Streaming & the New Music Economy


As the music industry continues to shift under their feet, Canadian artists are being forced to adapt to a future that seems at once full of promise and forbidding. Stories of quick YouTube success are balanced by the struggles experienced by the everyday band on the road. The recipe for stardom that once seemed straightforward has been lost in a world where albums are streamed, not purchased. The rules in this new music economy seem to change with each passing month, and many artists are beginning to try new things to get noticed.

Ottawa has seen its share of such experiments. A Tribe Called Red achieved some notoriety by releasing their debut album for free, copying Radiohead’s In Rainbows play. Many local bands have begun releasing tracks on Spotify and Apple Music in addition to selling records. Since the introduction of MySpace in 2003, there has been an expectation that some music be accessible online, a sort of teaser for fans, and an encouragement to come to shows.

But how much is too much? How much is too little? Live shows have become the main medium through which artists make money, but does that mean that newer artists should allow access to their recordings through streaming services that, by all accounts, pay fairly little or nothing?

Local artist Kalle Mattson thinks so. He feels that the exposure of such platforms, in addition to the income, makes it worth it.

“Not to say there aren’t problems with streaming services. There are,” he says. “But on the whole I think they are positive for the industry and over time the kinks will get worked out.”

He points out that these services can help get you noticed. In Mattson’s case, it was his being featured on the front page, in playlists and banner placements, that gleaned him something in the range of 5 million plays on Spotify, a number mostly attributable to his popular cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

Kalle Mattson (photo by Eric Scharf/Ottawa Showbox)
Kalle Mattson (photo by Eric Scharf/Ottawa Showbox)

His point is that, while it may be a raw deal at the outset, there isn’t much of a downside to listing music on such services. To Mattson it comes down to a “why not?” And since there is very little cost associated with having a presence on such services, it makes sense to be there.

However, it can be hard for artists to see how plays on services like this translates into success in the traditional sense.  Much of the time, artists rely on the feedback of fans to determine whether the music they have online actually translates into ticket sales.

Gloria Guns of local synth-pop band Scary Bear Soundtrack has had a different experience. Their notoriety has been in some part attributable to their presence on free streaming sites like CBC Radio Music, which allows them to reach a larger audience than they otherwise would. Still, she has thus far refrained from putting her music on larger sites like Spotify or Apple Music, largely because doing so is not necessarily easy and the benefits are difficult to quantify.

“If it’s too complicated to sign up for a service, then that service is going to lose a certain population of artists,” says Guns. She also notes that much of the bad PR that larger services like Spotify have received may make newer artists reticent to put their life’s work on a streaming service.

This may be part of the larger problem with these services: that signing up with them may feel like signing a deal with the devil. Many local artists see this kind of deal as unnecessary, especially when it involves a perceived devaluing of music.

Travelling through town for Arboretum, Dan Boeckner reflected on the way in which the music industry has shifted from a model that sold music, to one that sells brands and people. Wolf Parade, he says, rose to stardom at an opportune time. They were there for the beginnings of Radio 3 and iTunes, a time when even the smallest presence online would be noticeable.

Dan Boeckner
Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade / Operators

“We could reap all the benefits of the internet, but people were still buying albums,” he points out, almost nostalgically. These days, Boeckner’s music, either with Operators, Wolf Parade or Handsome Furs, is available on all major streaming services, in some cases for free with minimal audio ads for support. But Boeckner, a major music fan himself, doesn’t seem bothered by the easy access to his entire life’s work.

“I have subscriptions to both Spotify and Apple music,” he says. “I mean, some music is only available on one or the other.”

That’s the allure of streaming services: access. They are a club that offers a wide bevy of music to their members. And that is enough to demonstrate the value of the services, at least to music fans, but as Mattson points out, there is a sense in which this devalues music as a whole.

“There’s no free version of Netflix,” he points out. Why should not musicians be given the same respect for their art as film or television artists?

So, while there is no question that these services have a future, the question of what role these services will play remains a difficult one. Is the goal exposure or income? Which service is the best? Is any of this fair?

The answer to each of these questions varies by artist, and will likely continue to shift as streaming services become entrenched. The only recourse artists have is to continue to observe and adapt.

This article is cross-published between Ottawa Showbox and Ottawa Beat, the city’s new music newspaper. Find it in issue 4 of the paper at various locations around town in September.