From YouTube, to Pandora, to Spotify, streaming music is piloting our listening habits in fascinating new ways. Eric Harvey explores how these developments are affecting ideas of taste, access, and ownership in the 21st century.
On-demand streaming music has been part of the collective imagination for more than a century. It can be traced back to the 1888 publication of Edward Bellamy’s million-selling science fiction novel Looking Backward, in which a man falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000. Amidst the mind-blowing technological developments he encounters on his journey is a “music room,” in which 24-hour playlists are piped in to subscribers via phone lines. With no shortage of astonishment, the man proclaims that “an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will” is perhaps the pinnacle of human achievement. Read more.
The splashy, celebrity-laden debut of Beats Music earlier this year may not have been accompanied by such gobsmacked wonder, but at the same time, the smartphone-based music subscription service sponsored by AT&T is the latest iteration of Bellamy’s fantastic 19th century notion. Beginning with Pandora’s 2005 launch and dramatically ramping up with Spotify’s controversial 2011 debut, streaming has become the preeminent technological force driving digital music into the 21st century. Though the idea of streaming music pre-dates recordings, the industry’s investments in today’s technology is designed in large part to wrench back control via unlimited access after a decade of ceding power to mp3-downloading fans.
“The major labels are able to build a new business on the backs of artists without telling them very much at all about how their compensation actually works,” Casey Rae, an attorney and label-owner, tells me. Rae is the interim executive director of the Washington D.C. nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, founded in 2000, which is devoted to musicians’ rights. Rae and many others within the FMC aren’t inherently predisposed to hate platforms like Spotify, but they worry about the sustainability of the streaming model, for artists as well as other independent platforms. “There are only three major labels left, so it’s not even really like Spotify can have a competitor enter the marketplace,” Rae explains, “because any competitor would have to be extraordinarily well-capitalized in order to even get to the negotiating table.” Read more.