The Spotify Rebellion and Sting’s Vision of the Future

This will be remembered as the year music went to the cloud, with Amazon, Google, Spotify and most recently, iTunes Match presumably changing the landscape in terms of how we listen to new music.

With that in mind, Wired.com recently posted a story with the headline: "200+ Labels Withdraw Their Music From Spotify: Are Its Fortunes Unravelling?" In it, Wired reported that music distributor STHoldings, which represents more than 200 record labels, was withdrawing its entire catalog from Spotify, Napster, Simfy and Rdio.

Said STHoldings in the article, "As a distributor we have to do what is best for our labels. The majority of which do not want their music on such services because of the poor revenues and the detrimental affect on sales. Add to that the feeling that their music loses its specialness by its exploitation as a low value/free commodity.”

The Wired article pointed to an item in Digital Music News with the headline "Study: Spotify Is Detrimental to Music Purchasing…" that quoted a study from NPD Group and NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers) that seems to state that a percentage of consumers were satisfied with merely having access to music, and not owning it. Translated: They listen to their music on Spotify and then don’t buy it.

I saw this exact situation played out right in front of my eyes a month or so ago when Big Harp played at Slowdown. A guy who was a friend of a friend said after Big Harp left the stage, "I love their music. I should probably buy a copy of their CD, but I already have it on Spotify." I, of course, proceeded to call the guy a cheap bastard and tried to guilt him into going to the merch table, to no avail.

Spotify responded to STHoldings in the Wired article by saying artists are receiving "substantial" revenues from Spotify. "Spotify is now the second single largest source of digital music revenue for labels in Europe (IFPI, April 2011) and we’ve driven more than $150 million of revenue to rights holders (ie whoever owns the music, be it artists, publishers or labels) since our launch three years ago.

It should be noted that I didn’t recognize any of the labels that STHoldings represents. So just how significant is their withdrawal beyond being a touch point for articles like this one? Who knows…

But let me add this to the mix: Since I began using Spotify a few months ago the service has been most effective in steering me away from making (what I assume are) bad purchases --  i.e., I can now conveniently listen to just about any record that Pitchfork has ordained with a rating of 8.0 or higher and decide for myself whether it’s worth buying, or not.

The ultimate downside to all this: I’m now less likely to give a record the second or third "listen" that I would have given it had I taken the plunge and purchased it (or received a promo copy). In other words, music no longer is given a chance to "grow on you." And some of the best records can take weeks -- or even months -- of listens to sink in. With Spotify and the other services, artists are given one shot to impress listeners before they move onto something else, never to return.

Online streaming services aren't the only technology replacing CDs, just ask Sting. In an article that appeared in Billboard last week the grandfather of New Wave gave his vision of the future of recorded music.

When asked if he’ll make another album, Sting said: “It’s hard to know what the new model is. I think the app is the new model. People are going to stop buying CDs. People are going to stop selling and making them, so I am looking for different ways to get music to people, and the application at the moment seems to be the favorite.

By “application,” Sting means smartphone applications, like his free “Sting 25” app for the iPad, which includes photos, handwritten lyrics and journal entries, interviews and concert footage, as well as 360-degree zoomable views of his signature instruments. It doesn’t, however, include any actual music. The app only plays music already stored on your iPad or iTunes preview clips. In other words, it’s a gimmick to get people to buy Sting music from the iTunes store.

According to Mac authority cultofmac.com, Sting ain’t alone in his app love. Bjork released an app alongside her last CD, and Pink Floyd is doing a “this day in history” style app for fans. Neither contains any actual music.

"It makes sense," said Cult of Mac. "The more you stop and think about it, the more apps feel analogous to albums: a self-contained work by an artist, a thing they can put together over a period of months or years and then sell to fans. Many of today’s youngsters don’t see why they should pay for music – but they’re perfectly happy to pay for apps.”

While I agree that "youngsters" might pay 99 cents to download Movie Cat or Angry Bird or whatever new game winds up in the iTunes store, I don’t think they’re going to download or buy an app that merely offers to sell them music. Sting’s vision of the future is merely iTunes repackaged, which is no vision at all.

Which brings us back to Spotify, who announced (in the face of STHoldings' rebellion) that it just welcomed its 2.5 millionth paying subscriber.

"So we’d like to say a big thank you to all our subscribers, new and old. Keep spreading the good news about Spotify," the company said in its official announcement. "Of course, we’ll continue to focus on providing you with the best music service possible. We’ve got some exciting developments in the works, which we’ll share with you very soon."

Oh boy, now what...

Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at lazy-i@thereader.com.
-30-

posted at 10:40 pm
on Monday, November 28th, 2011

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