Love streams: Adele’s ’25’

attends the Oscars Governors Ball at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.

John Seabrook:

If you are an Apple or a Spotify subscriber (I am both), you are faced with a quandary over what to do about “25.” In the old days, you would have just gone out and bought the album. But streaming complicates the picture. You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice—to pay another ten dollars on top of the ten-dollar monthly subscription (I have the Apple family plan, which is fifteen) for an album that will show up on streaming sooner or later. But how long do you have to wait? It could be a couple of weeks, it could be a year, or it might not be until Adele gets her diamond. How long can you wait? At least with DVD rentals, you have a pretty good idea of how long it’s going to be. But Adele and Taylor are making up the sales-to-streaming rules as they go along.

The rhetorical question on which Seabrook bases these conjectures baffles me. He assumes only casual fans use Spotify or Apple subscriptions, therefore these casual fans wouldn’t buy a physical or digital copy of Adele’s 25 — really? (“You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice”). Those who care about music in the United States, casual listeners and fans, rewarded 25 with the biggest first week in music biz history. I’ll ask a rhetorical question myself: has Seabrook been to Target? I visited mine the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. I saw a modest display in the shrunken and rather sad CD section, another by the registers; that’s where the action was. Waiting for a self-checkout lane to clear, I counted four customers buying copies of 25; one customer bought three copies. The pattern repeated all weekend, no doubt. I will bet one of my Merona dress shirts that some of those customers streamed the album or sampled it on YouTube. More consumers than Seabrook thinks use streaming services to sample the cuisine before buying.

I don’t know what Seabrook’s point is. He asks an awful lot rhetorical questions. “Album sales are profitable, but they are not the future of the music business—streaming is,” he writes for the sake of The New Yorker’s audience, many of whom bear the same relationship to ownership of 25 as the Target customers in suburbia: consider the album’s ubiquity in most stores of every stripe a fact of holiday life. Seabrook: “Could it be possible that the record business, pursuing a strategy of inflating sales by keeping an album off Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer, is choosing short-term profits over long-term growth? (Perish the thought!).” Please, perish it. Unless I’m reading him incorrectly, he’s confusing record company profits and the revenue that artists make. That’s why Adele and Taylor Swift have reneged on streaming — the record companies are, by their calculations, less relevant than ever but just as greedy as in the days of Billy Joel and Paul McCartney making a dollar or whatever off every album sold. Of course Swift and Adele would allow their material on streaming services if their royalties were commensurate with their labor. To submit to streaming means acquiescing to caprices. I don’t understand why contributing to “significantly increased streaming subscriptions” would “benefit” artists when the system as it exists wants to drive them to penury.

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