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Streamlined Delivery: Our Changing Relationship with Entertainment

Arts & Culture | September 23, 2013

It’s no surprise to anyone that streaming services are changing the way we consume music and television. With the ubiquity of personal devices, listening to any song or watching any TV show through streaming services is effortless. People can spend more free time in different places watching TV or listening to music. If the advent of buying music online meant consuming more music, the advent of streaming services means we are now devouring it. This also holds true for TV shows. Gone are the days when you would have to pay over $30 for a season of your favorite show, or worse yet, wait an entire week to watch an episode. The rise of Netflix and other such services has alleviated these nuisances and, in turn, created the phenomenon of binge-watching.

Streaming is thus changing our music and television habits in a simple way—we are listening to more music and watching more TV online. Americans are becoming increasingly more comfortable with the idea of streaming a television show online instead of owning it or watching it when it airs. According to a report by market research firm eMarketer, by next year, over half of Americans will be watching movies and television over the Internet. One third of Americans say they would consider getting rid of their television. A similar trend is occurring within the music industry. For the first time in two reporting periods, digital song sales dropped 2.3 percent over the first half of 2013. Simultaneously, there was a 24 percent increase in total number of songs that were streamed. The tide is turning against owning a song or TV show in favor of having access to a plethora of content that can be streamed on multiple devices, such as televisions, computers, and phones. This simple difference in our consumption habits is changing both our relationship with music and television and the nature of the content that these services provide in a complicated way.

When we devote less time to making actual purchases in favor of having free access to media, the nature of the relationship we have with media inevitably changes. Instead of spending $10 on a single iTunes album, users can pay a $10 monthly fee to Spotify and stream an unlimited amount of music. This cheaper means of accessing music translates into spending less time with a particular song or album in exchange for the ability to listen to more music. The act of choosing which album to download or what show to watch requires careful, time-consuming consideration––with the advent of programs like Spotify, this occurs less frequently. The consequence of this ownership is an intimate relationship with music that comes with a song’s permanent existence in the memory of your computer’s hard drive. Listening to the music repeatedly and knowing it exists in a place that you consciously allotted for it creates a more personal connection with the music than when you simply click a button on Spotify.

The same principle applies to our relationship with television. The gap between weekly episodes allows for greater reflection and discussion on characterization and suspense about what happens next. Conversely, after watching 10 episodes in one sitting, you are less likely to remember the intricacies of a single episode some time later. Through Netflix, users experience television in a long continuous moment that allows little time for reflection. Apart from changing our interaction with media, streaming services are also revolutionary in that they make it much easier for people to share what they are listening to or watching. Spotify has the options to “follow” friends in order to track what they are listening to or share music at the click of a button. Easily sharing playlists and seeing what friends are listening to refines musical tastes or builds musical variety. A subscription to Netflix allows you to watch a show as soon as you hear about it, facilitating a faster spread of interest than if you had to wait and remember to watch the show.

It is also much easier to find new music based on user preferences with streaming services. Spotify or other online radio stations such as Pandora suggest music according to song or genre preferences, expanding your musical repertoire with minimal effort. Netflix also makes suggestions for new shows based on previously viewed material. The new aspect of these suggestions is that streaming services seem to know what consumers want even before they do. Algorithms and artificial intelligence technology have replaced the nuances of finding the perfect new song. It takes a lot less time to find something you might like through streaming services, but a program telling you that you should like a song or a show gives you a preconception of it before you even start to listen or watch it.

The way we are consuming music and television could also change the content of what we consume. A recent New York Times article questioned whether the measly royalties that streaming services like Spotify and Pandora pay to artists accrue to any meaningful sum over time. The royalties an artist receives for a 99 cent download is only about seven or nine cents, but a royalty per stream on a paid service is substantially less—about 0.5 or 0.7 cents. For free streaming services, royalties are up to 90 percent less than their paid tier. Only big artists who have millions or billions of plays would be able to gain anything from such services. If royalties stayed the way they are now and streaming became the main source of music distribution, only the most popular would be able to make ground. Artistic integrity may have to be compromised for the sake of marketability.

With the legitimization of streaming services, old media have found a new niche by incorporating technology that cater to our personal preferences. So much so that these systems know what we want to watch even before we do. Platforms like Netflix or Spotify are structurally designed to encourage us to stay within our comfort zones and explore merely within genres we are accustomed to. While new features like social networking are flashy and fun, they can distract from expanding our cultural tastes. As our relationship to music and television evolves over time, it would be dangerous to ignore what these changes signify about our consumption of media.