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The two recent big things in streaming and why they matter

Posted by Mark Mukasa on 13th August 2019

Two big things in streaming happened on Friday 2nd August. First, after years of stubbornness, my favourite enigmatic prog-rock band Tool finally joined the world of commercial streaming, releasing their four studio albums on Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play. Secondly, Canadian rapper Drake released a compilation album comprising some of his better known ‘loosies’, which are songs not part of an LP or available for purchase or commercial streaming.

Admittedly, outside of music publications, musicians releasing their music through digital services is nothing surprising, however these releases represent something very big in our relationship with technology and our consumption of entertainment.

Tool’s uploading of their music to commercial streaming can be viewed as the definitive moment when digital services finally defeated the legacy artists. Sure, commercial streaming is ubiquitous and any new artist refusing to upload their music to a digital services platform essentially resigns themselves to obscurity. However, for many years legacy bands such as The Beatles, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin were able to resist calls to upload their music to streaming platforms, often citing the low royalty rates (reportedly between $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream on Spotify) as well as their playlist arrangements. Legacy bands were able to resist for some time because of strong fan bases willing to pay for physical CDs, merchandise and tour tickets, but one by one, all acts eventually made their way to streaming platforms.

Until Friday 2nd August, Tool were one of the last big artists of the pre-streaming era to refuse to stream their music. With Tool’s capitulation to streaming platforms, there are now only at best two big acts from the pre-streaming era that haven’t uploaded their full discography to streaming platforms, namely the late RnB singer Aaliyah and hip-hop legends De La Soul. Both have not been able to stream their biggest albums because of contractual disputes and mismanagement. Aside from these anomalies, the war has been definitively won.

Tool’s acceptance of streaming also says something about the times we live in. Content creators who resist the potentially unfair financial arrangements with streaming platforms doom themselves to not making any kind of profit at all. Legacy acts certainly know this and have realised the potential profit to be made from appealing to a generation raised using iTunes and Spotify. Def Leppard, after joining commercial streaming in June 2018, saw a 95% increase in album sales as well as 5.4 million streams in just the first week. Selling 5.4 million copies of physical CDs would offer greater accompanying profits than streaming, however physical sales are scant these days, which forces bands into a position where they must make the best out of a bad situation. Ultimately, for many artists, commercial streaming bridges the gap between older music fans and a younger audience and provide the potential for a band’s legacy to have a longer lasting impact.

But why is Drake’s ‘Care Package’ release notable and what does this have to do with the wider issues surrounding streaming? Drake, a Canadian rapper who became popular in the midst of the streaming era, made the bulk of his releases available on commercial streaming platforms. However, hip-hop music has a strong tradition of releasing non-commercial songs, often in the form of freestyles, remixes, and miscellaneous music projects. Some of Drake’s most popular songs, for example Trust Issues, Girls Love Beyonce and Draft Day, were generally non-revenue generating and mostly used to promote excitement for more formal album releases. Uploading these ‘loosies’ onto a streaming platform not only allows him to draw revenue from them, but it also acts as a permanent and easily accessible record of all his artistic output. Drake himself espouses this idea, saying that the compilation album will keep “some of our most important moments together available in one place.”

Looking beyond mega stars like Drake, streaming platforms can act as a permanent archive of localised but culturally significant acts. For many musicians in the developing world, high-budget releases and distributions of music projects were not always available, which meant that music from many musicians would simply vanish even after making a cultural dent. But streaming providers have made uploading music to their services easier, meaning that artists like the Afrigo Band can upload recordings from the 1970s, while it also provides opportunities for niche music scenes, such as death metal bands in Botswana (yes, really) to leave their legacy.

Most musicians would agree that commercial streaming does not offer content creators a fair deal. Debates about how to give content creators a fair share, or even what a ‘fair share’ even looks like, probably won’t be settled anytime soon. However, used correctly, streaming can act as an accessible bridge to the past and as a means to honour the creativity and labour of creators.

Mark Mukasa