In Praise of Streaming: An Open Reply to Ethan Iverson

By MediaMonkey

May 16, 2023

Recently, The Nation published an article by Jazz Musician Ethan Iverson about streaming. Much of the article is a dash through the history of recorded music, but the overall point is stated in the title – “The End of the Music Business” – and a subtitle: “But is it really better for listeners?” Given our strong views on this, we thought we’d publish a public reply. The Nation article is behind a registration wall, but there is a limited free access so here’s the link:

We do urge you to read it, it’s a well argued, poignant piece.

Iverson begins with history, so we shall too. “Miserere Mei” is one of the best pieces of choral music ever composed, created by Gregorio Allegri in the 1630s. The piece was originally written for use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week, and it quickly became one of the most famous and highly regarded works of the Renaissance period. However the Vatican decided to protect the exclusive use of the Miserere and wouldn’t allow it to be performed outside the Sistine Chapel. In 1770, a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited the Chapel and heard the Miserere performed during a Holy Week service. Mozart was so impressed by the piece that he transcribed it from memory when he returned to his lodgings. This was an impressive feat, as the Vatican had gone to great lengths to ensure that the Miserere could not be copied or disseminated outside of the chapel. Mozart’s transcription of the Miserere made its way into public hands. This caused a scandal, music piracy. There is a wibbly wobbly line from that to streaming, but we’ll return to this.

Iverson isn’t a fan of Spotify, stating “everyone simply gave up and let Spotify enter the American market in 2011.” So, “is it really better for listeners?” For many years, which we lived through, access to music was hard. If you wanted to listen to a song or album, you had to save up and buy it, pray it was played on the radio, or copy it off your mates. But you might only be able to afford one or two albums, a few singles, these things cost, and we were all limited by the depth of our pockets to what music we could enjoy. Now we have streaming, where the cost of one album will buy instant access to the better part of all recorded songs. Streaming has removed the price window on music, allowing you to enjoy far, far more than at any point in our past.

This wouldn’t be helpful if you only learned about a fraction of it. To buy these albums you either had to spend hours trawling through a record shop, devour NME cover to cover, or find a radio show you vibed with for a few precious hours a week. There was only awareness of so much music, just as there was only access to so much. Now Spotify and other streaming services will let you bring up a song you like, click a radio button, and find fifty related to it… and these algorithms work. I have been burning through the depths of Spotify for years and still find hundreds of brilliant songs by artists I would never have found, and I can afford to listen to them.

Spotify provides endless playlists for greater discovery, and the glorious but illegal mix tapes we all made each other can be created, not by spending a whole afternoon with a double tape deck, but in a few minutes on the streaming service and then shared with dozens of friends.

Iverson is worried about the quality of music on these services. He starts talking about: Muzak. “Muzak was conceived by Maj. Gen. George Owen Squier—a prolific inventor whose other credits include telephone multiplexing and the US Air Force. Squier guessed, apparently correctly, that many people wanted to be surrounded by innocuous music more or less all the time. However, Muzak was a specific business model for a certain market, requiring oversight and investment by the purchaser. Spotify has refined that process further, with mood-music playlists to suit any occasion that anybody can access at any time, sometimes generated by algorithm.”

This is quite the slight on the thousands of acts on Spotify who sound brilliant. We at Supajam listen to thousands of songs every year and have never noticed a decline in quality from the past. Muzak is on it, everything is on it, it’s all forms and bases.

There are, of course, problems. The practice of listening to an album is falling away. When you had to drop a needle, it was easier just to let the filler tracks on an LP play out. Now you can just create a playlist or skip the bad stuff, but to be fair this was the same for CDs and is not a new problem. Your scribe went to university with a chap who had a sticker on all of his CDs listing the good tracks to programme into the player.

A bigger problem with streaming services is where’s the money going? The cost of an album for us each per month, and we listen to hundreds of songs. How is anyone getting paid? This is a problem, we’re not denying it, and the system needs reform, but in the context of this article Iverson himself reminds us most people never got paid in the music industry anyway:

“Consider as urbane a product as the 1959 album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, generally held to be a flawless masterpiece. The luminous sidemen on Kind of Blue—Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb—were paid union scale for each of the two sessions; since Cobb was a drummer, they tossed him a few extra bucks for cartage. A receipt for the second session lists Cobb’s earnings that day as $66.67… One would think that a musician who was vital to the success of the best-selling jazz album of all time—Cobb’s superb, unique swinging beat is heard on almost every second of Kind of Blue—would not need to spend his sunset years worrying about money, but Cobb had to run a GoFundMe for medical expenses in early 2020, before dying in May of that year.”

But there is a final, huge problem, and it brings us back to the Vatican controlling access. If you don’t own physical copies of the music, you don’t her permanent access to the music. Streaming users are at the whims of the owners of the services and the music to pull or publish their music as they see fit. Your scribe has a large collection of CDs which contain music never seen on streaming services, and if Spotify were to collapse, if streaming were to end, all our access would vanish and are ancient relics would be all we have left.

Iverson is right when he says the music industry as we know it has ended. But the music industry itself hasn’t, it will evolve, create new structures, and find a way. People like making money, they will not stop now. Change will come. Streaming is at a mid-point in its evolution. There are big questions for musicians – such as being paid – and for users – such as maintaining access – but if the question is “Is it really better for listeners?” We have to answer an emphatic yes.




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