Ownership Vs. Access: How Spotify Could Change The World
Editor’s Note: We are so excited to welcome Alex Horowitz as our first guest author! He is a music and tech blogger writing on behalf of Contested. Did we also mention he’s a musician? See his band [ghost this] perform live at Bar East in NYC this Friday.
By now, even those of us in the states are becoming familiar with what Spotify is. Spotify is a music subscription service that allows you to pay a monthly fee for the unlimited streaming of an expansive library of music directly to your computer. For a slightly higher monthly fee, that same music is available via a mobile app as well.
Though Spotify is far from a new service (it’s been the most popular music subscription service in the UK for some time now) if you live in the United States, more likely than not, Spotify feels like a brand new hat being thrown into the music subscription service ring.
Still, many services, like Rdio and Rhapsody (a streaming radio service) to name a few, have long offered Americans, in addition to the rest world, a variety of pricing options to stream a deep music library instantly from the cloud.
But the arrival of Spotify stateside marks more than another music business making money off of American disposable income. With the arrival of Spotify stateside comes the renewed interest in and excitement surrounding subscription-based music services. What all of these service, like Rdio and others, have in common, is that they are each a step toward the possibility of arguably the most significant paradigm shift in the way people consume music since the advent of printed sheet music. Subscription models that offer instant access to cavernous music libraries shift consumers’ relationship with music from one of ownership to one of access.
This paradigm shift could conceivably lead to some titanic changes in the landscape of the popular music business, assuming such changes have not already begun.
For starters, the concept of “owning digital music” could, conceivably, cease to exist in our lifetimes. Yes, we’re a long way away from this — but just that it’s possible is stunning.
The amount of music available online continues to increase, both from the continued creation of new music (which is being written, produced, and published at a faster rate than ever before) and from the increase of access to old music available online. With the advent of online music “lockers” that store entire music collections in the cloud (e.g. Google Music) long gone are the days where the size of a music collection was dependent on how many records your studio apartment can hold without beginning to look messy. With limitless storage available to a generation that thinks it’s their right to gain access to everything that exists anywhere on the internet, the concept of a finite collection of digital goods is becoming, in my mind, an increasingly passé concept. Should we finally give up entirely on the concept of “owning” digital music, one would never again download the latest Kanye album, one would merely choose how best (most easily or least expensively) to access it — choosing between one of many channels with varying pricing options, such as Spotify, Rdio, Grooveshark, YouTube, etc.
Quick tangent — it bears emphasizing that in this discussion I have been focusing entirely on “owning digital music.” I have done this intentionally to point out that digital goods and physical goods, even when they refer to the same song, are intrinsically different. I love records, and I plan on maintaining a pretty awesome collection of them even when I have unlimited access to crazy amounts of music online for a nominal monthly fee. I value having records around — they’re cool. This leads of course to a fascinating conversation regarding the intrinsic utility of tangible goods compared to that of digital goods, but such a digression would keep this article going forever. I’ll leave you to ponder that one yourselves.
Getting back on topic, another major result of this paradigm shift is that, incidentally, it could offer a rather elegant (albeit shocking) solution to the piracy issue as well. Rather than turning to technology to fight music piracy, society will have merely evolved to shift their focus away from “ownership” of digital content entirely. After all, it’s difficult to steal what you can never really own. And, once again, physical albums aren’t considered pirate material — that’s just standard theft and can be prevented through all the usual physical channels (security guards, cameras, etc.)
But what does this potential shift in the behavior of music consumers mean to the people reading this article?
The most obvious answer is an increase in access to a larger quantity of music for the average consumer. For around $15 a month (a guestimated average based on the price of your average music subscription service) pick your service and you can access your entire digital music library plus a venerable treasure trove of music you haven’t even heard of yet. It doesn’t take an economist to realize that’s more music for your buck no matter how you slice it. Financial incentive is now strongly in favor of accessing more music for less money.
For many, the increase in accessibility of all music to all consumers all the time is bad news for music fans. I tend to disagree.
The barriers to enter the music world have deteriorated. Where once DJ’s and record label executives controlled access to the radio — the only means of reaching music fans — now everyone has equal access to the ultimate content-seeding engine: the internet. Where once the price and technical skill required to record music was prohibitively high, now Pro Tools, GarageBand, Logic, and other music software make roughly professional-quality recordings a financially realistic option for aspiring musicians with even the most modest of financing.
With those vetting institutions removed, many feel there’s too much “noise” in the music world — too many new bands with too many new songs in too many new genres — to even know what music to focus on.
Where others hear the intimidating sounds of chaos and noise, I hear the sweet tones of competition, and the resulting chords of even more choice of high quality music for consumers.
If I may bring you back (or forward) to introductory economics, any 101 course on the matter will teach you that when barriers to enter an industry are removed, there is a rush of new entrants to that industry. The more music there is, the more cutthroat the battle for the attention of the consumers (us.) Take a look around you; do you see what’s resulted from this process? The selection of superb music out there waiting to be discovered has never been so impressive. Maybe not what’s on the radio or being advertised on your YouTube channel, but trust me, it’s out there. It’s a good time to be a music fan.
And with the downward pressure on prices, for around ten bucks a month, Spotify and others offer you unlimited access to all the music you can handle and more.
Imagine it — we’re discussing instant access to (slight exaggeration ahead) the world’s supply of music. I can’t bring myself to consider that a bad thing. The only real problem that prevented this dream in the past was a pricing model. Today, we have Spotify.
As for the musicians reading this, your goal remains the same — be great. Be prepared to compete, and be prepared to win by being lucky, talented, and smart. I know it sounds like a bad thing that no one band can dominate the airwaves like once before, but given that your odds of making that happen are roughly in line with winning the lotto anyway, living in a world with more direct access to your fan base may actually be a blessing. Where once you either made it big or were left in punk-rock limbo (making no money,) these days there is no limitation on your ability to find those that would enjoy the music you make. You can get your music on the same iTunes, the same Spotify, the same Amazon music marketplace, the same everything as all the big boys of rock and rap. Your fortune is yours to earn the right way — by being great.