Media for Everyone?
User empowerment and community in the age of subscription streaming media
In 2002, Tim O’Reilly wrote the essay “Piracy is Progressive Taxation and other thoughts on the evolution of online distribution,” which makes several salient points that remain relevant as unlimited, native, streaming media continues to take the place of the containerized media product. In the essay, he predicts the rise of streaming media as well as the intermediary publisher on the Web that serves its purpose as content exploder. In an attempt to advocate for flexible licensing in the age of subscription streaming media, I’d like to begin by discussing two points in particular from that essay: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy” and “’Free’ is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service.”
As content becomes more fragmented and decontainerized across devices and platforms (the “Internet of Things”), I have faith that expert domain knowledge will prevail in the form of vetted, quality materials, and streaming services provide that curation layer for many users. Subscription services could provide greater visibility to artists by providing unlimited access and new audiences. However, the current licensing regulations surrounding content on streaming subscription services privilege the corporation rather than the creator, further exercising the hegemony of the media market. The first part of this essay will discuss the role of serendipity and discovery in streaming services and how they contribute to user engagement. Next, I will explore how Creative Commons and flexible licensing in the age of unlimited subscription media can return power to the creator by supporting communities of practice around content creation in subscription streaming services.
Tim O’Reilly’s second assertion that “’Free’ is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service” is best understood through the lens of information architecture. In their seminal work Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Morville, Arango, and Rosenfeld write about how most software solutions are designed to solve specific problems, and as they outgrow their shells they become ecosystems, thereby losing clarity and simplicity. While the physical object’s data is constrained within its shell, the digital object provides a new set of metadata based on the user’s usage patterns and interests. Media is spread out among a variety of types, devices, and spaces, platforms cease to define the types of content that people consume, with native apps replacing exportable, translatable solutions like the MP3 or PDF. Paid services utilize the data from these ecosystems and create more meaningful consumption patterns within a diverse media landscape.
What content needs is coherency, that ineffable quality that helps us create taxonomy and meaning across platforms. Streaming services provide a comfortable architecture so users don’t have to rely on the shattered, seemingly limitless, advertising-laden media ecosystem of the Internet. Unlimited streaming services provide the coherency that users seek in content, and their focus should be on discoverability and engagement.
If you try sometimes, you might get what you need: serendipity and discoverability in streaming media
Not all streaming services operate within the same content model, which provides an interesting lens to explore the roles of a variety of products. Delivering the “sweet spot” of content to users is an unfulfillable ideal for most providers, and slogging through a massive catalog of materials can quickly cause information overload.
When most content is licensed and available outside of the service, discoverability and user empowerment should be the primary aim of the streaming media provider.
While Spotify charges $9.99 per month for more music than a person can consume in their entire lifetime, the quality of the music is not often listed as a primary reason why users engage with the product. In fact, most of the music on Spotify I can describe as “not to my taste,” and yet I pay every month for premium access to the entire library. At Safari Books Online, we focused on content quality in addition to scope, with “connection to expert knowledge” and subject matter coherency being a primary reason why subscribers paid premium prices rather than relying on StackOverflow or other free services.
Spotify’s marketing slogan, “Music for everyone” focuses on its content abundance, freemium model, and ease of use rather than its quality. The marketing site does not mention the size of Spotify’s library, but the implications are clear: it’s huge.
These observations beg a few questions:
- Would I still pay $9.99 per month for a similar streaming service that only provided music in the genres I enjoy like jazz, minimal techno, or folk by women in the 1970s with long hair and a bone to pick with Jackson Browne?
- What would I pay to discover more music in these genres? What about new music created by lesser-known artists?
- What is it about Spotify that brought me back to the service after trying Apple Music and Rdio? What would bring me back to Safari if I tried another streaming media service like Lynda or Pluralsight?
- How much will users pay for what is, essentially, an inflexible native discoverability platform that exists to allow them access to other materials that are often freely available on the Web in other, more exportable formats?
Serendipity and discoverability were the two driving factors in my decision to stay with Spotify as a streaming music service. Spotify allows for almost infinite taste flexibility and makes discoverability easy through playlists and simple search. In addition, a social feed allows me to follow my friends and discover new music. Spotify bases its experience on my taste preferences and social network, and I can easily skip content that is irrelevant or not to my liking.
To contrast, at Safari, while almost every user lauded the diversity of content, most found the amount of information overwhelming and discoverability problematic. As a counter-example, the O’Reilly Learning Paths product have been immensely popular on Safari, even though the “paths” consist of recycled content from O’Reilly Media repackaged to improve discoverability. While the self-service discovery model worked for many users, for most of our users, guidance through the library in the form of “paths” provides a serendipitous adventure through content that keeps them wanting more.
Music providers like Tidal have experimented with exclusive content, but content wants to be free on the Internet, and streaming services should focus on user need and findability, not exclusivity. Just because a Beyonce single drops first on Tidal, it doesn’t mean I can’t torrent it soon after. In Spotify, the “Discover Weekly” playlists as well as the ease of use of my own user-generated playlists serve the purpose of “exclusive content.” By providing me the correct dose of relevant content through playlists and social connection, Spotify delivers a service that I cannot find anywhere else, and these discoverability features are my primary product incentive. Spotify’s curated playlists, even algorithmically calculated ones, feel home-spun, personal, and unique, which is close to product magic.
There seems to be an exception to this rule in the world of streaming television, where users generally want to be taken directly to the most popular exclusive content. I would argue that the Netflix ecosystem is much smaller than in a streaming business or technical library or music service. This is why Netflix can provide a relatively limited list of rotating movies while focusing on its exclusive content while services like Spotify and Safari consistently grow their libraries to delight their users with the extensive amount of content available.
In fact, most people subscribe to Netflix for its exclusive content, and streaming television providers that lag behind (like Hulu), often provide access to content that is otherwise easily discoverable other places on the Web. Why would I watch Broad City with commercials on Hulu one week after it airs when I can just go to the Free TV Project and watch it an hour later for free? There is no higher quality paid service than free streaming in this case, and until Hulu strikes the balance between payment, advertising, licensed content, and exclusive content, they will continue to lag behind Netflix.
As access to licensed content becomes centralized and ubiquitous among a handful of streaming providers, it should be the role of the streaming service to provide a new paradigm that supports the role of artists in the 21st Century that challenges the dominant power structures within the licensed media market.
Shake it off, Taylor: the dream of Creative Commons and the power of creators
As a constantly evolving set of standards, Creative Commons is one way that streaming services can focus on a discoverability and curation layer that provides the maximum benefit to both users and creators. If we allow subscription media to work with artists rather than industry, we can increase the power of the content creator and loosen stringent, outdated copyright regulations. I recognize that much of this section is a simplification of the complex issue of copyright, but I wish to create a strawman that brings to light what Lawrence Lessig calls “a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.” The unique positioning of streaming, licensed content is no longer an issue that free culture can ignore, and creating communities of practice around licensing could ease some of the friction between artists and subscription services.
When Taylor Swift withheld her album from Apple Music because the company would not pay artists for its temporary three-month trial period, it sent a message to streaming services that withholding pay from artists is not acceptable. I believe that Swift made the correct choice to take a stand against Apple for not paying artists, but I want to throw a wrench into her logic.
Copies of 1989 have probably been freely available on the Internet since before its “official” release. (The New Yorker ran an excellent piece on leaked albums last year.) By not providing her album to Apple Music but also not freely licensing it, Swift chose to operate under the old rules that govern content, where free is the exception, not the norm.
Creative Commons provides the framework and socialization that could provide streaming services relevancy and artists the new audiences they seek. The product that users buy via streaming services is not necessarily music or books (they can buy those anywhere), it is the ability to consume it in a manner that is organized, easy, and coherent across platforms: an increased Information Architecture. The flexible licensing of Creative Commons could at least begin the discussion to cut out the middle man between streaming services, licensing, and artists, allowing these services to act more like Soundcloud, Wattpad, or Bandcamp, which provide audience and voice to lesser-known artists. These services do what streaming services have so far failed to do because of their licensing rules: they create social communities around media based on user voice and community connection.
The outlook for both the traditional publishing and music industries are similarly grim and to ignore the power of the content creator is to lapse into obscurity. While many self-publishing platforms present Creative Commons licensing as a matter of course and pride, subscription streaming services usually present all content as equally, stringently licensed. Spotify’s largest operating costs are licensing costs and most of the revenue in these transactions goes to the licensor, not the artist. To rethink a model that puts trust and power in the creator could provide a new paradigm under which creators and streaming services thrive. This could take shape in a few ways:
- Content could be licensed directly from the creator and promoted by the streaming service.
- Content could be exported outside of the native app, allowing users to distribute and share content freely according to the wishes of its creator.
- Content could be directly uploaded to the streaming service, vetted or edited by the service, and signal boosted according to the editorial vision of the streaming content provider.
When Safari moved from books as exportable PDFs to a native environment, some users threatened to leave the service, viewing the native app as a loss of functionality. This exodus reminds me that while books break free of their containers, the coherence of the ecosystem maintains that users want their content in a variety of contexts, usable in a way that suits them. Proprietary native apps do not provide that kind of flexibility. By relying on native apps as a sole online/offline delivery mechanism, streaming services ultimately disenfranchise users who rely on a variety of IoT devices to consume media. Creative Commons could provide a more ethical licensing layer to rebalance the power differential that streaming services continue to uphold.
The right to read, listen, and watch: streaming, freedom, and pragmatism
Several years ago, I would probably have scoffed at this essay, wondering why I even considered streaming services as a viable alternative to going to the library or searching for content through torrents or music blogs, but I am fundamentally a pragmatist and seek to work on systems that present the most exciting vision for creators. 40 million Americans have a Netflix account and Spotify has over 10 million daily active users. The data they collect from users is crucial to the media industry’s future.
To ignore or deny the rise of streaming subscription services as a content delivery mechanism has already damaged the free culture movement. While working with subscription services feels antithetical to its goals, content has moved closer and closer toward Stallman’s dystopian vision from 1997 and we need to continue to create viable alternatives or else continue to put the power in the hands of the few rather than the many.
Licensed streaming services follow the through line of unlimited content on the Web, and yet most users want even more content, and more targeted content for their specific needs. The archetype of the streaming library is currently consumption, with social sharing as a limited exception. Services like Twitter’s Vine and Google’s YouTube successfully create communities based on creation rather than consumption and yet they are constantly under threat, with large advertisers still taking the lion’s share of profits.
I envision an ecosystem of community-centered content creation services that are consistently in service to their users, and I think that streaming services can take the lead by considering licensing options that benefit artists rather than corporations.
The Internet turns us all into content creators, and rather than expanding ecosystems into exclusivity, it would be heartening to see a streaming app that is based on community discoverability and the “intertwingling” of different kinds of content, including user-generated content. The subscription streaming service can be considered as industry pushback in the age of user-generated content, yet it’s proven to be immensely popular. For this reason, conversations about licensing, user data, and artistic community should be a primary focus within free culture and media.
The final lesson of Tim O’Reilly’s essay is: “There’s more than one way to do it,” and I will echo this sentiment as the crux of my argument. As he writes, “’Give the wookie what he wants!’… Give it to [her] in as many ways as you can find, at a fair price, and let [her] choose which works best for [her].” By amplifying user voice in curation and discoverability as well as providing a more fair, free, and open ecosystem for artists, subscription services will more successfully serve their users and creators in ways that make the artistic landscape more humane, more diverse, and yes, more remixable.