Tech & Science

Streaming Is Killing Great Music in Favor of Familiar Formulas

In the Magazine
A wax figure of British singer Adele is unveiled during a photo call at Madame Tussaud's in central London on July 3, 2013. The rise in streaming music favors those musicians with a palatable, predictable sound—a trend that would reward musicians who play music that adheres to a formula, rather than those who adopt an iconoclastic style, or take longer than a few albums to gain commercial success. Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty

Technology is making sure that from now on we get a boatload of Adeles but never again the likes of David Bowie. 

Did you see Straight Outta Compton? Nothing like N.W.A is going to happen in any foreseeable future either. We’re looking at another decade of music that’s about as culturally significant as a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

This is the opposite of what was promised at the dawn of the Web. Digital media was supposed to blow open the music industry, making it possible for any intrepid fringe artist to assemble songs on a laptop for next to nothing and find an audience somewhere out on the bony end of the long tail. We were going to be awash in creativity.

Instead, the technology has altered layer upon layer of music’s economics in a way that wildly favors safe mainstream acts while kicking the daring outliers to the curb. Music in the streaming era is a winner-take-most affair—like almost all tech businesses now. So those with the widest appeal—Adele, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran—get rich and keep working, while those who challenge music’s boundaries find it almost impossible to sustain enough attention over enough time to pull listeners their way.

The two biggest music headlines so far this year underline the trends. The first is that Adele, as if performing a miracle before unbelievers, kept her new album, 25, off streaming services and sold a whopping 7.5 million whole-album downloads and CDs in two months. The second was Bowie’s death and the outpouring of mourning for a kind of artist and icon that now seems lost for good.

“Adele is selling a huge amount to soccer moms, but is it having an impact on the culture? Not really,” says Andy Gershon, who among other things manages OK Go. “Artists like David Bowie can’t get the momentum to have a career like David Bowie.”

“Some of the greats take time to develop,” Jeffrey Evans of Buskin Records says. “REM took four albums. The labels don’t have the patience for four albums anymore. We’re missing whatever talent would’ve been incredible if it had the time.”

Let’s be clear about how music markets have changed. Adele’s stand against streaming is kind of like a horse owner in 1915 shaking her fist at the rising number of cars on the road. Streaming has won. Nielsen Music reported that streaming doubled over the past year, from 165 billion songs to 317 billion songs. Digital downloads fell by 12.5 percent. CD sales continued their long decline. Significantly, a whole generation that has grown up since Napster has never or rarely paid for music, and it’s not likely to start.

Streaming brings with it some traits that are new to music. One is bounty. All music is available all the time, which actually favors music that sounds instantly familiar and gratifying. If a song on a streaming service doesn’t thrill you, it’s too easy to skip it and move on. Most listeners aren’t motivated to put in the work to get to like something different.

Streaming also breaks a linkage, forged by money, between artist and listener. In the old days, once you paid for an album, you had more motivation to listen to it all the way through multiple times. You felt a need to try to get to know it, even if at first the music sounded a little crazy. “Now that I use Spotify, I realized something rather distressing: I can’t remember the names of most of the bands I’ve listened to over the past couple of years,” wrote industry pundit John Battelle in a recent post on Medium. “For me, the most important signal of value is an exchange [of money for music]. Streaming has abolished that signal, and I’m feeling rather lost as a result.”

The dynamic makes it hard for a “different” artist to build and keep a fan base that will stay loyal—and keep the artist afloat—as he or she experiments and challenges popular music. So the more unusual the music, the less likely it will get any traction.

Streaming plays into vanilla-ization in other ways. Streaming generates data. Record labels and artists know exactly what’s selling to whom. Data is great at revealing what people know they want, so if labels and artists make decisions based on such data, they will give us more of what we already like. Data is terrible at showing what people don’t yet know they’ll want. Data would’ve suggested that pioneers like Sly Stone or Nirvana should’ve never released a single song.

Now that streaming has made it more difficult for artists who aren’t Adele or Beyonc é to make a living, brands see an opening to step in and sponsor musicians. Jesse Kirshbaum, CEO of Nue music agency, calls sponsorship one of the big trends in music for 2016, and points out that brands will use data to find music that will help sell product. Of course, if you’re selling product, you don’t want to be associated with music that’s going to annoy anyone. Brands are not going to line up to fund Obnox or Stara Rzeka.

As music industry folks also point out, the notion that streaming forces artists to make a living playing live has its problems too. Now that so many acts need to play live as often as they can, the competition is intense to get onstage anywhere. With a surfeit of acts to choose from, promoters will hire the ones that will bring in the most people—generally, acts that are more mainstream or, like Billy Joel or Rod Stewart, have a proven if arthritic fan base.

True artists make music regardless of whether the money is there, but insiders like Evans and Gershon see the beginnings of a brain drain. No one will ever know how many artists give up and go back to software coding because the hurdles to success and the economics in music are worse than at any time since Elvis turned a postwar generation into avid record buyers.

All of this adds up to one powerful trend in music—a trend most of us already sense. Music is getting less diverse, less interesting and less forceful as an instrument of cultural change. And since we’re in the early days of streaming, that trend is only going to continue on its path for years to come.

Bowie saw this earlier than most. In 2002, he told an interviewer: “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.”

Goodbye, David Bowie. Hello, boatload of Adeles.

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