How do you consume media?

The other day I was wandering through the digital alleyways of current events, and saw an article about iTunes, and how it should never go away. Curious, I read it and began mulling media consumption. Both personally and professionally, the article struck a nerve. It sounded like how people discussed Google shutting down Google Play Music when that service was being quashed. People were upset because a platform that worked well, and that they were accustomed to, was being mothballed for no apparent reason. It didn’t have to happen, but it did.

I’m not an industry expert, but it feels more and more like the primary means of consuming media is via pay-to-stream platforms. Ownership is becoming a thing of the past. The idea of physical releases is more of a kitsch throwback, but not the primary mechanism people use to consume media.

Music, television, movies, video games, and various media forms adopt this distribution approach. It’s an odd evolution. If someone went to the record store and purchased an album, they’d leave with the physical copy, but the money didn’t pay for that. What was purchased was legal access. Same with a movie ticket, a trip to the theatre, ballet, etc. Back in the day, no matter what it was, if someone paid for media, they were paying for the legal right to consume that piece of media. That stands true today, but most people assumed they were buying CDs, movie tickets, or whatever.

All of that seems to have been cast into the trash heap in favour of streaming. Is this a good thing though? I’m not sure. Who decided this was the way to go? Is it worthwhile for the artists? Is it worthwhile for the consumer? Another obvious question to ask is, “Is this sustainable environmentally?”

Media on-demand is amazing. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. It’s incredible to be able to look up a song I want to listen to and just be able to enjoy it. Before all these streaming services launched it was more difficult to just listen to what you wanted to, and perhaps a real challenge to discover new stuff. Options have been limited historically.

Radio was unreliable because so much of the playlists were whatever was popular, or had to fit a very particular mandate. Libraries were loathe to carry large collections of media because of concerns about theft. Television and cinemas were much like radio and catered to whatever was popular to increase the chances of making money. There was an entire tier of media that many people weren’t even aware of. Some of these things haven’t changed, but the existence of streaming has turned the previous “traditional” business models on their heads.

While it might seem like convenience has won it, there are problems. First, when I owned something, it was mine. The fact that physical media is being abandoned in favour of digitally streamed content is weird. Just because I have access to a billion songs doesn’t mean I care to listen to it all.

Then there’s the issue of disappearing access. Streaming services change their offerings all the time, whether you’re paying customers or just soaking up the free offerings. That means that things you might have been enjoying may just vanish one day. If you pay for your music to own it things like this don’t happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s digital or physical.

When considering how people consume their media, it isn’t merely a question of what platform they use. It’s much bigger than that and the implications are much broader. Even WotC is planning on getting in on this with their own streaming service. It’s an audacious idea to be fair, but why not?

It’s also worth considering that I haven’t discussed the media at large, only streaming services. This doesn’t even take into consideration the vehicles people prefer to make use of for platforms such as Spotify or Netflix. For a better look, consider this graphic from Statista (2019).

The graphic is a few years old, but it’s pretty obvious smartphones have superseded pretty much everything, or at least that’s the direction media consumption is trending. I won’t even try to speculate on the significance of this. Traditional media isn’t a factor in this graphic, so that’s worth reflecting on.

My personal opinion is that the rise of streaming services has managed to shine glaring lights on the deficiencies of older models. Once people could consume all that stuff they weren’t able to access previously, why keep using the older options? No one has really been able to answer this. Unfortunately, most people take that as a sign everything should just be a streaming service.

It shouldn’t, and people would do well to think not just about how they consume media, but also why they’re consuming media that way. There are big implications for one model to take the place on top. Access to a catalogue is one thing, but it isn’t everything. More and more I weigh the options available to me because there are things I don’t want to give up. Call me old-fashioned, but the preponderance of streaming isn’t a perfect solution.






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