Is streaming killing the music industry?

A young music fan gives his opinion.

Current issuesTech and the online world
By Parent Zone ·

Luke (not his real name)

Young author

Has streaming ‘ruined’ how we listen to music?

I listened to Spotify for about 59,000 minutes in 2019. That’s nearly 41 days - or 11% of my entire year. If streaming is killing the music industry, then maybe I’m part of the problem!

There’s no escaping the fact that services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Amazon Music pay their artists absolute peanuts. Even the Taylor Swifts of the world barely make anything from their millions of plays.

It’s difficult to find data about this – but at the last count, Spotify gives artists as little as $0.00331 per stream. So according to American figures, that means you need 248 streams before you can afford a litre of milk – 792 to buy a loaf of bread. (No dough jokes, please).

And to make things worse, I’m a musician myself. I’ve never tried to turn it into a career, or even hosted songs on a streaming service, but I consider myself passionate about music and believe strongly that people should be able to make an honest living from their art. Before COVID, I was the kind of guy who’d drop a few quid into the busker’s hat, even if I thought he was rubbish, or stick around after a gig to buy merch.

Trouble is, streaming is just the way most people consume music now. If you believe the memes and Tumblr posts, ‘there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism’. Unless you run away from society and live in the woods, you can’t avoid hurting someone. And it’s not as if the old days of CD sales were much good for musicians, either. A lucky few made millions, but big labels still siphoned off a huge percentage of the profits. Even when personal computers made it possible to burn your own CDs, you still needed a distributor if you wanted to reach more than a handful of people.

There’s also an argument that – beyond the transactions – streaming is ‘good’ for independent artists because it’s relatively cheap and easy to upload an EP and make it accessible to a potentially huge audience. Having money and connections still helps – but you don’t need them to get your music out there. I for one have discovered hundreds of smaller artists thanks to Spotify – and I’m far more likely to see them live now. Or at least I will be once lockdown is over.

What about us as consumers? Has streaming ‘ruined’ how we listen to music? I have no sympathy for this argument whatsoever. Sure, streaming encourages breadth over depth. But I’d rather explore thousands of artists and genres than know a few inside out. I’m happy to see metalheads and hip-hop purists replaced by a generation of relativists – and weird sub-genres such as country rap and vaporwave gaining unexpected popularity thanks to surprise exposure online. The rivalry between mods and rockers, or even emos and chavs, seems archaic in the 2020s.

If you’re unsure about streaming and the effect it might be having on the music industry, here’s some advice from a fellow worrier:

  • Support the music you love beyond just streaming it. If you can afford it, buy the vinyl, order a t-shirt. Musicians make more from merchandise than album sales anyway – and have done for decades. If you’re strapped for cash, telling a friend about a band can help too. When lockdown is over, gigs will become crucial for artists again as well. So keep an eye out for tours...
  • Investigate services that give artists more control – such as Bandcamp – or that offer alternative funding models, for instance Patreon and other crowd-funding platforms.
  • Write your own song – and learn how hard (or not) it is to make money first hand!