As 2019 begins, we find ourselves living in an era with a stronger digital culture than ever. As ‘Spotify Wrapped’ lists and streaming figures are reflected upon, this year’s ‘Ones To Watch’ lists are out in full force and being calculated predominantly by artists’ online presences. The ability to stream music and immediately access millions of songs by hundreds of thousands of artists is an amazing thing; being able to share music with such freedom sees artists break down once very-rigid genre distinctions and enables listeners to reduce their own expectations and listen with an open-mind.
However, for emerging talent, streaming can, prove to be an obstacle because of its relationship with social media. For artists who have label or management deals, managing an online presence is relatively easy because there are trained teams dedicated to enhancing online platforms. But for unsigned or up-and-coming acts, it can be difficult to encourage that first wave of listeners. Navigating through the minefield of social media is a challenging task for everyone in the twenty-first century, but for artists who want their content to be heard, it can be especially hard. Despite this, the algorithms of streaming and social media means similar artists are grouped and recommended to listeners which can be useful for artists trying to get heard.
Social media can be a community, acting as a field of self-expression, which can link and unite artists creating bonds that geographical location would never allow in a time before the internet. Standing out has always been central to the success of musicians, but in a digital culture where being different is the only thing which can bring success, the internet fosters creativity and encourages experimentation. As well as inspiring artistry, streaming enables listeners to try something new without commitment. This means fans can easily access any genre, from almost anywhere in the world, just to see if they like it without having to pay for a copy of an entire album. Music has always built communities and subcultures, but physical limitations are no longer an issue.
Although the internet allows music to be shared with ease, there has been much controversy surrounding the companies involved. For example, Spotify has come under fire for its exploitative pay to artists. The holders of music have been reported to earn $0.006-$0.0084 per stream, meaning in the cases of major labels, the artists see only a fraction of this minute price. If the holder was being paid $0.0084 per stream, in order to earn £10 ($13.20), their song would have to be streamed 1571 times. For up-and-coming musicians, this makes it incredibly difficult to progress from an amateur level because to gain enough success to make their art their full-time trade, they are dependent on huge numbers of streams. Because musicians don’t make the money they once did from recorded music, streaming has subsequently driven up the prices of live shows which is detrimental for fans who simply want to see their favourite artists live, but often cannot afford to. Artists aren’t always able to reduce prices though because then they would not be able to afford to be artists. It seems extortionate that a company estimated to be worth $36 billion as of April 2018, which relies on artists uploading their content, pays them so little per stream. However, because of the nature of listening patterns, up-and-coming artists have to stream their music for recognition.
Streaming is becoming more popular every day with what has now become hundreds of millions of users on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Deezer to name a few, but so is vinyl. The vinyl revival saw an unprecedented amount of people turning back to records and over the last few years, vinyl record sales have soared and have repeatedly broken records from prior years. The tactile experience of physically playing a vinyl, hearing the crackle, handling it with care and flipping it over is lost with digital music. Shuffling albums, or even an artists’ entire back catalogue interferes with the artistic entity of a complete album but can be reclaimed with records. Increasing numbers of young people have been turning to LPs, from older collections and starting their own which has entirely opposed the statistics and success of streaming. The presence of vinyl and streaming in the twenty-first century polarizes music fans, and there’s argument to support both.
For better or for worse, 2019 will likely be a year that continues to show enormous success for streaming figures and vinyl sales but that is not without issues. The internet will almost certainly be at the forefront of culture for years to come, which leaves qualities of great potential and jeopardy for non-commercial artists. Although social media can be chaotic at times, perhaps there is a responsibility for music fans to seek new musicians. As with anything, life online for musicians can be beneficial and damaging, but maybe blaming companies for the challenges facing musicians is unfair, because the figures of streaming listeners are increasing daily. The internet makes life easy and maybe that has made us lazy; if we are concerned with the community of musicians around us, we must act. Going to local gigs, listening to unfamiliar musicians, trying new genres out: perhaps music has become digital but ultimately, the live experience will always be the pièce de résistance, and it relies solely on us, as fans of music to nurture this, and to nurture independent musicians. After all, Freddie Mercury once worked on a market stall, Patti Smith in a toy factory, and Kurt Cobain as a janitor but it was the communities of music fans around them that projected their talents into stardom.
by Emma Sherry