Streaming music is, at best, for the most basic music consumer. At worst, it’s exploitative and shitty.
All of the major streaming platforms tout the fact that they are an amazing way to discover new artists. But for more serious listeners, that claim is usually empty. I’ve never “discovered” an artist I didn’t know through an “if you liked X, you’ll probably like Y” algorithm, all of which seem capable of delivering only the most obvious results. And all of these services have giant holes in their catalogs, which, for musical completists, makes them not worth crossing the paywall.
Every major streaming service has its own unique set of flaws, which we’ll get into in a moment. But it’s important to note that the underlying cause of these flaws might be the same. Ultimately, these are all the creations of tech people hoping to make a fortune based on cutting out the rights holders of the music as much as possible. A combination of bad business practices, poor application of technology and unrealistic expectations so far has delivered nothing but inferior products. They may serve the most casual of listeners, but for both the artists themselves and their most ardent fans, so far, no service has delivered everything it's promised.
YouTube is the oldest entity on this list and has grandfathered its way to legitimacy — kinda, sorta — along the way. But it’s far from the ideal way to discover or listen to music. It’s still great at what it originally set out to be: a place for amateurs to host their own videos. But as a music streaming platform (or as a source for professional, scripted content), it leaves much to be desired. YouTube is riddled with ads and unofficial uploads. And the site — like every other streamer on this list — pays artists, publishers and labels like garbage. In broad terms, streaming companies are taking most of the payouts that would have gone to artists or other rights holders, and YouTube is arguably the worst offender of the bunch.
On a technical level, the sound quality on YouTube is generally atrocious. Songs often sound compressed and tinny. And as a discovery engine, it's even worse. The videos it recommends to me on the right-hand column never offer any suggestions beyond the obvious — or the totally irrelevant, thanks to major labels paying for more exposure and higher search results.
Here's what YouTube recommends when I clicked the top search result for "Prins Thomas," a Scandinavian producer I like:
YouTube recommends Bonobo, Chet Faker, Nicolas Jaar, Lindstrom, LCD Soundsystem and Todd Terje. But I already am extremely familiar with those artists, all of whom are arguably better known than Prins Thomas. I would be hard-pressed to find a Prins Thomas fan who does not already know all of these artists. While this is anecdotal, it's par for the course.
SoundCloud had a promising start. DJs, particularly dance music DJs, helped solidify a community on the nascent platform. But as it grew and had to turn legit, SoundCloud has slowly but surely alienated most of its early adopters. With overly aggressive content-recognition software, it has taken down mixes and kicked some DJs off the site entirely.
Despite trying to legitimize itself, SoundCloud has been toeing the bankruptcy line and seems to be on an inevitable collision course with failure. The problem from a business perspective is that you don’t have to be a member to listen to music on SoundCloud. As a consumer, this is a real bonus. But it’s bad for the bottom line. SoundCloud may have had good intentions from the start, but it has lost the good will of a lot of users and diehard music fans along the way. And it's had a nightmare of a time creating a mobile app that fulfills the most basic functions.
Spotify — the Swedish company currently winning the streaming wars in terms of subscriber base — was early on the whole playlist thing. It outsources curation to music magazines or other “influencers” (just typing that word makes me feel dirty) to create playlists, based on Spotify’s catalogs. That’s all fine and good — but you’re still outsourcing discovery, and if I’m a consumer, why don’t I just go straight to the curator (a magazine, website or DJ) for tips? Why do I need Spotify? Plus, its library is full of holes, even from giant, mainstream artists' catalogs.
And playlists don’t distract from the fact that Spotify’s interface is so buggy and aesthetically unattractive that it’s not worth logging into unless absolutely necessary. Songs and playlists can take eons to load, songs often hiccup during playback, and it regularly freezes my system. If you regularly have to force quit your browser, there's a problem. If the streaming service requires too much RAM or bandwidth, that's the system's fault, not the user's. I shouldn't need the world's fastest, newest computer in order to listen to music. And so many other services have modeled themselves after Spotify to the point of mutually assured destruction.
The most profitable company in the world seems to have the least imaginative vision of streaming and came tardy to the party. The interface — which is deeply entwined with iTunes, itself a deeply flawed, ugly digital product — is a nightmare, unnecessarily byzantine and confusing. It may have some good content, but you'd never know because it is buried somewhere unintuitive.
Too bad Apple is not in the business of listening to reason. There is truly nothing positive to say about this service, and it's just a question of how much money the Apple overlords want to burn in this garbage fire.
Apple Music and Tidal are essentially indistinguishable at this point. They should absorb one another and try to take on the others. The botched release of high-profile albums like The Life of Pablo is inexcusable for a company that boasts so many resources and major backers. Is this why Kanye wants Apple to buy Tidal? Because it's broken beyond repair?
Tidal and Apple Music seem to both believe that offering "exclusive," high-profile albums is the way to entice people to sign up for a "free" trial. But the notion that any digital product could be exclusive in 2016 is so flawed and naive that I almost feel bad for these guys. Do they not understand how file-sharing works? That alone illustrates how out-of-touch the streaming platforms are.
There are other options out there, too — MixCloud, Pandora and whatever startup is launching as I type — and, well, they all suck too. Trust.
Is streaming music an inherently flawed proposition? For truly serious music consumers, it may be. No one service has yet to convince me that giving up ownership of my music is a good idea. And none of their algorithms can replace the experience of finding and discovering music from actual, trusted human sources.
I believe that discerning music consumers want to hear stuff they wouldn't have found on their own. I believe the discerning music consumer is less interested in what is trending or "successful" and wants to judge music based on its inherent merits, inasmuch as that's possible. I believe the discerning music fan does not just want to receive music recommendations based on narrow genre guidelines or by obvious connections.
The serious music consumer does not want to have five accounts to cover all of her music needs because each service's catalog is incomplete. The serious fan wants high-fidelity digital files (that aren't proprietary — I'm looking at you, .m4a) so she can make mixtapes, CDs or mixes for personal use. The serious fan might also want to bring a file into Ableton or Logic and futz around with it. For the serious fan, music is now an interactive experience.
The serious music fan doesn't want to listen to the same five ads over and over and doesn't want "promoted" tracks in his timeline. The serious music fan definitely wants his entire library to be fully and easily accessible offline. The serious music fan is willing to pay more for the best experience. The serious music fan wants a clean interface with a rich catalog and recommendations that elucidate music he would never have found otherwise.
And here's another important point: The serious music fans wants the artists she supports by streaming to be able to make a living.
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Big data cannot — at least at this point in history — satisfy the rabid, completist music fan and compete with human beings, who are still better curators of music. That’s why (human) DJs are riding a wave of historic popularity; we need other human beings to sift through the mountains of forgettable music that’s being uploaded every day. It’s not an exact science that a robot can learn. It’s complicated. Connections between music and artists don't boil down to similar time signature, tempo, length and other indicators. Vnyl and other companies understand this and are trying to pivot off the streamers’ mistakes.
Finding a way to make streaming work for everyone — the streaming company itself, the publishers, the artists, the labels, the average consumer and the specialized consumer — is a really difficult proposition. Maybe it’s so difficult that it’s not meant to happen. There are too many interests at play and not enough money to go around. Perhaps traditional e-commerce — in which you buy a song or album and just, you know, own it — will inevitably win. Bandcamp does this well and promotes discovery. Instead of offering a cheap, flawed product for under $10 a month, maybe the streamers should follow Bandcamp's lead and focus on trying to place a higher value on music, instead of bowing to the culture’s demands.
The music industry has been completely lost in the 21st century and is constantly chasing a panacea for all of its self-inflicted woes. It saw the success of film and TV streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and decided to chase that model. But movies, TV and music are not interchangeable — the experience of consuming each form of media is different, and what works for Orange Is the New Black does not necessarily work for a highly personalized and carefully curated collection of, say, ambient techno. Until someone finds the magic bullet, streaming will remain valuable only to the most basic listeners among us.
If you find value in streaming services, more power to you. For the rest of us, streaming services feel cheap and disposable — and by extension, they make the music itself feel cheaper and more disposable, too.