Photo by Stephen Yang ’22 at Rough Trade N.Y.C.

October 27, 2020

YANG | Who Owns Whose Music in the Streaming Age?

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“But you don’t own anything though,” said my friend as she pointed at my Spotify playlists on the screen.

She’s very right. I do not own any of the content I used to curate my playlists. But who owns anything anymore, anyway?

Our emotional connection with music can often be linked to our sense of control over cultural artifacts. Shifts to our conceptualization of cultural stewardship often appear to be a sharp turn from the material to the immaterial. Yet I would argue that such changes took place over time in a rather nuanced and progressive fashion. Oftentimes, such nuances are reflected through the framing of the vocabularies we use. Our fundamental conception of musical ownership has oriented itself as we move from physical collections and albums to libraries and playlists.

The past few decades saw two distinct shifts in our relationship with the ownership of content when it comes to music and film. The first wave of change came with the digitization of content.

People’s perception of ownership changed as they converted their CD collections on their shelves into MP3 files on their computers. During this phase, people still had a coherent sense of their ownership of the music, as exchanges of cultural commodities were still relevant and feasible. One’s taste in music could still be articulated in the language of collection and validated through the rhetoric of possession.

During the era of digital music, people would pay to purchase music from iTunes, share files of their favorite songs with their friends, and they might also pirate files from file-sharing platforms like Napster. In all of these scenarios, music was circulated in the form of digital files between people’s personal computers. While no longer physical and more malleable than their predecessors, cultural commodities of music were still circulable and thus connoted a sense of ownership during this era.

The second wave of change arrived at the dawn of the streaming age. There emerged a new dynamic of ownership between the audience and the musicians, a relationship that is intrinsically transient, contingent, and non-possessive. The sense of ownership has shifted from one grounded in possession of artifacts to one that points to the control over the curation of experience. While we may think that we own our playlists on streaming platforms, we can no longer articulate our relationship with the music we listen to in a possessive sense.

Such a relationship is further complicated by the presence of platforms as intermediaries. Listening in the streaming age is analogous to borrowing music from privately-owned libraries that lease music from musicians. It is not just that we can no longer recirculate our collection of music, but in the streaming age, our collection of music is rendered rather nebulous in the form of playlists. As a result, our sense of cultural stewardship is now precariously contingent upon proprietary platforms. These tech giants own every single bit of data we proudly refer to as the manifestation of our taste.

In fact, even the physical ownership of music in the pre-digital era was less straightforward than it might appear to be. Even when our CDs and vinyl lie nicely on shelves, they are merely copies of music. And in the case of self-curated playlists today, we merely control the specific assemblages of the copies of music. Musicians fundamentally have the agency over the music produced, yet this long standing conception has since been complicated by how copies of music can be easily circulated by the audience, as exemplified by the MP3 crisis, and by how copies of music become larger than the music itself, as illustrated by the penetration of streaming platforms.

Contrasting this trajectory of music ownership with the shifts in film ownership further sheds light on the unique affordance of recorded music as a medium. The development of films in the past few years roughly follows the general trend of the digital turn and the rise of streaming. Yet it differs from that of music in that people’s mental conception of ownership over films seems to be less prevalent than that over music.

The particular temporality of film-watching makes it more of a singular experience than the everyday practice of repetition of music-listening. We may listen to a particular song or album on repeat, but it would be very rare for people to watch a movie repeatedly in a consecutive fashion. The everyday nature of the listening experience of recorded music makes it rather circulable. This affordance of recorded music renders it a particular social medium, as the circulation of music is fundamentally embedded with social and relational meanings.

While copies of music are endued with our rendition of meanings, the music itself is the manifestation of the musicians’ own thoughts and emotions. After all, it is a misleading question to ask whether I do own the music on my playlists.

In my opinion, the more salient quest is to confront how I reconceptualize my relationship with musicians in the streaming age. It is musicians who empower me with their music. They make the manifestation of my taste and my negotiation of social relationships possible. Attending to this fundamental relationship between the listener and the musician is a way to avoid a technological determinist fallacy that overemphasizes the industry’s framing of the commodification of music.


Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.