Sticks and Picks

Artists: Spotify is a Promotional Tool!

I can’t help but get upset when, on a regular basis, I seem to find an up and coming artist that renounces Spotify as if it’s some leprosy-ridden stepchild. It was one thing to listen to Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame go on promoting the collapse of the record industry, and then turn around and berate Spotify with the language of a five year old - that was easy to brush off as a childish temper tantrum. From that mentality though, arose a bandwagon that many artists are all too willing to jump on.

With Spotify, I can hear almost any artist I find out about, listen to my heart’s content, and then buy the album if I choose. It’s a listener’s paradise. The ratio of artists I listen to on Spotify and then go out and purchase their music isn’t anything remarkable, but I would like to think that it counts toward something. In fact, Spotify was the catalyst in many of my recent music endeavors: nine album purchases, two live shows, and two shirts, all ranging from Zedd and Nero to Hands Like Houses and the 1975. I’ve become fans of these artists, and because I liked what I heard on Spotify, I chose to support them through purchasing their goods.

That being said, I realize that not everyone treats Spotify in this same way. While my closest friend consumes the same amount of music as I do (if not more), his Spotify premium account trumps his need for purchasing albums. However, he is very likely to check out an artist upon first hearing an interesting song, and then becoming an advocate for their music. To me, this type of behavior is Spotify’s most valuable asset, and many artists seem to be either unwilling or  incapable of understanding this value.

It’s this kind of listener behavior that must stop being treated as a valueless commodity in order for the music industry to move forward. While creators may only get fractions of a penny per stream, they get exposure and the chance to win over a new fan. Even though the long term payoff is still being heavily debated, it can’t be denied that Spotify can allow for the creation of a greater number of fans- if treated correctly.

The alternative that artists who decry Spotify are pushing for, is that far less people hear an artist’s music. This leads to fewer people hearing their music, and spending in related areas of the industry decreases. Artists cannot survive off of Spotify alone, and most of the artists that pitch a fit about Spotify are ones who seem to treat it this way. 

In fact, it seems that many artists are missing the key point here. Spotify is a promotional tool. It is not to be treated as an end to the recording industry’s problems, but instead as a valuable tool for shaping the future. It offers artists the chance to show listeners that the music they put out is good enough to capture a listener’s attention. This is a direct link between an artist’s music and the fans, and by severing this link, artists are implying that their music is not good enough to capture and hold an audience. By even further making a fuss about it, artists can even go so far as to suggest the very fans that keep them active are no better than the common thief. If I’m feeling out your music, that’s not something I want to hear.

Making a fuss about Spotify is incredibly off putting to listeners everywhere. While the pay received from Spotify may not be great, it’s still better than somebody illegally downloading an album. Arguing that Spotify is severely impacting an artist’s popularity and ability to survive is like arguing that street vendors selling unlicensed T-shirts are making a dent in your merch sales. Then again, if you’re as big as Radiohead, Metallica, or Pink Floyd, you shouldn’t be complaining in the first place. 

So artists, the next time you think about promoting the theft of an inferior medium over Spotify, take a good hard look at your intentions, and realize that you’re not only holding back the potential of streaming music, but are making yourselves look like an ass.


Is iTunes Moving Radio Forward?

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Maybe I’m just picky. Or maybe it’s just that I see so much potential for online radio, and get really disappointed when not even Apple, the company that revolutionized digital music, can make something like iTunes Radio the “Pandora Killer” it’s made out to be.

With iOS 7, Apple made quite the fuss about its new iTunes Radio feature, which is notable simply because Apple is getting into the online radio game. As popular as Pandora, Spotify, and several other online music players have become, iTunes Radio has the potential to upset these services simply because it comes pre-installed on an iPhone. Instead of being one of those apps that you discover only because you look for it, it’s a feature that’s found in the native music player- one that you don’t know you need until you stumble upon it.

iTunes radio excels at being really easy to use. Users can create stations based on artists or songs from any music in the Now Playing screen on any iDevice, and this feature is extended to all areas of iTunes by right-clicking. However, even with a station based on one of my favorite bands, it wasn’t until I skipped to the sixth song (the most you can skip in a given hour), that I thought “hey, this song fits pretty well.” Is this a fault of the player, or am I again just being too picky? Probably the latter, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas that Apple can improve on. Before we get into that though, lets start out with what iTunes radio is good at. 



Internet Radio Without the Learning Curve

iTunes Radio a nice gateway drug for people who haven’t yet become addicted to Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, and the like. It’s accessible in a program that most everybody has, and it doesn’t require much time or knowledge to tune into a station that you may like. Much like traditional radio, users choose a station with a broad categorization that contains roughly what the listener is interested in. The advantage that Apple presents is that there are more options since stations are not competing for airspace. Stations DJ’ed by guest artists, ambient electronic music, Jazz Showcase, and If You Like… stations provide a nice variety to choose from.



Hits, Variety, Discovery

What would an internet radio be without the all important user feedback feature? Pandora made the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down feature a standard which Spotify quickly adopted, but iTunes Radio give just a bit more control with a three-option slider. Listeners can fine tune the music that’s played on the station by selecting “Hits,” “Variety,” or “Discovery.” A nice touch.

“Hits” is most similar to what traditional radio sounds like, playing mostly top hits that you’ve no doubt heard dozens of times. Moving the slider to “Variety” throws in some less heard songs that you may not have heard before, or forgotten about, while “Discovery” aims to play obscure music that may become your next favorite. 

This feature is what makes iTunes Radio shine, as it gives users simple control over what they wish to hear. Appealing to basic “don’t-touch-that-dial” listeners and veteran music seekers alike, iTunes Radio appeals to a much wider user base than any other internet radio service out there.

The welcoming arms of iTunes Radio aren’t without some slight hiccups though. While the service doesn’t require the installation of an external program, the deeper interface and research that usually accompanies this software is somewhat lacking.



Artist and Song-based Stations

Stations based on individual songs sound like a great idea, and as much as this idea excites me, it’s just too hard to pull off. Most of the songs I like enough to want to base an entire station off of are met with “a station cannot be created with this song.” Sure, a single song is (ideally somewhat) unique, and it would take some serious tagging to find something with the same qualities, but then again, Pandora makes its bread and butter off of this exact feature.

As of right now iTunes Radio, and internet radio in general, is still genre based. I mean that in a very broad way, in the sense that when you choose an artist that you like, other artists in the same genre are suggested. It doesn’t go much deeper than that though, in that more fine tuned characteristics are rarely considered. How great would it be though, to have a medium where you could personally select music at a more refined level, choosing music similar to a specific song or album? 

For example, creating “Incubus Radio” plays artists like Stone Temple Pilots, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam. I didn’t start the station with the intent of hearing 90s grunge, but I guess the bands all share some vaguely similar qualities. iTunes Radio stops here - if I wanted to get more specific and create a station from Incubus’ album Megalomaniac (which happens to be my favorite), it wouldn’t work. Take it another step further, and create a station from say, Echo, a song off of 2001’s Morning View, and I’m still hearing Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. Now Echo is a pretty unique song and I didn’t expect a station based off of it to work, but it demonstrates the inability to fine tune the stations on iTunes Radio beyond genre.



By nature, radio is a hit saturated medium who’s main purpose is to play familiar hits in the background, while making daily tasks slightly more enjoyable. iTunes Radio performs this task admirably, and a station in “Hits” mode is a large step forward in terms of customizable yet familiar radio. Beyond this, iTunes Radio is still in its infancy when compared to industry veteran Pandora. While Apple certainly has the resources to develop its radio in a more forward-thinking environment, it’s unclear whether it will be deemed necessary. The argument will be (and has been) that those who desire more customization and control will use other services that provide more in depth music browsing and discovery. These other services are created specifically for listeners who want to dive deeper into their music listening experience, at the cost of a steeper learning curve.

Apple iTunes Radio excels at being an easy to use radio that anyone can pick up and use without  much thought. There is much opportunity to grow, but only time will tell if a more accurate (read: picky) music categorization system like Pandora’s Music Genome Project will be implemented. In the end, is it worth Apple’s time competing with an already developed  discovery system eight plus years in the making, or is it better to instead go after a different listener base entirely?


A Few Reasons Why Google Isn’t Helping Online Music

As a fan of Google’s many contributions to the modern era, I got excited when Google announced its involvement in music streaming. Surely Google could have something new and novel to offer, and a household name endorsing online music would (ideally) bring a wider acceptance to the principles behind streaming music.

What I found in Google Play Music All Access was instead a disappointment where nothing new had been brought to the table. Many factors contributed to a forgettable service, and these are my main complaints.

  1. Google Play Music All Access is too long of a name. As petty as this may sound, a memorable brand has everything to do with modern music.
  2. On computers, the service is browser based. While this can attract users who don’t necessarily want to download another application onto their hard drive, the time it takes to create an account, sign up for All-Access, and start listening to music isn’t any quicker than downloading a standalone app. Having multiple players open in separate tabs can also lead to multiple songs playing at once if you’re not careful.
  3. The social aspect is lacking. Although the service uses Google+, most of your friends probably don’t. The result? Fewer people to share music with, and fewer ways to find recommended music.
  4. It’s not free. All-Access gives you access to streaming music not in your library and listening to custom radio stations. While $9.99 is a pretty standard price for streaming music (only $7.99 until June 30th), this price is usually for an upgrade to a basic streaming service. Benefits such as no commercials and higher quality streams give listeners a reason to upgrade, and charging for an all-or-nothing service seems backwards in comparison.
  5. The music player’s visuals aren’t bad…

…but, navigating through the player is another story. A quick search for one of my favorite bands yielded colorful results, but no immediate information on the contents of each album. Requiring users to click on an album to see it’s contents isn’t inherently bad, but it makes quick browsing a hassle. 

Compare this to Spotify, while performing the same search:

Spotify’s view offers instant track information, including popularity. On top of this, Coldplay’s most recent studio album is there, which brings me to my next point-

6. Google Play Music All Access’ music library isn’t as expansive as Spotify. Keeping in mind that the current music licensing issues may be due to the infancy of this new service, it certainly doesn’t aid to the value of Google’s new music player.

7. Google’s music manager is an easy way to upload your music collection to Google Play Music All Access…

…but it won’t import everything. 

Now Spotify can’t play .wav files either, but for a new startup that tries to compete with established streaming services, it doesn’t help that an opportunity to improve isn’t taken advantage of.

Negatives aside, Google Play Music All Access isn’t a complete miss. It’s “Listen Now” column is aided greatly by the ability to thumbs up/thumbs down every song that you listen to. This goes beyond simply improving user-created stations, and helps curate music that you may be interested in. Enlarged album artwork highlights certain albums, but it’s unclear why those specific albums are highlighted. Are those albums I haven’t listened to in a while? Have those albums been rated higher than others? Regardless of the methods used, it’s a nice way to quickly highlight certain music. The downside of this is that it only seems to do this with music already in your library, so there’s less chance of you finding something entirely new.

It could be argued that it’s the “Explore” feature that is aimed more at finding new music, but of the 5 results I first encountered, 3 albums were already in my library, and didn’t offer much in the way of new music.

All things considered, Google Play Music All Access isn’t a bad service, but there’s nothing to it that other services can’t offer at a better value. That being said, I’ll be canceling my free All-Access trial next month.


Why Streaming Music is the Way Forward

Streaming music services are steadily growing in the US, and even more so worldwide. While often looked at as an issue of songs vs. subscriptions, ownership of one does not mean outright eradication of the other. In many ways, each are supported by the other, and the idea of fair pay for easy access to music is what music listeners in the digital age should get excited about. This easy access is allowing for more music to be heard and discovered, and streaming services are providing a good set of directions towards where the music industry needs to go.

Just last month, Warner Music Group saw 25% of its digital revenue come from streaming services. Totaling about $54 million, this revenue added to the digital sales and is now outweighing the decrease in physical sales. This marks not only a landmark for streaming music, but for digital music in general. After more than a decade, digital music is finally being taken seriously, and there is now data showing that this format is where the industry is going. Arguments about MP3s can finally be laid to rest, and that wasted energy can now be put into advancing music even further- namely into the cloud.

Convenience is the key to any successful product, and P2P software has set the bar for the easiest way to obtain music since listeners could rip music from a CD. Now that streaming music services are providing better ways of obtaining music, it’s safe to say that the tables are turning, and at a rapid rate. Services like Spotify allow users to find nearly any artist and song and play it instantly. Time spent searching torrenting programs for a quality audio format has been replaced with giving a consumer a song of good quality right from the start, and has made it more convenient for music listeners. On top of this, rights holders are actually getting paid on a per-listen basis, so it benefits both parties. Music technology advocates have been predicting the merge of P2P convenience and fair pay to artists for years now, and companies are finally starting to listen.

On the subject of payment within streaming services, the big problem that people are having with Spotify is its royalty rate. At only a fraction of a cent per song stream, it’s easy to go ahead and say that this is unfair to the artist. However, looking deeper into this rate, it isn’t as bad as it initially may seem. As a premium subscriber, you pay $10 a month. If on a daily basis you listen to an average of ten tracks, over the course of a month you have streamed 300 songs. Spotify pays 70% to the artist, so of your $10 a month, $7 of that goes to the artist. Divide that $7 by the 300 songs you’ve listened to and that amounts to $0.023 per stream. If you listen to more songs than this over the course of a month, let’s say 600 songs per month, the rate drops even further to $0.011 (compared with Pandora’s $0.0011, which people seem to be fine with).

No matter how much somebody loves an artist, a ten dollar monthly fee is simply not enough to put food on the tables of hundreds of artists. Unless listeners are willing to pay more than $10/mo., they can’t seriously fault Spotify for not paying artists enough. Sure, iTunes’ royalty rate is identical, but 70% of a $0.99 single is a lot more than 70% of the ten dollars you paid to stream hundreds of songs. In the digital music world, the price of a single CD is about as much as consumers are willing to pay for an intangible medium, and the blame can’t simply be placed on Spotify, as convenient as that may sound. Listeners can’t demand fair pay to artists while the listeners themselves aren’t required to pay a dime. The bottom line here is that it’s not ultimately Spotify that is at fault for the low rate given to artists- there is just not a good way to divide payment among such a vast array of artists. Where these numbers begin to add up is when millions of people subscribe to streaming services. That ten dollars a month just increased exponentially, and is now a number that generates attention.

There also still exists a concept of ownership among music listeners. People are still attached to a physical medium, and not being able to hold music in your hand is a tough obstacle for many older fans to overcome. However, Spotify and others like it appeal to a younger user base, especially those who grew up with downloading music both legally and illegally. As many up and coming artists only release their material online, the reality is that not every piece of music created can survive on a physical medium. Turning to digital-only releases has benefited artists around the world, and streaming music is just another way of getting your music heard.

While an individual fan’s streaming of music cannot realistically be expected to pay out much to artists, the real thing to focus on here is how a nation of music streamers can collectively breathe new life into a dying record industry.  Paul McGuiness, manager of U2, called Spotify a “promotional medium,” and at the moment, this seems to be an accurate representation of streaming services in general. Streaming music simply hasn’t been around long enough to generate data proving whether or not trading small royalties for large exposure is a wise decision. Until streaming music becomes as widely accepted as iTunes, it’s simply a better way to get your music heard.

For now, it’s simply all too easy for people to focus negatively on streaming royalty rates. These rates can’t realistically be compared to the rates of the past, because it’s a whole new medium. Labels chose to combat propagation of digital music over the internet, and now companies who chose to work with it are pulling ahead. It may not seem like much right now, but once companies, labels, and consumers can learn to look at the big picture, streaming music will become the next big advancement in the music industry.


Is Spotify Hurting Album Sales?

Recently Century Media Records, home to many metal bands, pulled their entire catalog from Spotify. Why? Their artists’ physical record sales have been dropping.They claim that Spotify is the cause of this, and “will lead to artists not being able to record music the way it should be recorded. Ultimately, in some cases, it will completely kill a lot of smaller bands that are already struggling to make ends meet.” (Century Media Records).

Curious about this claim, I did some research. It is true that from 2010 to 2011, CD album sales did drop - by 5.7%. However, digital album sales rose by 19.5% (Business Wire). This marked the first improvement of album sales since 2004 (Reuters), and is a pretty big deal. But is Spotify the only reason for these increases and decreases?

Another side of this is that Spotify was released to the US on July 14, 2011 - meaning that it had not even been active for six months by the time that these sales numbers were counted. This can be debated either way, saying that either Spotify was responsible for the drop in physical sales or the rise of digital sales in only five and a half months. The way I look at it though, this is a moot point- CD sales have been dropping for years now, and digital sales have been on the rise. Spotify may or may not have accelerated this process in the few months it has been active, but it’s definitely not solely responsible.

Century Media Records’ claim that physical sales are declining in every country that Spotify is present is absolutely true. However, I can also say with this same logic that countries who have access to the internet are more likely to get tattoos. What you have to remember in both of these claims though, is a valuable lesson my psychology professor taught me in college - correlation does not imply causation. Physical sales of albums are dropping all over the world, whether Spotify is present or not. This is happening because the average listener is spending less on music, and what they do spend is increasingly going more towards digital sales. Just as digital album sales and tattoos are becoming more popular, there is not a single reason for these phenomena. It is a combination of a myriad of things that cannot be blamed upon a single event.

Pulling your entire catalog off of Spotify in the “interest of [the] artists” is a bold move. There isn’t enough data yet to determine if the exposure artists gain on Spotify is worth risking the sales of albums that people can now stream for free. In my experience though, the modern music listener will support an artist they like, and one of the main ways to find new artists is through Spotify. If a listener doesn’t know who you are, they weren’t going to buy your album anyway. So why isolate yourself in an industry spread by word of mouth?

What are your thoughts on Spotify’s effect on album sales? Is it worth putting your albums online in hopes to recruit new fans?