This Is Art – The effect of streaming services on the music industry

By Jack Rechsteiner, managing editor

How do you listen to music today? Probably Spotify or Bandcamp or Google Music or YouTube.

Gone are the days of listening to physical copies of music. Sure, some musical diehards (myself included) still purchase vinyl or cassettes to hold onto, but the majority of people only listen to music on digital formats. They don’t even make cars or laptops with CD players anymore. So the question on the mind of many musical artists is, what impact are streaming services having on the careers of aspiring musicians?

“You do make money from it, but just not as much as you would make back in the day when people bought physical albums. There is a market of people who still buy physical albums, such as people who really want to support the artist or people who like vinyl, but the majority of plays these days definitely come from streams,” says Josh Cowdrey, guitarist and vocalist for Detroit band You Rest You Joy Life.

On one hand, streaming is better than having Lars Ulrich yelling about Napster (if anyone remembers that court case about music torrenting in 2000.) That’s a lesser-of-two-evils answer, but it shows an industry shift that is hopefully moving in a better direction for the future.

“I see the good and bad on both sides. I think for younger bands it can be good as there’s now a market for everything, even the weirdest stuff. With the touch of a button you can find some random band who made a self-recorded EP in a basement in China. There’s also no pressure to make ‘mainstream accessible’ music because of this,” says Cowdrey.

In the context of how people listen to music today, I don’t think the industry could survive without streaming. Anytime I buy a physical copy of music, it’s usually after I’ve listened to it online. Even though I love having physical copies of my music, I listen to all my music digitally and I can think of very few ways that digitize music as effectively and successfully as streaming services.

“Back in the day the only route to get exposure was to sign to a label and then you were at their mercy. This is not the case anymore. Take Chance the Rapper for example, who is now a three-time Grammy-winning artist that has produced all his music independently and released his latest album on Spotify,” says Cowdrey.

Streaming has helped many small bands get their names out to people who may not have listened to it otherwise, but it makes significantly less money for the artists than if people were purchasing the music for a few dollars. This makes it a lot harder for musicians to pay for recording and touring. Because of the accessibility of streaming, it has given artists more exposure without people having to worry about paying for a copy of the album, so there’s good and bad.

“There is a reason a lot of artists have held out on streaming for a long time or still refuse to do it. The main way to get paid as a musician is through touring and merchandise, as well as licensing and syncing,” says Cowdrey.

If I still had to buy music to listen to it for the first time, there would be an uncountable amount of bands that I love that I would have never heard of otherwise. It’s a terrible thing that music is getting bought less and less, but it gives more people an opportunity to discover smaller artists and then come to watch you perform. It’s a form of give and take, which is now seeing the music industry push toward generating more money from show experiences and merchandise that isn’t CDs.

It’s now easier than ever to earn a living wage with music, due to social media and streaming, but it is harder to get beyond that point. Streaming is a double-edged sword for the music industry, but until the industry makes a shift toward supporting artists the pros are going to evenly outweigh the cons.

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