Saturday 19 October 2019

The joy of streaming: 10 years of Spotify

In a decade, the streaming service has radically changed the way we listen to music with a 'loanership' model that is now a part of everyday life. With subscription hikes looming, is it time to accept artists deserve a larger cut?

Stock image
Stock image
Trailblazer: Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Ek who, at the age of 23, dreamt up Spotify
John Meagher

John Meagher

Google was in its infancy when a Stockholm teenager called Daniel Ek went looking for a job. The tech firm advised him to go to university and come back when he had completed his studies.

Ek may have been just 16 at the time, but he impressed the Silicon Valley boffins. Entrepreneurial from an early age, he was already making mountains of money thanks to a gift for developing websites and creating internet tools that people didn't yet realise they needed.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he was buzzing around the Swedish capital in a red Ferrari - a cocky Master of the Universe with the world at his feet.

There was a problem, though. Ek was miserable. He had few real friends and he got tired of the hangers on who had materialised overnight. In a fit of youthful pique, he sold his plush city apartment and the supercar, and went to live in a cottage in the countryside. He later said he wanted time to reflect - and to dream up something that would make him unimaginably wealthy and change the way we listen to music forever.

He was 23 in 2006, when he and business mentor Martin Lorentzon would come up with the idea for a legal music-streaming service. He called it Spotify, and after two years of development, and securing licensing deals with record companies, they launched to the public in October 2008. Ten years on and Spotify has 83 million paid subscribers and tens of millions more content to use the ad-supported service.

It ushered in an era that has made the MP3 obsolete, never mind the CD, and its popularity is showing no signs of abating. In fact, it's likely to grow significantly for years to come and all those newer entrants to the market - like YouTube Music - are hoovering up paid subscribers. And for those tech heads who point out that Spotify wasn't first out of the blocks, they're absolutely right. But nobody talks about the long-defunct Yahoo! Music Unlimited now, do they?

Streaming is such a part of daily life now that we take it for granted. Listening to a song - any song - is as commonplace as switching on the TV or radio, or sending a text message. We rarely take the time to celebrate just how amazing it is to be able to listen to virtually every song ever recorded.

Think about that for a moment: thanks to Spotify and all those other streaming services, you can listen to any song that comes to mind. It's an extraordinary thing to be able to do and it would have thrilled music lovers in times past.

It's especially great when you find yourself enraptured by an artist with a large back catalogue. Teens falling in love with Led Zeppelin or Joni Mitchell, for instance, won't have to look far to find everything they've ever recorded - and all the B-sides, too.

It's amazing, too, when you think about it, that it's so inexpensive for music lovers to listen to old and future favourite songs all day long. Right now, the industry norm is about €10 per month, or roughly 30c a day. It's dirt cheap, and probably explains why musicians are so unhappy about the streaming royalties they get - but I'll come to that later.

When I was getting into R.E.M. at school, I had to wait until I had accrued enough pocket money to buy cassette versions of each of their albums. It took a long time to complete the collection - and in the interim I played them so much the tapes came close to fraying. Years later, when keen to have every album David Bowie ever released on CD, I spent €60 buying a comparatively obscure live album on Amazon, and hundreds more on albums both new and second-hand. Today, virtually everything he recorded is on Tidal, the streaming option I like best.

I love the fact that a world of music is at our fingertips whenever or wherever we might want to hear it.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod in that now legendary Apple launch event in October 2001, he talked about how this small product - no bigger than a deck of cards - would be able to store hitherto unthinkably large amounts of music. "A thousand songs in your pocket," he said. Always the showman - and the salesman.

Soon, newer generations of iPods and other MP3 players were able to store thousands of songs in this pocket device and by the end of the decade, its most defining consumer good could accommodate every album and every song that you loved. It seemed like things couldn't get better. But they could - and they did as soon as Spotify and its competitors came on the market.

Now, in your pocket, there's a phone carrying an unlimited choice of songs that you don't yet know but might one day become your favourites. It's all there, just waiting to be explored and all of the providers offer plenty of curated options - whether it's by new release, genre, geography or era. Tidal has several good playlists right now - including the 200 Best Songs of the 1970s, as chosen by Pitchfork.

There's a lot of talk about the 'paradox of choice' these days, and I get that the sheer volume of songs and albums and artists you can stream can feel overwhelming - especially when one considers that up to four million songs on Spotify have never been streamed once (they're that obscure).

But what a 'problem' to have. A much more sensible way of looking at it is to think that for a tenner a month you get to listen to any of the songs that soundtracked your life up to this point, whenever you want and within a few seconds of making the decision, and you get to hear countless other brilliant songs if you open your mind and take a punt.

The re-emergence of vinyl has been celebrated in all quarters and there's no shortage of people who fetishise the format. It's good for the artist, too, especially for their bottom line, but it's limitations and expense don't make it desirable for many. It may have plenty of romance, but that's not much good when you're going on a long car drive and you want to listen to Born to Run or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

There's no question, though, that streaming is a double-edged sword for musicians. It can help them reach enormous audiences and the royalties can be good if they're connecting to enough people - just ask emerging Irish artists Dermot Kennedy and Eden - but the fledgling musicians could certainly do with a substantial increase in what they're paid per song and that's where potential subscription increases may come in.

Now that we've got used to this 'loanership' model - and it's not just music, it's everything from Netflix to DublinBikes - we may have to accept that the €10 per month has to increase.

But even if it goes up to €20 or €30 per month, it's still fantastic value. The world of music in your pocket? Even Steve Jobs could hardly have imagined that in 2001.

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