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Why Music Streaming Is Bad For Democracy

The ever-increasing popularity of streaming services like Spotify speaks volumes about the changing view in American society toward the meaning of ownership.


Spotify’s 2016 earnings report seems to indicate few people will be buying music in the future. While the music streaming service has yet to report any profit since launching in 2008, Spotify reported the number of subscribers to its “Discover Weekly” playlist has surpassed 40 million since the playlist’s inception last July.

“Discover Weekly” makes Spotify attractive to users because every week the app takes each individual listener’s song searches and music plays from the previous week and uses that information to compile a playlist customized to his tastes. Spotify has boasted it has a knack for finding the right songs; according to its report, the average listener will save 1 in 10 songs from the 30-song playlist to his online collection weekly.

Since Spotify caters to its users’ tastes in this manner, listeners can find new music with a minimal effort. Spotify updates the playlist weekly, so there is always a fresh crop of tracks for the listener to discover.

The Music Industry Cannibalizes Itself

Most listeners access Spotify through its free version and reap the benefits of its huge music catalogue without ever paying a cent. The ever-increasing popularity of streaming services like Spotify (or Apple Music or Tidal) speaks volumes about the changing view in American society toward the meaning of ownership.

This issue is not new to the music industry. In 2014, Taylor Swift removed all but a few of her songs from Spotify because she felt she was being exploited. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she explained her reasoning: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

Public opinion, however, does not reflect Swift’s view. Since 2014, so many people have turned to streaming services instead of downloading mp3s or buying hardcopies of music that some have even predicted the eventual closure of Apple’s iTunes store. Even Kanye West, a self-proclaimed “cultural nucleus,” jumped on the music streaming bandwagon when he refused to offer his most recent album, “The Life of Pablo,” in any purchasable format. Furthermore, he announced in a tweet that he would no longer release any of his music on CDs, saying, “The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs r.i.p.”

The Loss of an Ownership Culture

While entertaining for pop-culture fanatics, artists’ varied reactions to the changing face of music distribution are simply side-effects of a wider trend emerging in American culture. The shift in listeners’ preference toward streaming reflects a cultural desire to be free from firmly owning physical things. “Ownership” is no longer a tangible concept, but rather a measure of how much control an individual has over the resources communally available in his environment.

Writing about property more than 100 years ago in “What’s Wrong with the World?,” the British essayist G.K. Chesterton explained man’s notion of ownership as such: “Property is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image.”

If Chesterton’s definition, which characterizes property as a democratic construct centered on the ability to have personal belongings, is correct, then we may have truly reached the end of democracy. Music streaming services like Spotify, ride-sharing apps like Uber, disposable messaging services like Snapchat — all redefine ownership as something many individuals borrow from each other, without the ability for permanent and personal possession.

While streaming removes the individual’s ability to actually own any music, it gives him greater latitude than ever before to curate playlists for himself and develop his taste in ways that would be unimaginable without the help of apps like Spotify. On the other hand, niche markets like vinyl records have skyrocketed in sales in recent years because of a growing subculture of people who wish to actually own their music.

Music streaming may be one of the many death knells for democracy in America, but that might just be what the people want.