Opinion: Streaming Consciousness, Or Listening Re-Learned

December 17, 2022


Professor John McKnight is a partner at Spoor & Fisher.


I have never been a fan of music streaming services.

I should perhaps begin by saying that when it comes to listening to music, I consider it to be a multi-sensory experience. Not only should you listen to the music, preferably, on a high-quality device and at some volume, but particular attention should be paid to the lyrics penned by the songwriter.  Also, the album artwork (rendered in 12 inch vinyl format) is an important part of the experience to collectively gain insight into the intention of the artist.

It is particularly disagreeable to listen to tracks out of sequence or as part of a playlist, without being able to contextualise the songs. I realise this places me firmly in the old-school camp, but frankly, it is what it is, and I suspect I am not alone.

Lockdown, however, changed much of this. Now, for the first time, I had access to strong bandwidth without the IT department breathing down my neck about “excessive” internet access. Also, I did not have to concern myself with the welfare of my co-workers and their reticence to embrace the brilliance of Led Zeppelin.

And so it was that a Spotify subscription that I had received with a cellphone upgrade and which had been lying dormant was brought to the fore.

Spotify, which started in 2008, is now the world’s biggest music streaming service, with approximately 144 million paying subscribers currently (plus another 180 million or so free subscribers having to endure adverts and the like). Spotify has more than 60 million songs in its database and pays its artists about $0.008 per stream. Spotify also reports how many times an artist has been streamed in the last month, so it’s not hard to work out how much an artist earned in a given 30-day period.  Here are just a few:

  • Led Zeppelin              13.8M streams            =          $110,400
  • AC/DC                        17.2M streams            =          $137,600
  • Depeche Mode          7.2M streams              =          $57,600
  • Billie Eilish                  46.8M streams            =          $374,400
  • Post Malone*             49M streams               =          $392,000
  • Lana Del Rey              16.5M streams            =          $132,000
  • Kanye West                30.1M streams            =          $240,800

(* In 2019, Post Malone was Spotify’s top artist, with a total of 6.5 billion streams earning him approximately $52,000,000.)

 Not all artists are doing so well, however:

  • Evoid                          809 streams                =          $6.47
  • The Parlotones           20,376 streams           =          $163
  • Johnny Clegg             159,509 streams         =         $1,276
  • Steve Hofmeyr           50,228 streams           =          $402
  • Bles Bridges               6,167 streams             =          $49
  • Snotkop                     64,126 streams           =         $513

 Points to note:

  •  Spotify has about a third of the total global music streaming subscribers (there being others such as Pandora, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon, YouTube and Google), so you can multiply these revenues roughly by three, globally speaking.
  • This is the total amount paid across. The artists themselves can only expect from about half to as low as 15% of this amount after record label, publishers, management and the like have all had their take.

Music streaming services have, in the past, been criticised for exploiting musicians, but it is now generally accepted that such services at least expose the artists to a global platform and while the remuneration from the service itself is slim (in most cases), it can be compensated for by increased exposure and concomitant merchandise and tour sales. As a result, most artists now permit their music to appear on such platforms.

 Of course, for the consumer, the advantages to music streaming services are enormous. Anything and everything is but a click away. The original to Tainted Love? Yes, the Soft Cell hit from 1981 is a cover and was originally composed by Ed Cobb and recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964 – which you can listen to on Spotify. The entire Kraftwerk discography at your fingertips? And so it goes.

Such streaming services have highly complex algorithms beavering away in the background, paying close attention to what you listen to, when you listen to it and how much of it you listen to. These algorithms then try and predict your preferences and offer up similar music for your listening pleasure – with varying degrees of success. The less charitable among us will have some fun toying with these algorithms, hoping to achieve a digital rolling of the eyes and an exasperated “What on earth is he listening to now?”. They are indefatigable, however, and occasionally introduce something that is on point and in so doing broadening your musical horizons.

But is music streaming the future? Is buying vinyl a moribund activity? Must we acquiesce to this new world order?

The Second Coming is a poem written by Irish poet WB Yeats in 1919, which concerns the inevitable imposition of a new order on the old. It was written in response to a changing world evidenced at that time by the League of Nations and the recent flu pandemic of 1918/19. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe chose a line from the first verse to be the title of his 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart, which explored the effect of British colonialism on traditional Nigerian life.

 And so it is that we now find ourselves on the brink of a new paradigm, certainly in terms of music consumption. Are the old days of saving up for an album, cherishing the physical artefact and whiling away blissful hours pouring over the artwork and lyrics, immersed in the experience, to be replaced with instant gratification, little to no context and access to such a lode of music that it becomes virtually meaningless?  As Yeats wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.