Is Streaming The New Buying?

Downward graph: not to scale!

By Charlotte Krol
Guest blogger & Friend of Freshnet  

Yesterday BBC Radio 1 released figures from the BPI and Official Charts Company that show a 25% decrease in CD sales from 20.5 million in the first three months of 2011, to 15.3 million this year. Digital sales are instead increasing and account for almost a third of all albums sales.

Regardless of the rise in digital sales, Music Week has revealed that weekly album sales have plummeted to a record 21st century low: ‘Overall album sales are 27.62% down week-on-week at 1,446,218 – that is 23.19% below same week 2011 sales of 1,882,878, and lower than in any of the 640 previous weeks that have elapsed in the 21st century.’ While music is being shared and accessed more easily via streaming platforms such as Spotify, it is not being paid for as much by fans. Streaming is essentially the new buying.

Last month, my friend treated me to a month’s premium subscription to Spotify for £10. Until then, I had been using the Spotify free package to preview albums before buying them (habitually, in CD format). I have been more than satisfied with Spotify’s allocation of five listens maximum per song and the adverts haven’t bothered me too much.

What my companion couldn’t get his head round, however, is why I do not choose to spend just a tenner a month to avoid advertisements, enjoy unlimited listening, stream music on my smartphone and listen to songs in higher audio quality. Irritated by my stubbornness, he bought me a month’s subscription to see if I could be swayed.

Spotify Logo

Sure, the unlimited streaming was great and the smartphone service was pretty slick, but something that I had previously highlighted to my friend cropped up; in that month, I did not feel as inclined to buy a new album (CD format, mp3 format, whatever) because I felt like I already owned a bunch of new ones in quasi-tangible form.

It really frustrated me that the £10 subscription had not actually resulted in me owning any new music. Yes, I had access to thousands of songs streaming on my computer and phone, but I couldn’t burn song files onto a CD for my car, nor transfer the files for the purposes of my radio show. Buying music from Spotify at an additional price would have of course enable me to do this, but with the tenner already gone on the subscription, I was strapped of the money that I would have bought a new album with that month. So, I returned to Spotify free.

What I prefer about the free version is that it limits your listening to five plays. I think it’s a fair deal considering that you are using it on a free basis. If you have listened to an album 5 times then that’s a) probably because you like it and b) if so, it’s about time you actually owned the album. Spotify free encourages me to keep doing what I have always done; pay for the privilege of owning music and enables me to do something that I couldn’t do a few years ago; preview and explore more music. The listening cap on Spotify free means that I truly realise what’s worth buying and what’s not. While the free version, paradoxically, does not save me money, at least I am the owner of something real at the end of the month.

stylus on vinyl

Whether you buy CDs, buy music off iTunes/Spotify, or stick to vinyl (the latter of which has seen a 20% increase in sales according to Nielsen SoundScan – good news for Record Store Day) what is undeniably true is that people are not putting as much money towards music. The £10-a-month subscription to Spotify is some payment, but it is merely a small token in exchange for unlimited listening.

I think streaming on a premium basis is deterring a lot of people from buying music at its true value and the aforementioned decrease in album sales are likely attributed to this. Sadly, I’m sure it won’t be long before BPI and the Official Charts Company reveal another record low in album sales.

Charlotte Krol
Charlotte Krol
Newcastle Student Radio

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...


  1. Tom

    Thanks for this Charlotte – have to say I staill haven’t managed to “get” Spotify myself. It’s really hard to see how the sense of value for downloads can be maintained when so many major artists are rushing headlong towards releasing singles for nothing in exchange for a mailing list signup. But it’s hard to blame indpenedent artists running their own labels for doing exactly the same thing

  2. Mar

    I had a conversation with somebody from a record label. I asked that person to offer at least part of their music for streaming in Soundcloud. The answer was: “No. Spotify pay us per play, Soundcloud doesn’t”.

    What more scares me from Spotify is that it is making “invisible” all that music that is not on Spotify. For all those bands that are beginning, Spotify is a barrier right now. Plus, it is not only about streaming or not, but about the need of an internet connexion to listen to that music. A problem when you are travelling.

    As a owner of a blog, I don’t want to use Spotify player for 3 reasons: It pop up a window taking our readers out of our site and pushing them inside Spotify, not everybody have permission to listening to all the music (there is a legal area restriction), and not all of our readers have Spotify in their countries yet.

    Things are changing and I am little bit scared about what it is going to happen. I don’t see it clear.

    Cheers, Mar

  3. I hear both of your points – very interesting Tom, it’s certainly true that more and more bands are doing the free download thing in exchange for a mailing list sign-up. Perhaps the value of buying music is truly passing its sell-by date.

    And I totally agree, Mar. Spotify doesn’t really cater for smaller bands, which is one of its weaknesses.
    If you have the premium version, you can sync your playlists to your phone using the internet and then switch to ‘offline mode’ afterwards so that you can listen to those playlists without using a connection. But to be honest, this can take quite a long time and is a little frustrating.

    Who knows what our listening habits will be ten years down the line!

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