Neil Young is the latest major music act to pull his catalog from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. Young's anti-streaming stance, he said, is about the low quality sound of streaming files. That makes sense, as he is heavily invested in the high-resolution audio revolution with his Pono music player business.
But other streaming holdouts, like the surviving members of The Beatles and Garth Brooks, feel that streaming services underpay artists for their music and are bullying a new generation of young artists who feel beholden to the major streaming sites for exposure, despite smaller royalties than they would receive from selling their music directly to consumers.
Taylor Swift, perhaps the single most popular artist out there today, actually got Apple Music to bend on their artist compensation plans, so you can now stream Swift on Apple Music.
Streaming leader Spotify also recently broke down walls with some other stubborn holdouts, such as AC/DC and Metallica, by negotiating with them directly.
But the underlying question for me is, does it matter? Can a single artist being absent from a service make a significant difference to users?
Streaming music is above all else, a convenience for consumers, but it is also having a negative effect on the music download business. Apple realized that and felt compelled to get into the streaming game as a defensive move.
From a consumer's perspective, it is simple: Why buy all that music when I can get most of it, on demand, for a few bucks a month? Or even free if I'm willing to put up with a few commercials, which I've been doing all my life with radio?
From the artists' perspective, the view is more ominous. If the download model continues to crumble, the only choice artists will have if they want their music heard will be working with the streaming services. At that point, the power shifts to the services, which can negotiate from a position of strength.
Taylor Swift’s Apple Music deal came to fruition after a very public dispute over royalties. Apple originally intended not to pay the record labels, publishers and artists during the free three-month trial of its new streaming service. Swift called them out on it and they capitulated. She still refuses to have her music on Spotify though. Has it hurt Spotify?
Since Swift pulled her music, Spotify has doubled its subscriber base. It went from 10 million users to 20 million in 12 months.
The conclusion? I admire Neil Young for taking a stand but the industry is clearly larger than one single artist. And I suspect that, given the niche market of high-res audio and the millennial generation's attitude that music is a commodity, Young will eventually give in to the streaming masses. If not, instead of burning out, he will likely just fade away.