Music industry legend Bob Dylan has some opinions on the boom in streaming services over the last few years. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the singer-songwriter shared his belief that the industry’s pivot to streaming has made music “toothless.”
Everything’s too easy. Just one stroke of the ring finger, middle finger, one little click, that’s all it takes. We’ve dropped the coin right into the slot. We’re pill poppers, cube heads and day trippers, hanging in, hanging out, gobbling blue devils, black mollies, anything we can get our hands on. Not to mention the nose candy and ganga grass. It’s all too easy, too democratic. You need a solar X-ray detector just to find somebody’s heart, see if they still have one.
It seems that Dylan’s issues are twofold: Consumers are having too easy a time consuming music and music itself is becoming less emotional. Dylan himself does identify as a streamer earlier in the interview, explaining that he primarily listens to music using streaming services, satellite radio, and (gasp) CD’s.
Unfortunately for Dylan, the streaming era is full steam ahead, despite vinyl seemingly making a comeback as a favored format amongst Gen Z and millennials. According to Statista, streaming was the most lucrative way to consume music in 2021 by a wide margin, with its popularity beginning to overtake more traditional formats like CD’s and digital downloads around 2014. The Recording Industry Association of America says that streaming accounted for 83% of the music industry’s revenue in 2020. Streaming is also the cheapest way to consume music in this day and age, with Spotify and Apple Music, two of the world’s most popular streaming services, costing $9.99 per month and $10.99 per month, respectively. To put it bluntly: More people are listening to music than ever before, and that’s probably not a totally bad thing.
As far as whether or not music is becoming less sad or, as Dylan puts it, “toothless” in the streaming age—that is completely subjective. There is something to be said about the way streaming forces music labels and artists alike to favor playing it safe over pushing the envelope, as outside influences like virality on TikTok and post-release editing shape the way art is created. This hyper-manufacturing of music and pursuit of a hit that pleases the palate of the general public is, in and of itself a toothless approach.
But Dylan’s point on music becoming painless might not be fully accurate. According to a study from 2018, as reported on by music news outlet Pitchfork, music has potentially only gotten sadder in the thirty year span from 1985 to 2015. BBC reported similar findings in 2019 and Aeon reported similar findings in 2020. Anecdotally, take a look at Olivia Rodrigo’s “driver’s license.” The absolutely gutting heartbreak ballad about a love gone wrong was arguably one of the biggest songs of 2021 and a juggernaut in the streaming era as the tune has since racked up 1.6 billion streams (remember that this was the debut single from a relatively unheard of actress turned singer-songwriter).
Maybe some music is toothless, and maybe some is not. Maybe some music is painful, and maybe some is painless. Maybe it sounds smooth on a computer, and maybe it sounds grittier on a vinyl. Whether those things are true are up to the listener, and are not wholly dependent on the way the music industry is responding to advancements in technology.