A long long time ago, back when the Vietnam War wasn’t just a controversial story we read about in history books but instead a recent enraging phenomenon dominating newspaper column inches, music was seemingly relevant. You see, in the turbulent sixties and seventies, music was a place where people could escape the inescapable political strife and gentrification just for a little while. This was a magical time in which it wasn’t uncommon to waste away a Saturday afternoon by dropping acid and listening to your Frank Zappa LPs or crowding into Shea Stadium on a hot August night to see the new pop music phenomenon from across the pond known as The Beatles (and, might I add, tickets to that show were a meager $5.75. Today, the only item you can afford for that kind of money is a Subway sandwich). This was a time when music’s prime objective was unity, solidarity, and togetherness.
Of course, these days are gone forever; they became irrelevant the minute MTV first aired “Video Killed The Radio Star,” ushering in a new era of how people consume their music and perceive their pop stars. It changed the music industry forever, such that Madonna became the first pop star to release a $1 million music video. In the eighties, music didn’t just have to sound good, it had to look good too.
The music industry changed again in the late nineties and early aughts when a fifteen-year-old high school kid from Fairfax County, Va. by the name of Sean Parker met someone named Shawn Fanning over an IRC network. They bonded quickly and, with Parker’s entrepreneurial skills and Fanning’s penchant for computer programming, they soon launched an illegal peer to peer music sharing service known as Napster. That is, until a dizzying maze of legal battles and media scrutiny led to Napster being declared bankrupt in 2002. To this day, it is credited as the fastest growing business of all time, and acted as the precursor to a new era of music. Now, instead of consuming music through shared experience, most people listen to music through Rdio, Pandora, and, in what was perhaps the biggest rejuvenation to internet radio in a generation, Spotify.
Spotify is a Swedish streaming music service that was introduced on American shores just about a year ago, thanks to the $15 million investment of, who else, Mr. Sean Parker, among others. The concept of the service is really quite genius: For free, you can listen to Spotify with commercials and with some content blacked out, or for a nominal fee you can listen commercial free, and have access to Spotify’s staggering 15 million song library. It can even stream from your iPhone or Android. Amazing.
The service is not without its drawbacks, however, and many people see the advent of services such as this as an indicator of end-times for the industry. “The fact of the matter is that providing a free music-sharing service to consumers, where they can find anything on the Spotify library and pay nothing but thirty seconds for an ad to play [is wrong]” says Spotify user Justin, “Even for premium users such as myself, I feel like I’m fleecing artists.”
This is just one of the several controversies surrounding the company, who, unlike its contemporary Pandora, does not follow federal statute with regards to paying record labels or artists. Instead, they shadily make private deals with labels, even paying artists a fraction of a cent per song play, under the terms of their contract. As if that weren’t enough, these record labels are getting paid by Spotify and some even have a minority stake in the company, as reported in the New York Times.
These paltry payouts have led many artists to leave their music off of Spotify. For example, Adele’s grammy winning album “21” was left off of the service until just last month, and in the time it was off of the service, it sold 9 million copies. That’s quite an accomplishment in the internet era. Albeit Adele’s album was a rare feat, it is still telling that the album was able to perform that well sans the service.
On the flipside, though, people will be able to find ways to listen to music for free regardless of whether there is a paid service or not. Asked how she acquired music before the introduction of the free streaming service, Spotify user Rachel deadpanned, “I used iTunes. Also, some asshole told me about a website that converts files from Youtube into an mp3 and puts it in my iTunes library.”
This outlook seems to be the general consensus among casual listeners, and serious collectors feel the same. Music collector and listener Ken says, “You would be surprised how much good obscure stuff Spotify has! It goes way beyond iTunes.” To this end, it would seem like Spotify is hitting the mark on all fronts.
But the company’s own zeal is disconcerting; a year ago it talked a huge game, boasting that it could attract 50 million users within a year. This prediction is all well and good, but Spotify has caught much flack as of late because it did not release its user numbers to the public, and in writing this piece, we reached out to their PR department for some concrete numbers regarding the number of paying subscribers to no avail. This may seem irrelevant, but these numbers matter to the industry elite, both for profit and comparison sake.
The fact that Spotify stood tall last July and declared these ballsy predictions was, in a sense, only setting itself up for impending letdown. Still though, Spotify remains a media darling, innovating how we listen to music on a daily basis, from sharing what we listen to with friends through social networks, to building beautiful apps with tie-ins from places as diverse as McDonald’s, Reebok, and We Are Hunted. In one year, it managed to generate 28 million song plays and 23.7 million hours of music listening, and, with its partnership with Facebook, the pressure to use the streaming service is going to become even more visible in the coming months.
All indicators point to the fact that Spotify will become the preeminent internet music streaming service, if it isn’t already, much to the discontent of the people who are actually producing the content -- the artists. Even though the service perhaps didn’t reach the coveted 50 million users mark, it has left an indelible mark on music and pop culture as a whole in its short life here in the states. Now it’s high time we sit back, relax, and enjoy the (free music). Now. if only they will add Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, all will be right in the world.
UPDATED 12:00 PM: Ken Parks, Spotify’s Chief Content Officer, has announced that the service has garnered 15 million active users, as well as 4 million paying subscribers at the Global Business Summit For Creative Content in London. This is of course well below the 50 million users mark, but still has made huge inroads for the online music streaming market.