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Music

Music industry struggles to rediscover its soul

In the age of streaming and big data, music is cheap and omnipresent - and big corporations know exactly what you're listening to. Is there still room for creativity?

"Give life back to music," is what the French electro duo Daft Punk sang back in January 2014. Music has never been as omnipresent and easy to get as it is now in our digital age. But critics also warn that it has become a soulless commodity. To many ears, the digital sound is thinner than it was on CDs or vinyls.

"We are experiencing two trends, a complete polarization of the industry," says Dieter Meier, a Swiss musician and front man for the electro-pop duo Yello, at a conference at Berlin Music Week. "A digital flood of music for the masses that stream poor quality music, and the music connoisseurs that want high-quality sound and buy albums."

Streaming is the future

The future of music belongs to streaming services like Spotify, Deezer, Google Music and Beats Music. "Our customers spend much more money on music than people who buy downloads or CDs," says Deezer head Michael Krause.

Participants at the Word! conference at Berlin Music Week 2014, Copyright: DW / B. Kolb

Berlin Music Week, in its fifth year, brings together key players from the industry

Depending on the service they subscribe to, streaming customers can access more than 40 million songs for a monthly fee - and the amount of available music increases every day. Streaming has made MP3 platforms like iTunes or Amazon obsolete. And CDs aren't even worth mentioning anymore.

For the first time in the history of the music industry, fewer than four million tangible albums are being sold per week. 2014 has marked the turning point, with weekly album sales down half a million compared to last year.

The trend has reached Europe as well. In Germany, which has a population of 82 million, 18 million people have subscribed to streaming services; last year it was only six million.

Streaming boosts live concerts

The flip side is that the drop in album sales means less money for the artists that create them. Revenues for streamed songs go to the streaming services themselves - not to the musicians.

"With five million plays, you can hardly pay your water bill," says Meier. At a rate of only 0.0001 cents per play, an artist would only get 500 euros if their song was streamed five million times. "That's crazy," he adds.

Photo of a vinyl shop in the 1960s, Copyright: DW / B. Kolb

Did music sound better in the 60s?

But music's ever increasing accessibility on the Internet also has its advantages, for both musicians and consumers. Since streaming subscribers listen to more music - and a wider variety of artists - than album purchasers, they tend to attend more live concerts as well.

And it's not just the top acts like Lady Gaga or Rihanna that sell tickets. Streaming services' recommendations for new artists pique listeners' interest in unknown bands as well, and ticket sales mean cash in musicians' pockets.

Big Brother is musical

Let's say you listen to German rapper Cro and your streaming service suggests fellow German rapper Teesy, even though you've never heard of him. That constant flow of recommended songs is based on the data the services collects on your listening habits.

Add in all your music-related Tweets and Facebook likes, and you've left a unique data trail that, in turn, helps music services narrow their recommendations to make sure they're meeting your taste.

"Ten million listeners give us one billion pieces of data per week," says Paul Lamere, director of the music intelligence platform, The Echo Nest. "We identify the artists with the most passionate fans and know who listens to what when, and where in the song listeners switch it off."

For users with a short attention span, The Echo Nest has developed what they call Attention Deficit Radio. It knows how long the user typically listens to a song, and jumps to the next song at that point, without playing it to the end.

Companies like The Echo Nest are hired by streaming services to analyze not only listeners' behavior, but also the songs themselves. Which tunes sell the best? With the data they collect, a computer could theoretically write the next chart toppers by itself.

Berlin Music Week sign, Copyright: B. Kolb

Berlin Music Week runs through September 7

"Well, it would be a pity if bands like Led Zeppelin just erase their psychedelic riffs because they don't go over so well," admits Paul Lamere.

Missing the old sound

That the music industry is grappling with digital developments is nothing new. But it seems the sector still hasn't quite found its footing.

However, a longing for the high-quality, authentic sound of the past is growing these days. More and more people are willing to pay for it.

Norwegian streaming service WiMP even makes the "good ol' days" part of its business concept by offering well made albums reminiscent of those from the 1960s.

"Does music still mean something to me, or do I just download it?" asks WiMP's Sveinung Rindal rhetorically. Even vinyls are still selling.

"The older people buy them because they want to relive their youth, and the young people buy them because they sound warmer and more authentic," according to Bernd Paulat from vintage label Sireena Records.

Perhaps there still is a bit of soul and life left in music.

DW is a media partner at Berlin Music Week, which takes place from September 3-7.

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