Michael Bergin discusses physical and streamed copies of music, and what the differences mean for listeners, artists, and the industry.
Rock and roll is dead, isn’t it?
Well obviously, you dinosaur. Add soul, old-school hip-hop, and jazz to the list while you’re at it. Especially jazz. We live in an age of instant musical gratification, and for many of us, we wouldn’t have it any other way. True, I may not enjoy the music that dominates the charts today, but I can still instantly access my own rock and roll music whenever I want to. I could even access jazz. Not that things will ever come to that. Why then, is there such an argument to be made by music ‘purists’ that streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer are evil incarnations of ‘the man’, intent on destroying creativity everywhere?
In simple terms, this means all the money collected from individual subscriptions is put into one big pot, and then dished out to the top artists. Ed Sheeran gets 2% of all streams for the month, so then Ed Sheeran gets 2% of all the money.
While the streaming revolution has benefited consumers enormously, some would argue streaming has not had the same impact for artists, stifling new and upcoming talent. Streaming services such as Spotify pay their artists by a so-called “pro-rata” model. In simple terms, this means all the money collected from individual subscriptions is put into one big pot, and then dished out to the top artists. Ed Sheeran gets 2% of all streams for the month, so then Ed Sheeran gets 2% of all the money. Surely, though, if I only stream The Strokes for the whole month, shouldn’t my monthly fee go to the Strokes? This is a “user-centric” model, which divides the money each person pays between the artists they spend their time listening to, and has been studied in-depth by Finnish experts. In 2018, they showed it is much fairer to those middle-of-the-pack artists who are much more in need of financial help. It also takes away some of the power from the top 1% of artists, leading to more diversity in music. However, when people forego streamed media, they can vote directly with their wallets for the artists they like, and don’t have to wait for the major streaming companies to change their royalty pay-out policies.
“Pro-rata” streaming policies are also frighteningly easy to take advantage of. In 2017, a major scam was unveiled in Bulgaria, whereby a playlist creator and a syndicate bought 1,000 subscriptions to a streaming platform where these accounts were then used to stream some of the creator’s playlists on a 24/7 basis, leading to an end-of-month pay-out of over £1 million. The whole episode exposed the undemocratic way that royalties are paid today. It seems that perhaps a “user-centric” model could hand some power back to the consumer, though, at the time of writing, this model is only seriously considered by a handful of the major streaming companies. Perhaps physical media is our only real way of having our say?
This aside, why do some people swear by vinyl records and CDs, technologies we have had access to for well over 30 years now? Many music purists argue streaming music and the prevalence of digital media is eroding the ‘authentic’ quality that you find on vinyl records or cassette tapes. Modern music mixing in the digital age can lead to a variety of issues, with an overabundance of technology causing problems that are simply impossible to create when dealing with physical media. When tracks are mixed on new digital technology, a process called ‘dynamic compression’ is used, which raises the volume of some instruments in relation to others. While in theory, this process would give a more balanced sound, in reality, its main impact has been to increase the average volume of music over time. With this increase in volume, issues with sound quality, caused by ‘dynamic compression’, have been noted for the first time. Thus, an innovative new way of mixing accidentally caused more problems than it solved.
Physical media, such as vinyl and cassette tapes preserved a much rawer sound. A lack of dynamic compression allows emphasis to be placed where the artist intended to. This created a much wider palette of sounds to be enjoyed. There is mounting evidence that streaming and the instant gratification culture that surrounds it has led to the death of the intro. With Spotify only paying royalties once a song has been streamed for more than 30 seconds, artists have resorted to inserting hooks and chorus lines into the first 30 seconds of their songs to entice listeners in. This has led the average intro time for a song to shrink from 20 seconds in the eighties to a mere 5 seconds today.
At the end of the day, there’s probably nothing we can do to stop the all-consuming march of streaming services. No matter how deeply music “purists” feel about vinyl, access to almost every song ever recorded for the same price as one vinyl album is a no-brainer.
At the end of the day, there’s probably nothing we can do to stop the all-consuming march of streaming services. No matter how deeply music “purists” feel about vinyl, access to almost every song ever recorded for the same price as one vinyl album is a no-brainer. We can’t turn back the clock, but perhaps we can use physical media to show the music we really care about. Like it or not, vinyl music and physical media will never be mere background music. The ritual of sitting down, picking out your favourite album, and taking in all it has to offer means that while we can always hear our streamed music, it is a special privilege to listen to our physical media.
Even if it is just jazz.