How streaming has shaped the music industry

Posted by James Cullen on

Consider how music has changed over the past ten or twenty years. Consider how the world in general has changed in that time. From my school days in the early 2000s, I went from Cassette players, to Walkman portable CD players. Then we made the jump to MP3 players, the ones that looked like a chunky USB stick with a small screen on them. Then the world went crazy when Apple introduced the iPod, and then we had iPod touch, and eventually, the world was introduced to Spotify and other streaming music platforms.

In that time we’ve also had huge technological advancements in all areas; compare a Sony Playstation 2 with the current PS4 Pro, or those old indestructible Nokia phones with a modern top of the range flagship smartphone.

Technology has shaped the world in irreversible ways, and its influence on the music industry is a really interesting topic to discuss and explore.

As music producers and industry professionals, we need to be as aware in the trends of the ways in which people consume music as we do in the latest techniques in making and creating it, we need to understand what it means for our process, as well as the world in general. In a world where we need to remain increasingly more conscious of the repercussions of actions and words, music is no different. It’s a platform to affect change, as well as to spread culture and messages of love or hate. The place of music in the world is fundamentally affected by the way we consume it, which has a knock on effect on the people making it.

So, today with Top Music Arts, I’ll take a small break from Production related topics, and we will explore how streaming, and specifically playlists, have affected the music industry.

The Rise of Streaming

Ten years ago, if you liked a song, you had a few options to get hold of it. These options now seem decidedly archaic, despite us only being a decade on. You could go all the way to the local CD shop and buy it on CD, or you could download it from iTunes and stick it on your iPod. You also had the option of illegally downloading it, but that was a risky business then as it is now. Limewire, anyone?

Despite iTunes’ downloads seemingly being the most current and familiar to a modern reader option in the line up, there was still something totally different about the availability of music at that time. Mainly, you’d be paying money for it. A CD would cost money, and you’d be getting a physical product in your hands. An iTunes download, though not physical, still felt like a product because you’d pay the same amount of money as you would for a physical album, and you’d load it onto your iPod and listen ad infinitum. 

Consider for a moment the relationship this creates between you as the consumer and the music you’re consuming. If you spent, say £10 on an album, you wanted to get your money’s worth.

Remember the golden days when an album came with a booklet? Lyrics, info about the band, photos, lists of who played what on what song. This was all part of the product, and it helped create that tangible relationship between artists and fans. 

One of my personal favourite artists Bon Iver, for example, has a first album which was surrounded by the myth of Justin Vernon retreating to the woods in his dad’s log cabin after a rough break up, and writing and recording these songs that were so different from everything he’d made previously. And this mythical status made the connection I had with the album so much more meaningful, and I’m sure all the other Bon Iver fans would tell you they had a similar connection to this story.

This kind of scenario allowed a unique relationship with an artist to form. If you bought the album, you listened to every song. If you bought one album, you bought all the albums. And you listened to them all too! One after another, from track 1 until the last track. An album as a product existed for this kind of relationship. How many old CDs did you play and repeat until the CD wore itself out and started skipping?

As of 2008, Spotify introduced the world to streaming music. Consider how radically different the process of instantly searching and finding any song ever is with having to go and buy the specific album on which that song comes. The music industry exists now in a state that means if you have an internet connection, you have access to more music than ever before, and the most important point of this, is you can access all of this music for free.

What this means is that instead of the connection I just discussed that is formed when you buy a CD, you can go and listen to it the moment it is released, and if you don’t mind the occasional jarring advert, you can do this without paying anyone anything. The convenience of this can’t be overlooked, and I’m sure many would agree that it’s a much better option. But what does it mean that now you can -for the monthly price of one single album in 2009- have access to every album that’s released each week, or indeed pretty much every album that’s been released ever? 

Does that fundamental connection between listener and artist disappear? 

Has music become more of a service than a product?

Is this a good or bad thing?

One aspect of how this is definitely a good thing is that anyone now has access to music created anywhere in the world. It has democratised the music industry in a way that was never possible before, and with the rise of independent distributors and labels, anyone -even YOU- can put their music on Spotify for the whole world to enjoy.

The rise of global non-english speaking pop music is another undeniable consequence of the streaming era too. Consider how popular Despacito was when it came out, or even K-Pop now. It’s what allows me to listen to Jamaican Dancehall music in my rainy Northern UK home, on the opposite side of the world. The results are audible too, as a global connection between musicians and music fans means more influences go into the cultural melting pot, creating hybrid stars and genres that never could have existed before.

Think about this in the context of your music making process. What genres or artists influence you, that you wouldn’t have been able to listen to 10 years ago? What impact does it have on your process that you can in the space of 10 minutes listen to music from Africa, America, Jamaica, France or Japan?

While there are concerns with the Spotify model that cover everything from audio quality, to anti-capitalist sensibilities and the fact that you don’t ‘own’ the music, this impact it’s had on how music is written is undeniable. There are also issues over how Spotify shares revenue, and who it decides to promote. Remember that day when every playlist cover was Drake?

The point here though is that Spotify has created a newly levelled playing field for musicians and fans alike, allowing unprecedented access to an even more unprecedented amount of music. Where 10 years ago you’d have to peruse magazines and blogs for the latest new music suggestions, all you have to do with Spotify is keep the music playing, and it will use its elusive machine learning algorithm to suggest new music for your tastes, and frankly, a lot of the suggestions I’ve personally had have been spot on!

But if I’m being honest, I couldn’t tell you who those suggested tracks that I have enjoyed and added to my playlists are written or performed by, and even more to the point, the playlists I listen to every day require me to see the name of the artists of an individual song to be able to correctly tell who’s performing it. Even if I know all the lyrics, I’d still struggle to name the artist if I couldn’t see it on my phone or the screen in my car. 

Which makes me wonder, is that a bad thing?


Spotify has almost become synonymous with playlists. They’re what greet you on the home page, even before albums do. Everything from ‘Soundtracking your Friday’ to ‘Made for you’. Everything is compiled by genre or Mood, a point Spotify has helped to drill into music consumers everywhere. Music is to supplement life, to create moods in the background. 

Hey Google, play relaxing music’ 

As I’ve previously mentioned, there is as much criticism levelled at Spotify as there is praise, they notoriously pay royalties at low rates, and the top 1% of artists dominate the top 99% of streams. It’s a definite mirroring of the stage we’re at in late Capitalism, where followers, interactions, subscribers and customers are all the most valued things to businesses and influencers. The customer has become how these entities make money, and Spotify is definitely set up to create a more user friendly experience than the one it creates for artists releasing music on the platform. Have you noticed how your favourite bands have had to start touring more and thinking of more creative ways to bring in revenue? £50 for a t shirt seems a tad excessive, doesn’t it?

Everything in Spotify’s model  is about creating moods and playlists. If you let it, Spotify will endlessly play you new music that it thinks you like based on its sophisticated calculations which take into account the music you have listened to previously. Which is great if you want to keep it the same, but not so much if you’re looking to branch out, as music snobs are quick to point out. Their tastes are far too niche for Spotify’s AI to correctly suggest artists they like.

But despite these fair criticisms, the majority of users simply don’t care. They will click on whatever playlist takes their fancy, and then all but forget there’s even music playing.

Spotify’s place as the powerhouse behind streaming put in its hands the unique ability to completely shift how people interact with music. Compare your parents’ collection of albums on a shelf with your own Spotify library of Playlists, whether they’re yours or Spotify’s. There are even totally non musical brands that have playlists on Spotify. So what does this mean for the people creating music?

The power of playlists

Playlist are now inescapable. And they are literally make or break for artists. Getting your song on a Spotify curated playlist can make your career. Think of how Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road has exploded worldwide due to the internet’s ability to share music. A previously mundane meme creator is now the 9th most listened to artist in the world, with over 48 million monthly listeners.

I wonder if the fact that his ‘Discovered On’ section is all Spotify curated playlists has anything to do with this?

You can do the maths yourself. If your song gets put at the top of a playlist which is followed by 8 million people, this is going to have a huge impact on how many people have access to it. This is a great success story, but when you consider this for smaller artists, it becomes less of a path to success and more of a daunting prospect without any certainty.

Spotify allows you to submit your music for consideration to be included in their curated playlists, by using their Spotify for Artists platform. If you have music on Spotify, and you aren’t doing this, you should, because while it isn’t guaranteed, someone at Spotify HQ will be listening to your track and will decide if it gets a coveted spot in one of their elusive flagship playlists. A jump overnight in streams can do wonders for your popularity as an artist.

If people care enough to know who you are.

This brings me back to my point about music being a service rather than a product. You pay a nominal fee monthly, or you don’t pay anything at all, and put the power of music suggestion into the hands of Spotify. Their model encourages a hands off approach from the user. Sit back, relax, WE will suggest all the music you should listen to!

Having a party? Here’s a playlist for that!

Want to do some meditation? We’ve got one for that too!

What are the implications of the provider of the music in this newly democratised form being responsible for who has the top spots, and what music gets promoted versus what doesn’t get any exposure?

The majority of listeners will trust -whether rightly or wrongly- that Spotify will provide them with all the best current music, perfectly curated to their taste, and it takes the responsibility of finding new music out of the listeners hands and puts it with Spotify. This model surely works great for some people, but is it a direction we want to be going?

Where is this leading us?

If this model means listeners have less of a relationship with artists, and more of a relationship with playlists, what will the future of music creation look like?

It makes sense that people who make music wanting success will start to imitate the music being touted on the top playlisting platforms, and this has the potential to create a circular industry, mindlessly churning out music that all sounds the same. 

This could have an impact on the individual identity of artists, as the experience of listening to an album in full and really forming a bond with the music has long since gone out the window. Many people call the Spotify era the death of the album.

If your music isn’t what’s on the top Playlists, will people be listening to it? How do you get people to listen to you? Do you compromise your individual style or identity to create music that will get on Spotify’s playlists, or do you stick to your guns at the expense of a smaller following? The obvious question here becomes how can musicians make a living if they aren’t making the music that Spotify and other streaming platforms puts under the spotlight?

In a world where we are increasingly relying on technology and AI to control things for us, with everything from self driving cars, to smart home technology, do we want music to go this way too?

Do we want to put the power of music in the hands of what is essentially AI? If this is the way things go, and the average consumer of music doesn’t care who is creating it, as long as it fits their mood, does the place of the musician become redundant?

Are we all going to be listening to music created by robots in the future? It sounds like a silly concept, but it’s already happening. AI in music production is already here! Would you know if a song that Spotify suggested was created by a real person or a machine?

Dystopian sentiments aside, the fundamental point here is that music has the potential to suffer when it’s so readily been transformed into a service provided, instead of the original art form it has always been in the past. As a music producer, you know the dedication and time it takes to learn your craft, and more importantly, the emotion that often goes hand in hand with music creation, but in a model that increasingly ramps up the redundancy of the musicians themselves, we need to recognise the responsibility we have as music producers to keep innovating, keep creating and make sure we are interacting with our audience in meaningful ways. The rise in unorthodox performances could be a direct result of this, as well as how musicians are becoming ever more vocal on social medias and making their presence outside of their music as important as the music itself.

Bear in mind the positives and negatives of this, however. The influences possible due to the access to music from all over the world are undeniably an excellent thing, but be wary and mindful of how you consume music going forwards, because in a system that increasingly promotes playlists for every mood and emotion, it seems ironic that the creator of those moods and emotions is becoming less and less important with each new multi million follower playlist that we’re exposed to.

If you managed to get to the end, thanks for reading this article with us here at Top Music Arts. It’s definitely been something a little bit different than what we normally do, but it’s useful anyway, as we all need to know as much about the industry we are working in to make sure we can progress in it. Check out the rest of our site for great tutorials and production resources!

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