After a decade of rampant digital piracy that has helped to gut album sales, a raft of new streaming music sites is making the experience of legally finding and listening to music just as seductive as downloading it free.
Many music industry observers now believe that there is a fundamental shift under way: from illegal downloads to licensed streaming services such as MySpace Music, Imeem and Spotify, where users can play any song, anytime and—coming soon—on any device.
These sites are free, supported by ads, and with an expanding catalogue of songs, they are ready to overshadow the more cumbersome, unauthorized services that can be hard for newcomers to navigate.
Two recent studies of online behaviour contribute to this optimistic view. In June, two research agencies, MusicAlly and Leading Question, generated a wave of headlines in the tech press after reporting that the percentage of 14- to-18-year-olds using file-sharing services at least once a month dropped to 26% in January from 42% in December 2007. An NPD Group survey found that teenagers aged 13-17 illegally downloaded 6% fewer tracks in 2008 than in 2007, while more than half said they were now listening to legal online radio services such as Pandora, up from 34% the year before.
The streaming music services are providing an authorized and in some cases superior alternative, and may be the first stop for a generation too young to remember Napster.
MySpace Music makes millions of songs available free, accompanied by ads and links to buy tickets and merchandise. Nielsen reports that the number of visitors to the site grew to 12.1 million in June, from 4.2 million last September.
YouTube also streams millions of songs under agreements with three of the four major music labels in the form of music videos and is available free from mobile phones such as the iPhone.
Perhaps the most-discussed licensed service is Spotify, a two-year-old Swedish start-up that has amassed six million users in Europe—and a few hundred lucky media and music industry insiders in America who have been given early access.
Spotify users download a software program to their computers that allows them to quickly search for a piece of music and play it instantly. Spotify’s innovation is subtle, embedded in its intuitive user interface and efficient design. Anyone familiar with iTunes can figure out how to navigate Spotify’s five million songs and add them to playlists.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES