Many have claimed that popular streaming services are suffocating the music industry from the inside out, with the increase in subscribers and decrease in physical album sales (vinyl’s, CDs, etc.) being the bane of musicians everywhere. These claims, however, could not be more incorrect.
While sales numbers have been cut in half from the US recording industry’s heyday in 2000, 2019’s first half reported $5.4 billion, an 18% increase from 2018 according to RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). If numbers continue like this, by 2023 the numbers will have eclipsed those almost 20 years ago. In addition to this, and to much surprise, vinyl sales are just shy of overcoming CD sales, falling only $23.8 million behind, or merely 10%. If this upward trend continues throughout the rest of the year, it would be the first time this has occurred since 1986.
So, with the music industry on a positive curve financially, what is the problem?
The concern arises in music exploration. While services like Spotify and Apple Music host millions of artists and bands, it actively promotes more popular artists, or more important to the industry, those groups that will garner more streams. Companies such as Spotify have been called out on this in the past, with the arguably most famous case pertaining to hip-hop artist Drake’s 2018 release, Scorpion, and Spotify’s first ever “artist takeover.” In this event, the artist’s face used on the album cover was inserted into any and all related playlists, including oddballs like “Fresh Gospel”, “Bachata” and “Best of British.” Oddly enough, Drake and his music do not correspond to any of these genre tags, or national identities. Most Apple users will remember when U2’s Songs of Innocence was inputted to all iTunes libraries, with no forewarning or consent. While not the same situations, they had common goals: to break streaming records.
Drake’s Scorpion was a questionable release to many, at a whopping 90-minute runtime, with 25 tracks to boot, people began questioning Spotify’s intentions regarding their “artist takeover.” The industry has realized at this point that this was a stunt to increase and functionally break streaming records. While more than 2 billion streams short of dethroning Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide), it called out both Spotify’s and Drake’s integrity. Since information being released that Drake paid Spotify to promote his new album, the internet was left frustrated and displeased with Spotify’s actions.
As an avid music listener, I use a service called Last.fm, which tracks the music I stream by track, and can report statistics around those, such as genre, time listened, and give me recommendations based on what I have listened to. When I opened Spotify today, I was greeted by playlists “RapCaviar,” “Hot Country,” and “mint,” playlists based around hip-hop, country and dance music respectively, at the top of the “Home” page. By using my Last.fm “Tag Timeline” chart, we can see the top five genres I listened to in the past week (Aug 30-Sept 5). Listed from most listened to least are these genre tags: black metal, progressive rock, mathcore, progressive metal, and death metal. While one may not exactly know what each of these genre tags means, anyone can pick up that I do not listen to hip-hop/rap, country or dance music.
So, why does Spotify recommend these playlists to me if I do not listen to these types of music? The answer is simple: that type of music is what’s popular, and unfortunately one metalhead cannot change that. However, this shows the disappointing truth of the music industry, and streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. These companies are a business, trying to make a profit as all businesses do. Therefore, they must promote what will sell, and explains why “Bad Bad Bad (ft. Lil Baby)” by Young Thug (an established hip-hop artist), with over 27 million streams on Spotify already, is the top song in “RapCaviar”, even though released almost 1 month ago. The music industry chooses to focus on what will make their profit back, and unfortunately, that is why music listeners are less likely to discover new music. Injury Reserve (a semi popular hip-hop trio with over 9 million Spotify streams on “Ttktv”), JPEGMAFIA (a semi-popular hip-hop artist with 10 million streams on “1539 N. Calvert”), and Code Orange (a growingly popular hardcore punk/metalcore band with a maximum of over 3 million Spotify streams on any track) released a collaborative track to only 91 thousand streams in the past 4 days.
With Spotify, Apple Music and other services only providing listeners with exactly what they want, in way of playlists, plastering an artists image for all to see, or not promoting certain artists due to content or listenability, it is difficult to determine whether or not to support such services as these. Paying $9.99 (or $4.99 for students) to listen to unlimited ad-free music on Spotify is a great deal, but there are many other services that offer similar if not better deals on their platforms, and with less promotion of ragingly popular groups. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are free services that harbor some ingenious music of bands and artists that cannot afford to put their music on Spotify or Apple Music, and Bandcamp, additionally, is ad-free.
While the digital age has provided many platforms for musicians to put their ideas out into the world, they are inadvertently squandered by services like Spotify and Apple Music that overpromote already established artists to generate more profit for themselves.