A brief history of streaming services

Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 5:38pm

NOSELL

Spotify / SoundCloud

As of right now, I am writing this with my iPod Nano stowed away in the bottom drawer of my bedroom dresser. I could sift through it the way I would sift through that drawer and revisit just as much of my 11-year-old interests. I trace my world back to 2010 with my parents’ references to the deaths of the CD and the radio. Somehow, 2020 seems like a return to form with digital sales of music all but entombed. I cannot fathom a music world untethered from the streaming world. My interests are far too deep, shamelessly imposed by the algorithms of a streaming service. I lived through a time where MTV and award shows had the same influence as Spotify’s “Today’s Top Hits” playlist, but the transition between the two is as fuzzy as fiction to me. The span between Frank Ocean’s 2013 Grammy win and 2017 Grammy protest measures a history I have yet to understand. Either way, the inception of Apple Music was the beginning of my appreciation for Ocean, too. 

The modern magic of music streaming services are comfortably contemporary, but their ancestry can be traced back to the era of Britney Spears’s  Baby One More Time... Napster was envisioned by two teenagers in 1999. “Napster” flowered from co-founder Shawn Fanning’s online username into the world’s first music streaming platform. His partner Sean Parker took an interest after Fanning shared the idea of a software powerful enough to stream shared MP3 files. With the combined efforts of Fanning’s programming and Parker’s investment strategies, Napster was launched in May 1999. By October of 1999 it had over four million songs in circulation. By March of 2000, the Napster community had over 20 million members. 

This registered a new millennium with the first-ever dip in global record sales. Major record labels went into a frenzy and subsequently called for a summit among their various executives. Litigation for Napster crossed every angle as companies and acts from Metallica to Dr. Dre pelted them with breach of copyright lawsuits. Napster was effectively shut down with 50 million members in 2001 as a result.

Napster lingers by virtue of its liquidation and obvious influence on streaming services like Soundcloud, Apple Music and Spotify. Parker and Fanning actually attempted to alter Napster into such a platform in its last breath before bankruptcy, but couldn’t secure the licensing. Regardless, the idea of a subscription plan turned many listeners off from the brand — mail-in money orders simply didn’t have the same efficiency as digital, paperless billing. With the looming risk of lawsuits still in the air and the technological restrictions of 2001, a replacement for Napster never took its place. Perhaps it was the plug-in nature of technology at the time or the greater value attributed to physical possessions, but the status quo for music consumption stuck around. CD sales and airplay were still the primary factors for music exposure and success. 

The same goes for music genre popularity: alternative rock and pop music reigned. This trend carried on into the early 2010s, even with the EDM trend that gripped the pop sector. Teen pop made a resurgence with popular Disney and Nickelodeon shows like “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Big Time Rush.” But as the world took a turn toward music streaming, hip-hop quickly eclipsed other music genres. Rock music’s position as the most consumed music genre for over 50 years was usurped by hip-hop. 

Despite the rise of music streaming in the mid-2010s, Spotify and Soundcloud were established in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Their rise and expansion, sans the teen success story, mirrors that of Napster. Both centered in Stockholm, they paved their way to popularity in Europe before becoming international mammoths. This was the very beginning of streaming’s influence; in 2010, Spotify was making more money for record labels in Sweden than any other brand. By the end of 2011, its subscriber base doubled to two million. It doubled yet again by the end of 2012 with over four million paid users and a whopping 15 million active users in general. As of 2019, Spotify has 26 million paid subscribers and 191 million total active users worldwide. Apple Music’s global 28 million paid subscribers also comprises a huge chunk of the streaming market.

But how exactly does this tie into the rise of hip-hop? According to a 2017 report by Nielsen, hip-hop’s surging popularity was powered by a 72 percent increase in on-demand audio streaming. None of this is to suggest streaming media did all the work on its own. Hip-hop’s artists, producers and labels did the heavy lifting in terms of making the genre what it is. Between the rise of massive artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar and the influence of hip-hop labels like Cash Money Records and Top Dawg Entertainment, hip-hop built itself as force worth reckoning. 

The dynamic of streaming really comes down to its radar of exposure. With over 50 million songs under their grip, Apple Music and Spotify have the power to expose listeners to music they otherwise wouldn’t have discovered with their algorithms. With this, the roles of award shows, airplay and television broadcasting carry less weight. Listeners now have more autonomy to curate more unique and expansive tastes in music without popular bias and money enforcing as many constraints. Despite record labels adjusting seamlessly to the sway of streaming, they no longer prevail as primary determinants of success for an artist. Artists can distribute their work directly to listeners without sacrificing their style to appeal to labels. This specifically boosts hip-hop in two senses: one, more mainstream means of exposure never gave the genre the recognition it deserved, and two, hip-hop has more of an experimental element to it than other music genres. Whereas pop leans more on a label to produce for an artist, hip-hop is more fixated on an individual’s skills with production.

The effect is two-fold with streaming and music simultaneously shaping one another. Hip-hop specifically grooves with these shifts as it takes to more experimental routes. Subgenres like emo-rap and trap especially gain benefits as they thrive on platforms like Soundcloud. Music and production bounce off one another with more ease and individual control now than they have in the past. Streaming works to further this relationship through the platform’s individualized attention to the tastes of listeners. The platform takes into account factors of music the listeners themselves wouldn’t have considered to tailor music interests with more unique turns. There is less conformity to any particular genre, leading to more exposure and collaboration we haven’t seen popular in the past.