The evolution of music streaming from Napster in 1999 to what it’s become today is nothing short of extraordinary. Starting as P2P sharing, it shifted to digital downloads in 2004. Radio apps appeared around the same time. By 2008 we saw the launch of streaming apps, and they themselves are morphing towards listener curated services. In 2018, streaming supplanted CD as the world’s largest music format.
The benefit of music streaming is much debated. Search engines will find as many credible articles celebrating streaming as there are bemoaning it. Physical formats, for a long time the bread and butter of the music industry, have plummeted in terms of overall market share. Industry revenue plummeted as a result.
Perhaps the biggest cultural change accompanying the shift to digital has been that of accessibility. Music listening was formerly limited by physical presence and money. The listener needed to be within proximity to a listening device, be that a playback system or radio. Conscious decisions were made about where to be and what device to acquire, before one could tune in. Further, money was involved. If you weren’t prepared to buy a cassette, record, etcetera, along with a stereo, or at least acquire a radio, you were a music outsider.
With streaming, essentially everyone can become a music patron. With cell phones now a life essential in 2018, the whole population already has all they need to listen whenever they want. From the creator’s point of view, this is revolutionary. It could be very difficult to get a hearing in days gone by, and even then it was limited by geography. Hope you get a gig, and hope people come out. Now, from the outset, the musician can upload their music for anyone to hear, worldwide. It opens all kinds of new possibilities in who might hear you and how you might gain a following.
But there are some corresponding downsides to this ubiquity of access. The volume of music at ones’ fingertips is staggering. The new creator is no more than a needle in a haystack. Are the chances of being discovered better or worse?
And now we come to my biggest beef. The watering-down phenomenon occurring with indiscriminate uploads also manifests within the listening audience. Previously, popularity of a song or artist was largely determined by those to whom music meant the most. Charts reflected preferences and decisions of trained ears. It was people who paid with their hard-earned dollars that shaped careers and awards. This pool of invested listeners is diluted by masses of musical illiterates who employ artistic works as mere soundscapes that play vainly in the background of their lives. They are entertained by soundbites and novelty, but gain a voice in attributing value to whatever catches their fancy. It seems to me that if real talent, creativity and hard work is seen and understood best by a paying audience, then we have lowbrow voters choosing tomorrow’s stars.Unfortunate.