Which kinds of music are encouraged by streaming vs. downloads?

Let’s compare iTunes downloads to a mythical perfect streaming service which lets you listen to everything for a fixed fee each month or sometimes even for free. In the interests of analytical clarity, I will oversimplify some of the actual pricing schemes associated with streaming and consider them in their purest form.

Streaming seems to encourage the demand for variety, so the website vendor wants to make browsing seem really fun, perhaps more fun than the songs themselves.  (An alternative view is that the information produced by streaming services, and the recommendations, allow for in-depth exploration of genres and that outweighs the “greater ease of sampling of variety” effect.  Perhaps both effects can be true for varying groups of listeners with somehow the “middle level of variety-seeking left in the lurch, relatively speaking.)

The music creators are incentivized to create music which sounds very good on first approach.  Otherwise the listener just moves on to further browsing and doesn’t think about going to your concert or buying your album.

Streaming, with its extremely large menu, also means commonly consumed pieces will tend to be shorter or more easily broken into excerpts.  This will favor pop music and I think also opera, because of its arias.

Advertising is a more important revenue source for streaming than it is for downloads.  The music promoted by streaming services thus should contribute to the overall ambience and coolness of the site, and musicians who can meet that demand will find that their work is given more upfront attention.  It encourages music whose description evokes a response of “Oh, I’ve never had that before, I’d like to try it.”  Even if you don’t really care about it.

People who purchase advertised products are, on average, older than the people who purchase music.  Streaming services thus should slant product and product accessibility on the site toward the musical tastes of older people.

Since streaming divides up revenues among a greater number of artists, that should encourage solo performers with low capital costs, who can keep their (tiny) share all for themselves.  It also may require that the artists on streaming services can make a living or partial living giving concerts, even more so than under the previous world order.

This music industry source suggests that streaming boosts album sales in a way that downloads do not.  It also questions whether that boost will be long-lived, as streaming services take over more of the market.

When the marginal cost of more music is truly zero, does that make musical choices more or less socially influenced?

Hannah Karp shows that in the new world of streaming, mainstream radio stations are responding by playing the biggest hits over and over again.  Ad-supported media require the familiar song to grab and keep the attention of the listener.  Risk-aversion is increasing, which probably pushes some marginal listeners, who are interested in at least some degree of exploration, into further reliance on streaming.

The top 10 songs last year were played close to twice as much on the radio than they were 10 years ago, according to Mediabase, a division of Clear Channel Communications Inc. that tracks radio spins for all broadcasters. The most-played song last year, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” aired 749,633 times in the 180 markets monitored by Mediabase. That is 2,053 times a day on average. The top song in 2003, “When I’m Gone” by 3 Doors Down, was played 442,160 times that year.

So the differing parts of the market are interdependent here.

What do you think?


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