Streaming music instead of downloading it has now become the status quo — even though streaming services aren’t optimized for the realities of users’ everyday habits and connectivity. Dawn Chmielewski recently reported for Re/Code that Americans streamed 135 billion songs and music videos in the first half of 2015, nearly double last year’s amount, according to the latest data from Nielsen. Dave Bakula, senior vice president of Nielsen Entertainment told Re/Code that the tallies don’t reflect the high-profile launch of Apple Music, and noted that growing demand for songs delivered on-demand via Internet streaming services has helped fuel music consumption.
The streaming numbers highlight what constitutes a fundamental shift in the way that we get our music. Increasingly, people choose not to download songs or buy physical copies of their most-loved music, but opt to use subscription services that make it easy to stream anything on-demand. Digital song sales fell 10.4% to 531.6 million, while album sales of both CDs and digital albums declined 4% to 116 million units.
But as people turn to streaming services for their music consumption, there’s a fundamental problem: Most streaming services aren’t really that great yet. As David Pierce recently reported for Wired, streaming music has “an offline problem” in that many apps and services are built with the assumption that we’re always online, when, in reality, we can’t always be connected. When people listen to music — especially when they listen to it all day, everyday — they want to be able to listen without stutters and stops, whether they’re hanging out at home, commuting to work, moving around the office, or going for a run.
But failure, in the form of anything other than smooth playback, as Pierce notes, happens far too often with popular streaming services. The problem is that Spotify, Pandora, and others don’t recognize “that we just don’t live in the future they imagine,” as Pierce puts it. Prevalent problems include gaps in data coverage, small data caps with expensive overage charges, and smartphone batteries that can’t handle a day or even several hours of LTE music streaming. While it isn’t streaming service operators’ fault that Apple hasn’t improved the battery life of its iPhone or that your carrier’s coverage isn’t so great at your vacation spot, they are responsible for ignoring an easy solution to the problem: make it easier to listen to music offline.
Pierce reports that — even disregarding the fact that the two most popular options, Pandora and YouTube, don’t enable any kind of offline access — offering cached music requires a specific license from labels, one that not all streaming services have or have pursued. The services that do enable you to store music for offline listening make it a frustrating and complicated process to configure that option, instead of making it a seamless part of their service.
In Pierce’s assessment, Spotify and others make it difficult to save music offline because they don’t want you to. Apple Music makes the process just as complicated, and while a few options like Tidal and Rdio are slightly better, the options are buried within their menus, as well.
The inevitable conclusion is that streaming services are designed to help you discover new music, not to surface music that you already have or know you like. Apps focus on radio, playlists, and recommendations, not on tools to help you manage the extensive music library that you probably don’t have. Apple Music, the latest entrant to the scene, missed an opportunity to combine a streaming service with tools to manage an offline library; instead, it simply offers another streaming service that makes listening to music offline needlessly complex.
Pierce points out several ways in which the operators of streaming services could make their apps better suited for the real world in which we use them. Apps could use a finite amount of storage — say, a gigabyte — and automatically use it to download the songs that a user listens to most frequently. Apps could feature a separate tab for easy access to offline music, or put a download button next to every song or album. Or they could take a page out of YouTube’s book and buffer several songs into the future when the user is connected to WiFi. “The music service of the future requires the bandwidth of the future, the battery of the future, and the services and platforms of the future,” Pierce writes. “All of those things will come true, eventually. They just haven’t yet.”
Streaming services have the potential to solve a lot of the problems that even avid music fans have had with tools like iTunes in the past: they never made it easy to discover new music, to get some suggestions on want to listen to at a given moment, or to share songs or playlists or albums you like with friends. Streaming services can offer all of those — but they aren’t yet convenient enough for users who don’t have perfect data coverage (or WiFi connectivity) everywhere they want to listen to music.
While most users have abandoned their iPod-era libraries of hundreds or thousands of songs, many aren’t entirely comfortable with ceding total control of what they can listen to and when to a streaming service that won’t work in the subway. And it’s not hard to understand why they’re a little uneasy.