This month marked an important anniversary for one of music’s biggest institutions. It’s not a band, or a label, but iTunes. Ten years ago iTunes launched their now all-powerful music store, ushering in the dawn of digital music in a real sense. Downloading songs has completely changed the way we experience music, for the better, but Monday marked another step towards an even more digital way of listening to music: streaming. The Official UK Charts Company, who have ran the Top 40 which has become a staple institution of people’s music taste, announced that they were going to begin counting streams as part of their charts as well as physical song sales. It’s another big step forward for digital music, and one that I think puts physical music even further into the past.
Downloading music got a bad rap for long enough when it first came on to the scene. People didn’t like the idea that they had no physical representation of their goods, and worried that it if they lost their music they’d have no way of getting it back. People still hark on about songs sounding better on CD compared to digitally. There was also a worry that artists would lose control over their tracks. Over time these arguments have been drowned out, and now surely defeated. With downloads you are able to replace “lost” tracks for free, the quality is just as good, and artists have some more control over their tracks by being able to release tracks as they see fit. The proof of digital music’s triumph came in 2012, when digital sales of music surpassed physical sales for the first time, and that decline is only going to intensify going forward.
The path to success for streaming services seems to be following the same trail blazed by downloads only a decade or so before it. Spotify, the most ubiquitous of the more fragmented streaming market, has grown exponentially since its 2008 launch in Sweden in with 10 million subscribers just two years later and around 40 million today. Streaming services suffer from the same negativity that downloadable music endured in the early days. With a completely new business model for the music industry, streaming services are often criticised for giving artists far too little for their efforts – as users are no longer purchasing individual songs for their own personal libraries, but for access to the vast and growing selection that the streaming services offer. Although it creates its own issues, this business model manages to curb one of the complaints that still exist around downloadable music today, in that it is much easier to pirate than physical music. Streaming is not perfect, but it is catching on as it’s time and cost benefits become clear.
The move by the Official UK Chart to include track plays as well as sales surprised me slightly, but I think it’s a clever decision. The chart was one of the last bastions for physical music sales, so I’d have expected it to be the same for music sales in general. But with this announcement they’ve managed to be a bit further ahead of the curve by recognising that people consume music in a different way now than they ever have before, and if people, artists and producers want a chart of what people are actually listening to – then this is the best way to do it. At an ‘exchange rate’ of 100 song plays to 1 purchase, the impact of streamed songs might not be as instantly felt as downloads were, when songs from decades past (such as Elvis’ amazing run of 3 number ones in 2005) burst their way back into the charts, and the Chart company estimate that only once in the last 18 months would the number one be different had streaming been included. With the growth of streaming, I expect that statistic won’t last very long.
I think streaming plays’ inclusion in the charts adds further credibility to it and that streaming will eventually overtake even downloadable music. Cost trumps everything when it comes to business, and as it’s cheaper for the companies to pay artists on a per play basis and it’s cheaper for consumers to pay per month for their music fix, it’s logical that streaming will win over downloadable music. Technological barriers are being broken down all the time and we live in an age now where the internet speed is so good that you can stream whilst on the move – so there’s no real need for the hard drives of iPods and laptops that have become our new versions of the CD cabinet. I personally love having my iTunes library and don’t use Spotify all that much. For some reason I subscribe to the old-fashioned idea that having the songs on my computer and on my iPod make them more ‘mine’, when streaming music is just as accessible as long as I’m connected to the internet.
Even though I haven’t converted yet, I still see myself at some point eschewing downloads completely for a wholly streaming experience. When Apple announce, which I’d expect them to at some point, that they are going to do away with large hard-drives in their iPods and leave them with just Wi-Fi and 3G/4G connection to a streaming service that’s perhaps when I’ll make the jump.
Digital music is now on top, but it’s not long until streaming overtakes the whole industry too. Getting their recognition on the chart from next Sunday (6th July) onwards is just the next big step towards it.