Chris Rizik: Progress rolls on in music...and we wanted that, right?

"I'd never buy music. I just don't believe in it."

I heard those words in a recent conversation I had with my 20-something year old Godson. He is a superb young man but his view of music is so different than mine that I did a bit of a double take. And the more I talk to others his age and to others my age, I've found that neither he nor I are anomalies.

"I'd never buy music. I just don't believe in it."

I heard those words in a recent conversation I had with my 20-something year old Godson. He is a superb young man but his view of music is so different than mine that I did a bit of a double take. And the more I talk to others his age and to others my age, I've found that neither he nor I are anomalies.

Those of us who came of age pre-internet grew up in an era of less choice, convenience and control when it came to music. Broadcast radio determined what we heard and how we heard it.  And if we wanted to take control of our music, to decide what we listened to and when we listened to it, we were well trained that such dominion came only one way: we had to buy it. We bought music for convenience, for the artistic album covers, for the detailed liner notes and for sharing. Some of us also bought because we feared that the album, if low selling, would go "out of print," never to be available again. But most of all, we bought it to control our music listening. 

Our musical world of scarcity and of physical limitations seems galaxies away from 2014.  To a younger generation, music is a bunch of electrons, there are no physical limitations and there is no such thing as "out of print." The music files sitting on the servers at Spotify or Beats Music will likely still be there in 10 years because it costs almost nothing to keep them there. And there is really nothing (short of an internet outage) that prevents us from listening online to what we want whenever we want. All the reasons that we bought music in the past - choice, convenience and control - seem like only false shadows of reasons to the next generation. So it is no wonder when I asked my young non-music-buying Godson why he doesn't buy the albums he loves, he looked at me like I was from Mars: "I don't feel a need to own music. I can always find what I want to listen to on YouTube or Spotify. I may have to listen to a 15 second commercial before I hear my song, but that's okay."

It seems that the world is looking at music more and more as my young friend does. We all know that CD sales have been dropping like a stone for years, as cassettes did a generation ago. For years, the reduction in CD sales was offset by an increase in mp3 downloads, but that is changing, and fast. Nielsen reported that in the first quarter of this year, mp3 downloads dropped by a whopping 13%, with no sign that they will bounce back. What took its place? "Streaming" music services such as Spotify, Pandora and Beats Music. Those services grew by 35% over last year. And that doesn't even count YouTube, which has become a virtual on demand radio station for many. The long-promised age of no wait, no download, one click music listening appears to be finally hitting its stride.

I will confess that I made the transition from CDs to my iPod with ease. The promise of having my entire music collection with me at all times, even at lesser fidelity, was too tempting. But I'm having a much tougher time making the next transition to living my life on the stream.  In addition to my almost Depression-era paranoia about losing my music, there is one more problem that gnaws at me: I know that the artists I love make substantially less money on streamed music than on purchased music.  The general rule of thumb now is that it takes 1,500 online streams of a song to provide an artist the same revenue as one paid download of that song. 1,500! So if I like a song enough to listen to it 15 times, 99 of my friends would have to do the same in order to provide the artist with what he or she would earn if I just downloaded it from Amazon.com.  Once I learned that, I couldn't un-learn it, and it haunts me as I make my decision about going "all in" on streaming. It's not like most independent artists were making a killing off of their art as it was, but this new math makes it exceedingly hard for them to make even a passable living from their recorded music. While folks will disagree as to whether this is patently fair or unfair, it certainly is uncomfortably different.

Some music fans will continue to buy music to support artists they love, to relish in the physical aspects of music, or to have access to higher sound quality. And many of us who purchase music will simply use streaming as a means of discovering new tunes or testing music before we buy. But it is awkward and inconvenient to be living in multiple musical platform worlds, and in the end, for the vast majority of listeners there will be no stopping progress. The enticement of on-demand music that is free or nearly free is simply too great to suppress. As much as most people love music, they love convenient music even more. So, I expect that within a short period of time music streaming will be the dominant way in which most people listen to music. As is the case now with vinyl, CDs will become a niche for a relatively small group of audiophiles, and low quality mp3s may disappear altogether. Most people my age -- like their kids -- will exclusively rely on subscription services streaming songs to their computers, phones or Sonos systems.  And although I worry greatly about the fallout, most artists will likely adjust, using their recorded music not as their principal money maker but as a means of setting up their live shows, merchandise sales and song licensing.

I guess the kids were right all along on this one, making a choice that was entirely logical. So while we may wax nostalgic about such things as the thrill of music discovery at the pure play record store, the beauty of detailed liner notes on an album sleeve or the comfort in knowing our favorite artists would be able to continue making music, the new age of streaming music will have provided us what we said we wanted all along: choice, convenience and control over our music.  So why don't I feel better?

By Chris Rizik

 

 
Choice Cut - V3 - "Getting Better"
Listening Room - Avery Sunshine - Twenty Sixty Four
CD of the Month - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"

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