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Streaming Utopia: Imagining Digital Music's Perfect World

A whole world of sound. i
Photo illustration/Photos via NASA
A whole world of sound.
Photo illustration/Photos via NASA

Maria Yanez might be the present-day music industry's ideal customer. The 36-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., owns roughly 1,000 vinyl records. Though she has sold "a lot" of her CDs and stopped buying digital music about three years ago, she's mostly content with her paid Spotify subscription.

Yanez worries that more artists will follow Taylor Swift's lead and pull their music from the streaming service, though she believes this is their right. Aside from the limits to Spotify's library, offline listening has also been a problem for her on long drives when she doesn't plan ahead. She expects other services to compete with her current preference, though, and she's willing to think big about what tomorrow might hold ("chips in our ears or brains?").

"The only thing I know for sure is that I love music so much, it gets me through my days, it comforts me, it excites me," Yanez writes in an email. "And when I can't listen it frustrates me."

With Apple poised to roll out a full-fledged streaming music offering of its own sometime soon, the battle between streaming and downloads will effectively be over. So it's worth taking stock of what, exactly, would be the ideal streaming experience for listeners like Yanez, as well as for the artists and labels whose music makes the whole system possible.

Spotify, which now counts 15 million paying subscribers, has used the 40 million mark as a magic number for when it will be paying a more traditional amount to musicians. The suggestion, essentially, is that scale is the key to creating a world where everybody gets what they want.

With that in mind, NPR asked a wide range of people, well, what they want — through crowd sourcing and traditional interviews — and also collected commentary about streaming from public statements by musicians and others.

Listeners who responded to our crowdsourcing questions about their streaming utopia weren't, by and large, asking for science fiction. Many were happy with their current digital tools, from Google's Play Music All Access to the nonprofit concert archives at archive.org, and just wished for slight improvements, though they frequently expressed concern that artists should be getting a bigger cut of the profits.

High quality audio was one common desire, as was improved cover art work and liner notes, but more often perfection looked like a matter of minor tweaks.

Laura Whitehead, a 31-year-old high school teacher from Baltimore, Md., has had a $10-a-month Spotify subscription for two or three years, and her only complaint is that she can't control playlists on her phone as well as on her computer — "par for the course with most apps," she tells NPR in an email.

"When I'm tired of something or I don't want it anymore, I just delete it without feeling like I've wasted my money," Whitehead says. "To be honest I'd probably pay a little more."

Price, of course, hasn't become less of an object for all. For Hana Sambur, a streaming utopia would unite unlimited music from currently disparate music platforms, whether Spotify or Soundcloud. And it would do so at a rate that makes sense for her as a 21-year-old international student from Indonesia, studying at the University of Washington.

"A $7.50 per month fee, I think, is reasonable, as it recognizes the ethical responsibility of paying back musicians who worked hard for their art," she writes in an email.

Among musicians, accustomed to disappointing royalties statements from streaming and a lack of artistic control over the format, a perfect world for digital music may be harder to imagine.

Jay Z's contentious rollout of his recently acquired high-end streaming service Tidal signals his streaming utopia might prioritize lossless audio, plus an ownership stake for artists — at least, the most established ones.

Aloe Blacc, writing in Wired last November, called for regulatory changes allowing songwriters to earn more than the $4,000 he says he received domestically from Pandora for co-writing the No. 1 hit "Wake Me Up!" by Avicii. Björk, in a recent Fast Company interview, praised the Netflix model, saying that perhaps music, like cinema, should be a physical experience before it's available for streaming.

For musicians at a more modest level, trading the old record industry for new streaming overlords can be a case of "meet the new boss, the same as the old boss."

"The big issue is finding something that is actually 'artist friendly' and not just 'music business friendly,'" emails Casey Dienel, who has recorded three albums as White Hinterland. "I'm tired of the rhetoric that streaming will ballast the fallout of the recording industry — an industry that has a checkered past when it comes to exploitation and trust issues with artists to begin with."

Dienel worries about artists' control over the listening experience, not only their compensation. Comparing the current streaming process to "buying pre-packaged ground beef in the store," she envisions a utopia where listeners could gain a deeper knowledge of their music's sources and context. Specifically, she praises EMA's 2014 digital zine Back to the Void, released through the web platform New Hive, and the online setup of Nicolas Jaar, whose Other People label offers its own $10-a-month subscription service.

Rebecca Gates, a solo musician and arts advocate who formerly led the '90s indie-rock band The Spinanes, voices similar suspicions about industry forces. She's putting out her own music now and has chosen not put it on Spotify, although she suggests she'd be open to starting her own small subscription service for fans on her email list.

"Who is benefiting the most?" she asks of the current streaming landscape. "It's huge corporations. It's a wealth and data grab."

Fred Thomas, an indie-pop stalwart who recently released the solo album All Are Saved, remembers seeing new faces at shows — but selling fewer records — during a 2010 tour of Sweden, when Spotify was available in Europe but not yet in the United States.

"All the different streaming services — it's a joke," he says in an email. "How could one possibly be better than another? It's all free music that almost never sees any money coming back to the artist unless they're world famous."

Sharky Laguana, who led the '90s and early-'00s indie-rock band Creeper Lagoon, urges a change in how streaming companies calculate royalties.

Currently, in what Laguana describes as a "pari-mutuel" system, Spotify takes about a 30% share of its total income, and musicians (often via labels or another intermediary) receive a cut of the rest that's based on their percentage of the service's overall plays. Every listen ends up counting for the same amount of money, whether a given subscriber listened to 10 songs in a month or 1,000.

In a Medium post last November, Laguana proposed shifting to a system based on "subscriber share," where only the artists that a subscriber listens to would split up the royalties paid out from that subscriber's monthly fee. "The fairest measure of value is whatever the subscriber decided to do with the resources that were given for them with the money they paid," he tells NPR. "If I listen to Led Zeppelin 25% of the time, Led Zeppelin gets 25% of my money."

Streaming, however utopian, isn't yet the end-all, be-all for all types of artists. Take singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. While streaming tends to be more convenient for his younger fans than his older ones, both cohorts seek out Ritter's physical albums and live shows "as a mile marker in their relationship with him as an artist," says his manager, Darius Zelkha, of Tough Love Artist Management. "In that sense, we're lucky to have a fan base that toes the line here."

In general, though, the line Zelkha describes is clearly moving. As the number of people willing to pay for a streaming services rises, it makes sense that the number who are willing to pay for physical albums will dwindle. At the very least, sales of CDs — which last year, at 141 million units, were down 82% from their 2000 level, according to Nielsen Music — would be set for a continued slide. (By comparison, vinyl album sales in 2014, despite hitting an historic high, totaled only 9.2 million copies.)

Against that backdrop of streaming overtaking physical discs, skepticism about the new paradigm's ability to make up for what artists have lost over the last 15 years runs as high as a band that once signed one of the most lucrative recordings contracts ever. "For the consumer it's great," says R.E.M.'s longtime manager Bertis Downs. "[For artists] it's hard to see the math ever working out."

From a label perspective, larger outfits are betting the current streaming system could evolve into a flourishing ecosystem.

"An ideal streaming world would be one where there are dozens upon dozens of different kinds of unique services for fans to choose from, and all pay fair market rates to music creators while sustaining thriving businesses," says Cara Duckworth, a spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents the major labels. "Fans are happy, artists earn a healthy return and labels can invest in artists. Streaming is still a nascent business. We're confident we can get there."

Martin Mills, founder and chairman of the Beggars Group, a U.K. group of independent labels (many of which release music in the United States as well), has taken a public stand in streaming-related debates before, but he too speaks as if the utopia might not be too distant.

"We're happy with how Spotify looks as a role model, and are confident about their ambitions for future growth, especially of the premium tier," Mills says in an emailed statement. "Our artists are already seeing very significant benefits on their royalty statements and with their royalty checks from audio streaming income. But we also see the future as a mixed consumption model — streaming will keep growing, but downloading and physical are not going away anytime soon."

Representatives of indie labels and artists have recently criticized a digital music business they see as damagingly opaque. Mills referred to "reduced transparency" in a February speech for a U.K. trade group the Entertainment Retailers Association. At the same event, Radiohead manager Brian Message also warned of non-disclosure agreements that mask tactics he said "distort the market," including "equity positions at the expense of streaming rates."

Some see sunlight as the best solution. Darius Van Arman, cofounder of the Secretly Group, a U.S. group of indie labels, explains that, by helping to build trust in an area riddled with artist criticisms about money, greater transparency could go hand in hand with an increase in the number of paid streaming subscribers.

"A more transparent licensing structure will ease some of the knee-jerk reactions and really help the creative community embrace streaming," Van Arman says. "By doing that, I think there's a greater chance that streaming will grow."

In the business world, disclosure requirements tend to be enforced by federal regulators. Music is no exception.

Tony Kiewel, VP of A&R at Sub Pop, says streaming royalty rates in his perfect world would be set with government oversight, as is already the case for the so-called "mechanical" royalties paid for songwriting. "This would undercut the troubling trend of major labels brokering deals that grant them ownership stakes in the streaming companies in exchange for rates which may not in fact be in their artists' best interests," he explains in an email, noting his thoughts don't necessarily reflect Sub Pop's position.

For smaller labels, a streaming utopia might literally be "no place."

Leeor Brown, who founded the Friends of Friends label in 2009, says that while "realistically an ideal streaming service is one that pays appropriately," he worries that a short-lived moment when smaller artists could make a decent living may be coming to an end.

DFA Records label manager Kris Petersen concedes, "The strategy we're having is, we're sort of shrinking down a bit to match whatever market there is left for people who will actually pay an adequate price for music."

What ultimately matters is the connection between audiences and artists, not between audiences and streaming providers, say Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom, co-executive directors of CASH Music, an artist career-sustainability nonprofit co-founded by Von Doom, Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh and L7's Donita Sparks.

"Our ideal view of a streaming service would be one where artists and music are valued; where the service facilitates that artist/audience connection rather than trying to dominate it," Vail and Von Doom write in a joint email. "That's the only healthy way forward for artists of all sizes, and the long-term health of artists is vital to any music business."

The idea that the valuable relationship is the one between creators and listeners puts a level of responsibility on music lovers. Not all music is valuable to any one person, perhaps, but some music has a great value. How much that's reflected in the marketplace is for audiences to decide.

To electronic-pop artist Mauro Remiddi, who has released two albums as Porcelain Raft, in a way the music industry was ever thus. He points out that many people have long been what he calls "DIY streamers," whether recording audio cassettes from the radio or videotapes from MTV.

"Let's accept that in our century people pile up music, most of us never even listen to all the music we download (at times for free) or have on our streaming playlist," Remiddi says in an email. "Here's the catch. Stream for free, but if you find yourself going back to a certain song, to a particular album and you find yourself captured by that artist's way of representing the world then you should support it [with purchases]."

Free music has been available to a lesser extent for decades, in other words, and so has the ideal way of expressing the worth of the music: some actual money returning to musicians.

Indeed, Acacia DiCiaccio, a 25-year-old marketing professional from Whitinsville, Mass., describes a streaming utopia close to concept of the so-called celestial jukebox. A self-acknowledged "huge music nerd," she has shifted over the past few years from downloads on an iPod to Spotify streaming. In her utopia, both of these libraries would be integrated — which, to be sure, some services aim to do today — and it would all fit on her phone.

Her perspective, shared in an email to NPR, also illustrates that the perfect worlds of listeners, artists and musicians may forever be slightly out of synch, in a way that perhaps is endemic to a market-based society.

"For something like this I'd be willing to pay a subscription fee or one-time purchase fee," she says, "although in a utopia it would all be free."

Does she think that musicians should still be paid? "Definitely," she says, when asked. "In utopia, they'd be paid for streaming more than they are getting paid now by Spotify and other streaming services,"

Given the unresolved dissonances between the priorities of artists, labels and listeners — let alone technology companies — a world dominated by streaming sounds like a work in progress.

In the digital music economy, nobody's perfect.

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