How the Business of Streaming Music Will Change Culture…For the Better

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Forget, for the moment, about how much Spotify pays out to artists.

Focus instead on the nature of those payouts.

In the olden days (i.e. 20 years ago), recording artists had to convince you to fall for their music once — just long enough to buy a CD. Since the inception of pop music as a physical format, this need to impress the music buyer for a short length of time gave record labels a big incentive to look for one-hit-wonders capable of moving product quickly. (It also meant I used to walk home with lots of terrible music I never listened to again.) Granted, labels often put considerable effort into grooming those artists for a full career, because it’s easier to sell music when fans already like the people making it. But each time music was released, the purchases only had to happen once.

The rise of the iPod and iTunes made it harder for labels to pack long-playing albums with subpar “filler” tracks. It also made it easier for music fans to fall for a hit single for the low price of 99 cents, arguably exacerbating the tendency of artists to impress a fan for only long enough for them to click “buy.”

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That landscape is changing.

Recorded music and the formats that deliver it have always influenced each other profoundly. Pop songs tend to be three minutes long because five decades ago, that’s how much music fit on one side of a vinyl single. The compact disc is said to be 74 minutes long to handle longer operas and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. MTV made recording artists get more adventurous haircuts. The list goes on.

As more of us switch to streaming our tunes from online services with millions of tracks (Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, MOG, iHeartRadio, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.), music’s format is set to have another impact on content and culture — especially as today’s younger music fans, who know music as an online thing, grow up and start having less time to track down music for free than they do money to spend on subscriptions.

Some would say this is happening just in time. Neil Young claims digital music sounds bad, while none other than Gene Simmons of Kiss and Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe think pop music is rotten to the core. They are far from the only ones lamenting that hits are crafted in laboratories for an audience that data shows changes the channel after seven seconds unless a hook grabs their ear. Even hardcore indie music fans who read Pitchfork discard yesterday’s buzz bands faster than a bath salts addict… nevermind.

What matters here is that the same digital technologies derided by music purists contains the solution to what might be called music’s “quality problem.” It’s no longer enough to convince fans to buy a disc once; instead, artists and labels have to turn them into lifelong fans. The Beatles succeeded in doing that for generations. It eluded Milli Vanilli, another erstwhile chart-topper.

It is perhaps the height of irony. “Aren’t those the same services that rip off artists by paying a fraction of a cent per play as opposed to doling out 70 cents per song purchase the way iTunes does,” you might ask, “or paying even more per disc, the way those disappearing record stores do?”

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Yes. This new phase of music consumption — represented by services that let you listen for free, or for $5, or $10 per month, or customizable internet radio stations that also pay out on a per-song, per-listener basis — is just what music fans who are sick of one-hit wonders and flashy pop hits need. By paying out only when people actually listen instead of suckering fans into buying something only to leave it on the shelf, Spotify, MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, and other on-demand unlimited music services build an incentive into the music business to create works of lasting value.

When I mentioned this idea at a SXSW panel I moderated in March, panelists including MOG CEO David Hyman and creator Billy Chasen agreed that while we may not have seen this effect in action yet, it is real. The economics are there for an emphasis on long-lasting quality in music — perhaps even a return to the “golden age” when labels used to spend years or decades developing an artist instead of releasing whatever they think will sell that week.

A rational way for music-makers to respond to these new economics is not by complaining or withholding their music from these services and therefore the future, but by making stuff we might want to play for the rest of our lives. For anyone who loves music, that should come as welcome news.

“The sales cycle of [a] record is anywhere from four to 12 weeks in most typical cases,” Spotify CEO Daniek Ek told, echoing that sentiment. “With Spotify, we keep seeing the effect up to 25, 35 [weeks], or even a year… And every time someone plays a song, we pay the music industry.”

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Sales of recorded music have declined precipitously in the past ten years. There’s truth to the idea that the money is falling out of music — and with it, the capacity of artists to take a year off from touring to craft an album with a highly-paid producer. But in the battle over what money there is left, only those artists who convince lots of people to listen to their music over long periods of time — the way the Beatles did — will come out ahead.

So the next time a curmudgeon, Luddite, or lamenter of those-goddamn-kids-today complains about the sorry state of music, please, tell them to calm down. Music is a business. And now, for perhaps the first time ever, its economics favor long-term quality over a flashy first impression.

Eliot Van Buskirk is the editor of, the world’s first publication for music fans that’s dedicated to music apps. An award-winning columnist, Van Buskirk has covered digital music since 1997 for CNET, Wired, and now; is the author of two books for McGraw-Hill; and can be heard regularly on NPR and other outlets.