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Each One, Teach One | A look at streaming’s impact over the past decade

Streaming has changed the music industry forever. Here’s a look at some things we have learned from it, as we approach 2020.

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As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.

The way media is consumed by audiences has been changing for over a century now. Specifically in the year 2019, it seems obvious to note streaming has absolutely changed the music industry. But, as we enter a new decade, the impact of streaming cannot be overstated and we must be keeping close attention to how it is steering the future of the industry.

In layman’s terms, streaming essentially gives the subscriber or listener access to a music or media library without having to pay for full ownership to consume and enjoy the intellectual property. Ultimately, streaming has infiltrated much deeper than the surface of simply changing the landscape of media delivery and access. Its dominance has impacted nearly every facet of both the business and the artform. And, of course, it also greatly impacts and dictates who is being paid and how much.

To provide both a brief overview and a couple of very long sentences, here is a timeline of what brought us to where we are today. American culture has been shaped by the mass production and distribution of media technology throughout the past 100 years, beginning with radios becoming a popular fixture in the homes of citizens across the country in the 1920s. From there, the story went from muzak (To save you a Google, this is basically “elevator music” or light background music soundtracking public spaces in the 1930s) to TV (first released commercially in 1938) to streaming text (closed captioning in the 1980s) to the evolution of the personal computer (technically developing from as early as 1801 with massive innovations paving the way to present day, such as advances being made to the use of graphics and music in 1993 and WiFi’s advent in 1999) to internet radio (Pandora, 2000) to the introduction of Napster (June 1999 to July 2001) iTunes (2003, now defunct) to YouTube (2005) to the leading streaming music platforms of today (Bandcamp, 2007; Spotify, 2008; TIDAL, 2014; Apple Music, 2015).

Now, in 2019, the final year of the 2010s decade, on-demand streaming makes up 80 percent of the music industry’s revenue. According to research conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America, revenue made from streaming services (both via paid and ad-supported streams) in the United States has grown by 26 percent in the first six months of the year. For every book being published focusing on learning the tricks and the trade of the “new music business,” there is an increasing number of companion reads being released, as well, that focus entirely on streaming’s impact — for better and for worse. As exemplified by the dedicated work of journalists such as Liz Pelly, Mat Dryhurst and Cherie Hu — to name a few — the streaming model is not without flaws, nor is it proving to be the only piece of the puzzle for experiencing longevity and success in the contemporary music industry.

We have seen countless examples of streaming platforms launching the careers of the next generation of celebrated household names; whether through vitality, exposure, marketing, playlisting or perhaps a consistent combination of all of the above. However, we have also began to analyze and better understand the ways that streaming is not a perfect solution to fixing many of the problems brought to light by piracy, the rise and fall of Napster, and other areas continuing to shape the digital music revolution.

While many are beginning to transition their focus on analyzing the larger picture such as looking at the business, economic and sociopolitical impact of today’s music infrastructure, there seems to be limited alternatives available outside of leaning into streaming and embracing the rampant usage of social media. In 2017, for example, streaming music revenues surpassed income from the sale of traditional formats for the very first time, further showcasing how the industry has monumentally shifted throughout the past ten years.

With the decade’s end fast approaching, it will be nothing short of interesting than to watch where the refinement of streaming technology will take us next. Let’s take a look at some key takeaways noting how streaming has changed the industry, as well as some lessons to keep in mind for fans, consumers and artists alike.

Streaming lowered the barrier to entry for artists looking to forge a path in the music industry.

Anyone can become an artist or nurture their artistry through streaming, regardless of whether or not they have the assistance or backing of traditional business models, such as through the record label system. Streaming has become embraced (even if begrudgingly so) by a wide spectrum of legacy, popular and emerging artists; changing the entry point for unsigned artists to join the pool of those who are signed to a label.

Drake was named Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the decade with Ed Sheeran, Post Malone, Ariana Grande and Eminem following suit. Artists such as Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Prince, Tool and Taylor Swift can be considered disrupters of the leading streaming service model, as exemplified by exclusivity deals with artist-owned, subscription-only service TIDAL, the decision to pull or withhold music from streaming services entirely or via the general critiques noting how these giant corporate platforms treat and compensate those they directly profit from the most.

Regardless, it is relatively user-friendly to start an artist account on the streaming platform of your choice and begin the process of distributing your music for others to easily access and begin listening to.

There is no shortage of platforms for streaming purposes, and an argument can be made to join more than one, if not all of them.

One downside of the streaming landscape, as many can attest, is that there are so many options to choose from. They all range in popularity, design, price and features; making it up to the user to develop and determine their own preferences. To name a few streaming services shaping the industry, we have Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Amazon Music Unlimited, Beatport (now Beatport Link), Bandcamp, Deezer, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM, SoundCloud, TIDAL, TuneIn and YouTube. A handful have been integrated into other platforms (such as iTunes Radio becoming a part of Apple Music) or have been shut down. RIP last.fm. RIP thesixtyone. RIP the entire blog era. RIP iTunes. By the time you finish reading this, there may even be the announcement of yet another streaming service being launched or calling it quits before year’s end. It’s a lot to keep up with.

Know your percentages, read your contracts and pay attention to your data.

This is a lesson that many artists are learning on a daily basis. It is of the utmost important to know exactly how each individual platform works, especially when it comes to understanding the payment percentages. Spoiler alert, they are not high numbers. We are talking fractions of pennies here, but as we have seen exemplified by thousands of success stories, numbers do add up. Depending on the specifics of a contractual agreement for signed artists, the percentage is further broken down by the label and other parties.

Additionally, it is best to pay attention to listening data, such as for being able to target one’s marketing efforts and put on a live show in the city with the most dedicated fanbase, to name a couple examples. Curiously enough, but not all too surprising, Rolling Stone has reported that artists relations impact streaming revenue on Spotify, but the company has kept its statements on the matter to an intentional minimum.

According to a report from Digital Music News, below is the average payout per-stream and how many streams are required to earn U.S. minimum monthly wage ($1,472).

Average 2019 Stream Rates:

Apple Music

Average pay: .00735 per stream

Streams needed to earn U.S. minimum monthly wage: 200,272

Spotify

Average pay: .00437 per stream

Streams needed to earn U.S. minimum monthly wage: 336,842

YouTube

Average pay: .00069 per stream

Streams needed to earn U.S. minimum monthly wage: 2,133,333

TIDAL

Average pay: .01250 per stream

Streams needed to earn U.S. minimum monthly wage: 177,604

Streaming is changing how music itself is made.

Streaming is changing how music itself is made. This has resulted in the decline of narrative albums, the increasing tendency of creating songs that are shorter in length and larger in quantity, and the commodification of genre.

Playlisting has arguably taken away from the art of the carefully constructed album narrative, resulting in many artists choosing to redefine their approach and release music on a per-single basis instead. Many conversations have also centered on the topic of genre commodification, noting how some artists are choosing to create music that “seamlessly fit” into different popular playlist categories (such as those sorted by mood, feeling or listening intention) by design and help perpetuate the concept of fluid listening. In other words, music that you can listen to for hours and hours without interruption. There also has been the introduction of artists tweaking their songs post-release (see: Kanye West’s Life of Pablo or ‘Ye and Drake’s Scorpion), which raises multiple questions about authenticity.

The “playlist effect” is a complex phenomenon worth studying.

Playlisting has resulted in a phenomenon known as “the playlist effect.” In other words, being included on a prominently featured playlist can yield success to relatively unknown artists due to its subscription count. For example, Spotify has more than two billion playlists created by its users, but the ones tactfully curated by its staff (such as New Music Friday, Rap Caviar or Pop Rising) can help immensely with commercial visibility, financial return and the romanticized act of artist discovery.

Statistics have shown that being included on a playlist sponsored by Spotify can generate an increase of plays of 50-100%. Playlisting has become an integral component of music distribution strategy and this likely will remain a focus heading into the next chapter of streaming.

After the game changed, the rules eventually did too.

At the top of 2019, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN sold 823 traditional album sales and was still able to top the charts, with the project going on to become the rapper’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. This was made possible entirely due to streaming, further showcasing how much the industry has changed in this respect. For perspective, Kreayshawn’s major label debut, 2012’s Somethin’ ‘Bout Kreay, sold 3,502 copies and was deemed a definitive commercial flop, despite the project including her breakout hit “Gucci Gucci.” She remained transparent about the situation on social media, posting a screenshot showcasing how she made a penny off royalties from the whole release. Sidebar, why does this feel like a lifetime ago?

Anyhow, in 2016, the RIAA first took account of audio and visual streaming numbers in addition to traditional sales, when certifying the commercial success of music. The modernization also led the Grammys to change their rules in 2017, allowing for streaming-only albums to become eligible to win. Soon thereafter, Chance the Rapper made history in this respect with Coloring Book by taking home the gramophone for Best Rap Album.

To put it simply, since the RIAA changed its rules, a lot of history has been made on the charts thanks to streaming, with new records being set and consistently broken again and again.

Touring, ticket sales and merchandise remain the best way to directly support an artist you care about.

As pointed out by the band While She Sleeps, band merchandise is the most direct way of supporting an artist in the streaming era. The group created a shirt with the following design: “One T-shirt is the equivalent to 5000 streams on Spotify. 76% of all music in 2019 is streamed and not bought physically or digitally. Band merchandise is the most direct way of supporting an artist.”

Additionally, vinyl is reportedly on its way to outselling CDs for the first time since 1986. So, that’s another interesting trend to pay attention to.

With more money comes more problems including the fake artist.

Technology can be a blessing and a curse, and this applies to things specifically impacting streaming services such as algorithms, AI and even the advent of the fake artist problem.

While Spotify initially declined to comment on the matter, it was reported by Music Business Worldwide that the company had been encouraging (and paying) producers to make music under pseudonyms intended for release on Spotify exclusively. The artists in questions have millions of streams (i.e. are making the company money), but seem to only exist on the platform and not on outside social media, striking many as questionable. The tracks by these mysterious artists were included on genre-based playlists. But, the artists themselves couldn’t be found on SoundCloud, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Thus, it appears as though evidence points to Spotify having a fake artist problem, and it hasn’t necessarily gone away even if it has faded out of the spotlight. More recently, Tim Ingham, the founder of Music Business Worldwide, provided Rolling Stone with an updated investigation into the matter, explaining how many of the “fake” artists were signed to Epidemic Sound, a Swedish “production music” house.

Will we be seeing more “fake” artists taking up valuable playlisting spots in the future? What about more AI-created music? Is it time to log off and stick to vinyl? Ultimately, the future of streaming services poses a lot of questions that only time can tell. Just like we’ll be listening, we’ll be watching, too.

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