Words by Matt Hall
If you hadn’t heard, Apple just launched its new messaging app: MSTY.
What is MSTY? An acronym of course, for my song to you. It’s basically Snapchat with thirty-second music clips. The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘this would have saved me so much time in high-school’: imagine, instead of spending all that time constructing the perfect mix-tape for your crush, you could have just sent a thirty-second music clip with lyrics that alluded to your feelings but gave you plausible deniability if ever confronted about it. But beyond that, I wonder how much room there is on the market for an app that doesn’t really offer anything new, even if it did corner the awkward high-school feelings market.
Of course, the point of MSTY is more about its synergy with Apple music. When using its songs, you’ll be prompted to visit the Apple music page, which is a good indication of how our music listening lives could be shaped going forward. A world where everything is linked to a digital streaming service. These services are already battling for turf, whether it’s Apple music, Spotify, or Tidal amongst others.
Streaming services are seemingly the way of the future. The late Dave Goldberg agreed, suggesting that record label Sony offer flat-rate deals to subscription services for licensing. You can read more about his plan here, but basically he sought to dramatically shift the role of a record company in an increasingly digital world. Instead of a system where all subscription services have access to all music and are chosen by the consumer based on their technological merits, it seems as if an impending licensing war will force users to make their service choice based on the content the streaming service has rights to, rather than the quality of the streaming service itself.
Although record companies have and will continue to see a decline in physical album sales, they still have untapped revenue potential in licensing fees. It does give record labels some semblance of control over the streaming giants, and one would hope that the money gained from licensing fees would trickle back down to the artists creating the content. But with money in the streaming world seemingly vanishing into thin air, it would seem that record companies still have means to make money because of, and at the expense of artists.
Plenty of artists are independently creating and releasing music, but the trouble still remains for those artists of distribution. Services for buying directly off the artist are great, but its pretty indisputable that artists seeking larger recompense for their work are still reliant, in one way or another, on record companies. And those that achieve massive worldwide success, the megastars, will continue to be the darlings of record companies and streaming services alike. Apple has always seen the commodity of the artist’s brand, and always tried to use it to pitch its products. Hence the exclusive-rights arms race between Apple music and Spotify, or the hilarious collection of Jay-z and the super friends in his Tidal video.
It would seem that record companies are far from the proverbial death rattle predicted by some with the coming of the digital age. You only need to look at the Universal Music Group (UMG) closing in on a deal to buy a large amount of equity in Soundcloud. The popular streaming service has pretty much been forced into a position to sell or be sued, and after Sony pulled its artists from the website, investors have been antsy to cash in quickly.
So while still powerful, the roles of record companies like Sony and UMG remains unclear going forward as more and more people move to subscription services. It feels like they are in transition, to more of a middleman role where they get to sit back and reap the rewards from streaming services by collecting licensing fees. It’s like they achieved the Stringer Bell dream, and made their way out of the nitty gritty, above that street level bullshit, and now they ain’t gotta dream no more, man.
There is obviously a paradigm shift underway in the music industry. And who will hold the power at the end of it? The streaming services with their radically increasing revenue, or the record companies who ostensibly still control the artists. One wonders if we will see Spotify or Apple music begin to sign and produce their own artists exclusively, kind of how Netflix is now producing its own content and cutting costs in licensing fees.
Prognosticating about an endless stream of MSTY, like all applications linked to our subscriptions and all synergised, just seems so sleek that it gives me panic attacks. We’re listeners, not businessmen. So I guess all we can do is enjoy the tunes and figure out how we’re supposed to pay for what we like when it all changes.