Over the past few years, streaming has been a wildly popular phenomenon and something more: a transformative one. The way we experience art shapes it in our minds and hearts. Staging, framing, production values, and delivery technologies are not incidental to drama, music, and other entertainments; they are integral to the works as we process them. Yet a great deal of the discussion about streaming has been centered on the economic inequity of Spotify, the Swedish-developed streaming service imported to America four years ago, and the competitors that have followed it, particularly the Apple Music app introduced this June.
The money story in the streaming explosion is certainly unnerving. The mid-year report by the Next Big Sound, a music analytics company, showed that there were some 1.03 trillion music streams during the first six months of 2015, through Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, SoundCloud, Vevo, Vimeo, and other sources. The same report, like many accounts of streaming, is vague about the revenue being shared with the composers, performers, and producers of the music.
At a symposium on copyright and the arts at the Columbia University Law School in 2014, the president of the Songwriters Association of Canada, Eddie Schwartz, provided some unsettling data on streaming. By Schwartz’s calculations, the writer of a song that sold a million records (in the form of CDs, vinyl albums, cassettes, or some other physical medium) in the year 2000 would have earned approximately $45,000 if he or she received 50 percent of the song’s revenue—“middle-class economic status,” in Schwatz’s words. By comparison, a songwriter who had a composition streamed a million times today would make about $35—enough, Schwartz said, for “a pretty good pizza—maybe an extra-large with a couple toppings.”
However troubling, the failings of the streaming pay structure aren’t the only aspect of the phenomenon worth thinking about. To receive recorded music on demand, without a price tag on the song or album, and to experience it without ownership of anything other than membership in the vast and ever-growing club of streaming enthusiasts—with nothing to hold or keep or collect—is to listen to recordings in a manner that is, if not new in every sense, considerably different from the way people were engaged with recorded music in the past.
I have subscribed to Spotify since the week it was introduced in the United States in July 2011, and I signed up for Apple Music on the day it began. I still purchase a great deal of music—at least one or two albums per week, usually as downloads but sometimes on CD, when the music is available only in that format. I still buy 45-rpm singles and 78s on occasion, because I have both a 45 jukebox and a wind-up Victrola in my home. But I use Spotify on and off all day, almost every day. I feel horribly guilty for doing so, knowing that songwriters and other music creators are being inadequately remunerated for my use of their work. (I write songs myself and, as a member of ASCAP, receive a modest payment of royalties on a quarterly basis.) But I crank the sound up loud enough to drown out my conscience, and console myself with the delusion that my commitment to purchasing CDs and vinyl, in small numbers, somehow compensates for my gluttonous consumption of streaming music for next to nothing.