Spotify: threat or friend?

Martin CullingfordThu 27th March 2014

Gramophone's editor reflects on the changing nature of how we get our music

As I write, deliverymen are carrying huge numbers of boxes of CDs into our new office. After a few months’ delay while the archive was built, Gramophone’s library – all 130,000 discs of it – has followed us to our converted Victorian church. And we’ve missed it. ‘Comparison recordings’ are a vital part of a Gramophone review – let alone a Collection or Specialist’s Guide – so to have so many discs, many unavailable elsewhere, readily to hand is essential to our work. I’m guessing that most readers here don’t need convincing of the importance of our CD library. But seeing crate after crate of discs being unpacked does seem a good moment to reflect on the changing nature of how music is bought.

In February, the British record industry body, the BPI, revealed that digital sales – that is, downloading and streaming – now account for half of the record industry’s income. Streaming alone increased by 41 per cent in the past year, accounting for 10 per cent of total revenue. This, of course, is for music in general, and for many reasons – demographics, the greater tendency for classical listeners to be collectors, the misconception that downloading offers inferior sound quality to CD (in reality it can actually be superior) – the story for classical is somewhat different.

The BPI doesn’t offer specifically classical data but one leading independent label I spoke to revealed that 20 per cent of turnover is now from digital downloads, a figure that’s remained static for several years. And while it may not sound like good news, the BPI reported that physical sales of music declined by 6.4 per cent last year – a smaller decline than was expected.

And then there is streaming. Some labels see services such as Spotify as a major threat: an understandable stance. After all, someone can listen to a recording an indefinite number of times and, by either occasionally encountering an advert or paying for a subscription, not have to buy it (and the labels receive a much smaller revenue than if they had).

However, the other side is whether those listeners would have bought it anyway. Streaming is a great way of introducing new artists and repertoire to new audiences. Futhermore, because services like Spotify cover every conceivable kind of music, there’s also a strong chance of people just trying out classical and liking what they hear. Streaming income, while small, is also no longer negligible. The question is whether this income is in addition to or at the expense of CD/download sales – largely impossible to answer. 

As one insider put it to me, streaming is here and needs to be addressed. How much labels receive – and listeners pay – for streaming is a source of ongoing debate, and rightly so. Listeners should value music, and artists and labels should be paid for recording it. But it’s worth remembering that while for many years newspapers were free online, many are now successfully behind paywalls. Something may feel like the norm now, but nothing’s set in stone.

Similarly, from the low-resolution MP3s of a few years ago, many labels now offer studio-master quality downloads. This is currently a small market but my hunch is that – as a genre in which sound quality is integral – classical music may lead the way here. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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