A Tyranny of Choice

Youtube has this week unveiled its subscription-based music streaming service, Music Key.  (Apparently part of its appeal is “background listening”… does that make anyone else a bit sad?)

As of May this year, Spotify has 10 million paying subscribers and 40 million active users per month.  That’s just under double what it had in the same month in 2013.

This year, Apple bought streaming service Beats Music  for $3 billion (and then immediately closed it down, reportedly for rebranding and upgrading).  If that figure doesn’t hint at the rise and rise of streaming, I don’t know what does.  Also this year, Apple has seen its iTunes download revenues drop by 13-14%.

So, putting all criticisms and royalty debates aside, streaming is definitely happening.  As other revenue streams dry up, it is becoming a very important source of income for the music industry – and the general consensus is that it will become more and more vital in the coming years.

If you need proof, here are some more important/interesting figures about the relevance of streaming in the music business at the moment.

HOWEVER (you knew it couldn’t all be good news), even without getting into the arguments about royalties and dodgy label shares, there might be a problem.  Many propagators of streaming promise more exposure for new and/or underground artists, but the opposite seems to be true.  The more music we have access to, the narrower our tastes seem to be.

As put more eloquently by Mark Mulligan in this blog post:

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice

While it’s true that many streaming services now offer ‘radio’ services, whereby they suggest songs/artists to listen to based on an artist or genre that you’ve already listened to (kind of like, you know, the actual radio used to), having as much choice in music as we now do is actually quite daunting.  Most of us end up sticking to the artists that we already know and love.

And that’s not really a problem for us.  For music as a whole, however, it could have a seriously homogenising effect.

How did you first come across your favourite artists?  If you’re one of the majority, it’s likely that you heard a song on the radio, or a friend suggested the artist to you.  That’s great, but how did that artist get on the radio? Or how come your friend already knew so much about them?

That artist already had some exposure.  They already had some kind of a fanbase – mainstream, cult, underground, etc.  Someone already knew their name.

If we’re only listening to our favourite artists on streaming services, there’s a real possibility that young, unknown and underground artists aren’t going to have a hope in hell of being heard.  And if streaming becomes as integral to the music industry as many people believe it will, will they even be able to make enough money to continue creating music?

After all, with something like 20 million songs to choose from (and all my favourite bands’ music on tap) what’s the likelihood that I’ll choose them?