“I was thinking about not making CDs ever again… Only streaming. The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs. R.I.P.”
-Kanye West via Twitter, 2016
In an era where technology is always evolving every day, many of us never thought we would see the end of the CD era. A lot of us were born into the CD era and will never forget that feeling of going to the store to buy your favorite artists newest album to add to your ever-growing music collection. These tweets only being three short years ago, the time has now come. With the rise and dominance of streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music & Tidal, artists no longer feel the need to have to release traditional physical albums anymore.
Although CDs are close to being 100% obsolete, there still is a system in tact that allows artists to still sell albums amidst the new era of streaming music–designed to make life much easier for artist and aspiring artists alike. However, some may believe this system is still flawed, and many believe that we still do not have all the information about it. The current debate stands if music streaming services in fact has made it easier or more complicated for artists going forward when it comes to selling albums. That being said, let’s discuss the positive and negative impact that streaming has had on the music business as a whole.
The Beginning of a New Era
With new technology and means for music consumption, must come regulations in which those new ways are counted towards album sales. In fact, there was a point in time where music streams did not count towards album sales, even though they were slowly starting to become one of the main mediums for music consumption. Nicki Minaj was actually one of the first artists to fight to have streaming numbers count towards Billboard charts and RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) certifications. On the one year anniversary of her album The Pinkprint, she noticed that her Spotify streaming numbers (had they been counted) would grant her album to be triple platinum. She also noted that many other artists began to remove their music from Spotify due to the fact that their album streams were not generating album sales–giving the impression of them releasing their albums for free.
Using her platform in a positive way to campaign and protest for artists to obtain all the accolades they deserve, she was one of the most vocal artists preaching and demanding the change in which streaming numbers were accounted for. Ultimately with her help, Billboard and the RIAA would thus begin counting all forms of streaming and taking them into consideration and contributing to overall album sales. Over time, YouTube views would also be counted towards album sales as well. And here we are in 2019, where all forms of music streaming are counted towards sales. Labels took this initiative to help the artists, but some believe that it in fact can make it harder on the artist as well. Let’s discuss some of the pros and cons of music streaming and the impact that it may have on an artist’s career.
Positive Impact of Streaming
Despite what many may think, moving music distribution to an all digital medium has helped artists in an abundance of ways–overall making it easier on the artists. One of the major ways it has helped artists is the fact that releasing music to streaming services is much easier than releasing a physical album. This is a huge perk to artists due to the fact that they can submit their music much closer to their album deadline if need be. Last year, there were many reports that said Drake’s verse on “Sicko Mode” was submitted only hours before Travis had to turn in his highly anticipated album Astroworld. Another situation of this would be the mysterious addition of Machine Gun Kelly’s verse on “Ecstasy”. In an interview with Big Boy (at the 3:18 mark), he stated that he was taking his album down to add MGK’s verse to the song because his album was accidentally submitted before his verse was added to the song. All of this could not have been possible in the CD era of music. In the past, artists would prepare much bigger rollouts for their albums. They had to have a single, a music video, do tons of promotion, and prepare the album packaging. The album had to be completely mixed, mastered and ready for submission months before the deadline of the album release. Any changes that needed to be made to the album could not be done ones it was out on the shelves, and thats where music streaming makes this situation easier.
Doubling back to the Nicki Minaj point earlier, she encountered an issue where the deluxe Target version of her album The Pinkprint shipped with the instrumental version of her hit song “Anaconda” rather than the actual single. This causes issues due to the fact that her label shipped thousands of copies of her album that had a faulty error that made it past the finalization stage. Users who streamed the album or purchased it through iTunes did not have this issue because it was a situation that was caught and corrected before the album was released to the public. This is one of the main advantages and one of the best parts about transitioning to an all digital era of music. That being said, this also allows artists to update their album with new elements, songs, and even guest features after the album has already been released.
Many more cases have been occurring in the music industry similar to this–where an album can be modified or updated post release. Kanye’s 2016 The Life of Pablo was amongst one of the first albums that received a major update even after the album was released. Nearly every song on the album received updates such as changes to lyrics, better mixing, added instrumentation, and even adding separate tracks to the album as well. This was Kanye’s first album that was only released digitally, and at first, exclusively on Tidal. This was one of the first situations where an artist was able to make these type of modifications to their album, and it could only be done due to the fact that we are in a new era where streaming music is ruling the industry.
Another instance where streaming had made it easier for artists would be the accessibility of the music. We are in an era where almost everyone is subscribed to one of the many streaming services available. With the subscriber counts growing by millions each year, this means that the music is available literally at the fingertips of everyone. The chances of a new fan discovering new music is much higher now because they no longer have to buy the album to hear it. They can simply look through the prose page, see an album, and play it right away–rather than spending ten dollars on an album they never heard, from an artist they may not necessarily be a fan of. As a consumer, paying ten dollars a month for access to millions of albums sounds a lot better than paying ten dollars per album. The rate at which new music is being discovered has grown immensely over the past few years–providing proof that music streaming may be one of the best things to ever happen to the industry. Despite its many positives, there are some instances where streaming has hindered and ultimately does not always work in favor of artists.
The Downside to Streaming
Many artists and executives were ecstatic when it was announced that streaming numbers now count towards album sales, but the benchmarks and guidelines to be met is what many can believe to be unfair and in need of adjustment. In an article from Forbes, they proceed to break down the new methodology presented by the RIAA:
In the new structure, 150 streams of a song equals one paid download, and ten paid downloads equates to an album download. So, an artist’s music will have to be streamed on any of the approved, included services 1,500 times for an album “sale” to be counted.
That being said, the amount of time it takes for one persons streams to count towards an album sale takes much longer than it would if the person went to the store and just purchased the album. If an album has 15 songs, a person would have to play that album 100 times in order for it to count as one sale. Of course, those numbers add up when you’re taking into account of how many millions of people there are in the world that are streaming the music. However, it can be overwhelming to the artist to know that this is how many streams have to be obtained just for their album to accumulate one sale.
Of course this situation can be looked at objectively as well. In the past if you purchase a album, that automatically counts as one sale and one sale only. However, in the streaming era, it allows for people to keep accumulating sales even after they have streamed it 1500 times. This may not seem so bad in the eye of the artists, but from a consumer standpoint, this may be hard to achieve. The current stance and attention span of the average listener may not listen to certain albums a month, two months, or even a year after its release. With access to so many albums at once, some people may not even listen to an album more than once or twice–thus making it harder for artists to achieve those strong streaming numbers they hope for.
One of the biggest issues of all when it comes to the streaming is not only what counts as a sale, but the payout of each stream. Due to streams being so easily accessible, the payout for each stream is less than a penny per stream. To make matters worse, each streaming service has a different payout per stream as well. The late great Nipsey Hussle was always one who would preach for financial freedom and always wanted all artists to be afforded the luxury to be paid the most for their art. On January 15, 2018, Nipsey tweeted:
1 Million Streams on YouTube = $690
1 Million Streams on Spotify = $4,370
1 Million Streams on Apple Music = $7,350
1 Million Streams on Tidal = $12,500
1 Million Streams on Amazon Music = $4,020
Don’t shoot the messenger. Jus Sign up 4 Tidal 🏁
Since this was tweeted in 2018, these numbers have improved since then, but not by much. Reports on Digital Music News show the updated numbers for 2019. Although a prominent artist can achieve one million streams rather quickly, this does not take into account of the splits of the money earned from streaming. Labels, engineers, producers, songwriters etc. all have to be paid as well, and depending on the deal of the artist, they may only see a small fraction of these payouts. This can either motivate or discourage rising artists overall, but nonetheless, this by far is one of the biggest downsides to releasing music in an all digital space.
The payout per stream is part of the reason why many artists now seek other avenues to generate income. Artists are pushing more for ticket sales, merchandise bundles, TV and movie appearances and much more. The way the industry is set up, it doesn’t always benefit the artists financially in the best way–at least not in the beginning stages in their career. It’s not until an artist gains a few years under their belt until they begin to see a decent payout from their music sales. This is part of the reason as to why many artists are going the independent route, due to the fact that some record deals do not benefit them financially they way they once did before the streaming era existed.
When it’s all said and done, technology will always continue to evolve whether we like it or not. We have gone through so many mediums of music consumption. Vinyls, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, and now streaming. With tech growing at such a fast pace, this sure won’t be the last form of music consumption either. We cant deny that music streaming has improved on a lot of flawed instances and situations that once occurred throughout the history of music, but it still has its flaws as well. The one thing about the music industry, is that it has a voice that is powerful enough to move mountains. If Nicki Minaj can be the voice behind getting streams to count as sales, who knows who the next powerful voice will be to turn those negatives into positives. In the meantime, we just have to just keep supporting, keep listening, and keep streaming.
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