I have been listening to rock music since I was an early teen. Back then, my access to rock music was via vinyl, cassette and 8-track mainly. This access was limited by one thing – money. In order to get access to the music, you had to pay for it! And that meant that you had to budget for the music you wanted to buy. Of course, there were ways of circumventing this limitation and expanding the amount of music you could listen to.
Pirated records was the main avenue – whether it was by purchasing pirated records (which were cheaper) or getting a friend to reproduce the record of your choice on cassette. If you were desperate enough, you could even try to record songs off the radio onto cassettes. Money was the problem and ways and means were devised to ensure that you would get maximum bang for your buck, so to speak.
This paradigm shifted with the development of digital music & the mp3. No longer did you need to purchase vinyl or cassette (8-track had gone the way of the dinosaur already) but mp3s allowed a music fan to listen to music on the computer or dedicated mp3 players. In 1999, with the arrival of Napster — a pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing Internet service that emphasised sharing audio mp3 files — the door was opened that led to a seismic shift in how music could be listened to, which signalled the end of the music industry that had enjoyed commercial success for decades (especially with the introduction of Compact Disc technology).
Imagine pirated music on a scale never before imaginable – the music industry basically crashed with sales dropping year to year at an alarming rate. This decline was partially arrested when Apple entered into the music industry with iTunes – initially resisted by the record labels and still rather reluctantly embraced.
In the decade following the launch of Napster, both MusicNet and Pandora were established in an attempt to monetise the new ways in which technology allowed fans to consume music. However, the main hinderance was that music piracy had ruined audiences to such an extent that fans were no longer willing to pay for digital music.
This is where Spotify and the concept of freemium took hold – allowing its members to have unlimited access to its music streaming catalogue for free but with advertising. Premium membership, of course, dispensed with the advertising for a monthly fee. This has caught on with fans with other services sprouting soon after (Rdio and Deezer). However, labels and artists remained less than enthused as the revenues were relatively modest compared to the heyday of the compact disc. Other streaming services like Tidal and Apple Music soon appeared as well – with a firm commitment to paid services although the jury is well and truly out on whether fans are willing to pay for music streaming.
Whichever way the streaming wars pan out and even if ultimately, the majority of fans are convinced to pay ten bucks a month – the future of the music industry will be in the hands of the streaming companies and not the record labels. It is hard to imagine consumers wanting to return to physical copies — even if vinyl has gone through a revival of sorts.
And what does that mean for bands and artists? Well, forget about music ever providing the golden ticket anymore (not that it truly did before but that’s another story) — the sheer size of the catalogue at these streaming services means that the competition is immense. Why would anyone listen to my music when they can access some of the best music ever made in the last 50 – 60 years?!? There is no longer the budgetary concerns anymore. As a music fan myself, I can spend hours at a streaming service listening to virtually all the 70s progressive rock or say, all the 90s UK techno (or whatever else) that has been recorded.
It’s not impossible to carve a niche for oneself as a recording artist but that’s all it will ever be – a niche. Which means that expectations need to be toned down and a means to have time and money to write and record music become a premium. If this is not the attitude of young musicians, then they will be in for a rude shock.
So wake up. Technology now allows us recording artists to make music cheaply, but that also applies to everyone else and — in addition — access to recorded music has been at its highest level ever in the history of music. This present reality is what bands & artists need to assimilate and exploit in order to continue to have music making a satisfying proposition.