The music landscape is changing. With a rise in streaming responsible for the eclipse of digital sales over physical ones in industry revenue last year, a power shift is occurring; one which is empowering artists and leaving labels dwindling.
Last year Mozart sold more CDs than Drake and Beyoncé. Admittedly, Mozart 225 comprised a 200 CD compilation of Wolfie’s greatest works, all of which were individually counted. That said, for £400, it was slightly more than your average album purchase. And regardless, the question as to why Views and Lemonade, the two biggest albums by the two most influential music artists of last year, failed to sell more hard copies than Mozart 225, remains. It was not that they undersold, but more that they were representative of the modern-day album release. More people are now using digital platforms (streaming and downloads) than they are purchasing physical copies (vinyl, CDs and tapes) to access music. Ever since the inception of Napster and iTunes in 2003, the music industry has been digitalising, but given the recent figures in which streaming accounts for 19 per cent of total revenue generated by music sales, combined with the 26 per cent share that digital downloads occupy, almost half of total music revenue is now extracted via digital formats, compared to 39 per cent in physical sales. These figures from last year confirm that, unprecedentedly, 2016 hosted the eclipse of the digital over the physical.
The age of the compact disc is well and truly over; the age of the digital has arrived. But why has this occurred and what does it mean for listeners, artists and the general musical climate alike?
Placing streaming in its wider context lends to an understanding of its emergence. Simply put, it’s another example of how smartphone technology has revolutionised the execution of a service to meet an increasingly demanding market. Convenience. How can I make an already existing service or product more convenient? That’s exactly the question the founders of recent app success stories: Deliveroo, Tinder and Uber asked and answered – quite comprehensively. We’ve always eaten, dated (or whatever else you use Tinder for) and ridden taxis. The service is not original, the process of its execution is. Likewise, streaming is another development initiated by the adoption of smartphone technology. So for listeners, it’s simple. What you have now, quite literally at your fingertips, is access to an extensive catalogue of music – of all genres and types; past and present. You’ve never had it so good.
Streaming has also ignited a corporate battle between companies for exclusive rights to music. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade were exclusively released on Tidal whilst Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Drake’s Views were available only for Apple listeners – all in an effort to woo you music listeners into subscribing to their respective channels. The small consequence being multiple subscriptions of course. But listen, do not be that person who complains they have to pay £30 a month in order to keep up with all current releases. Exercise some perspective, remember in the old days when you had to get out of bed in the morning and pay the full £10 for an album if it was still on the shelf? Rip off.
This corporate battle has even infiltrated certain artist relations. Recently, the politics of Apple’s relationship with Tidal fueled an ongoing dispute between Jay Z and Kanye West. It would not be unfounded to view corporations as the current power holders in the industry.
Conversely, streaming has liberated the independent artist, to the extent that any need of label-backing has diminished. Take Chance the Rapper. Fiercely independent and wondrously creative, the Chicago-born rapper is the poster boy of the modern artist, using the power of the internet to fuel his rise to the grammy-nominated artist he now is. UK rapper Skepta, after receiving the Mercury Prize last year stated “This is real. I’m not signed. This is independent.” For all artists, streaming platforms have emerged as an extremely resourceful marketing tool, for little or no cost. The “similar artists” feature on each website has been revolutionary for connecting music lovers to new artists. This further highlights the clear power shift that has occurred in the music industry. Streaming companies have in effect, become the modern label, and in many cases less restrictive than their rents. On the contrary, there has been controversy surrounding artists’ play-to-pay ratio, particularly in streaming’s infancy. Taylor Swift and Coldplay both famously removed their material from Spotify a few years ago in protest, whilst Pharell’s “Happy” generated a mere US $2,700 in songwriter royalties from 43 million streams on Pandora. In the same industry report, Bandier calculated that there was a meek $60 turnover for artists from 1 million streams. However, it must be said that with the establishment of Apple Music and more recently, Tidal, a more regulated system has evolved through competition alone.
The spike in vinyl sales amidst the digital eclipse show that, in light of rising streaming numbers, a reversion to the traditional has somewhat occurred. 2014 saw vinyl sales reach their highest levels since 1996, and that growth has steadily continued in the following years. But any claim that this is enough to counter the impact of streaming, is subverted by statistics. That said, I don’t see vinyl sales dropping anytime soon, they have become a collectable.
So we exist in the digital age. Mozart will most likely continue to sell more CDs than today’s artists, so long as smartphone technology is around. A power shift has occurred in the industry: the label’s position has been weakened as the artist’s and corporation’s power has been elevated. Listener’s now have access to an almost unlimited amount of music, for a relatively unprecedented low cost. With physical sales diminishing and streaming revenues growing by a percentile per year since 2014, physical formats show no sign of recovering anytime soon, and who knows, within a generation, the very concept of a record shop could be but a distant memory.