With nearly 62,000 sales in the UK last week, Taylor Swift’s new album ‘Red’ is topping the albums chart. It’s likely to do the same in the US tomorrow, with predictions that the album may crack the 1m mark for first-week sales.
Have you heard ‘Red’ yet? If so, it won’t have been on a streaming music service. The album has been withheld from Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody and their rivals, with fans encouraged to either buy the album as a CD, or digitally from Apple’s iTunes Store.
It’s the latest high-profile streaming holdout following Adele’s ’21’, Coldplay’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’ and the Black Keys’ ‘El Camino’, with no indication of when ‘Red’ might be available to stream legally in the UK or US.
This is becoming a trend, even if the Coldplay and Adele albums did eventually make their way to the streaming services. The trend should certainly worry the likes of Spotify and Deezer, but should it also worry bands, their labels and fans?
In Swift’s case, her label Big Machine Label Group has a problem with streaming. CEO Scott Borchetta made his views clear in a Billboard interview earlier this year: “I personally struggle with that model – I don’t think that it should be free,” he said.
“We just haven’t hit on the right model that works for us… If you’re a big battleship like Sony or Universal and have tens of thousands of masters, that income stream makes sense at a big corporation. It doesn’t make sense to a small record company.”
The debate is now familiar, but no less important for it. A number of artists and labels are worried about streaming music, because they make a lot less money from streaming services than they do from downloads and CD sales, and fear that the former will cannibalise the latter.
It isn’t just about big stars like Taylor Swift and Adele though. Spare time to read a blog post by Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, who made her views clear following a discussion with fans on Twitter and Facebook.
“Spotify in and of itself isn’t evil. It’s value as a promotional tool and a browsing resource is undeniable. However, the way people use it and similar services is screwing musicians (and comedians). It’s also screwing anyone who uses it to feed the weird addiction to massive quantities of music that a lot of people seem to have these days,” she wrote.
Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap. If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to.
Hunter also responded directly to some of the defences of streaming services, and compared the money a band like Lower Dens would make from streaming, digital downloads and physical sales.
Her band’s music IS available on streaming services due to a deal with label Ribbon Music, and Hunter posted a response from its boss Morgan Lebus which continued the debate:
“We prefer people listen to our catalogue on Spotify or the like where at least it’s monetized (however small) than the dark net. More than anything though we wish people would stop into their local record stores every once in a while and buy something.. Anything.”
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Or is it still way too early to tell one way or the other? Give yourself a pat on the back if you chose the third of those.
The problem with the streaming music debate is that it’s based on what Spotify, Deezer and the rest pay now, in 2012, and often as a direct comparison with the share an artist gets from a single sale of a download, digital album or CD.
Here, in a nutshell, is the main argument in favour of streaming: Comparing the amount an artist gets per-stream to per-download isn’t right, because they’ll get paid EVERY time a song is streamed, rather than just once when it’s bought.
Streaming still lags behind in 2012 – Hunter’s post notes that it would take 140 plays on Spotify to equal the artist/label payment for a single iTunes download – but it’s a scale thing.
As lots more people start streaming, so the money for bands will increase. And many more people might listen to their music, especially as people swap playlists to discover new bands and songs, or as they see what their Facebook friends have been listening to.
So, Hunter estimates that Lower Dens would make $2,500 (£1,556) if 5,000 people paying for Spotify play their album 20 times each, but that if 5,000 people bought that album digitally, the band would make $5,000 (£3,113), or $15,000 (£9,340) if they bought it as a CD.
This is true. But if 30,000 paying Spotify users streamed the album 20 times each (or if 15,000 streamed it 40 times each) it would match those CD sales.
In theory, it’s just a question of scale: how many people around the world will pay for a streaming music service, and how many people would enjoy listening to an artist’s music if they discovered it, whether it’s Lower Dens or Taylor Swift.
If the price of a streaming music subscription – usually $9.99 (£6.20) a month for web and mobile access – increases, that would change the calculations again.
“I’m hopeful a global community of paid streaming subscribers will usher in a new economy for music,” writes Morgan Lebus in his response on the Lower Dens blog. “Hopefully we’ll go from 2 million paid subscribers paying $9.99 p/month to 2 billion paid subscribers paying $19.99 p/month.”
Which brings us to the risk. If streaming music services in 2012 are lacking some of the biggest album releases or the best independent gems, will that put lots of people off paying for them – and if so, hamper the streaming companies’ ambitions to reach millions (or billions) more people by 2015 or 2020?
A recent piece of research into filesharing from American Assembly in the US claimed that 29 per cent of music fans under the age of 30 “listen to ‘most or all’ of their music via streaming services”, while 11 per cent have a paid subscription.
Which brings us back to Taylor Swift, who it’s fair to say has plenty of fans under 30. A decent chunk of them will want to stream ‘Red’ legally but can’t. Although it’s also true that a big chunk of her fans will be happy to buy from iTunes as her label prefers.
She won’t lose out, in the short-term. But if ‘Red’ becomes part of a snowballing trend for streaming holdouts, and thus makes it harder for the streaming services to sign up hundreds of millions more paying users in the coming years – or even to survive as businesses – she’ll lose out in the long-term. Everyone will.
That’s why, while recognising that every band has the right to decide how their music is distributed digitally – albeit with the understanding that whatever they decide, it’ll almost certainly be freely available through piracy sites – I think streaming holdouts are counter-productive.
But that’s also why I’m really glad to see people like Jana Hunter of Lower Dens getting involved in the debate, asking fans what they think, and making people think about how we’ll get music, and how our favourite musicians will make a living, a few years down the line.