This week, Spotify released Wrapped, an app that allows you, the listener, to see the total amount of minutes you spent listening to music in 2017. It also breaks down your year by the song you listened to the most, the genres you explored, and the artists you favored. This is an interesting study for the individual listener. It can be eye-opening (I, for instance, explored 42 different genres this year even though I would have assumed the number would be closer to about 3 or 4), it can be kind of funny (a friend of mine listened to an astounding 71, 507 minutes of music and his top artist of the year was Celine Dion), and it can even tell you a lot about yourself and where you run when you need to hear a song instantly (I, apparently, run to Aimee Mann and Joni Mitchell more often than not).
While Wrapped falls right in line with what is soon to be an onslaught of year-end retrospective apps throughout our social media platforms (year in photos on Facebook, most liked posts on Instagram), this one is actually quite troubling to me. As I was scouring my friends’ Wrapped stats, I had a bit of an awakening. I came to realize that even though the industry has changed so drastically, people are actually still listening to a lot of music — maybe more than ever before. While this is heartening, the cold reality is that the majority of the artists making that music barely see a dime.
I was in middle school when Napster was founded and I remember the two or three students in my class who bragged about downloading songs for free. I was unsure exactly what that meant, still saving up my money for a trip to Sam Goody or The Wall. However, I also remember a conversation beginning to circulate among my parents and their friends at the time. It was a conversation about legality and about the days of vinyl and cover art and singles and b-sides. There was a general understanding that things were about to change in music and it was likely that they would never be the same again.
By the time Spotify had rolled around in 2008, the days of Sam Goody and The Wall were long gone. CD sales had been steadily declining for years, replaced by iTunes as the most popular outlet to shop for music. In 2001, when streaming and illegal downloading were still in their infancy, 712 million physical CDs were sold in the US according to Nielsen SoundScan. Compare that to the number of compact discs sold in 2016 — just 50 million. That is a 92% decrease in sales in 15 years. But if you think that loss is being made up in digital sales, think again. Only 43 million albums were sold via digital retailers like iTunes and Amazon last year. While some people are still buying their music, physically or digitally, they are not doing so in anywhere near the numbers we were seeing at the end of the last millennium. So, why does any of this really matter?
What Spotify is telling us with these wrap-ups is that people will never stop listening to music. In fact, listeners streamed 208 billion songs in a six month period in 2016. That’s an astonishing number. This means that people love music. They listen to it everywhere. They have it on in the background while they’re cooking. They play music while they’re at work or at the gym or hosting a dinner party or sitting in traffic on the freeway. I’ll bet a majority of people would agree that life without music probably wouldn’t be a life worth living. And yet, if you ask the average person to buy an album or a song that they love, the response would likely be “Why? I pay $10 a month for unlimited streaming and can listen to that record over and over.” Makes total sense. Except for this fact — the majority of the artists that you love to listen to will not be able to sustain a career and continue to create music if you are unwilling to support them in that creation.
I am a musician and I have my music on Spotify. I have it on iTunes and Apple Music and every other digital retailer. My most popular track on Spotify last year was played 42,000 times and I got a total of $4.55 for it. Now, I’m no expert, but if those 42,000 listens had been 42,000 purchases, I’d have had a pretty nice year. I probably wouldn’t have had to crowd fund for my next record, and I could have invested far more time into the creation of new music. The fault does not, of course, lie solely with the listener. Let’s not discount the role Spotify plays in wildly underpaying artists — a conversation that must be had.
However, we can begin to change things. I’m not being idealistic or naive. I fully understand that the landscape has dramatically shifted and in some ways for the better. It’s easier now as an independent artist to promote myself thanks to the advances made in technology and the creation of social platforms. And it does benefit me in some ways to have a place people can go to click ‘play’ and see if they like what I do or not. The tough bit comes next — will the listener then decide to support me and others like myself by actually purchasing the music, or will they add it to a playlist with lots of other songs, keep it on in the background while they cook, listen to it at work or while hosting a dinner party or sitting in traffic, numbly smiling back at the computer screen at the end of each year when they see the thousands upon thousands of minutes of albums and artists and genres and songs they’ve streamed?