Music brings the people together … sort of

TRADE OFF: The sheer convenience of on-demand music has come at a price for musicians and, perhaps, listeners.
TRADE OFF: The sheer convenience of on-demand music has come at a price for musicians and, perhaps, listeners.

ON-DEMAND music is big business for major streaming services and record labels alike.

Last year, the world’s biggest labels reported record-breaking revenue, raking in almost $20 million a day from the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon.

Much has been written about how this revolution hasn’t been quite as lucrative for artists, with royalties as little as $0.0052 per song played.

Just last week, research by Citigroup revealed musicians received just 12 per cent of the total money generated by the music industry as it continues to adapt to the seismic shift in listening habits. 

Despite this, the sheer convenience of streaming means you’d be hard-pressed to find a music lover who doesn’t have a subscription to one or more services. 

But struggling artists aside, many people are beginning to wonder if users, too, have lost something in this great digital switch.

Granted, Ice Cube has never been everyone’s cup of tea, but as a rap music veteran who’s sold more than 10 million records, a successful producer and sometimes star of family movies, he knows entertainment.

Appearing on The Bill Simmons Podcast earlier this month, Cube joined sports writer Simmons in lamenting the way the algorithms of streaming services have upended the journey of music discovery.

“It’s a solo experience now,” Simmons said.

“You’re at your house … you’ve got your headphones on, but back then it wasn’t like that. Back in the late ’80s, early ‘90s it was much more communal.

“It was like, ‘hey, listen to this’ and then people played it for you.”

Cube said it went further, with the “cherrypicking” nature of streaming slashing the impact, and reach, of full-length albums. 

“Now, it’s not an experience,” Cube said. 

“Some records, I wouldn’t listen to unless I had an hour. I didn’t want to be interrupted, I didn’t want to be distracted. I just wanted to listen to this whole thing from start to finish because I knew it was that kinda artist and that’s what they were giving you.” 

Whereas once music lovers would buy an album and listen from beginning to end, people streaming tend to bounce from hit to hit, artist to artist. 

Or, perhaps worse, rely on the commercially influenced “daily mix” feature to pick their tunes for them, effectively eliminating the thrill of discovering an artist’s lesser-known works. 

This, in turn, has undoubtedly led to a change in the type of music being produced, particularly by mainstream acts.

Why create a piece of concentrated storytelling like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or even The Killers’ Sam's Town if people are only going to listen to the first radio single? 

On the rather significant flipside, today’s listeners have access to far more music than previous generations could have dreamed of. 

Feel like checking out the work of the French lounge singer you first heard on an ad for a software company? How about the underground reggae artist who provided the backing vocals to a song by your favourite hard rock band? A couple of taps on your phone and you can have their entire discography at your fingertips. 

And yet, as Cube and Simmons observed, it is increasingly a journey that we are taking alone.

Bigger phones and even bigger bluetooth headsets mean we can often be seen wrapped in our own musical bubble on the bus or train, at a cafe or while walking along the footpath. 

Maybe it’s all just another symptom of the hyper-individualism that has come to define our age. 

Sure, all the streaming services provide the option of posting a “now playing” update to your social media accounts.

But while such posts might attract a Facebook like from a friend who already shares your taste, few of these links have set someone on the path of a fresh musical odyssey.

Think of the time a high school friend insisted you listen to a cassette of Nick Cave and The Birthday Party’s seminal work Junkyard, or perhaps a burnt CD of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.

If you’re of a slightly older vintage, maybe you remember joining others in a record store to sample something like Don Maclean’s American Pie, wondering exactly how such a multi-layered song would finish.

These experiences were so often the point at which we entered a musical rabbit hole through which our lives were enriched.

On-demand music certainly has its good points, and sharing of music still occurs. 

Perhaps it’s not quite the day the music died.

But with the demise of physical music and the growing irrelevance of the full-length album, it's hard not to feel like a little something has been lost along the way. 

Matt Crossman is a Fairfax journalist.