The music industry at the moment sometimes feels like one of those photos from the end of the Vietnam War, people dangling off helicopters, as there’s a massive scramble to escape. Adele has been choppered out and pulled the rope ladder up behind her, Taylor Swift might be able to haul herself in, but everyone else is loosing their grip and about to plummet into the sea. But the Nielsen U.S. Year-End Report on the industry points to another potential getaway vehicle: Streaming! Percentage wise it's up rather a lot, audio streams in 2015 increased a whopping 83% on their 2014 numbers.
The Beatles, probably the most celebrated discography in the entire history of popular music, suddenly becoming available on all of these platforms seems to also point towards this as the industry’s next hope. As a catalogue, its resisted modern forms of music consumption at every turn, in fact it wasn’t until 2010 that their albums became available on iTunes. This is the direction music listening is heading, and to resist seems like a form of Luddite stubbornness. Ignoring streaming risks the danger of alienating the ever-allusive ‘millennial market’ (hint: the reason why its so hard to get us to buy anything is because we’re all broke).
But not everyone is happy about the future. In 2015 Taylor Swift pulled her catalogue from services such as Spotify, and Tidal was launched in opposition to the unfair royalties paid to artists. A seemingly well-intentioned venture that was marred by being fronted by a bunch of really, really rich people, making it look like a conspiracy of some new world order. Whether streaming in its current form is a viable source of income for artists is another debate. But seems an odd target when you consider these artists happily feature their songs on Youtube, a website with an abysmal record for paying royalties, whilst absolutely dwarfing pretty much every audio streaming service combined when you look the number of users and songs listened to on the website.
The number of streams The Beatles got within a few weeks was unprecedented, over a quarter of a billion in the first 12 days alone, surpassing pretty much even the most optimistic predictions. But The Beatles will inevitably excel in any area of the market they are put into. Abbey Road was also one of the biggest selling vinyl records of last year, despite the fact you can pick up that album for £2 at every Saturday market in the country.
A more interesting statistic than the number of listens the Beatles produced would be too see if there was an increase in subscribers or overall activity on these services after the catalogue became available. Ask not if streaming has helped The Beatles (yes, obviously it did), but if The Beatles have done anything for streaming.
I’ve been using Spotify since it became free to everyone in 2009. Over that period I’ve noticed a shift towards music discovery, with the personalised radio and the increasing prominence of curated playlists. In fact some have even called this the ‘new radio’. For many using streaming, playlists are more popular than albums as a form of music consumption, a MIdia Research survey conducted last year found 45% of non-paying customers listened to playlists, compared to only 31% saying they preferred albums. This is something I’ve noticed even with The Beatles, who were momentarily omniscient in every bar or café I went to for about two weeks after Christmas. I wasn’t hearing Revolver from beginning to end but a playlist put together that hopped all over their career. Its too early to say where this development in out listening habits will democratise music discovery or create more uniformity in what we listen to. But it feels like the logical progression for overcoming the anxiety of choice that the history of recorded music being available at your fingertips creates.
The gaping holes that back-catalogues such as The Beatles leave in streaming services has long been a criticism levelled at them. If their addition can entice a new audience, who then explore the site to discover new music, then perhaps a trickle down affect may occur. The Beatles essentially need to do for these service what discovering them did for many of us when we were young: working as a gateway that makes us want to explore music more seriously.