Streaming saved the music industry from the jaws of the internet. But the complicated picture from the past 20 years shows that surviving an online revolution isn’t the only hard part. What comes next might be even more difficult.
Music was one of the first industries that felt the sonic boom of the internet, starting with song-sharing websites like Napster in the late 1990s and iTunes digital downloads later. This was thrilling for music lovers, but new ways to listen to and purchase (or not purchase) music pushed industry sales into a crater.
Now, thanks mostly to people paying for all-you-can-listen music streaming services like Spotify, music is financially healthy and reaches more people than ever. But all is not entirely well.
Even now, the music industry in the United States generates less revenue than at the peak of the CD. There’s a raging debate about how long the gravy train from streaming will last. And many musicians and others say that they’re not sharing in the spoils from the digital transformation.
I wanted this newsletter to answer a direct question: Is the music industry an internet success story or not? There is no simple answer, which shows how messy it can be when technology jolts an industry, and it might take decades for all participants to feel like winners of the digital revolution — if that’s even possible.
First, I’ll lay out the case that the music industry is doing awesome. More than 500 million people around the world pay for digital music, mostly in fees for services such as Spotify, Apple Music or Tencent Music, which is based in China. Those services have given the industry something it has never had before: a steady stream of cash every month.
The industry also is making money a gazillion ways. When you watch a music video on YouTube, money flows to the people responsible for that song. TikTok pays record companies when videos feature their popular songs. Maybe more than for books, movies or other conventional entertainment sources, there has been a powerful symbiosis of social media and music that has lifted the popularity of both.
That would have been difficult to predict when it seemed the internet was on a path to pulverize the industry. “It’s crazy that music is viewed as a success now,” Ben Sisario, my colleague who covers the music industry for The New York Times, told me. “The question now is, Can the growth continue?”
Ah, yes. The dark cloud. Revenue for the music industry has been increasing consistently since 2015, but revenue from all sources — including streaming subscriptions, CDs and royalties from elevator music — is still less than it was in 1999.
Total industry revenue back then was about $24 billion adjusted for inflation, and revenue in 2021 was $15 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. (Global sales data from a different music trade group show a similar trajectory.)
There aren’t an infinite number of people who are willing to pay the going rate in many countries of $10 a month to access a whole bunch of songs on their phones via a service like Spotify. That’s what worries people who believe the music industry’s digital success has peaked.
Ben also told me that there’s anxiety in the industry that even the biggest songs or albums aren’t as popular as hits once were. There may be so much music and other entertainment at our fingertips that each fresh song simply is not as attention-getting or valuable as music was even a decade ago.
Ben has also written that 99 percent of artists — the ones who aren’t as famous as Beyoncé — tend to say that millions of streams of their songs might translate into pennies for them. If the music industry is a success, but so many musicians feel like they’re missing out … is that really success?
The pessimists could be wrong. People have also been saying for years that Netflix couldn’t keep adding paying customers, but it has, and now the entire entertainment industry is copying its strategy. Many musicians are excited about newer ways to reach fans on their own terms, including through the website Bandcamp and nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, which are essentially a way to transform a digital good into something one of a kind.
But the combination of glory and anxiety in music reflects a running theme in this newsletter. The preinternet days weren’t so great, but the frustrations with the digital revolution are real, too.
Before we go …
A dating app that was much more for two refugees: After Anastasia Tischchenko fled Ukraine and reached the Romanian border, she opened the Tinder app to look for help. There she and her friend found a place to sleep. “It was very inspiring,” Tischchenko told my colleague Patricia Cohen.
Related: NBC News traces the online origins of a bogus theory about biological research labs in Ukraine, which Russia has used as a false justification for its war on Ukraine. (And here is a fact check from The New York Times.)
California created the first government body in the U.S. with the sole job of regulating online privacy. It’s been a challenge, and even the state’s horse racing regulator offered advice, my colleague David McCabe writes.
The Toyota Corolla of smartphones: In reviews of the iPhone SE, Apple’s lowest-priced new smartphone model, my colleague Brian X. Chen and the Washington Post columnist Geoff Fowler say that the device isn’t for everyone but that many people can benefit from a lower-cost iPhone without some features that are often unused in pricier models.
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