The way we experience new music has changed significantly over the last several decades. Whereas in the mid-20th century the main form of music discovery came through purchasing a new record and playing it on a turntable, now we have near-endless catalogs of songs and albums through various streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Of course, vinyl still has its niche nostalgic appeal, but the internet — ever an agent of momentum for word of mouth — has made finding new music a beyond-easy experience people in the '60s probably never could have dreamed up.
Say what you will about the fairness of such services and the questionable pioneers that preceded them to musical artists — the consensus generally being that they were and are totally unfair — the Internet opened up an incredible world of new music discovery for consumers. However, even with the introduction of the first iPod in 2001, which revolutionized portable music players, people still had to seek out tunes on their own or rely on word of mouth to learn what was new. When they did find something they liked, it required getting a file onto said iPod or other MP3 device to bump their heads on the go, whether or not that music was acquired by legal means.
Peer-to-Peer Sharing's Rise and Fall
Of course, no discussion about the evolution of music discovery can happen without mention of Napster and the upheaval it caused. Infamous for allowing peer-to-peer sharing of files among its users, the company infuriated an entire industry of artists who understandably had a bit of an issue having their hard work obtained by people for free. A number of similar services popped up around the early '00s on the heels of Napster's success such as Kazaa, Limewire, and the expansive Gnutella network, and all were just as frustrating to members of the music community.
The problem with these services was obvious — their developers didn't pay licensing fees (at least not initially) for the music shared on their networks, and thus fostered a widespread practice of piracy. As a user, it was nearly impossible to resist the appeal of free music, but downloading files through Napster or any of the other companies was flat-out illegal. The scale to which it rose naturally posed a serious risk to music labels and the artists they represented, and a high-publicized lawsuit by members of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against Napster eventually settled partially in 2001 to the tune of $26 million in payments to music creators and copyright owners from Napster. The case didn't totally eradicate illegal file sharing — far from it — but did put music pirates on notice, and opened a major opportunity for some company or companies to provide fair and regulated file-sharing.
Enter the Streaming Giants
In the mid-'00s, a number of "Internet radio" services began to gain steam in what would eventually become a widespread adoption of legal music streaming. Pandora, actually founded in 2000, was near the beginning of this movement with its Music Genome Project, "the most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected." The idea was to create a personalized music listening experience for each user, a technology built by attaching variations of more than 400 characteristics to each song and measuring that against a user's musical tastes to provide similar artists and songs.
This was a wildly popular idea, and a "freemium" model that allowed non-paying users limited listening time interrupted by ads was bolstered by a paid subscription that lifted the restriction and sponsored content. Rdio and Spotify both followed up with similar services, but Spotify upped the game by building out an expansive catalog of music that it eventually allowed users to access with no time or play restrictions. By raising a huge sum of money through venture capitalists, securing deals with most of the major record labels that ensured payment to artists based on plays of their music, and keeping the principles of that freemium model intact, Spotify quickly shot to the top of the new union between tech and music.
More recently, Apple Music entered the scene to directly compete with Spotify and provide an almost identical set of products, but did stumble out of the gate a bit in a highly publicized kerfuffle with Taylor Swift over paying artists during the free trial period. Although the situation for artists is better now than it was during the peak of file-sharing services such as Napster, the new reality is a double-edged sword for them in that they can be discovered and shared much more easily, but have to gain serious momentum before royalties from Spotify, Apple Music, and the rest turn into meaningful cash.
In just 14 years since the debut of the original iPod and 33 years since the first CD, the way we listen to, find, and share music has changed dramatically. The task of the streaming giants moving forward will be to provide increasingly delightful products that pleases hardcore music fans and Hillary Clinton alike, while making sure artists as big as Pharrell and as small as a new band formed in a garage yesterday get the compensation they deserve for their art.
It's a brave new musical world. Let's not screw it up.
Cover image: Flickr