Streaming, downloading or the good old-fashioned CD?

By Barry Kempton

An article in the New York Times several days ago reported the latest trends in internet-based music consumption.  Apparently, downloading (from sites like iTunes) is on the downturn and streaming (via services like Spotify, Pandora or Rdio) is growing.  Recording industry insiders aren’t yet ready to draw conclusions, but one spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association expressed some optimism around the increase in streaming and the potential for the music industry to take advantage of this.  I wonder what the implications are for the classical musician? That angle was not addressed.

 I myself found out about Spotify soon after it was introduced and signed up immediately.  It provides free access to recorded music via the internet—pretty much anything most of us would ever want to listen to.  It didn’t take me long to upgrade from the free service (with regular commercial interruptions) to a fee-based service free of advertisements.

I’ve used it a lot.  For someone who both puts together programs and receives repertoire suggestions from musicians on a near daily basis, it has revolutionized my ability to explore music and programming ideas.  And from the perspective of a regular concert-goer, such an extensive library of recordings must surely be useful.  Taking the time to listen in advance to a piece of unfamiliar music almost always results in a better experience at a live performance.  It can therefore be argued that web-based, easy-access music services like Spotify aid music and musicians, bringing familiarity and engagement—in the same way that easy access to watching sports on television builds greater interest and support.

However, I’ve been told by performers and composers that royalties from these web-based music distributors (downloads and especially streaming sites) are far lower than royalties from the older established method of music sharing—the purchase of a physical compact disc.  So the convenience for the online consumer is rather inconvenient for the artist in terms of earning a part of their living from recordings.

It’s not that we should resist technological progress—it’s a good thing overall, and besides, it’s inevitable.  But I hope the creative artists (performers and composers) don’t get squeezed out as the technology advances.  I myself have settled on accessing recorded music in multiple ways.  For exploration purposes I use various web-based services, but when I want a piece of music or an artist’s recording for my collection, I buy the cd.  That might date me, but at least I get the booklet to read in hand!  And that way, at least, I’m hopeful that a little bit more of the price I pay is going to the musicians I am listening to.