I’ve been a Spotify subscriber for about 9 months now, and I view it as a really exciting and useful way to listen to new music. But some in the music industry view it more darkly – see for example comment articles by David Byrne and Thom Yorke. These two articles provoked a response from Dave Allen, who takes a different view.
Personally, I think there’s a fundamental problem with the discussion (though I think I tend towards Dave Allen’s view): that is that none of these articles really contain hard data on music purchasing within the Spotify subscribers (and indeed comparing those people with non-subscribers).
For my part, I’m of an age where my music listening and buying has seen several game changes. My first record was this:
And my first LP was Dark Side of the Moon:
But in those days, finding and buying music was very different. I spent loads of time browsing through the inky music papers (NME in my case), listening to friends’ LPs (and taping them), and above all frequenting dark record shops. Most of those record shops were bizarrely idiosyncratic in their owners’ attitudes (see this listing for examples!). My memories of those days are obviously coloured by rose-tinted spectacles, but the sense of community was great, along with pressures of poverty meaning that every music purchase was most definitely considered thoroughly. And not just in terms of the music itself – peer group issues were very definitely an issue! My affection for vinyl remains because my shelf of LPs, perhaps 5 feet of LPs, contains records firmly registered in my memory as markers of my life: I can recall the circumstances in which I bought virtually every one of them. I recently digitised the majority of them, and the process became the most astonishing memory trip. I suppose the affection I have for vinyl is obviously related to the the packaging, almost invariably superior to a CD package, but also relates to the need to look after, cherish, the object.
CDs became the medium for music (I ignore the cassette tape). Oh how wonderful it was to not have to worry about scratches, crackles and generally damaged product. But something was lost for me – buying records became a rather humdrum and unexciting business, and as internet ordering became the norm, I found myself less and less likely to actually visit record shops. I live in a town almost bereft of record shops now, and the overall effect was that my interest in, and purchase of, music reached an all time low.
A few years ago, a review of a device made by Logitech – the Squeezebox – in a Linux magazine piqued my interest. I’ve blogged before about this system, sadly discontinued by Logitech, though it lives on beyond the grave (see also other systems such as Sonos). I quickly began ripping my CDs to disk – running a music server on an old Ubuntu linux box, I made the initial false move of ripping to mp3. Recognising my mistake, I re-ripped to flac! Listening to music through my home network really revitalised my interest music. There were so many advantages in accessing albums without ferretting around shelves of CDs, searching for obscure tracks became so much easier and so forth. Over the years, my Squeezebox system grew. Now I operate a Squeezebox Touch, my original Squeezebox 3, two Squeezebox Radios, plus I use a software player on my MacBook Pro, and apps on iPads and Android devices. Along the way, I started using last.fm as a way of interacting with others, and trying to find new music. But still, accessing new music remained an issue, despite buying Mojo (for classic rock music and dead, decrepit and generally missing in action musicians) and The Wire (for my more avant-garde tastes).
Enter Spotify. Admittedly, I was a little late to the music streaming party but I’ve been enthusiastic ever since. I rapidly upgraded from the advert-laden free account to a paid Premium account, largely to enable listening on my iPad. I only interact with one friend on Spotify, but even that is enough to open my eyes to a wide variety of music I wouldn’t normally here. I frequently don’t like her suggestions, occasionally hate them, but quite frequently really enjoy her playlists. I also widely use Spotify to check out albums I’ve read reviews of.
So, in all this, what effect has Spotify had on my music listening? Well firstly, it’s enabled me to listen to music I’d ordinarily never hear. Secondly, it allows me to check stuff out before shelling out for it. I can use Spotify in conjunction with the Squeezebox to generate “Smart Playlists”, uncovering some hidden gems.
And guess what? I have greatly increased the numbers of albums I buy. This is an impact on the music biz that doesn’t seem to be considered in many commentary articles on music streaming services. Maybe I’m an outlier here, but the exposure to music leads to increased purchasing, at least in my case. And I blundered across a review of music listening/purchasing trends among ‘young’ people (with a foreword by Feargal Sharkey) which as I recall seemed to indicate an unexpected (to me) desire to own the music rather than merely have a download. Another important factor is that the young do have a lower disposable income, and I would expect them to use copying to increase their music collection – much as I and my fellow students did with cassette tapes back in the 1970s. I guess what I’m trying to suggest is that this whole issue of fair remuneration for artists is wholly unresolvable without a robust dataset. And, of course, we can add to the discussion the role of the music companies in all this.