Streaming music has changed how we listen to music

Some new statistics from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) got me thinking about how streaming has utterly transformed the music business, and my own personal relationship with music. 80% of recorded music industry revenue now comes from streaming services, compared with 7% a decade ago. Streaming has reshaped the music industry, and it’s also reshaped our personal relationship with music.

I’ve been an avid consumer of music my entire life. One of the first thing I ever purchased with my first high school summer job paycheck was a cassette recording of The J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame. My wife, grew up in a family of musicians who talk about the music business and new releases the same way some families talk about sports or politics. So as a young couple and later as young parents, acquiring and listening to the music we liked – and wanted our kids to like – was a lifestyle priority.

Music packrats

Over the years we amassed quite a collection of vinyl and audio CDs. We had racks of them in the living room near the entertainment center. While I didn’t spend huge chunks of each paycheck on music, we’d thoughtfully grow our collection with the new releases and classic re-releases we thought were important. Each new album was something to be absorbed. To be listened to, repeatedly. To learn the lyrics, to hear the chord changes. To appreciate the melodies and the rhythms.

As I entered the realm of digital music at the turn of the millennium, acquiring and listening to music was still very much a physical experience. In fact, I remember in the early days of my tech journalism career, traveling to trade shows with a sleeve of audio CDs in hand so I’d have music to listen to back in the hotel room while I worked.

The digital hub and the iPod

Then things started to change. “Rip, Mix, Burn” was Apple’s early iTunes mantra. That’s when I started making copies of my favorite albums to travel with, instead of taking the original CDs with me.

Apple saw the Mac and iTunes as the hub of the new digital lifestyle, the lynchpin that made it possible for people to more easily enjoy the digital content they wanted. Then in 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, making it possible to store thousands of songs in a device you could slip into your jeans or a jacket pocket.

As storage became cheaper and more plentiful, I was able to rip all of the more than 1,000 CDs we’d collected over the years into a purely digital library for the first time. Apple made it possible for me to more easily expand my digital music library in 2003 when it launched the iTunes Music Store.

Acquiring digital music was already easy, thanks to services like Napster. But the quality of the digital music you acquired that way was often lacking – absent of album artwork or metadata, varying widely in quality, and often incomplete.

In fact, the iTunes Music Store made it so convenient to legally acquire digital music that I stopped buying as many CDs as I had before. I still bought the major releases I wanted to have physical copies of, but increasingly I added music by simply buying it through iTunes – and through other legal music download services as well.

Over time, my physical music library became less important. The layer of dust on those CDs grew. Eventually my physical music library would go into storage, where it remains. (Too much of a significant capital investment for me to simply throw out or sell off.)

Streaming changed everything

The RIAA noted that only 7% of the music industry’s recorded music revenues came from streaming in 2010. Almost half the revenue that year was for CD sales. But in the intervening decade streaming grew in huge stems year over year.

Apple was very late to the streaming game. By mid-2015, when Apple Music launched, music download sales we already past peak and tapering off as a percentage of recorded music revenue. Apple adhered for a very long time to a philosophy articulated by Steve Jobs: That people wanted to own their own music. I did like to own my own music, but having a place to put it was increasingly burdensome. I couldn’t even find an iPod to fit all of it – my complete digital music library was now relegated to my home storage server.

By 2018, CDs and music downloads each stake out about 10% of that pie. That’s why Apple Music makes a lot of sense in the smartphone age, when it’s no longer necessary to keep all the data you need on your device – you just stream it from the cloud, instead. I think that, more than anything, convinced most consumers that music ownership was simply not that important.

And the value is there for the consumer. Compared to the cost of buying music, streaming is an obvious benefit. I pay $14.99 a month to provide Apple Music to my family – marginally more than the cost of a single CD or album download. For that, we can stream millions of songs across any genre we want.

Leaving the artists out in the cold

But the idea of really owning my music isn’t as important to me as it used to be. Music is available as a service, and that’s good enough for most of what I listen to. For most of that stuff, I don’t invest the time and attention in new releases that I used to.

It’s brief dalliances now, for the most part, thanks to the torrent of fresh content pouring forth from Apple Music on a weekly basis. Lots of hot tracks that hold my attention for a few days or weeks, but few long term love affairs with albums or artists that involve me getting to know music like I used to. My tastes in consuming and listening to music have adjusted with the times.

But I recognize that streaming isn’t a sustainable business for many in the music industry except major recording artists, and not even them, in some cases. We’ve all heard those ridiculous stories about major artists getting, in some cases, literally pennies for their efforts. I’m also not at all convinced that streaming is a sustainable business even for the music industry, based on former Apple Music exec Jimmy Iovine’s recent comments.

That’s why I still think it’s important to own music. At least music I really care about. Sometimes that means picking up vinyl or CDs at the merch table at the shows I go to. Or ordering a physical copy of a new CD release directly from the artist. Or even buying via a non-DRM digital download service like Bandcamp.

Whatever the future of the music industry may be, I have to admit – even as someone who loves to buy music, the sheer convenience, ubiquity and immediacy of streaming music is hard to beat.

Has streaming music changed the way you listen? Let me know in the comments.