Streaming versus Downloading: What Are They Good for?

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by: David Jennings

I have a theory that the way we get to know music is a bit like the way we get to know potential mates. After the initial attraction, there’s a flirting, getting-to-know-you stage; and then there’s a going steady stage. One difference is that, with music, polygamy is fine, and it’s OK to be going steady and promiscuous at the same time!

I’m interested in how these stages relate to discover-versus-ownership and to streaming-versus-downloading. It’s too simplistic to say streaming = discovery = flirting (= the new radio?) while downloading = ownership = commitment (= the new record collection?), but nevertheless it seems plausible that there might be some connection between these behaviours.

According to one British ISP, the last year has seen streaming traffic almost triple, while volumes of peer-to-peer (P2P) downloads have actually fallen.

There are several factors that may explain these trends and muddy the waters of the conclusions I’m tempted to draw. On the streaming side, for example, the BBC’s iPlayer , launched in the last year, accounts for a big chunk of the increase, but I don’t know how much (and I don’t think the ISP will tell us). But for now let’s put up with that muddiness.

What I want to argue is that the growth of legal streaming services, and their take-up, shows that flirting/discovery-oriented behaviour may be more popular and more significant than it is given credit for.

Of course, this has long been a bone of contention in the P2P wars. Those fighting unlicensed P2P downloads have argued that it means lost sales (going steady), while defenders and apologists argue that it’s used as a means of discovery (flirting) that may ultimately generate sales. The reality is, unsurprisingly, complex and mixed: recent research funded by British Music Rights found that "trying before your buy" was cited as a reason for P2P downloading by over 60% of those who admitted to it, but over 70% also confirmed that "saving money" because P2P is free was a motivation.

Analysing these findings, The Register concludes that "people value ‘keeping stuff’". Yes, they value being able to go steady. But what the British Music Rights research and the growth of streaming point to is that they also value being able to flirt, to have brief flings where there’s no awkward reminder of the night before on your hard disk in the morning.

Is it just me or are large parts of the music industry and the commentariat missing this side of the action? Now I’m off to flirt with John Cale’s recent albums.

Photo by creativeFlutter and and used under a Creative Commons licence.

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