This piece originally appeared on Three Degrees.
The way we consume music has been shifting dramatically in the 21st century. Album sales have been falling since the late 90s when MP3s began to dominate the market. The digital age made music convenient and accessible. You weren’t swapping CDs with your best friends; you were sharing files with someone across the country. Then streaming came along, and threw the industry for another loop.
Streaming is to digital sales what digital sales were to CDs. It’s a game changer. It’s an evolution. It’s a threat. It’s social. Or, at least, it should be.
Between Pandora, Google Play, Spotify, and this year’s debuts of Apple Music and Tidal, the market is beginning to get a little too saturated. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses, but none seem to get the social aspect down.
Apple Music in particular, which was released earlier this month, sought to make music more social by facilitating interactions between fans and musicians with Connect, its own social network. It could be a platform for artists to upload media exclusive to Apple, like concert dates, photos, and news. While some artists and bands share content like this, most are using it as a portal to push links to their albums on iTunes. It’s not social. The conversation isn’t with fans; it’s at them.
What Apple Music has going for it in terms of social networking is the ability to connect with other users and share playlists (the modern day mixtape) with friends. But Spotify, Apple’s biggest competitor, does that, as well. So does Pandora or even services like Rhapsody or 8Tracks.
Tidal is another high profile streaming service recently released. Backed by Jay Z and a slew of other celebrities, the platform’s launch was met with mixed reviews, and it’s been suffering since. Despite hosting exclusive content, such as music videos and new releases, it fell off the top 500 apps shortly after release due to high cost ($20 a month versus Spotify’s $9.99), and skepticism about its intentions as being for innovation and not purely money.
Streaming services could be a revolutionary moment for music. People are always going to find a way to find music for free. So whether a platform is free, “freemium” (free with ads or a monthly subscription for ad-free streaming), or subscription, having something different to offer is what will make it stand out among the cluttered field. Instead of each platform focusing on exclusives, which will ultimately hurt the industry by turning consumers off, streaming platforms should seek out ways to further their reach in social media.
Sales of music are down, while streaming has boomed exponentially: 2014 saw a 54.5 percent increase in streams compared to 2013. Artists can make up for it by touring and landing sponsorship deals, which is why social networking is vital to spread awareness, recruit new fans, and turn casual listeners into artist evangelists.
Taylor Swift put the financial concerns of streaming in the public eye through her breakup with Spotify and her open letter to Apple, but failed to acknowledge the long term benefits streaming — particularly if the usage becomes more social — presents to talent. Artists need to think of streaming not as people sharing music with each other as a loss of money, but rather, a gain.
Sharing music through social media creates a chain reaction. When one fan shares something with friends, there is a very real chance that, at the very least, one new fan will be made — one who will in turn buy that artist’s music, merchandise, and tour tickets, and spread the artist to their own network of friends.
This is where streaming platforms have an opportunity to make the connection. Users want to not only share what music they’re listening to — be it blasting out the artist’s page on their channels or sending a new playlist to their followers — but they want to connect with musicians themselves. Spotify touches on this, and Apple Music came close with the intentions of Connect, but so far, its execution has been flawed. Platforms come and go; to truly make a difference, these services need to step up their networking game.