The Future of Music Consumption

27/06/2014

Music streaming could be described as “an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will.”  While this definition could easily come from Wikipedia in 2014, it actually comes from the 1888 science fiction novel 'Looking Backward' by Edward Bellamy.  While the dream is over a century old, however, the reality of on-demand streaming music has been with us for a relatively short time.  Starting with YouTube and Pandora's 2005 launch, the music streaming industry has grown up fast since the debut of Spotify in 2011.

In the past, recorded music was either played on radio or purchased on solid media such as records, tapes, and CDs.  This paradigm has shifted greatly since the turn of the century, however, thanks mostly to the unprecedented growth of the Internet.  MP3 players and online downloads came first, with legal distribution services and illegal downloads both making a huge impact on the sale of traditional music media.   In recent years, the landscape has shifted again towards streaming services, as the new model of consumption questions the very notion of music ownership.

According to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2013 report, sales of single MP3 downloads declined 6 percent from 2012, while streaming activity increased by 32 percent.  The sale of physical music media also declined 12.3 percent over the same period according to figures from The Recording Industry Association of America, leaving no doubt that streaming services, unlike all other means of music distribution, are on their way up.  While CDs, MP3s, and even vinyl still enjoy healthy markets and certainly won't disappear, streaming platforms are most definitely taking over.

Along with initiators Pandora and industry leaders Spotify, streaming services by Deezer, Google Play, and Apple are also in operation around the world.  In addition to these popular subscription-led services, websites like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp also stream media through open embeddable platforms.  While streaming music has been an option for years now, the accelerated popularity of these services is being attributed to more widespread hardware integration.  The popularity of smartphones, smart TVs, and Internet-connected stereo systems has made it easy for anyone to access streamed music, both at home and away.

While streaming services offer unprecedented variety and freedom to music consumers, and counter some of the financial damage done to record labels by illegal downloads, questions are being asked about the implications for artists.  A number of high profile musicians have decided not to join Spotify, including AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.  Other artists who joined the party late after initial complaints include Bob Dylan, Metallica, and Pink Floyd, with Radiohead pulling their new release from Spotify almost as a protest.  While musicians are increasingly suspicious of the money changing hands between streaming services and record labels, however, these services will surely grow as consumers demand the same unlimited access to music predicted by Edward Bellamy over a century ago.