According to Digital Music News, the RIAA just announced that "streaming made up the largest component of the total U.S music industry revenue in 2015." And that's a first. Streaming barely edged out digital downloads in this news, with the former topping the pie chart at 34.3%, and the latter at 34.0. Physical sales were 28.8% with synch at 2.9%. This sounds like great news for the record industry as well as sites like Spotify.
Before you break out the champagne, you need to think about Coke for a second. I am going back to my portfolio school days when we were required to read The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, a book which still holds up. One of those laws was about cannibalizing your business, which is precisely what Coke did when it introduced Diet Coke. They'd hoped to increase the market share among non-soda drinkers, but the reality was that people who drank Coke switched to Diet Coke.
The same can be said for streaming. People stopped buying physical albums and streamed instead. So while the flashy PR headline makes it sound like a home run for streaming, it really isn't. One side's growing while the other is still in decline. And while it sounds amazing that streaming is "saving" the music industry, it's important to look beyond the headlines.
We already mentioned Taylor Swift as being one of a growing army of artists who are not putting their albums on streaming sites, and benefitting from higher sales and higher chart positions in the process. Same with Adele. While on the flip side, Kanye West's decision to keep to a Tidal only release of his new album The Life of Pablo cost him ten million in sales thanks to piracy.
But Kanye's allegiance notwithstanding, it seems the big name artists are withholding their albums from Spotify because the free-tier doesn't pay them much. This explains why Gwen Stefani's new album is nowhere near Spotify but is happily on Apple Music and other services.
Gwen has an in-depth interview covering a wide range of topics over on Linkedin and it is here that she touches upon this subject in detail. She seems to ramble a bit in this quote and is a bit hesitant to commit fully but if you look beyond the "like," and stuff, you see her true meaning.
“With the current state of music so much beautiful amazing stuff is coming out of it and yeah it sucks that we’re in a place where, you know, the value of what you do is less now, but if you’re really honest about music, are you really doing it to make money? How can you put money value to music, I mean of course, like, part of me is going to stand there and be like going 'pay me the money, like, I made the music, this is my job, this is my gift, I need to get some kind of compensation, because I have to live.' For me, when i’m making that music i’m making it to express myself and save myself.”
So on one hand the RIAA is touting unprecedented aspect of streaming bringing in tons of money, more than ever, for "the music industry." But on the other, you have major artists withholding their music from Spotify. So which is it? Is it the usual record labels getting the lion's share while the artists get nothing? Or is it more like Spotify is the true culprit here in not paying artists either due to its free tier devaluing the music, or withholding money due to artists it didn't bother to license properly? Or is it a bit of both?
One does have to wonder why, if streaming is such a cash cow, a lot of big name artists are shunning it. But that alone should be a red flag. Streaming isn't the savior of the music industry any more than it is the end of the music industry.It falls somewhere in between. Or perhaps its case specific, which in some ways is even worse, because it means some artists do better than others. And that was not the utopian ideal we were promised.
Like the old Facebook relationship status we used to giggle about, big numbers or not, when it comes to musicians streaming their music, it's complicated.