interest in collecting vast amounts of plastic discs that they have to find room for and is perfectly happy listening to all their music off their laptop/smart phone/ipod regardless of quality.

I should also set my stall out up front and say that I only really have experience with Spotify, there are other streaming services out there, we7, Grooveshark, Last.fm etc. and I’m sure they all have their pros and cons but here I am going to concentrate on Spotify’s model.

Being a bit of an early adopter I signed up to the free service sometime in early 2009, initially concerned about the fact that I would have to put up with adverts in between the songs (the main reason I don’t listen to commercial radio) but as there was no ability to listen offline at the time this meant it was a simple choice of adverts for free or no adverts for £9.99 a month, a bit of a no brainer I felt at the time and, in the early days at least, they only cropped up maybe once or twice in the length of a whole album and I could quite happily live with them for the benefits I could see, ie. almost any album you could think of there, to listen to, in total not snippets, for free!

So for the consumer it seemed a win win situation, but what about the artists, the people who put their time, effort, love and soul into the music I was greedily lapping up like a parched dog? Although Spotify themselves keep their cards pretty close to their chest with regards to what artists get for a play of one of their songs, it seems that for one play of a track the artist will receive £0.0012 (source), meaning to earn the average price of one CD they would need a track played 8,325 times! I think it’s pretty safe to assume that nobody’s going to be appearing on MTV Cribs due to their streaming royalties!

But, and it’s quite a big but, there are a lot of people out there that think it is perfectly ok to download an artist’s entire back catalogue for free just because it’s there and they somehow “deserve” it, and if these streaming services mean that a percentage of these people decide they would rather do it legally, isn’t that a good thing? I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to download a leaked copy of an album to hear it early before anyone else as long as you plan to buy a physical, or legal digital copy, but downloading vast amounts of music because you have a slightly twisted view that somehow you shouldn’t have to pay for an artist’s work, and let’s not forget it is work for a lot of these bands, sure they’re doing it because they enjoy it (the days of getting into serious music to earn a fortune is long gone I think) but they would also like to see a monetary return for their efforts. You’ve only got to look at the problems Her Name Is Calla have had on their current European tour where due to big transport issues most of their earnings for the tour will be swallowed up on logistics meaning they’ve travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles, played loads of shows, had to take time off (I’m assuming some of them will have jobs as well) and will have very little to show for it except increased tinnitus! Of course, it also hopefully means they have garnered a lot of new fans who will go on to buy their output, but no doubt a least a few of these will download it illegally if they can. If these people can listen to The Quiet Lamb or The Heritage on Spotify and then maybe buy a physical copy or a t-shirt or whatever, even if the band will only get a tiny percentage from the stream itself, isn’t that better?

Before anyone accuses me of being all holier than thou, I will readily admit that before these streaming systems existed I had a Soulseek account and downloaded my fair share of music illegally, but in all honesty during this period my physical music purchases went through the roof as I tended to use it as a “try before you buy” service and I also never felt a digital copy had the same worth as the physical (back to that again!). Which is why I have never bought more than a handful of tunes from iTunes or similar, the only digital music I get in any amount is from emusic and that is only because I am on an old tariff that allows me to get albums very cheaply.

The genie is out of the bottle, major record companies suing individual users is not going to get it back in. They need to think more creatively and services like Spotify are, in my opinion, a good start. It’s not perfect, not everything is on there, and on various occasions I have seen tracks, albums and entire artists disappearing. It also relies on a decent percentage of listeners to sign up to one of their premium services otherwise it’s just an unsustainable business. On that subject, I signed up to their recent “Unlimited” service about 12 months ago for £4.99 a month, this means I get no adverts and no listening restrictions but I cannot listen offline. This has become the best fiver a month ever, no ads and their vast catalogue for less than the price of a pizza a month!

However, they have just announced some changes to their free service (more here) where they are restricting it to ten hours a month and they will cap individual songs, meaning after five plays of a track it will become greyed out and permanently unplayable. They are clearly trying to push people into signing up to one of their paid services but I think they risk alienating more people than they encourage but I guess we’ll see how they go. Personally I hope they survive as I would be lost without it at the moment, more than fifty percent of new 2011 albums I’ve heard this year have been via Spotify and long may it continue!

What are everyone’s thoughts on the matter?

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  1. #1 by Kuz on April 16, 2011 - 11:31 am

    Spotify definitely stopped me downloading illegally when I signed up in early 2009. It’s a fantastic product and the ads are pretty unobtrusive really. It has an excellent selection of heavy music, particularly European bands. I still have the original unlimited free account which is no longer available. I’m not sure if this is included in the new restrictions. Given Spotify’s cashflow problems, I am seriously considering taking up one of the (very reasonably priced) paid accounts as I would hate for it to disappear.

    Streaming services are definitely here to stay. I have hundreds of CDs but I haven’t listened to any of them for about 3 years beyond the initial rip to my computer and digital music player. I often Spotify albums I own because I can’t be arsed looking for them! While I would never ditch my physical albums, I do like the convenience of the digital product even if I do lament the effect it has had on my listening behaviour.

    • #2 by Rich on April 16, 2011 - 2:58 pm

      From the Spotify blog; “As of May 1st, any user who signed up to the free service on or before November 1st 2010 will be able to play each track for free up to a total of 5 times. Users who signed up after the beginning of November will see these changes applied 6 months after the time they set up their Spotify account.”
      So it looks like you may be affected as well. I signed up for the £4.99 ‘unlimited’ account as the ads were annoying me, their frequency seemed to have increased and I kept hearing the same ad over and over again (I never want to hear the British Gas ad again!).

      I still play my physical CDs (especially as I bought a nice new player this year!), less than before, but I only tend to listen to stuff I don’t have or playlists on spotify. The quality’s ok but the gaps between tracks annoy me on albums where tracks should flow into each other.

  2. #3 by cineleeds on April 18, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    It will be interesting to see how Spotify integrates with the host of cloud music services that are starting to spring up. An obvious one would be – once a song had been played 5 times and greyed out – a ‘purchase and store in the cloud’ option to effectively re-enable it.

    I too often listen to albums that I own on Spotify, just because I have it running (and I’m an ITunes hater).

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