Music’s Messy Digital Revolution

Streaming saved the music industry from the jaws of the internet. But the complicated picture from the past 20 years shows that surviving an online revolution isn’t the only hard part. What comes next might be even more difficult.

Music was one of the first industries that felt the sonic boom of the internet, starting with song-sharing websites like Napster in the late 1990s and iTunes digital downloads later. This was thrilling for music lovers, but new ways to listen to and purchase (or not purchase) music pushed industry sales into a crater.

Now, thanks mostly to people paying for all-you-can-listen music streaming services like Spotify, music is financially healthy and reaches more people than ever. But all is not entirely well.

Even now, the music industry in the United States generates less revenue than at the peak of the CD. There’s a raging debate about how long the gravy train from streaming will last. And many musicians and others say that they’re not sharing in the spoils from the digital transformation.