Should Musicians Prefer Piracy to Streaming?

31/01/2012 22:13 GMT | Updated 01/04/2012 10:12 BST

Do you own your music collection, or are you renting access to it? With Spotify now available in the US and Netflix newly launched in the UK, questions like, "do you have the new Lana Del Rey album?" could soon be redundant.

The move towards access rather than ownership is only going to grow in 2012, and the rise of smartphones with truly unlimited data plans means that the distinction soon won't matter to viewers or listeners. But musicians, both established and aspiring, are beginning to realise how much it could matter to them.

Users of streaming services like Spotify cause some musicians an obvious financial problem. Pre-Spotify if I was curious about a new release, I'd buy it. Now, I can listen a couple of times for free and move on, leaving the artist with virtually nothing. That's why Coldplay, Adele, The BlackKeys and others are refusing to put their new albums on Spotify. "For unknown bands and smaller bands, it's a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music, it's not at a point yet to be feasible for us", Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney recently told Digital Music News.

These major league hold-outs are a problem: both for Spotify, which is less attractive to customers when it has superstar-shaped holes in its catalogue, and for the major labels who own a stake in Spotify yet can't force their biggest artists to use it.

It's possible that this is just the old guard feeling threatened by new developments, and that they'll quickly get used to the idea. Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun told Business Week that there were similar objections when iTunes launched, and artists would soon come around.

But this isn't iTunes, which is just traditional music buying in a different format. This is access, which presents a whole different psychological problem.

It's hard-wired into the human psyche to value what's scarce, and what we have to work for. Advertisers know this - it's why every offer is 'while stocks last, for a limited time only', and why Hollister stores make you queue to get through the door.

Streaming music is the very opposite of scarce and hard work, and as a result it's all too easy to leave an album behind after a cursory listen. Since I've had a Spotify subscription, fewer albums have resonated with me like they used to. And if it doesn't grab me instantly, I move on - I've invested nothing, so why persist? Some of my favourite albums took many, many listens before they finally clicked. I fear never having that experience again.

Even piracy was better for the fan-artist connection. The act of hunting down a dodgy torrent file was at least an investment of effort, and gave the impression of scarcity. The musician would be only pennies worse off, the fan would more time connecting with it, and then be more likely to go on to buy deluxe editions and gig tickets. In fact, a new hack presented at Midem yesterday even helps artists plan tours around areas where content is being (illegally) shared. It's not right, but in retrospect it's more OK than it might seem.

So will we look back on The Pirate Bay's heyday as a golden age? Will Spotify slowly atrophy as ever-more artists get wise and pull their music off the service?

Mark Mulligan of Forrester Research doesn't think so, but he points out that ownership will be around for a long time yet, even though the balance will slide inexorably towards the 'access' model. In the meantime, A-list recording artists will be likely to follow Hollywood's lead and keep new releases off streaming services for the first few months, much like films being in cinemas before they're on Netflix.

That's fine for the established stars, but the psychological problem could be even more of an issue for artists of lesser stature. While Spotify is theoretically a great discovery platform (through apps, friends' playlists and an instant way of checking out recommendations), listeners are far more likely to be grazing than appraising, and may not go on to form a real connection with the musician. Perhaps these artists should also release music to Spotify later, or just put up a couple of tracks for streaming and make fans work for the rest.

The answers, and the extent of the problem, aren't yet known. But people have valued what's scarce and effortful for millions of years, and it's not going to change before your next album comes out. It's time to recognise the psychological challenge, and for the promotion of new music to evolve.