It felt a bit like deja vu. Reading over Wednesday’s main music news headlines from the US and UK—we streamed a lot! More than ever! Also, people keep buying more vinyl!—I had the distinct sense that we’d been here before. The start of each year brings with it the usual blend of slow news cycle and annual stat dump. In the UK, the latter took the form of figures released by the BPI showing that in 2017 the majority of music was listened to on streaming services (50.4 percent, to be exact) for the first time ever, and that overall we consumed a higher volume of albums than the year before. In the US, music tracker Nielsen also reported an increase in how much music we all played, stating that “Overall consumption of albums, songs and audio on-demand streaming grew 12.5 percent year over year. A 59 percent increase in on-demand audio streams offset track and album sales declines.”
Now, that all sounds like progress. Since first CD burning and then the internet and illegal downloads showed up, the recording industry has been scrambling to keep up with how our listening habits have changed. Specifically, how those habits have worked to undermine the profits that labels can make from music. Statistics like this, which paint a positive picture of the direction in which music consumption is moving, work well to counter the narrative that record labels are losing their grip on the music business. After all, even how we understand units of music—songs grouped onto albums, which we then buy, which maybe also entice us to see that act play live, which then might inspire us to buy expensive limited edition re-issues—has been totally shaped by the recording industry. Though streaming services have eroded the dominance of the album by unpacking that classic recording unit into its individual parts to be plugged into the AUX cord on their own, we still centre so much of our enjoyment of the art form of music on playing back recordings of it.
But there’s another story being told by these figures, from both the BPI (the people behind the Official Charts Company, who basically know everything about what non-underground music we consume in Britain) and Nielsen Music (the people who know everything you listen to the in the US). Streaming more means owning less. That sounds obvious and dumb, but really sit on that idea for a second. The more music we stream, the less we own ourselves. And when we don’t own the music we say we love, we kick open the door to engaging with music in ways we may not have considered for a couple of generations.
I know I’m getting borderline ‘wake up sheeple!!’ here, but the music business growing in the direction of making access to music dependent on tech companies—the Spotifys, Apples, Deezers of the world—takes the agency out of our hands anew. Obviously, the manufacturers of CD and vinyl once held that monopoly, as did the companies who made the CD and record players we’d use to play our music back. With that setup, you’d get a physical product to hold, pull out at parties, stack up, watch gather dust on a shelf and so on. But the brands that made CD players or whatever didn’t insert themselves in as many other parts of our lives then. Playing a tape on a JVC device was just that—JVC wasn’t also a company putting on festivals or offering artists money to exclusively release their music or producing podcasts in the same way that tech companies are now. I mean damn, the labels have had to shift in their seats to allow those companies a seat at the industry table, all in a matter of years.
Listening to more music while quietly scaling back on a music collection may not be that big of a deal for most people, but I’ve realised it matters to me. For a time, it seemed as though we would build huge digital libraries, with messy tags and sometimes no artwork and versions of songs that cut off right towards the end or carry over the sound of a CD skipping. But now we know that people aren’t buying music online. Digital downloads are down again (by 23.4 percent in the UK), because honestly who is still hoarding individual tracks or whole albums on iTunes or Amazon?
Dragging and dropping tracks into playlists on Spotify is clean and slick—and always has the right artwork—but it’s weird to know that ultimately that music isn’t yours. It’s yours until Spotify gets bought up or goes under or one day decides to change its terms. Relying on streams makes you what Variety dubbed a "drive-by consumer' late last year, in a piece on how Amazon announced they’d be dissolving their cloud music locker in 2019. They don’t want you to own music either, it turns out. The question is whether that bothers you, or whether you’re happy to step into a new era where music is less about a recording played on a personal device and more about the club, the front of the gig, the digital radio DJ’s intro before a mix. By ushering in streams with open arms, the recording industry's main players may end up inadvertently inspiring us to see beyond their position of dominance. They may end up helping us remember that music isn't primarily designed to be a recording on which a price tag is slapped. And when that happens, who knows what the annual stats recap may look like.
You can find Tshepo wondering if her boxes of hundreds of CDs are still OK, on Twitter.