The Real Risk of Music Streaming Services to Contemporary Musicians: Being Ignored

I recorded a segment for WQXR’s Conducting Business yesterday, discussing how classical music fares with music streaming services such as Apple Music. One of the topics that came up in the conversation was the fact that there’s simply too much music. We don’t need yet another recording of Beethoven’s symphonies, or Chopin’s études, and new artists face a great deal of difficulty if they have nothing new to offer.

Bob Lefsetz pointed out something similar in his article Neil Young on Streaming. He says:

That’s your challenge, getting people to pay attention, not pay for music.

Getting people to pay attention to new artists isn’t easy, and it’s even more difficult with streaming services, where listeners have the (more or less) entire history of recorded music available at their fingertips. If you like a certain genre of music, you may be attracted to listening to the musicians who helped define that genre. If you like blues-rock, you might want to hear Eric Clapton, instead of some newcomer. If you like folk music, you might tune into Woody Guthrie, instead of the latest singer-songwriter.

Granted, this won’t affect a large number of listeners, but with Apple Music, part of the service is recommendations in the For You section. Many of these go back to the past, offering playlists about influencers, or thematic playlists which often feature artists that are not contemporary. (The Jackson Browne playlist below is because I listened to one of his albums the other day.)

For you past

This will have a large effect on streaming revenue for both established artists and new artists. The older artists whose music gets included in all of these “curated” playlists will get bumps in their plays. Newer artists will find that it’s harder to get their music streamed, since there are only so many hours in a day.

This effect may be even more pronounced with genres like jazz and classical music. Many people feel that jazz is boring, at least today’s jazz is, since it isn’t very different from jazz back in the pre-electric days. Why listen to some new jazz artist when you can stream anything by Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, or John Coltrane? And what about classical music? If you want to hear, say, some Beethoven piano sonatas, you can choose from dozens of great artists’ recordings; why pick the new one?

Naturally, I’m simplifying. There are some people who do care enough about new music to choose the recent artists, but, since most people use music as wallpaper, they’ll gravitate to the curated playlists to fill their sonic space.

This could have a major effect on the viability of new artists. Unless their music is truly different, unless they can get attention, it’s going to be a lot harder to compete with the huge library of recorded music that is now available to listeners for ten bucks a month.