What happens when music streaming forgets about the 'music'?
Illustration by Ben Thomson
This article originally appeared on Noisey Australia
No matter how monumentally cooked this lil' blue Earth of ours grows each day, we can at least rest our heads at night knowing that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Sweden is preserving millions of seeds, so the robot alien things from AI can reforest our lands a few hundred years after humankind truly shits the bed.
In theory, digital preservation of music should be easier than compiling millions of biological samples. Streaming services offer the opportunity to do so. Which is good! It's working out OK so far. After a rocky start setting up shop, the big names in streaming – Spotify, Apple, Google – are looking like steady ships with cosy relationships with record labels. It's an easy time to be a music fan. It's an easy time to take it all for granted, too.
Occasionally you'll see it in articles from the not-too-distant past: YouTube embeds with the big red play button overlaying a grey background. The remnants of a former age (2014), lost in the sands of time. For a moment, it looked like millions of SoundCloud embeds were to meet a similar fate. More dramatic still was the closure of what.cd in 2016, abruptly ending what was arguably the most comprehensive digital music archive to ever exist thanks to its complete disregard for any semblance of copyright law. Is it possible that Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, or YouTube could eventually vanish? Probably not anytime soon. But what if the greater risk isn't their obsolescence, but if music became an obsolescent focus for each platform?
The biggest weapon in the streaming wars was the exclusive release. That battle has been fought, and won by Frank Ocean. Even with Tidal's biggest selling point being exclusive releases, Jay-Z capitulated with his latest release 4:44 and its accompanying music videos being available on competing platforms a week after their Tidal debut. The current battleground for music streaming platforms is non-music content.
Spotify is looking to non-music programming in order to reduce "the share of sales it must hand over to music rights holders", according to Bloomberg. iTunes users were met with a pop-up reading that the program "has been updated to focus on music, films, TV programmes, podcasts and audiobooks" after Apple's keynote this September – an indication of a reported $1 billion investment in original video content in the coming year. The competition between Apple Music and Spotify will be based on who can compete with Netflix the quickest. Where does that leave music fans? Where does it leave music?
The current truce between streaming services and record labels could reach breaking point if streaming services' prerogative is to pay record labels less. And if streaming services eventually amass a library of successful original non-music content, then why would they need record labels? If Apple and Spotify are looking to Netflix's original content strategy, then major labels could be looking at an escalated cold war in content ownership. The symbiotic relationship could reach a tipping point once around the time Disney enacts its 2019 plan to withdraw from Netflix to launch its own service.
When content services are focused on making new shit of their own so they don't have to pay for other company's shit, there's a lot of shit that falls through the cracks. Classic cinema is eroding rapidly from movie streaming. There's no promise that won't happen to vintage albums on music streaming. Or non-vintage albums.
In the ecosystem of music retail, scatterings of micro-scale record stores have sprouted across the globe – primarily dealing in secondhand records. Relics of vinyl, CD, and cassette are salvaged, sold on, and enjoyed, long after the stores that initially sold them have shuttered. Fewer and fewer new releases exist as a physical artefact. There won't be any physical copies of The Life Of Pablo (outside of bootleg pressings) being dug up in record stores in the 2020s. A generation of music, pushed to the landing page of streaming apps for release week, later consigned to the void. A Dark Age of the Enlightened Age.
Maybe music isn't meant to be archived. Ephemeral melodies, lyrics, drifting by to compound moments and emotions. Maybe wishing for its permanence is a manifestation of hubris in the face of our own impermanence. Spend that extra mobile data on revisiting Frank Ocean's Endless while you can. Even seed vaults don't last forever.