Gently Down The Stream

I’ve talked a bit before about how I, and we as a whole, consume music. I grew up in the old days where you had to have some form of a physical collection if you didn’t want to be stuck with the radio. I’ve transitioned through a few different formats over the decades, from tapes to CD’s to digital and back to vinyl.

Now we are in the streaming age. While vinyl sales are still holding strong, there are some cracks in the wall. I wrote at length about my concerns a few weeks ago with where vinyl could be headed if something isn’t done to address the supply issue, among other concerns. The CD is still a semi-viable and cheap format, but it doesn’t do a lot that streaming doesn’t do.

And let’s face facts – streaming is by far the most convenient way to enjoy music. Pay roughly $10 a month and enjoy access to a service’s entire catalog of songs and albums? Yeah, there has never been a better deal in music. Sure, pirate downloading was fun and free I guess, but the RIAA’s heavy-handed lawsuits that would demand six figures from working-class people for downloading Appetite For Destruction weren’t so fun or cheap.

As an aside on streaming – yes, the audio is compressed and yes I’ve noticed the differences when comparing how things sound on Spotify compared to when I load a FLAC version of an album up that I own, but the vast majority of the music listening audience isn’t concerned about audio quality. The streaming services work just fine for the masses and they aren’t going anywhere.

Despite still being a physical format collector myself, I do use streaming. Spotify is the service I use. I pay for the normal premium version so I don’t have to listen to annoying ads. I had the student discount for a few years but I’m fine with the $9.99.

Honestly, Spotify is a wonderland for music. About 99% of what I look for is there. All I have to do is type in a name and boom, there’s a complete discography within reach. Some artists have 50 or more albums out – I do ok for myself but I don’t have the money for that kind of shit.

The big pro of Spotify, or any streaming service, is discovery. I’ve been able to explore new genres like indie rock or all the post-punk, post-metal or post-whatever stuff that I simply couldn’t get to with X amount of money to spend on records or CD’s. When I find an artist I really, really like, then I can shell out the cash on their physical releases.

For the listener, there are no real cons to streaming services. Sure, a service might delete an artists’ catalog in the case of “cancel culture,” but stuff like that is rare. I wasn’t queuing up R Kelly for my next playlist anyway so it’s no real skin off my back. And, without getting too much into it, I can type in plenty of nefarious names and find all their stuff still on the service. The companies aren’t on some moral crusade to rid their catalogs of anyone who has broke bad – rather they simply do what every company does and respond to the greatest outcries. Pretty common stuff in the 2020’s.

Of course the listener is only one part of the music chain. The artist is the one who makes the music and has to make a living on the music. And the streaming services are infamous for low payouts to artists. This article outlines how Spotify pays out to artists and a rough average of $3 to $5 dollars per 1,000 streams seems to be the going rate. That isn’t a truckload of money, especially for independent and underground artists who might be lucky to hit 10,000 streams on their most noteworthy songs.

Am I obliged as a more than casual music fan, to spend money on physical releases to truly support my favorite artists? Does me streaming a new band I’ve never heard of take money out of their pockets and hence food off their tables? I know music fans with this total diehard mindset, that “true fans” should support the artist as directly as possible.

I’ll say that I consider the stance admirable but misguided. Here’s a helpful lesson – the music artist has been getting ripped off since the dawn of the music industry. Read about Motown, read about payola, read about how album sales and money really work. Look up how much TLC got for being one of the most mega-successful groups of the ’90’s.

I get the argument that streaming services don’t provide artists the financial support they need, but nothing in the industry really ever has. Anyone who isn’t a supernova success won’t see windfalls, and even some of them will find themselves ripped off through shady label tactics, bad management, or greedy dope dealers.

I myself am just one person and I can’t counteract the financial sins of business by not using streaming. The service serves too many useful purposes in terms of discovery and also in not having to blow more money than I make just to find out if an artist is up my alley. I can enjoy more music and cover more, different stuff on here without having to go in debt to do it. If anything, I can use Spotify for the more “mainstream” stuff I like and give my money to the independent and underground acts that more desperately need it. I won’t say that’s the line I’ve taken just yet but it’s something that I’ve seen on the horizon as I go forward, and also as I round out grabbing those bigger releases I want in my collection.

There are alternatives to bigger streaming services, of course. Bandcamp is now relatively famous as a place for alternative or underground, even unsigned artist. Bandcamp gives artists and now labels a far greater degree of control on how their music is purchased and distributed, and as a result, lands more money in the artists’ pockets. Both digital and physical sales are supported on the site, and Bandcamp has even begun helping artists obtain small-run vinyl pressings to sell, a very tough thing to do for smaller artists in today’s supply shortage market.

I do use Bandcamp and at some future point I’ll start a semi-regular thing where I go over some of the lesser-known artists I’ve found through there. I don’t go hog wild on it but I don’t at all mind giving a band ten bucks or whatever for a good album or shelling out for a small-run vinyl pressing of something that really catches my attention. Bandcamp is helping keep the underground alive in the wake of the digital revolution that threatened to swallow everything whole.

As I go forward I’m sure I’ll remain a combination user of both streaming and physical releases. I don’t really wish to have the world’s largest collection or anything but I like having what I have. I do use the digital space to my benefit, though, in order to find more areas of music that I might not have access to through old-school means.

The face of music listening has changed a lot in 20 years and will probably change again in ways many of us can’t foresee as we sit here today. For the time being, streaming is here to stay and is the prime method for music consumption. It has its bad sides, but so does anything that is a business. For the fans? It really couldn’t be much better.

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