Out of Step: Up a Stream Without a Paddle


“What frequency are you getting?
Is it noise or sweet, sweet music?
On what frequency will liberation be?
On what frequency?!
On what frequency?!”

– Refused, Liberation Frequency

Carter posed a question in his review of Growl’s EP earlier this week:

“When was the last time you bought an MP3? When was the last time you bought music?”

For me, the answer is simple: this past weekend, on both accounts. In fact, hardly a week goes by where I don’t buy music. So far this year I have purchased roughly 600 songs.

I don’t subscribe to Spotify nor do I have a premium subscription to any other music service. This stems less from my feelings about such services, and more from the way I listen to music. Purchasing music is what I’m used to, but it also allows me to experience music with the fewest barriers possible. For instance, if I’m in my car I’m always listening to music. While I could easily connect my phone to my car and stream Spotify, I dislike being at the mercy of spotty 3G coverage. Even when I’m at home, it’s easier to hook up my iPod Classic to my stereo and have instant access to my music collection within seconds. If I like something enough, I eventually buy it and, in doing so, guarantee access whenever I want.


However, there’s no doubt that streaming music is the next wave of access, and what concerns me about that is not so much the possibility that physical media may go away (because old physical media will always exist and the resurgence in vinyl sales proves that people see value in physicality), but that we’re putting all of our eggs in someone else’s basket and trusting them to keep them safe.

Let’s put aside the subject of how subscription-based consumer products don’t foster healthy competition so much as create a king-of-the-hill scenario where only one service can come out on top. I’ll trust you to take it from me, as a video game development veteran of over 12 years who has primarily been involved with subscription-based products, that consumers don’t like paying for subscriptions to several similar products at once. They tend to pick the ones with the most features, the biggest user base, and the easiest functionality.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that for music, this alpha service is Spotify. In a world where streaming is the primary source of music for people, this makes Spotify a curator. One single curator for all music. We’re lucky that Spotify isn’t in the business of turning artists away – it’s more of a facilitator than a curator at the moment – and that’s an excellent attitude to have. While this is great for active bands that choose to take part in the service, it certainly doesn’t cover all music and there are thousands of tracks that are not available on Spotify. In fact a quick skim down my current “to buy” list sees just over half of those bands not represented on Spotify at all.

A single stream world is still an issue though and interestingly enough Carter actually introduces one of the key problems created by this in his article:

“And so, while Growl’s second EP, Gallery, has been on my list to check out since its release in February, I only finally took a listen this week after they recently made it available on Spotify.”

A a person who primarily streams his music, Spotify was a barrier to this album for Carter before it was a gateway to it. Since we’ve already established that Spotify has few barriers to entry for musicians to get their work on the service, why then would this be the case? Why wouldn’t a band get their music on the service ASAP? The answer comes in many flavors, but for small bands, there just may not be much incentive in being on Spotify. In a single stream world, though, they have no choice.


This is actually where we get to the meat of the issue with streaming music as “the future.” In just the last few weeks we seem to have reached a boiling point of sorts in regards to artist discontent with streaming music services. Roger Waters/Pink Floyd admonished the streaming service Pandora both for their low royalty payouts to artists and their active pleading with Congress to allow them to distribute even less. Radiohead/Atoms For Peace’s Thom Yorke recently pulled AFP’s and his solo work from Spotify while making similar claims and chastising the service for hurting small artists most of all.

As a chronicler of a very active local music scene I know that most small bands never expect to make much money off of selling their music. Most small bands also don’t/can’t tour enough to make money that way, either. If they make any money at all it comes from merchandise like t-shirts, stickers, buttons, etc. Regardless of this, the amount that streaming services pay in royalties to artists per play is microscopic compared even to what iTunes pays per download and certainly far less than what the artist-centric Bandcamp does.

The New York Times investigated and broke down the issue this past January and in a world where streaming becomes the primary source of music acquisition – t-shirt sales or not – it is clear that bands are going to need more revenue to survive. To further compound the issue, while far less abhorrent than illegally downloading tracks, having one’s music on a streaming service is practically giving it away for free. At least when bands have free tracks for download either on their own sites or their Bandcamp, Reverb Nation, Sound Cloud, or MySpace pages, there is a much bigger chance of someone also buying some swag at the same time (or in the future) from those sources than there ever will be on Spotify.

“When was the last time you bought an MP3? When was the last time you bought music?”

In the current landscape and speaking as a person who thrives on multitudes of new music, the implications brought up by these questions are concerning. I don’t know where the future of streaming music is going to take us. If there is one thing that is clear it’s that the transition to streaming is likely to be as filled with controversy as was the transition to MP3’s earlier this century. Right now all sides in the argument are making valid points and I’m certain that many people smarter than I will figure it out somehow.

For my part, downloading music not only fits my personal lifestyle and convenience choices, but it allows me to support bands I like as best I can. In truth the best ways to promote and support local music haven’t changed very much since the DIY days of the hardcore punks and zine authors of 30+ years ago. Buy your favorite band’s music, buy their merch, and then tell everyone you know how awesome they are. Promote local shows and artists, and don’t be afraid to speak up about what you like. If the band is on Spotify, tell people to listen to them there and link them to their band page as well. If not then send them to directly to Bandcamp or wherever else the band might have their music. In the end what bands need is to be heard. Downloaders or not, fans still make or break bands. We have the power to build and destroy scenes and genres and the biggest defense against a stale, complacent music will always be a dedicated, active fan base.

About Brian

Brian Audette lives in Austin and has a wardrobe consisting almost entirely of band t-shirts. Even the ones he can’t wear anymore he saves, because someday he’ll find an appropriate use for them…someday.