Just before releasing what could be the best-selling album in as many years, British singer Adele announced that she would not make her music available on streaming services. She becomes the second artist after Taylor Swift, who pulled her music from the streaming services late last year.  Taylor Swift sensationally claimed that streaming does not make money for artists.That was a huge statement by Swift and to see Adele follow the same direction must surely mean that something is not right.

In this article, I will try to dissect what Swift meant by saying that streaming doesn’t make money for artists. In addition to that, I will analyse the technology that is the streaming service and the disruption it has brought to the distribution and consumption of music.

Streaming is a way of delivering music without having the user download the audio. Hence primarily streaming is a music distribution channel. The question now then becomes whether there a problem in how music was distributed before the streaming services became such a force to reckon with in music distribution.

To answer the above question, it’s important to look at music distribution pre-streaming. Music was primarily sold via compact discs and tapes. That was the main distribution channel until there was a disruption in the form of a service called NAPSTER at the turn of the century. Napster enabled users to download music encoded in MP3 format. This was the emergence of digital music as we know it today. Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing services a bit like Pirate Bay or Kick Ass Torrents (KAT). This, however, came to an end due to massive copyright infringement.

In 2003, the industry teamed up with Apple to open a digital music store referred to as iTunes. One thing to note is that sale of recorded music that is music on CD and/or tapes had drastically been falling. Something interesting that iTunes did was that while music sales increased, the overall revenue from music dropped. In 2003 revenue from music was 11.8 billion and in 2012 the revenue was 7.1 billion. The music sales in 2007 were 890 million for digital downloads and 500 million CDs compared to 943 million in the year 2000 when CD sales were at the peak. This was so because iTunes brought something new in the industry. People were now able to buy singles instead of full albums.

This now is where streaming services come in. For streaming, for example, Spotify, you choose what you want to listen to and mostly that would be singles as opposed to a full album. Example, if you wish to listen to Adele’s hello, you can stream it and pay for the stream instead of purchasing an entire album. This is splendid because realistically no one listens to full albums and if you do you end up loving about 5 or so tracks. For me, that is.

There are a number of streaming services in the market nowadays. Examples include Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Google Play Music and Pandora.

Spotify was founded in Sweden by a developer called Daniel EK. EK’s goal was to have a service similarly modelled to Napster. The problem with Napster was downloading the music and having copyright infringement issues. The goal was then to let the user listen to the music without having to download a copy.

The second objective was to let the user feel as if he has the music stored physically on a drive. This would mean that when the user clicks on the music, the music will play instantaneously without buffering as if the user has the music on his/her device. The music content would be stored on a remote server. This was not easy, but the developers created all this in about 3 months. These efforts lead to the invention of music streaming as we know it today. Therefore, ‘Spotify does not sell music; it sell you access to music’ that you want. One can subscribe for 10 dollars per month, or if the subscription is free, you have to listen to the ads.

Another exceptional service to consider is offered by Pandora. Pandora is a streaming service that works like a radio. You do not choose what you listen to. Note the difference with Spotify. In Pandora, you choose your preferences. Like, for example, you select Drake. Pandora’s algorithm then creates a playlist of similar artists and plays the music. Hence, it works like a personalized radio. Important to note is that Adele did not pull her music off Pandora. This is because Pandora can somehow help improve albums sales.

Is streaming bad for artists?

Spotify on its website is pretty transparent on how much it pays out to the music copyright owners. Briefly, it pays out an average of between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream to the right holders. In Kenyan shillings that are about 61 cents to about 84 cents. By the time that money reaches the musician, it is about $0.001128. In Kenyan shillings, that is about 11 cents.

For significant and established artists, streaming service is a huge plus. This is because for the average user listening to songs that he/she is choosing, it will be very hard to discover new artists. Hence influential artists like Adele and Taylor Swift Beyonce, they can make much money on these services as they are likely to get more streams than lesser known artists. The bottom line, however, is this: albums sales will make you more money than streams. But for the consumers of music, the question is this: Why should I buy a full album while I can stream songs that I only like?

For lesser artists, it is an entirely different ball game. Whether or not streaming services exists, they simply won’t make so much money from album sales because albums do not move a lot nowadays. So streaming is an excellent avenue for then to get known and get airplay as they seek to distribute their music through other channels. A good example is through concerts and live performances, sponsorships and endorsements. This is how most artists make some money since selling albums are not so viable anymore.

Over to the Kenyan music scene. Firstly, we do not have access to most of the streaming services. Additionally, I do not know if there is any Kenyan musician, who has their music on the service. The thing is, music distribution in this country is very sketchy in my opinion. Am not sure artists in Kenya do albums and if they do am not sure if it’s for commercial purposes. This could be because of the way we consume music in Kenya. No buying is involved unless it’s gospel or vernacular music where I think the players move albums.

Recently, Sauti Sol gave out their album as a free download. Sauti are really massive in Kenya and these guys can move albums. Giving out for free alluded to the fact that probably the album costs had already been recovered. Also, I think artists make money via sponsorships like the Safaricom live shows and concerts. So am not sure if a streaming service would change how we Kenyans consume our music. I heard a particular website mdundo.com allows you to listen to Kenyan music for sh. 20 per day. But when I visited their website I was able to download music for free.

Music streaming is the future of music distribution. This is simply because the average person doesn’t want to listen to full albums anymore. Adele did acknowledge that, but she was categorical that she doesn’t care. The area of streaming is really complicated and I have tried analyzing a few issues about it, but it’s just a drop in the ocean. Again, we have a classic case of technology disrupting conventional methods of doing things. Back to Kenya, will we get a service that will enable us to consume music in a way that the artists can benefit? Over to you developers.

Article by Samuel Mutugi 

smutugith@gmail.com