If 2016 is remembered for anything, aside of course from the great music released, it will be the year that music distribution and consumption changed forever. Streaming has pretty much overtaken CDs and digital downloads in terms of how we consume our music and also how artists release their music. More and more artists are turning to streaming platforms to release their music, including many with exclusive releases on particular platforms. I am thinking Beyonce and Kanye on Tidal, and when, and if it is released Frank Ocean’s latest album “Boys Don’t Cry”. With this, many are also bypassing the physical release including Kanye who thinks the album is dead, and Chance the Rapper, the mixtape master whose latest release “Coloring Book” is only available online. The rise of streaming also comes with the news that Apple supposedly will phase out their digital download iTunes store in a few years choosing instead to invest all their effort into ensuring the success of Apple Music and Beats 1 Radio.
The smaller artists are also staying online when it comes to releasing their work. Bandcamp and SoundCloud every year seem to become bigger and bigger with artists releasing more of their work through these sites and regularly too. Take Auckland’s Grow Room, a music collective based on Karangahape Road. They have a Bandcamp page where they drop their official releases, while the artists involved also have their own individual SoundCloud pages where they drop beats and unreleased tracks every week it seems. This avalanche of new music makes it very hard to keep up at times with there being too much music and not enough time to digest it all. You get round to familiarizing yourself with an artist’s latest E.P. or mixtape and then they drop something else.
So what does this mean? Well, the idea of music ownership is slowly disappearing. Yes, CD’s and digital downloads are not done yet, people still want to own their music, while the vinyl revival won’t die anytime soon. But with the prominence of subscription-based streaming platforms and artists taking control over how and when they release their music, it won’t be too long before the idea of owning “most” of your music will become a foreign concept for most. With streaming, you are paying a company which allows you access to their collection, while previously when you bought a CD or paid for a download you then had ownership of that product. As someone who grew up during both the CD boom and the high-water mark of the digital download, as well as a person who has embraced streaming, I am still coming to terms with this idea as music ownership is still a concept that means something to me. I don’t think I will be able to let go of my CD’s, of my downloads, of my iTunes collection as I have spent ten years building my collection and curating it within the knowledge that something like a music stream was never going to become as big as it has done. I love streaming, Spotify has changed the way I consume music, but I am not 100% supportive of the idea that I have to use an online platform to listen to my music, and that the music I am listening does not come in a physical form whether mp3, tape, record or CD.
With changes in the way we consume music, we are also seeing artists become more inventive when it comes to how they release music. Now I am not saying inventive releases have never happened before, but it seems to be coming more the norm for artists to keep audiences guessing when it comes to release dates, and indeed how their music drops. This year alone, Beyonce dropped her release “Lemonade” out of the blue with an accompanying film, Radiohead teased fans with snippets from their music video for “Burn The Witch” before dropping the song and then the album, while David Bowie released his record “Blackstar” several days before he tragically passed away. Then, there was Kanye. There was an expected release date for “The Life Of Pablo” under a different name, then the name changed again, then the album was pushed back, then it was released exclusively on Tidal and then he continued to update it even after it was released. Has thing ever happened before? An artist making changes to their music even after the release of the record.
And if you thought Kanye playing with people was big, what about Frank Ocean. His second studio release is one of the most anticipated in recent years, but after two rumored release dates which had the effect of whipping social media into frenzies we are still waiting. Ocean updated his website with a mysterious library card showing possible release dates, while just last week a stream appeared that suggested the album was near and would be exclusive to Apple Music. After questions about the survival of the album, 2016 has seen the album release as an event return, something that had not really been the case since the 1990s. With interest high and hype through the roof for albums such as “A Moon Shaped Pool”, “The Life of Pablo”, and “Boys Don’t Cry”, one thing is for certain, people might not be buying albums as much as they used to, but the interest is still there for the long player. A testament to this is how album releases or indeed non-releases have been received in 2016 so far.
In concluding this piece, we are living in changing, but interesting times when it comes to music consumption and distribution. No one quite knows what is going to happen next, or indeed which direction the industry is going in. But, one thing is sure, things are moving quickly and everyone is watching each other carefully. With this the case, as a keen observer of the industry it keeps me hooked on the goings on knowing that we really are living in a revolutionary time for music.