The introduction of smart technology has completely changed the ways in which we consume music. Not only has the technology evolved – we no longer have to queue up in HMV to buy CDs – but we now have more access than ever to music we like, as well as the music we may never have been exposed to previously.
This shift – from physical to digital, from home stereos to smartphones – has had both positive and negative effects of the music world, and we hope to address each of these to fully understand the impact that’s been made.
As previously stated, one of the biggest impacts that smartphones have had on music in the past decade is the ability to listen to pretty much anything, from anywhere. This is primarily due to the increase in dedicated subscriptions services, which all offer a massive library of music to the end user. This includes the giants of the industry such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon music, as well as the less well known, but still wildly successful, offerings like Deezer and Tidal. As of 2019, Spotify has over 300 million users, both on its free and paid platforms, demonstrating just how popular one of these services can be.
On the subject of streaming services and how they relate specifically to smart technology, Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of the British Phonographic Institute, stated, “This exciting technology is not only transforming how we engage with music, encouraging more shared listening, but also how we discover it. The challenge and opportunity for labels and artists will be to ensure their music is as easily available and as effectively marketed via AI voice assistants as it has been through the screen interface.“
What’s more, many of these platforms offer free versions that allow listeners to access a wealth of content without having to pay – the only downside being that these free versions are ad-funded. Looking at the Spotify subscribers in particular, of the 300 million, well over 2/3 of those are free customers. The introduction of smartphone technology has enabled a whole generation to access music content that they simply wouldn’t have been able to 20 years ago, when what they listen to would be more dictated by what was on the radio, what was popular or what was available in their local shop.
Another less publicised benefit of streaming platforms is that they offer the ability for up-and-coming musicians to serve and promote their art without a significant financial investment. Through aggregators and artist accounts, musicians have a relatively straightforward way of uploading their music directly to a streaming platform, which they can then market and track as they see fit. The benefits of this are fairly obvious – if more unknown artists can get their music listened to, the more chance they have of being successful. Joshua Arnold, a Label Manager with experience working with up-and-coming artists, sees streaming services as a great avenue for new talent. He says, “Years ago, if you wanted to get big in the music industry, you needed a label and you needed a distributor. Now you don’t need either of those things. You can make some music, upload it to an online platform, send it round to a bunch of promotional channels and you’ve already got thousands of followers – all from your phone. There are tons of artists that make music completely on their iPhones and there’s far more gaining huge followers just from uploading clips to Instagram.”
While streaming services can be an amazing way for new artists to break into the industry, it should be noted that unlike free platforms such as YouTube or Soundcloud, there are stricter verification processes involved. That means that there is some moderation involved, and not just anybody can start uploading music if they want to.
Whilst the evolution of music streaming has been wholly beneficial for consumers, it has had some negative impacts on the wider industry. The most often discussed aspect of the rise of streaming is the detrimental effect that it’s had on the sales of traditional music platforms. For instance, between 2009 and 2018, sales of CDs in the UK dropped by over 87 million – from 119.4 million to 32 million. While this follows the same industry trend of the previous decades – CDs replaced tapes, tapes replaced vinyl etc – it should also be noted that traditional downloads are also on the decline, leaving streaming platforms with a near-monopoly on the way people consume modern music.
As a result of the scaled-back use of CDs (and other music formats) there has been a significant impact on businesses and the small economy that relies on CD sales to thrive. One of the most prescient examples of this is the gradual decline of HMV. Once a high-street behemoth that built its brand on being the go-to place for music, the company has posted profit declines in the past few years, with a total revenue dip of 7.8% in December 2017. Similarly, in 2018 it was revealed that supermarket retailers would be ‘significantly’ reducing the amount of shelf space they carry for CDs and records, further demonstrating the decline of physical copies of music.
However, this decline hasn’t just affected massive corporations with other revenue streams. Plenty of small businesses have also suffered. Between 2000 and 2009 the number of independent record shops fell from 700 to 296 – a total loss of 404 across the UK. Furthermore, the shift away from CDs and digital downloads, towards streaming platforms, has also had a negative impact on certain genres of music. Thomas Steffens, CEO of Primephonic, a streaming service dedicated to classical music, says, “Classical music is suffering from declining availability of CDs, download stores and radio channels, whereas, opposed to most other music genres, it is not benefiting from the streaming revolution.” According to Steffens, this is primarily due to the lack of support offered to certain genres from big streaming platforms – with limited libraries, sub-par search tools and recommendations, and mediocre audio quality which can be essential to the classical listening experience.
Another side effect of increased streaming is the impact it has on artists. This was, quite famously, brought into the public spotlight by Taylor Swift in 2014 when she decided to pull her albums from Spotify, before moving to Tidal and Apple Music. The main crux of her issue was that the free ad-supported version of the streaming platform did not fairly compensate the artists involved. According to Swift’s label, her entire discography had only earned $500,000 in 12 months through Spotify, far less than she would have received from traditional sales. While a high-profile example that doesn’t fairly demonstrate the experiences of less influential artists on the platforms, this shows how streaming can have a negative impact on artists. However, in a paid model, there is more compensation given to artists for their work. Some of these concerns are echoed by Joshua Arnold, who says that with so much competition for exposure it’s, “not enough to be a good musician anymore– you need the right ears at the right time to hear you music.” He also insists that while the technology is there for artists to upload and profit from their music, free from labels and management, it also creates extra responsibilities that some artists aren’t equipped to deal with. He states, “I’ve worked with some amazing artists who didn’t gain any traction just because their social media wasn’t good enough.”
Antonio Peluso, a founding member of Jellyfish & The Milkmen, insists that the band’s experience with streaming services has only ever been positive and has even helped them grow their following. He said, “We use all the streaming services primarily because no one is buying physical albums anymore; smartphones give people the chance to access thousands of hours of music with one click, which can’t be done with physical albums. For a smaller act like Jellyfish & The Milkmen, we’re able to distribute to everyone in next to no time. Not only does this helped us reach a new audience, but it’s also helped us secure some more bookings.”
Overall, it seems undeniable that smartphones, and related technologies, have impacted music – not just the way we consume it and enjoy it, but the industry at large. While we are still in the infancy of streaming platforms, and their true impact remains to be seen, there does appear to be a clear divide between who is positively impacted and who is negatively impacted by their growth. Quite clearly, the biggest winners are the large corporations that operate the services – Apple Music (including iTunes and iCloud) grew 9% between 2018 – 2019, while Spotify reached an operating profit of $107 million in the same time.
However, it can be easily argued that the end users are also benefiting from the growth in streaming services, making our favourite music easier to access and allowing us to explore new tastes at the touch of a button.
As the research shows, those that are negatively impacted by the advancement of smart technology are the traditional retailers and smaller artists that will see a decline in revenue. While there is some hope for those that appreciate more traditional music mediums – vinyl record sales grew by 1.6% in 2018 – the dominance of streaming may see outdated forms like CDs and downloads disappear completely.
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“Smartphones have 100% helped radio; if you believe the doom-mongers of the past few years, radio should be dead by now – instead smartphones and new technologies have allowed us to reach a completely new audience. Whereas radio has historically been seen as an older person’s medium, the advances in tech have allowed us to continue moving towards our target demographics of young adults, who simply want their media at the touch of a button.”
“Phones and smart technology have been hugely beneficial for building and maintaining a community radio station, not just for increased engagement with our listeners, but also for internal communication and organisation. Our smartphones allow us to build a support network for our volunteer DJs, keeping them informed of what’s going on at the studio, and letting them share news and current affairs with us before they go on air.”
“Classical music needs a combination of technology and human creativity that you can’t get from most streaming platforms. For instance, an algorithm can tell you what new pop hits are trending that you haven’t listened to, but so far no algorithm in the world can introduce you to Wagner after listening to Puccini, although musically they are very related. Which is why part of Primephonic’s recommendations are done by classical music experts, not by algorithms. In the case of classical music, too much reliance on artificial intelligence has, on the major streaming services, actually led to artificial unintelligence: poor search results and mainstream recommendations.”
“Like all powerful things, smartphones have influenced our careers in both positive and negative ways. As a musician, I have found lots of advantages, especially when it comes to organising and advertising gigs, building a following, and contacting other musicians. However, there are some drawbacks. One of the most obvious is that people tend to enjoy live shows less – mainly because they’re too busy trying to video a gig on their phone rather than just enjoying the live experience. In my opinion, this recent phenomenon has made music fans lose touch with the reality and feeling that a live act has, which can’t be replicated in a video.”
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