2018 In Review
Hello, hello. I plan to take next week off and be back on the 2nd, but if little news happens I may extend that break to the 9th. Blame the holiday calendar! To close the year I'm doing a little capsule review / summary of all the major American streaming services, I did write much of this while on a plane, so please do forgive me if I overlooked some obvious points and email me with complaints maybe that'll be next newsletter. Otherwise, thank you for reading this year and I'm excited to continue into 2019.
Amazon Prime Music
Amazon Music’s 2018 wasn’t all that eventful. The company quietly increased their music staff and debuted their first marketing campaign to highlight their music offering but in the context of the Alexa voice speaker. The main use of smart speakers still appears to be music, so it'll be interesting to see how this shapes up over the coming months. Amazon is facing more competition by Google Home devices, but Apple Music is now going to be accessible through Alexa, which points to me that all of these companies are going to have to play a little more with each other in the world of voice than they'd probably like in the end. Will this result in better products, perhaps but it does mean voice will just be another place where digital music competition is fierce.
Last note: Amazon is a company that has a music streaming platform, a giant digital store, a massive video streaming platform (Twitch), and endless voice devices. I'd like to think in the next year or two those will interact more with each other but maybe I'm wrong and product isolation is good.
This past year must feel pretty good for Apple Music. The company overtook Spotify in terms of paid users within the United States, which is the Swedish company’s biggest market. There wasn’t any of the controversy / continual artist backlash that feel upon Spotify with the 'New Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Public Policy' and the continual headlines of employees leaving. Though on the other hand I can’t point to a single aspect of Apple Music that got better or more interesting in the last twelve months.
Instead Apple’s most interesting moves in music can be found in getting the A&R company Platoon, their purchase of Shazam, or the rumor of them investing in IHeartRadio. I'm still waiting for the eventual Apple services bundle of music, television, storage, and whatever else they can throw in there. But I'm interested in what they're thinking about with iHeartRadio and what radio could do for the company as the car and radio is frontier that Sirius XM and Spotify are constantly eyeing.
Pandora / Sirius XM
I’ll admit that traditionally this newsletter has overlooked the impact of Pandora and Sirius XM. I won’t make a promise will fix that in 2019, but there is certainly a number of reasons to follow this company. The largest American music streaming service (excluding Youtube) combining with a massive Satellite radio brand that all share investors that own Live Nation is likely going to foster some interesting cross-branding efforts that’ll make the Telecommunications Act of 1996 blush. I doubt much this much consolidation will be in any good for consumers or artists as Live Nation, Sirius, and Pandora are some of the most anti-artist / consumer companies around, but should still be interesting! I also don’t want to forgot about the role that advertisements will certainly play in their future. Investors get hyped, average folk freight.
Where to even begin with Spotify's 2018? The Swedish music streaming service went public here in the United States and can sit pretty firmly as a key factor in the the revival of the music industry if you're looking at this from a top-down perspective, where the health of record companies is valued over the lives of artists. That's still a small reason for cheer, since there is money to be made in music. The company is also clearly positioning itself to start finding other ways of making money either through selling data back to artists, podcasts, live events, more advertisements, honestly almost anything that has a higher margin than music streaming.
That is essentially the question of Spotify as the decades closes, because while they still want to say they're a growing company after a while they need to be a company that actually figures out how to make money. I'm rather skeptical of how much growth they'll make in Asian and African markets and I do expect push back from the industry with regards to selling back data that artists and labels will understandably feel is theirs to own. Even with all my concerns, Spotify ain't going anywhere, but the cracks in their finely tuned narrative are harder to miss.
Let’s start with the good news with SoundCloud. The company is still alive! I don’t say that to be glib, because most of the 2017 was people being concerned if the Berlin based music streaming service would survive after the shutting down of two offices and the continued growth of other competing services. Now for the hard part: What is SoundCloud in 2019? There are plenty of hints that the company wants to become artist driven features and even adding comments on the mobile app shows there sole interest in building up community features that the other bigger platforms have mostly forgotten. If you follow those two tracks then there is a potential opening for the company, but we’ll see if the company can survive long enough to make good on those dreams.
The relationship between YouTube and the music industry remains ever awkward. The tepid launch of YouTube Music is what feels like the 100th time of Google attempting to play nice with the music industry and ultimately created a feature poor Spotify clone. This isn’t to say that YouTube Music will be stuck in this adolescence stage but until it starts to grow it'll remain a quiet joke. Now part of the reason I'm harsh is beause even YouTube itself appaers to realize that its business isn't in selling premium content.
They recently announced that their premium shows would be accessible to all users with advertisements, so essentially the only reason to pay for YouTube is to get rid of ads. Now the friction of YouTube ads is hard to miss for heavy users, but I suspect, as has been the case for nearly a decade, most users will accept advertisements or find a way around them. Such an admission by YouTube shows the company isn't entirely lost in what makes it so compelling to consumers, even while YouTube Music heads in the opposite direction. It's hard to feel great about a complain head in two direction, especially when the biggest part of the company (music) is spinning against the grain.
6 Links 2 Read
Streambait Pop - The Baffler
Liz Pelly continues her deep interrogations of everything Spotify and this time drilling into how the music streaming is shifting certain strains of pop music to a milquetoast center.
From Social Entertainment to Licensing & Data Challenges: What You Need to Know About Tencent Music's IPO - Billboard
The first of two Cherie Hu articles to close the week. This one looks at the business of Tencent Music just before the company IPO’d in the United States, which I found rather interesting in seeing just how much this company takes from purchases and how little money ever makes it into artist bank accounts.
Stars and Strikes - Real Life
I wrote a brief history of the American Federations of Musicians, the world largest musicians union, and how it offers a new way to understand contemporary anxiety around automation and job lost.
In a world of ‘algorithmic culture,’ music critics fight for relevance - Columbia Journalism Review
When Cherie said she was working on this story I got so excited because examining the music critic’s role in the era of streaming is certainly one I think about probably too much. Though I’ll say my opinion I think differs a bit from my peers in that I find it rather hallow to blame subpar music on music streaming pressures. One can’t selectively choose when capitalism is a bad or good force toward the creation of art, or actually one can I just don't with such logic.
Apple is shutting down Apple Music’s rarely-used Connect feature - The Verge
If you’re one of the 132 people in the world that ever used Apple Music’s Connect feature please tell me how you feel about it going away. The stripping away of social functions fits in line with what I don’t like about the direction of contemporary music streaming but in this example I can't say I'm too upset.
Artists Direct and Streaming the Big Winners in 2018 - Midia Research
Marc Mulligan offers a quick preview of what to expect of 2018 business numbers of the industry. I mostly took away to expect to see more growth, but that it is starting to peak in certain markets and international markets will soon need to pick up that slack.
The State of Twitch in 2018 - Kotaku
This being my last article of 2018 and again there is so much happening on platforms like Twitch that feels like the future of so much media that I can't ever stop looking at it and wondering what the future may hold.
One Last Holiday Note
Avalon Emerson, a pretty awesome DJ and reader of this newsletter, told me that she along with Louis Center and Ignatius Gilfedder made a website specifically to make playlists of Bandcamp releases. The thought was that instead of just passively reading lists, but offering a quick way for fans to support the music of their favorite artists. Their site can be found here. One can find playlists made by producers and records labels like Ben UFO, Skee Mask, Four Tet, DFA Records, Fact Magazine, and many others. I don’t often highlight anything sent to me but Emerson is a great musician and it made me really happy someone like that finds any value in this newsletter, so I wanted to return the favor. Before I get any more emotional check out the site and maybe support some of your favorite musicians in the process.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). The Penny Fractions artwork was done by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. Any comments or concerns can be sent to email@example.com. Don't worry about a recommending this week, y'all can do that in 2019.