Less Radio, More Intention: Streaming at a Crossroads
This Medium post from Motive Unknown’s Darren Hemmings is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so:
We are constantly being told by the likes of Spotify that they can enhance our music discovery. Algorithms and their own curated playlists should give us no end of music to enjoy. But the sheer volume, coupled with zero friction, results in the much-cited “paradox of choice”. Selecting anything is horribly hard, but equally, with zero friction in accessing it, no emotional investment is made and our own consumption becomes entirely shallow. […]
At every step of the way, streaming services are essentially gaslighting us that this ecosystem is an amazing new development. Just like Silicon Valley in general, there is this mindset that having everything available all the time is a good thing. It isn’t — and it is arguably damaging art and culture as a result. […]
In 2019, artists need meaningful patronage, not a speech about how they could get more streams. That patronage might come from merch or other means, but it should come from music too. As someone who makes his living from the music industry, it also occurred to me that frankly, I owe these people. Without them, I wouldn’t have this job that I love.
The author continues with an opinion that streaming is more of a replacement for radio — rather than for albums or fan-cherished media — than we realize. Like radio, most listeners approach streamed music passively and ephemerally — a song or artist listened to now is forgotten fifteen minutes later. Hemmings feels this is partly due to a lack of listener investment (the purchase of the music) as well as the psychological effect of a seemingly endless amount of content.
I still think that music fans can utilize streaming with intention, but it’s not effortless. Rather than clicking on playlists and random recommendations, listeners can seek out albums and new releases from trusted sources (reviews, online radio shows, friends). And once a great album is discovered, learning more about it and its artist is just a few clicks away. That said, requiring intention won’t easily convert casual listeners to die-hard fans, but the seductive nature of playlists and algorithmic recommendations is turning fans into more passive listeners. Intention used to be inherent in the medium. Gone are the days of merely perusing the CD or LP liner notes (or holding a curiosity-inspiring album cover) and digging further.
The comparison with radio may predict another inevitability: that streaming platforms will become more exclusive rather than aiming to contain every available musical recording. Just as you know to turn to a top 40 radio station to hear that format, or a jazz FM station for be-bop, or the local college station for freeform, esoteric selections, we may see a similar separation in streaming outlets. I believe this could be a good thing, and we’re seeing seeds in the Bandcamp model — that platform isn’t actively courting the new Taylor Swift single.
The ultimate model is for artists to create portals for music through their sites like Neil Young has done with his Archives project. If a fan wanted to hear the music first and in the best quality or format then the artist’s site could be the destination rather than that of a corporate third party. This also gives the artist freedom over presentation, to have ‘liner notes,’ videos, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and such featured alongside the music. The emphasis would be on fan-building as opposed to platform-building. One step further is for artists to be connected and networked, perhaps via an organization like Merlin, so music from similar bands are discovered through the artist’s portal.
There are still many possible directions for the future of the streaming industry. I know it feels like we’re at the end-point, that Spotify and Apple’s dominance and agenda-setting are the way things are and will be. But, as we’re learning with society’s now mainstream skepticism of social media, we’re still at the ‘figuring-it-all-out’ stage with digital media. Expect more than a few forks and unexpected crossroads along the way. And if an independent artist’s future is outside of Spotify — just as independents were rarely included on MTV or commercial radio — then it’s likely that artist will end up stronger for it.