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Are CDs, tapes and vinyls dead? How streaming music changed consumer behaviour

Can you remember the first tape or CD you ever owned? My parents bought me mine when I was six years old. Spice, the debut album from British pop sensation Spice Girls, quickly became the backing track to every waking moment of that year of my life; and I mean, every moment. "Who Do You Think You Are" was my anthem whenever the haughty mean girl at school did something particularly snobby. "Mama" was the song that reminded me to give my mum a big hug when I got home. And "Wannabe" was the all-important anthem that taught my young self that if the boy in my maths class wanted to become my boyfriend, he simply had to get along with my BFF Samantha, or that was the end of it. Can you remember the first album you played while streaming music? Me neither.

It's little exaggeration to say that the music industry is practically unrecognisable from what it looked like a few years ago. Yet, although it seems like our love affair with streaming has been a long, drawn-out relationship, in reality it was only around 2005 that it really took flight. Yet, regardless of how long it has been with us, there is one thing that's undeniable: streaming has changed the way we, as consumers, behave and most of the signs point towards music lovers' attitudes taking a sharp turn for the worse.

A person streaming music on their phone Credit: StockSnap

With more than 100 million people now paying for streaming devices across the world, a 2017 study by a group of Tilburg University professors, Hannes Datta, George Knox and Bart J. Bronnenberg, shed light on this theory. The three academics wrote 'Changing Their Tune: How Consumers' Adoption of Online Streaming Affects Music Consumption and Discovery', a report that showed the results of monitoring individual streamers' listening histories across a variety of digital music platforms over the course of a year, with the professors repeating their analysis with different variable operationalizations.

Unsurprisingly, their overall findings showed that streaming increases the quantity of consumption, with overall digestion of music soaring by 49 percent more than it was before adopting Spotify. In addition, the three academics discovered that there was an increase in the variety of consumption, with the number of unique artists listened to up by 36 percent six months after adopting streaming.

Following straight behind was a powerful surge in the discovery of new music, with users feeling able to experiment now they were only paying a set amount per month for a practically unlimited selection of songs and artists, rather spending every penny of their hard-earned money on different albums, only to find they could never have a full set. So, by using streaming, more music is played, a variety of music is played and users feel able to experiment. What could be wrong with that, you ask?

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As I confided while beginning this article, my first real memory of owning music is being handed a Spice Girls CD and even twenty years later - forgive the poor taste, I was only six - I could easily sing you every word of "Wannabe", making my way through each melody of the album, all the way to the final song, "If You Can't Dance."

But, as I painstakingly resist the urge to log onto Spotify and crank out the whole album to the annoyance of my colleagues, I wonder if my child or my child's child will have quite the same experience with music as I. Will they meticulously memorise every word, melody and guitar solo of an album? Will they remember the exact order of the track listing? Will they even remember the name of their first album?

As music becomes cheaper and more readily available than ever before, consumers have become, to a certain extent, fickle and lazy. Despite music lovers devouring songs at an unprecedented rate, it could be said that we no longer have the same experiences with music, often playing an album through only once or twice before making our decision and moving onto the next thing.

CDs and DVDs in a shop Credit: StockSnap

Spotify user, Henry, admits he no longer appreciates music in the way he did before streaming, saying: "Beforehand, I would have to think very carefully before I purchased an album, reading plenty of reviews before making my decision, but now with a streaming subscription I find I often add songs to playlists that I may never listen to again. some music takes a few listens before it can be properly appreciated and with so much to choose from, I often find myself making quick judgements on albums that might not be as accurate."

How much fans value their favourite artists' music was studied in a monetary manner years before when the unsigned Radiohead did an 180 and decided to release their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, on a pay-what-you-want download. Although Radiohead’s publisher Warner Chappell eventually stated that the band had made even more than from their previous album, Hail to the Thief, this statistic was called into question by Comscore, who claimed that only two out of five downloaders were willing to pay for the album.

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In addition, not only are a large amount of us barely willing to pay for the music we love these days, some listeners feel that we also experience the albums we do listen to in a completely different way.

Apple Music user Thomas believes that music has become less appreciated in the ear of streaming music, but takes his critique one step further, claiming that consumers are missing out on the connection with the artist when they stream music. He said: "Because streaming services encourage listening to compilations of many different artists’ work, i.e. playlists - listeners might have less of a connection to any one particular musician as an artist with something to say. Musicians have always crafted collections of songs that a tell an overall story, explore a concept or simply take the listener on a sonic journey and people don’t seem to consume music like that anymore."

Listening to an album used to be an experience, one that you'd become excited about, one that you'd waited days, weeks and months to take part in and one that you wouldn't be forgetting anytime soon. But in the millennial age where information is thrust at us from every direction and everything is instant but fleeting, has streaming made a lot of songs utterly forgettable? Perhaps, for some people.

Music streamer holding earphones at train station Credit: StockSnap

With the increased discovery of new music, it appears that we abandon our old tracks. Our parents may have felt a connection to an album and felt themselves whipped away into a satisfying abyss, every new listen peeling back new layers, enhancing previously unheard sounds and, all in all, taking them on a journey, song by song. Yet nowadays listeners often forgo the "experience" of an album due to the ability to skip on to the next song.

However, not everyone feels the same way; Spotify user, Sophie, claims that being able to have the music she wants, exactly when she wants it, has made her more appreciative of good music. She said: "I remember waiting for ages to buy a new album when I was younger, I love that streaming has opened up a world of music opportunities to users. Although I do my fair amount of skipping, I don't feel like I've lost my connection with music. Actually, I feel like my connections got stronger and I just have more choice now."

So, is she right? Do we listen to music in just the same way as our parents did, but just with our repertoire expanded? Perhaps being able to experiment with different music tastes has made us even more appreciative of great music and just means that we know a winning album when we hear one.

Whatever the case, there's no arguing over the unending benefits of streaming music; it's expanded our repertoire, given us the opportunity to store as many songs as our heart's content and allowed us to listen more and experiment with rigid tastes. Not to mention our bank accounts are most definitely thanking us for hopping on the bandwagon.

But, still, the facts are all there though: rather than music fans, in the 21st century, it appears we have become music hoarders. So are music lovers the real winners or losers of the streaming phenomenon? Who knows really. At the end of the day, I suppose that's up to each individual listener to decide. In the meantime, I am off to relive my youth by listening to some Spice Girls.

  • Aug
  • 45 shares
  • Emma Brazell