Tidal and the Elusive Promise of Streaming Music

Tidal and the Elusive Promise of Streaming Music by Maura Johnston for Pitchfork:

“And even now, Spotify, the company viewed as a streaming-music success, still has a long way to go before the tech world’s desired outcome of world domination; not only are its payouts low, but according to Billboard, Spotify has 60 million subscribers, with only 25% of them paying the $9.99 a month to bypass ads.”

In the last decade the music experience has fallen from premium (something for which many people paid a high price) to commodity. In the past the commodity of radio lacked any user control over what was consumed, and purchased albums provided the premium experience. Today, streaming services offer the user precise control either when paid for directly or subsidized by advertising.

That only a quarter of a Spotify’s audience are motivated to hop over the pay wall to avoid ads shows the scale of the music industry’s challenge; of those users who want new music, most of them are willing to suffer advertising (there is a portion of the music consuming market who are not represented in Billboard’s data, as they have relatively static catalog of content and don’t seek out much new music).

The unspoken proposition in what Spotify, Tidal, or any other streaming service offers is to charge for each time a given song is heard. The service of effortless consumption of any and all music created may hold an appeal for some users, but the continual nature of that cost is significantly different than the old days. Purchasing a whole album for a one-time cost involves a high degree of risk, as replay value is largely unknown; some albums become lifetime favorites while others quickly fall out of rotation. Today the user can explore unknown music and listen to their favorites for however long they’re willing to either continue paying for access or suffering advertising interruptions.

What the past decade of the business of music shows is the relatively low regard the average user has for the average song. There are pieces of music that truly captivate: Sketches of Spain. The Black Album. No Secrets. Rythym Nation. These works are impactful to a point where users want to repeatedly experience them. They also have the cohesion to be treated as a singular experience rather than simply a collection of pieces.

Perhaps then it is the invention of massive libraries, tapped into with a single button labeled ‘shuffle’, and the resulting change in listening behavior. Perhaps musicians now aim to produce infectious singles in the hopes of driving sales of albums or concert tickets. Perhaps the only thing the average user ever wanted beyond what the radio offered was control over exactly what they were going to hear.

Regardless of the ultimate cause or explanation, music as it exists today, where the experience is enjoyed three minutes at a time, is unlikely to regain a premium value in the minds of users.