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Digital Culture: Streaming-Services

The Invisible Mountain

Published 8:29 am on Saturday 30th January 2021 by Beat Magazine

The Library of Alexandria is long since history. Until today, however, it embodies an ideal: to collect, organize and make available all the works of the world in a single place. This ideal is still just that: a dream. Because there is still no universal library for non-fiction and specialist books. After all, thanks to streaming, the entire world of music is available to us. Or is that not the case? In fact, the figures from the largest providers are impressive - according to current information, 40 million songs are available on Amazon Prime Music and Deezer, 50 million on Spotify and Apple Music. Tidal even boasts 60 million. But that is only a part of what has been recorded in the history of music. A conservative estimate puts the total number of all recorded tracks at just under 100 million. This does not, however, take into account the fact that most of the recordings are far from being digitized and are therefore not included in the calculations. The potential of streaming, it is becoming increasingly clear, is far from exhausted.

Some people do not want to accept this. The Brazilian collector legend Zero Freitas is buying up stocks of old and obscure LPs all over the world. Freitas himself admits that this has become an obsession and addiction, and his psychologist has given up hope of ever finding out why. But as things stand at the moment, there is no need to worry about his financial security. His transportation company is doing very well and used records are cheap. So the collection goes into the millions and contains, among other things, some of its own famous, extensive collections from other super collectors. Freitas is about creating a monument against the indifference with which many people today encounter music and vinyl as a cultural product. This is praiseworthy, but what‘s far more interesting is that experts estimate that just 20% of the music collected here is in digital form. And Freitas is largely limited to the Western market. In India and China, the digitization rate is likely to be even lower. Thus, the range of streaming services is increasingly fading in comparison to the total amount of recorded music. It is true that Freitas has begun digitization, but when another truck with new records arrives, its employees only look at each other in a meaningful way. They know that they will never be able to complete this task.

Disturbing Void

Of course, it just so happens that you can‘t find a song or an album from an artist on Spotify; that some bands are not represented on Tidal at all. Most of the time, however, we notice this with only a shrug of the shoulders. Just how disturbing this can really be was first discovered by mainstream listeners in 2014; the year Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalog from Spotify in a cloak-and-dagger operation. Her music continued to be featured on other networks that Swift said offered fairer terms. This meant that the music of the biggest pop star of her generation, for subscribers to the most popular streaming service, was no longer available - a political issue in an already politically-charged time for the industry. In 2015, Adele followed Swift‘s example: Her third album „25“ was available for release exclusively as a physical recording. According to the British singer, it was all about making music an event again. Her accountant, however, will not have complained about her “idealism“. Thanks, in particular, to her anti-streaming strategy, the album broke almost all sales records in an era in which most CDs and LPs had already been written off.

In the meantime, Taylor Swift and Spotify have long since reached an agreement, and „25“ is also on offer from all streaming majors. Most of the „dinos“ - solo musicians and groups from the „golden“ 70s and 80s, who are actually opposed to the free culture of the present - have also followed suit. So almost nobody has to go without the songs of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and the Beatles anymore. Prince, who had already declared the Internet dead in his lifetime and was an opponent of the digital exploitation chain, also took the step posthumously into the arms of streaming services: All 8 CDs from the Super-Deluxe edition of his classic „Sign O‘ the Times“ can be streamed. Likewise, critics of the indie faction, including groundbreaking bands like progressive metal pioneer Tool or the feminist punks of Bikini Kill, have stepped down from their high horse and joined the majority. Even Jay Z who, for a long time, presented his music exclusively on his own platform Tidal, finally came to the conclusion that a policy of openness is more lucrative. The few exceptions, including folk musician Joanna Newsom, who has a Spotify account, but only offers a single song for streaming there, are more and more becoming exceptions that confirm the rule.

In the Underground, it looks a little more differentiated. In some areas of the ambient and sound art community, new albums are rarely posted on the major platforms, although you can usually find them on Bandcamp. Nevertheless, these niche releases prove that there are still plenty of discoveries to be made outside the confines of streaming services. Even if one leaves aside the mountain of records that Zero Freitas is accumulating in Brazil, there are still gaps in the supply chain. In the extended scope of electronic music in particular, albums for which the rights to the samples used have not been clarified, or have not been sufficiently clarified, are a problem. This includes many early hip-hop releases, such as the De La Soul masterpieces „3 Feet High and Rising“ and „De La Soul is Dead“, as well as mix CDs and electronic discs from the early 90s, when the legal situation still resembled the Wild West.

A large portion of the 12-inch mixes that were so popular in the 80‘s also remain in the archives waiting to be released. The same goes for remixes from the 90s, a real treasure trove - especially in House: The more than 500 remixes by the Puerto Rican genius David Morales and the thousands of remixes by the ultra-productive Masters at Work are only the tip of the iceberg. Even some mixtapes, for which special websites like Datpiff are the only distribution channel, remain withheld from streaming listeners. „LiveLoveA$AP“, for example, the fantastic debut by the rapper A$ap Rocky, can be downloaded for free but not streamed via Spotify.

There Is No „Too Much“

Now, one could argue that there is much more music anyway than one could ever listen to in this life; but only the naive or those completely uninterested in music can argue this way. For collectors in particular, one of the greatest attractions is to find what remains hidden to others; to own what hardly anyone else has; to favor what normal mortals don‘t even suspect exists. For example, if I type „David Morales“ into Spotify, I get an almost endless list of tracks. But I know for sure that there is still much more out there. Strangely enough, the hunt for hidden treasures is more exciting than just sitting on the sofa and listening to what is conveniently available.

Remasters are another sore point. Over the years, many different versions of some albums have been released, some with striking differences in quality and sound. Usually, however, even paying customers on Tidal or Spotify only get the most current version available. An exception is Prince, where both the original 1987 mix of „Sign O‘ the Times“ and the new re-master by legend Bernie Grundman are offered as streams. But if you are looking for the original German mixes of the Kraftwerk classics, for example, you will not find them at Apple Music, Amazon or Deezer. It‘s not entirely unreasonable to assume that the labels will make improvements here. Admittedly, the average listener has little interest in whether the first CD release of Miles Davis‘ „Kind of Blue“, the 1996 or 1997 CD remasters, the SACD mix, or the countless vinyl remasters are the best. But there are more than just a handful of music freaks for whom access to these variations would be worth a lot of money.

The Physical Market is Buzzing

At the moment, however, this option does not exist. And this is great news for the small record stores, online retailers and intermediary websites where used CDs and LPs are offered for sale. By far the largest of these is Discogs. Founded in 2000, and with half a million registered members, the site offers a colorful world of music, including many releases that cannot be streamed conventionally. Admittedly, the Discogs database is not complete either, but at least it is updated daily; and not only by the big commercial projects, but also by countless small labels and artists, which take place almost without public access.

Discogs not only functions as a reference book, but also as a marketplace. Discogs and eBay disclosed their sales figures for used vinyl for an insightful article in the business and management magazine Forbes. This revealed exciting findings. 3] Obviously, the total market for sound storage media is much larger than is commonly suggested - even though this analysis specifically excluded all albums whose condition was reported as new or as good as new. If you add up all the figures together and finally add the figures for new sound recordings, you get sales that are far higher than what is commonly mentioned in the media. This study does not even take into account the many small record stores and flea market stalls, which experts believe account for the majority of all transactions. Away from streaming omnipotence, in other words, the market for music is booming.

Whether there will be a comparable Renais- sance of the CD in a few years‘ time is admittedly written in the stars. What is certain, however, is that both formats, CD and LP, offer a haven of security for the fearful and for the conspiracy theorists. Who will protect me from the fact that Spotify, under pressure from the labels, decides to temporarily remove certain music from their offer, as is common with video streamers? Replacing the current, great mix of my favorite album with a new, louder, less attractive one? To delete all my playlists when I cancel my subscription or even take them away from me to the grave when the company goes bankrupt? In contrast, CDs and LPs offer stability and security apart from the inevitable transience and wear and tear of any physical medium.

No, the beautiful new streaming world is still far from being Alexandria‘s ideal. But, that one day will come when someone will help vinyl addict Zero Freitas to digitize his mountains of LPs and make them available to the public is, basically, certain. Then, we will have come much closer to the utopia of a universal library. In general, it‘s an amusing pastime to search for missing entries at Tidal and others, or to search for forgotten masterpieces at Discogs. The rule, however, looks different: the majority of current music has been predominantly published digitally for some time now, without physical audio recordings. For many Hip-Hop artists, the CD or even vinyl is, at most, a nice side-note that is released as a small gift and “thank you“ for the most loyal fans. Nowadays, contemporary music is stored exclusively on the servers of the streaming giants - and one can only hope that it doesn‘t fall victim to a conflagration or an act of blind vandalism on a pitch-black day.


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