Streaming has changed the way we deal with music — let us count the ways: Alan Cross

An Apple iPhone 5s showing its screen with popular music applications, in June 2016. Wachiwit

Back in December, Canadians quietly passed a musical milestone. For the first time ever, we listened to more than a billion music streams over the course of a week via the various services: Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Tidal et al.

That weekly number can only continue to grow as people choose access to music over possession. (On Dec. 15, 2017, exactly 1,383,099,642 streams were served in the U.S. That’s more than four on-demand streams for every person in America.)

The latest figures from Nielsen Music Canada show year-over-year streaming growth up by 51.6 per cent. Meanwhile, the total number of albums sold (i.e. CDs and digital albums) is 25.5 per cent lower, with CDs bearing most of the responsibility for that fall (-31 per cent). Downloads of individual tracks from sources like iTunes have similarly cratered, down 20 per cent.

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The only bright spot in terms of old media is the continuing renaissance in vinyl, which is up a staggering 52 per cent over 2017. (That figure, by the way, is only for sales of new vinyl records. It doesn’t take into account all the used product sold and traded in record shops, online and at record shows.)

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Even though none of the streaming music services are profitable yet — they’re burdened by some very difficult licensing requirements — they represent the future. Five years from now, streaming will be our go-to source for music.

With that in mind, I’ve collected some stats and facts about how streaming has changed things for fans and the music industry.

Music piracy is down, WAY down

While there will always be music theft (hacked Spotify accounts and stream-ripping are the two biggest problems), why bother stealing music when you can listen to any one of almost 40 million songs for free with a couple of pokes at your phone? According to this month’s Digital Media Association (DiMA) “Streaming Forward” report (in conjunction with MIDiA Research), music piracy is down by more than 50 per cent since 2018.

And that’s not the only reason labels love streaming

Subscription revenue flowing to record labels grew by 63 per cent in 2017, pushing up label income by an average of 16 per cent. All the major labels — Universal, Sony and Warner — make more money from streaming than they do from the sales of physical product like compact discs. Music publishers love it, too. Their revenue saw an average jump of 8 per cent in 2017.

Streaming provides a goldmine of information for the industry

When we buy a compact disc or a piece of vinyl, that gets notched up as a sale — and that’s all the info the industry gets. No one knows how many times that album gets played (if at all), which songs get favoured (if any), and which get skipped. The analytical engines behind all the streaming services are constantly gathering data about how individual songs are being consumed. This provides huge troves of insight on not just individual songs and artists but how we as music consumers are interacting with the music. What do we skip? How long do we listen to an unfamiliar song before we decide we don’t care?

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Spotify had a brilliant billboard campaign in which it highlighted some of this data. One read, “Dear person in LA who listened to the ‘Forever Alone’ playlist for 4 hours on Valentine’s Day: You OK?” Another read, “Be as loving as the person who put 48 Ed Sheeran songs on their ‘I Love Gingers’ playlist.” (By the way, his “Shape of You” is currently the most-streamed song on Spotify, with over 1.7 billion streams.)

And speaking of data…

Because labels can see exactly what people are listening to, they know where to put more of their marketing and promotional dollars. With rap, R&B and pop dominating the services, try being in a rock band with loud guitars. Because your music isn’t being streamed to any appreciable degree, you’re probably not getting the kind of label support you would have in the pre-streaming world. How is this affecting the rock world? Or, for that matter,  the country music world?

Albums don’t rule anymore. Playlists do.

At last count, Spotify was home to more than two billion playlists, with five million being added or edited every single day. Playlists — curated packages of often diverse songs by different artists — have become the new, better version of the album.

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MIDiA reports that 54 per cent of consumers are ditching albums for playlists and now 50 per cent of all listening on Spotify is to playlists and not albums. If that’s the case, why would artists continue to release albums? Why not just offer a steady drip of new material as it becomes available? The hip-hop world has discovered this works very well, while artists like Muse and Florence + The Machine are experimenting with the process.

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Streaming is starting to produce its own stars

Chance the Rapper made history by becoming the first “streaming-only” artist to win a Grammy for both Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. Cardi B’s rapid rise is due almost entirely to streaming. And let’s not forget the “Despacito” phenomenon. It took just 97 days to release one billion views on YouTube and has now surpassed five billion, generating millions in revenue. Artists, managers and labels are now scrambling to be included on Spotify’s Rap Caviar playlist, which has nearly nine million followers.

Who needs CDs? Or radio? Or record stores?

When Drake released “God’s Plan” back in January, it was streamed 60 million times on Spotify alone in a single week, more than doubling the old record held by Post Malone the week before. Drake also saw 14 million streams in Apple Music the same week.

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More songs are being streamed more often

In 2015, roughly 110 songs were streamed more than 100 million times. Last year, that number had grown to nearly 400. In other words, the big hits are not only getting bigger, but there are more of them.

It’s expected that Spotify will have more than 100 million paid subscribers before the end of the year. Apple should break 50 million.

I have a feeling that if we were to revisit this column a year from now, all these numbers will appear laughably small.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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