In the second part of his essay about the current age of music streaming and the implications of this regime, Tobi Müller wonders how the music itself might have changed. How did it all become so personal? What did we lose along the way? And what might the future hold?
Read Part 1 of the essay here.
For about ten years, streaming platforms have had a stranglehold on what’s what in pop – and what isn’t. Whichever artist they put in their most popular playlists immediately reaches an audience of millions. On Spotify and Youtube, everyone can see how many times a song has been played: fully transparent market research; the tracker never disappears.
Six years ago, and thanks to streaming, the music industry managed to stop the market’s free-fall that began with the appearance of illegal file-sharing sites at the beginning of the millennium. Since then, the trend has been pointing upward, even if only few profit from this development. Among those who certainly do are the few remaining superstars whose rise was already dependent on the unequal conditions of streaming: everything gets sifted off – and by – the top; the rest go empty-handed.
Such as Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish. The former became famous at the outset of the 2010s, the latter even more at the decade’s end. Using them as examples, one can approach the question: how has streaming changed music? The answers are seductively plausible – at a first glance.
One should remember that Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish are two completely different pop stars. At the opening of the last decade, Del Rey styled herself as a reckless bad girl singing about equally bad, today we’d say toxic, boys. Her retro pop provided a view of a broken white America seen through the veil of the kind of camera filter you found on the first smartphones. In her music, she yearned for a time without electronic surveillance. Ten years ago, wearing short jeans and a halfway unbuttoned white blouse, she said in an interview [with the author, for German music magazine Spex – the editors] that you couldn’t even rob a bank anymore because of all the monitoring by cameras and satellites, and batted her fake eyelashes.
In contrast, Eilish conquered the scene in clothes so loose she seemed to inhabit rather than wear them. She was the first female diva in the history of pop to hide her body, until March of this year when she posed for Vogue in lingerie, a few months ahead of the release of her second album Happier Than Ever. She is the mindful, highly talented teenager that, like every other teenager, has a bad time of it every once in a while, and she isn’t afraid to talk about psychological problems. She is a digital native for whom the internet is a place that makes you more sensitive; whereas Del Rey, who was supposedly discovered on Youtube, would much rather climb into an old Ford and bid the internet the kind of goodbye for which viewer discretion is advised.
In spite of the differences in self-stylization – the dark romantic vamp vs. the sensitive snow flake – the two have something in common: they are stars of the first decade in the age of streaming, and that you can hear: both of them usually sing with a sleepy look on their face, their eyes half closed; most of the time, they hold the microphone close to their lips so you can hear their breathing, the tongue, the flesh of their gums. It’s music that creates acoustic intimacy between star and listener, between god and human, with the higher being breathing their spirit straight into your ears. It’s pop for earphones, streaming’s preferred listening device.
You could argue, then, that the music of Del Rey and Eilish incorporates a trace of the dominant distribution technology of our day. Does this mean that streaming has indeed changed music?
The hypothesis that intimate, melancholic voices are the product of Spotify and their like is supported by the triumphant rise of cloud rap and trap. These genres, the dominant ones in hip hop for (also) about the past ten years, are not carried by screaming but gently sliding voices, frequently in a minor key, and processed using unctuous auto-tune software. Many rappers perfected the art of barely opening their mouths while speaking, singing, and rapping – as did Billie Eilish.
And the Swiss cloud rapper Pronto, whose mixed local accent (of Ghanaian descent, he grew up in Solothurn) emphasizes inscrutability: “Sie wei aui Fame…”: they all want fame, success, Pronto raps on “Priceless,” and it sounds like “Sweiaufei.” Even young people apparently struggle to understand him, which is the reason Pronto made a pretty lyrics video to read along to – if you can read that quickly.
Spotify and other streaming services ushered in the epoch of mumbling and murmuring, of ostensibly intimate ways of speaking and singing, which are most powerful over headphones. This sound of closeness also accords with the principle of personalization perfected by streaming platforms: music turned into a good that better suits your personal taste. The soft, breathy, and cushy voices maintain the illusion that the singer or rapper is performing for you only.
Having said that, pop has always fed off the tension between the feeling of being personally addressed and being part of a mass audience: I’m telling you, only you, but also millions of others. And neither are gentle, weak voices an invention of the age of streaming. The microphone, a crucial device in the history of pop, made it possible that music no longer belongs only to the strong and hard-working but also to the outsiders, to emaciated and bespectacled people like Buddy Holly and the Black singer Billie Holiday, who found herself marginalized in multiple ways.
Pop, in its essence, never was about powerful voices, virtuosity, and absolute control. These are the categories of classical music genres and their (in)voluntary parodies in talent shows. Strong voices certainly are important in all forms of hard rock, but hard rock is also only a popularized form of opera: people in funny costumes, big hairdos, and a whole lotta screaming.
Streaming, then, did not invent the more intimate, even vulnerable voices characteristic of pop, but it tipped the scale further in that direction. Scale and scalability are the holy words of digitalization. They mean that an offer, a phenomenon, or a company can grow a lot faster than was possible in the old, pre-digital economic order. Digital copies and their distribution know almost no bounds, unlike the production of a physical object and its logistics. As part of the digital revolution, streaming led to extreme scalability. Put simply, we listen to a lot more music ever since it became as cheap as it is and was available everywhere.
Here are two numbers illustrating the new scale: approximately one billion people worldwide stream music; the track “Priceless” by Swiss rapper Pronto just breached the ten-million mark on Spotify . Thirty years ago, a giant success would have meant that Pronto would sell one hundred times fewer physical singles than that – for a modest success a thousand times fewer copies, that is, 10.000. The comparison isn’t completely fitting because a physical single would have been listened to more than once, but it shows how growth functions in the digital sphere, particularly when the number of people streaming music is as large. The cushy, cuddly, softie voices aren’t new; there simply are a lot more of them around.
One direct consequence of streaming, goes the argument proffered by a number of writers at the New York Times, is the popularity of new styles created specifically for the platforms. Artists unknown outside of Spotify can reach up to millions of streams in one of the platform’s mood-based playlists – usually a list with the word “chill” in the title. Joe Coscarelli of the New York Times christened this genre “Spotifycore” because its part melancholic, part uplifting, and never disturbing music sounds as if it grew straight out of the core of the platform’s business model. It’s music to be breezed through and to keep you from leaving the platform. The musicians one could group under the label “Spotifycore” are as changeable as the playlists in which they appear, and from which they disappear as quickly. Such genres basically are formatted radio, muzak for shopping, pop as wallpaper. But this also isn’t exactly new.
In addition to the voices and the whitewashing of genres, there is a third and last argument for the way streaming changed music: each song has to leave its mark within the first 30, even the first seven, seconds because that’s the extent of a listener’s attention span on a streaming platform. For this phenomenon, the fast song intros, there now is a term hinting at the connection to technology: streambait pop. In a historical view, however, this argument does not hold up.
The expectation that a pop song should get to it quickly is owing to pop itself, not the platform. The Beatles exploited this principle as early as the 1960s, when they put the chorus right at the beginning of songs (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” “She Loves You,” and many others). The same is true of the Black rock and roll of Little Richard (“Lucille,” 1957) and Chuck Berry (“Rock and Roll Music,” 1957). These songs were made for the radio, a medium for which the first seconds were as important to the success of a song as they are today.
Perhaps the question how streaming technology changed music, given that a billion listeners have access to 60 or 70 million (and counting) songs per service, has become untimely. It’s a question from a time when dominant trends that spanned different age groups and milieus still existed.
But, remember, streaming platforms don’t primarily deal music. Music’s just the gateway for the real business model: data. The biggest rupture in pop history concerns the artists. Their lives are at stakes. Our gain in choice is their loss in salary.
It sounds like a contradiction: since 2015 the music industry has continuously been making higher profits, particularly because of streaming, and yet the voices complaining that artists are not earning enough are growing louder. How can that be? And how could streaming services suddenly be in a position to pay artists more per stream than they earn with subscriptions, ads, and the sale of data profiles?
The answer reflects the dilemma of digital capitalism: yes, because when the clientele has gotten used to getting everything at a ridiculously low price, they’re no longer in a position to complain about how unjust this is for the artists. What did you think was going to happen? To get everything you want with everyone being treated fairly, that’s the illusion indulged by the Tesla driver who looks at his purchase and doesn’t see a resource-intensive race car but a bicycle made from bamboo. Additionally, there are models – that kind of customer might say – that could produce a more equal distribution among artists even if the prices remain the same. The pro-rata model after all, only serves those that already have a lot, and it works against those who don’t.
Pro rata essentially works as follows: the value of streams is calculated by month and by country; earnings from subscriptions are then proportionally distributed (because subscriptions fees vary from country to country, as does the total number of streams, the value of a stream can vary drastically). The artists with the most streams receive the most money, and artists with the least streams the least. So, what’s to object to, one might ask. Unfortunately, a lot.
First, it ignores a principle that applied not only to old-fashioned record stores but almost to everything else: the money we pay goes to the artists we actually listen to. With the pro-rata model, we can listen to the most obscure bands, but most of our money goes to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. You might object: exactly, just like with public TV, the fees I pay end up supplying a salary for that sports commentator I can’t stand or some show I don’t care about. True, but the SRG – the Swiss public broadcasting association – democratically negotiated a contract that obliges it to represent various interests and parts of the population, very much unlike streaming services. The latter are private institutions, some of which by now belong to the largest businesses in the world (for example, Google and Apple).
Second, and now it gets a bit mathematical, the monthly breakdown of streams in the pro-rata model, which means that streams are counted and paid anew each month, disadvantages musicians whose music is listened to at a slower rate but over longer periods of time. If Pronto needs a year to accumulate the amount of streams Taylor Swift gets in two weeks, he receives less money for the same amount of streams. Pro rata, the standard of Spotify and most other services, therefore, has unambiguous consequences: more money for popular mainstream acts and a lot less for everyone else, even if they’re as successful as Pronto. The few remaining major record labels invest their money in their mainstream artists because that’s where they make money. The rest does not matter, and, importantly, major labels own shares of Spotify and have very little interest in changing its unjust business model.
Spotify is the goliath with whom other services recently began competing by offering alternative models. Apple Music, for example, promises to pay artists a lot more per stream: up to one full penny. Soundcloud and Deezer tempt us with user-centered payment models in which every cent invested by a user goes straight to the artists whose music they actually stream. “Pay who you play,” as Deezer calls and nicely explains this model. However, as long as the major labels do not adopt this model of direct payouts to artists, this principle is mere window dressing.
The big providers are looking to get more competitive all the time, and they introduce new features meant to set them apart from their competitors almost every week. The race for the best-quality audio files shows no signs of slowing down, as if sound quality ever was a factor in the history of pop. Spotify’s clever response was to offer the new “Marquee” feature not only to customers but also to the artists themselves. With this paid service, artists can improve their visibility, but, once more, this only works for labels with a lot of capital. It’s what Facebook has been doing for a long time, both with old and new media: if you want to appear in the newsfeed, you need to pay accordingly.
At this point the question arises if it is even possible to have a “good” Spotify? A reformed one: yes. A good one: hmm.
Over the last few years, the business models of streaming services have attracted more attention. Sociologists and political scientists, computer scientists and economists all over the world have been founding research areas and have been receiving funds to learn more about platforms, artificial intelligence, and the possibilities of regulating them. Ten years ago, there barely were any Internet Institutes at European universities that undertook top-level interdisciplinary research. Outside of academia, too, knowledge about digital technologies has been accumulating. These questions are no longer the exclusive domain of nerds. These days, there is a critical public that is also interested in the specific problems of streaming platforms and how they destroy the market for most musicians. That’s the good news.
Because it leads to the development of small platforms that test alternative models: the streaming project Catalytic Sound, for example, which was built by representatives of improvised music. The selection is limited and changes daily. For ten dollars a month you get access, and the fees are split between all artists – so this also isn’t “pay who you play.” The founders are trying to encourage other musicians to follow in their footsteps and to offer their own portals for their products.
But what’s the good of that? Are we soon going to have more different subscriptions for music than for films and TV series? So that every platform will have its own niche? The thought is completely incompatible with the idea of pop. We’d withdraw into salons again and would cultivate the right taste among ourselves – only that the salons would happen online. To counter unjust business models by withdrawing into a niche is classic left-wing symbolics: it feels great but doesn’t solve the problem. To purposefully push music into a niche is like worrying about being a good-looking corpse.
Streaming became a part of everyday life so quickly that we stopped questioning the technology, as if there were no alternative. A quick glance into climate statistics alone is sufficient reason, however, to go in search of alternatives.
With most providers, you can choose the sound quality of a stream, but even a mid-tier option uses as many megabytes as downloading a mid-sized file that is saved locally on your computer. Already at a second listen, an average download is ecologically more sustainable than a stream. One could try to regulate platforms and their payout models, but nothing will be as efficient, speaking of preserving energy, as leaving off the endless, unbroken streaming of music for a time. The purchase of a sound medium, be it a CD, vinyl record, or a download, is not only economically more advantageous for the artists but also makes repeat listening more climate-friendly. This calculation is simple, but habit, after not even a decade, already seems too ingrained for us to consider it.
Collective experience, the heart of pop, is difficult to get on personalized streaming platforms. Sure, you can share playlists, and with Bluetooth speakers you can sound out parks and streets, but intergenerational pop phenomena mostly seem like a thing of the past. The annual question about this year’s summer hit provides an example: this kind of hit still exists, but it is primarily made on Tiktok, which is also where it is consumed. The major record labels like it; their marketing budgets are split between influencers, which saves you the annoying task of dealing with grumpy music critics. The public space a summer hit reaches these days is already – again – a platform. In case you forgot: summer hits were usually light, usually dumb songs with a special beat, a strange sound, and a catchy chorus; they would blare at you from car stereos, bars, and boomboxes for a few months and then disappear.
Once indoor concerts can be held at sold-out venues again, the live business will bring back something of the feeling of collectivity that has been missing over the last year. To go to concerts, presumably smaller ones than before, more frequently is a good idea if you are interested in a musical middle-class and in collective experience.
But we’re falling into the classic neoliberal trap if we believe that we could make it all right simply by consuming music the right way. Pop and its musicians will only survive if three changes take place: first, platforms need to be regulated; second, yes, people need to change the way they consume music; third, we should stop acting as if the myth of the endlessly rejuvenated group of creatives is anything other than a myth. The only one to labor under that delusion is – of all people – Spotify founder Daniel Ek, who has announced his goal of establishing a middle class of musicians one million strong that would be able to live a comfortable life thanks to streaming. No market can accommodate such masses of musicians. Already, too many are being trained (by musicians who wanted to become musicians themselves).
Society’s demand for creativity accompanied the development from an industrial society to one dependent on service provision. At the cusp of the change to a digital economy, we can see this illusion for what it is: an illusion, even if it is a beautiful one – except for the musicians. In Berlin, the music capital of Europe, you saw many of them working in vaccination centers up until recently, alongside veterans from the city’s nightlife who kept the lines in order in a friendly and competent manner. Most of them earned more money than before – even though their new jobs were in the health sector. We felt ashamed after we stood on our balconies during the first pandemic spring and clapped for those employed in this sector, and we should have! But at least there was applause. For music, no noise was made. Maybe there was an online petition at some point: click, click; pop saved.
I want to conclude with an exercise: buy an album of your choice; the format doesn’t matter. Listen to it at home from beginning to end. Talk about it with everyone who is there with you, stomp your feet to the music, and read the lyrics. If you have a car, roll down the windows and sing along (you can also do that with open windows at home or on your balcony if you have one). It’s crazy, I tell you, you’ll learn quite a lot about your fellow humans, and also a lot about yourself. Even years later, specific songs, whose titles you’ll remember even though you listened to them ages ago, will trigger the memory of that summer or that evening.
The rest is just this cool track, oh, you know, that, uhm, goddamnit, from that playlist someone put on when we were tired, right after the “focus in the afternoon” playlist…never mind, but you remember, right?