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Are Public Streaming Counts Hurting Music?

For how important music is in the lives of most people, there’s often not much attention paid to where it comes from, how its made, and how it’s changing. With everything that’s happening in our world, you may not have noticed that music has undergone a sweeping and irrevocable transformation over the past decade. According to the Record Industry Association of America, paid subscriptions to platforms like Spotify accounted for 2.5% of American music industry revenue in 2008. A decade later, that number has exploded to just under half of industry-wide revenues at 47.3%. Combined with ad-supported listening formats, streaming is now the way most people consume music.

Over streaming platforms like TIDAL and Spotify alongside others where music is paired with videos and still images such as YouTube, public data reflecting how many times a song has been streamed represents an unprecedented shift in music that’s not being talked about. For the first time, we now have the ability to measure a song’s momentum play-by-play, in real time in some cases. Music charts have been around since at least 1940, but modern technology now gives artists and audiences alike a front row seat when it comes to seeing which songs are being played and which ones aren’t.

On its face, songs attached to constantly updating public streaming and view counts might not seem significant, but it’s delivering unintended consequences for listeners, musicians, and the music industry. Similar to how the concept of Twitter seems simple until its put into a broad, global context, public streaming data does much more than simply inform audiences how many times a song has been listened to. Listeners and audiences alike are being more and more influenced by the numbers attached to music. When most of us look for a new restaurant to dine at, the Yelp, Trip Advisor, or Google Review scores we encounter tend to influence our decisions in profound, actionable ways. In the modern context of a music-listening experience, a song’s play-count can have a similar effect on what we decide to listen to and what we choose to skip. It’s in our human nature to see artists racking up billions of plays and assume their music is better than ones that don’t. It’s also typical of songwriters to obsess over the numbers and create music in safe, narrow ways in order to get more likes, follows, and streams.

When music becomes more about popularity and public momentum than creativity and craft, we all end up losing, but this is just one impact on a long list of unintended consequences technology is having on modern music. The Swedish music streaming giant Spotify was initially criticized by artists for not revealing public streaming counts until it began integrating the feature into its platform in 2013. Spotify and its critics couldn’t have imagined the impacts the decision to reveal streams publicly would have on music, including an arms race on behalf of artists to obtain statistical momentum through unsavory means. The public streaming and viewing data we associate with artists is often fraudulent and massively inflated. Between “stream farms” consisting of hundreds of people being paid to stream an artist’s songs over and over again, and fabricated streaming scandals like the streaming company TIDAL is currently embroiled in, it’s impossible to know whether the numbers we’re seeing are real.

On a local level, musicians based in Colorado and New Mexico are impacted just as much as those working throughout the rest of the world. A musician’s hometown is still important when it comes to how successful and well known they are, but digital streaming platforms are gradually eroding the boundaries that distinguish where an artist comes from.

Originally from Denver and now residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mike Marchant fronts the indie rock band Lightning Cult. Merchant believes that public streaming counts could be harmful to both musicians and listeners. “I think the availability of these numbers could potentially prevent a listener from taking a musician seriously. If someone hears about a record, looks it up online and sees low numbers, will they still give it their full attention or will they assume it’s not good? Will they believe that number to be some sort of objective quality ranking? I believe that attaching numbers and statistics contributes to the demystification of something that I wish would remain magical.” The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist went on to say that he intentionally ignores the statistics surrounding his music to protect the integrity of his creative process.

Public streaming information isn’t likely to go away any time soon, and the impacts it delivers to the music industry isn’t all negative. For artists, it’s helpful to have an idea of which of their songs are being listened to, and audiences glean some benefits from the practice as well. But rather than blindly accepting this and the many other transformations we’re seeing as the new normal in music, taking a second to ask ourselves what it all means is important. Lean in a little closer and listen to how much music is being changed, and you might not like everything you hear.

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