Music, Ownership and the Opportunity in Absence

Image Credit: Zarak Khan — Unsplash

Music in the Last Decade

The last decade has seen the biggest change in music consumption practice since we started pressing records instead of selling sheet music. In 2010, the recorded music market was dominated by digital downloads and internet piracy. iPods were still produced and popular, with listeners gleefully scrolling through the mobile mp3 libraries they had spent hours amassing at their computers as they commuted, worked or exercised. People spent hours surfing through sites looking for free-to-download versions of the latest albums and singles they wanted to add to their listening devices.

Fast forward to 2020 and the world of music consumption is a very different place. Whilst digital music held the top spot for most of the decade, (beginning with a strong $4.6billion digital revenue in 2010) the streaming services that currently dominate market took the lead in 2017, just shy of Spotify’s 10th anniversary. As smartphones ushered in the era of data-on-the-move, we no longer needed to have our masses of mp3 files saved and on our person to enjoy music whilst out and about, we could access music in the cloud. And better yet, we don’t even have to own music to access it.

The Celestial Jukebox

During my time at university, one term stuck with me. ‘The Celestial Jukebox’ was popularised by law professor Paul Goldstein, referring to his vision of an intangible database of on-demand media. It’s realised today by streaming technologies offering on-demand music, movies, tv shows — even print media like magazines. In business terms it’s the shift to an access-over-ownership pricing model — pay a flat fee monthly for all the content you want, with the caveat that you don’t get a copy to keep.

There are plenty of advantages for the music consumer with this model. The two most popular streaming services — Apple Music and Spotify — charge less than £10 a month for the full, ad-free experience. To buy 1 album on iTunes (the largest music retailer in the world, digital or otherwise), it would cost £7.99 on average. For £2 more you multiply the amount of content you can access to an immeasurable scale. Not only that, but you get access to content you may never have heard before, with hyperlocal music now having a way to reach the ears of audiences thousands of miles away through hyper-individualised recommendation algorithms and curated playlist placements. The increasing ease-of-access to at-home recording technology magnifies this, with more music being produced and then released into the virtual ether for anyone to access, consume, and spread further.

The typical drawbacks of the music industry are still present within this new consumption model. Playlists and recommendations act as a new buffer between products and artists the industry is pushing and the masses they are trying to appeal to, much like radio playlists have been. The perception that artists don’t earn a proportionate amount to their sales (or streams) is still very much present, and considerably more potent, with services like Tidal and Bandcamp making this paradigm an integral part of their value propositions.

Why do we still buy music then?

There are several reasons we still buy music — and they all revolve around the difference between owning music and accessing it.

Vinyl records have become more commercially popular over the decade. Supermarkets like Asda and Tesco’s have stocked them for years, with current releases lining the shelves alongside CDs and video games. Record Store Day has turned into a musical holiday after beginning in the US in 2008, spreading internationally to over 10 countries as a celebration of the physically taking yourself to a record shop and spooling through the vinyl. Many artists release exclusive singles and albums to coincide with the date, with limited pressings becoming highly sought by collectors and fans alike.

And therein is the missing ingredient in streaming services. Simply, listening to a new album over the intangible airwaves of the internet is different from interacting with a tangible representation of a music recording. A collector wants tangibility, physicality — a visual representation of what they are collecting and the variety of cultural, temporal, and financial investments they have dedicated to getting it. The 10-second search process involved with listening to a specific album on a streaming service doesn’t compare to the financial investment of a £20 vinyl record, the temporal investment of hours dedicated to sourcing and downloading music online (legally or otherwise) or the cultural investment of owning a specific album or single.

The Opportunity in Absence

Demonstrably, there is still a demand for ownership (or at least a different mode of consumption that replicates the value music consumers get from ownership) in recorded music, one which streaming services have yet to capitalise on. Playlists offer a half-solution but place people as curators rather than owners. A museum curator can take pride in the acquiring of articles and customising collections, but they can’t claim the collections they have assembled are theirs, they’re owned by the museum — and there’s a difference.

The closest example of a service replicating feelings of ownership over curation can be found with Spotify’s end of year personalised infographics. The data gleaned from hours of listening practices presented visually allows the intangible to be packaged, presented to and flaunted by consumers, but the time-sensitive nature and scarcity of this data year-round makes this a short-lived capitalisation (with the revenue taking the form of social media prominence rather than money, and primarily being directed at Spotify rather than music artists).

The access streaming affords is irreplaceable. You can find and curate a music-listening profile featuring artists and genres from all corners of the world that have access to a computer. But there’s a trick being missed. It has been shown through the resurgence and continued commercial performance of physical music formats that a sizeable portion of the music consumer market is not only willing to pay money for music they can access for free — they’re very eager to. This is where the opportunity of absence lies, and where these streaming companies should be looking for the next innovation to their service.

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