Streaming music has been a major form of music listening since 2011. What have we learned in 4 years? We’ve developed tastes, defined our needs, and we’ve all aligned ourselves with a handful of different apps and programs — none of which are perfect. But what would the perfect streaming app look like? If we could pick out the strengths of the options out there right now and combine them into one program to rule them all, what would that look like? What do we want out of the utopian ideal of a music platform?
The Base of Spotify
The foundation of any perfect music streaming program should start with Spotify and improve from there. The instant access and vast selection it offers is scary. It is the industry standard for a reason. The sheer amount of music available is great, but not enough is made of how easy it is. The speed and lack of centralized “storefront” means everything is search bar based, which makes it even simpler to use than iTunes. Your aunt can see a nice band on The Tonight Show and knows how to find their entire discography in minutes, from 10 most popular songs to the most recent album.
There’s also their flawless, seamless app/desktop integration. By far my favorite feature is the ability to queue up and control my desktop Spotify from my bed via my phone. It’s great for parties, cars, everything just works without any stress or muddling. Any perfect music app should have most of what Spotify has and fix its most glaring flaws.
The Intelligence of Pandora
Despite having a treasure trove of music available, Spotify playlists and radio are often dumb as all hell. If you queue up a radio station on your favorite artist, it will frequently pick the most popular song of the most obvious adjacent band. “Big fan of The Arcade Fire?” asks Spotify. “Well have you heard of ‘Chicago’ by Sufjan Stevens???? Ever hear of Interpol????”
Worst of all, it will repeat those songs ad nauseum because “loop” doesn’t mean “replay the songs once the playlist is complete” like it does on iTunes, it means “play this song 5 times in your next 10 skips.” This means even if you queue up a radio station for a small band, and you pull a bunch of associated artists you don’t know, you will quickly grow tired of the station because it will play those 3 or 4 bands one hundred times.
Despite its limitations in every other area, no one beats Pandora’s algorithms and recommendations. They’ll play deeper cuts and take care to diversify your experience. Their robots are based on the qualities of a sound and not just “this is the lead singer’s side project.” Pandora may lack the freedom and flexibility that we need from a main option, but the single thing it does, it does impeccably well.
The Platform of SoundCloud
SoundCloud’s greatest strength is that it can cull from the artistic masses to fill its library. It’s easy to put music on SoundCloud and it’s easy to spread around. Embedding is simple, customizable, and is just a good looking player. You can manipulate it to be invisible or you can make it a giant clickable piece of album art. It’s the purest, open-platform experience you could want. Imagine if embedding and playing every song was that easy.
Any perfect streaming option has to address the current debate about payouts to artists.
The Data of Last.FM
Last.FM used to be a streaming radio service — in fact, one of the first to pay artists based on streams. Its since folded that wing as the game changed, but it still bears mentioning that they are an interesting service for dedicated music nerds. There is something wonderful about having nearly every song I’ve listened to since 2006 logged and categorized. It is endlessly useful for generating upcoming concerts, recommended bands, and trying to quantify what I liked last year/month/week. I don’t get big brother vibes from it at all.
The Cloud of Google Play
What’s problematic about the label-deal model of most streaming services is that your weird MP3 collection of rarities, live recordings, demos, remixes and falsely labeled fakes are not included. In fact, they can’t even be properly integrated. Spotify will let you import old libraries and play from there, but it won’t be streaming them from other places. Those are strictly local.
Google Play, though, will. Anything it doesn’t assign to an official track is uploaded to your own personal cloud and be streamable wherever you can use their service. We harvest music from all over — SoundCloud profiles with 40 followers, Bandcamp pages and CDs handed out by dudes on the Venice boardwalk. This is the only model that incorporates all our weird acquisition habits.
The Payouts of Bandcamp
Any perfect streaming option has to address the current debate about payouts to artists. We’re in a transitional period for the music industry. In this new era, we can’t afford to continue on a path where independent artists are being mailed checks for cents.
I get it. This isn’t the Clear Channel radio days. Back then, only 100 or so artists got to appear on the radio, so their payout-per-play was significant. Today, hundreds of thousands of artists get plays, so now they’re aggregating a million streams to equal the payout of one radio play. That’s fine if you’re Taylor Swift or Coldplay. You’re still getting a fair cut comparable to what the radio days gave you. But it absolutely murders smaller artists, effectively neutralizing their ability to cash in on their talent.
Even in the piracy days, at least piracy was difficult. Your aunt wouldn’t be able to do it, she’d be scared off by viruses and taboo and all those fake download buttons. Streaming today means an independent, mid-tier artist has a harder time monetizing their recordings, relying entirely on the magic of concerts & t-shirts, for economic mobility. There has to be a middle ground between “Only 100 bands get to be famous” of the radio days and “a million bands get a penny” of the streaming ideal.
Spotify claims to give 70 percent to rights holders, but that’s a different thing from supporting an artist. Whether the onus lies with rights holders, labels or the streaming platform, Bandcamp proves that there is something the platform can do. Time and again, they’re the only name that gets mentioned as “not crooks.” They’re not perfect, their system isn’t equipped to serve certain bands, but they’re one of the most artist-focused services currently running.