As the years go by, the decision between owning music and streaming music seems to be getting easier. The internet and streaming services have allowed leaps and bounds to be made towards the optimization of music consumption, discovery, sharing, and releasing. Many younger listeners have grown up in a world where they may have never seen a physical copy of an album, or possibly even heard a complete project front to back.

There have always been ways to consume music without owning it. Radio stations have been broadcasting music to the masses for over 100 years, as one of the original ways to receive curated song recommendations at only the price of your playback system. For recent generations, the free versions of Grooveshark, Pandora, or Rhapsody may have been their go-to’s for finding new music. Now, listeners can search for any song on YouTube, likely finding the official version via the artist’s channel. After enduring a few short ads, the song is in their ears.

The common opinion is that paying the base subscription rate for a service like Spotify or Apple Music is worth $10.99 per month, due to the endless access to music, up-to-date playlist curation, mobile and home connectivity, and offline downloading ability. On the iTunes Store, a digital copy of the newest Speedy Ortiz album Rabbit Rabbit will cost you $11.99 alone. For a CD of the album from their website, it is $15 plus shipping. Owning music is objectively more expensive than streaming it. So why should it even be considered anymore?

Streaming versus owning music

Music streaming is simply renting access to an extremely large catalog of audio that is hosted elsewhere, through the internet. Even when given the ability to download songs for offline listening, the music still belongs to the host service, not the listener. The tracks may be downloaded to the listener’s phone, but they can only be listened through the streaming service. When someone buys a single on iTunes or Bandcamp, they are handed the file from the service, essentially giving them free reign to do as they’d like with it. This file is now their digital property, and they never have to pay another cent to click play on it (unless their playback system fails).

While building up a large catalog of digital files is not as cost effective as renting them, there is a clear difference between the two methods that is worth considering. Owning music allows the freedom to move purchased audio anywhere, instead of having it trapped within the streaming service. For professions based around music libraries, like DJing, building an audio collection is essential. Over the years, there have been types of audio files—such as .m4p’s—that have been encrypted to only allow availability on a certain amount of devices or accounts. However, most audio files purchased from current online distributors like Bandcamp are downloadable in various types of unlimited audio files like .wav, .aiff and .mp3. If streaming prices are ever to increase drastically, the worth of raw audio files will only rise with it.

Owning music allows the freedom to move purchased audio anywhere, instead of having it trapped within the streaming service.

Audio is not only acquired digitally, of course. While music is predominantly consumed digitally right now, there are still three main mediums of physical music that have survived into the digital age. Luminate’s 2023 Midyear Music Report measures statistics using “album-equivalent sales,” a figure used to equate a certain number of streams or partial sales to one traditional album sale. Luminate proclaims 7.9% of 2023’s album-equivalent sales come from physical copies, compared to 2.9% for digital purchases.

It must be stated that this combined 10.8% consumption for music ownership is up against on-demand audio streaming, which occupies 83.3% of industry total album-equivalent consumption. They divide physical sales between vinyl LPs, CDs, and cassettes. Each format has grown in sales since the year-end 2022 report except for cassettes, which shrunk from 156k units in 2022 to 134k in 2023. Vinyl sales increase of 1.9 million units was larger than that of CDs, which was only 400k units. It should be noted that these sales statistics are charting direct-to-consumer sales, which don’t include sales from record stores or other third-party businesses.

The smaller volume of cassette sales seems obvious, as the format offers smaller art for fans, less digitization compatibility, a less-detailed sound and frequency range, and less-common playback devices. However, new cassettes and CDs share the perk of being considerably cheaper at retail price than the average new vinyl record. Similar to cassettes, CDs are smaller and more portable than vinyl LPs. A CD is also currently the easiest of all three mediums to digitize (unless your record comes with a download code). It seems like vinyl appeals to the true fan more than the common listener, since it offers a more interactive, visible product in comparison to a CD, whose appeals lies in its efficiency.

As stated earlier, Owning music allows the freedom to move purchased audio anywhere, instead of having it trapped within the streaming service.physical albums are currently ahead of digital albums in terms of album-equivalent consumption, meaning more people buy music on CDs and vinyl than on Bandcamp or the iTunes Store. It makes sense when one of the main differences between the two formats is the ability to just buy one single track from an album digitally, which is not a choice that can be made physically unless the specific song was pressed as a single. Not only do consumers buy less music digitally, but they buy it in smaller pieces as well.

While buying singular tracks will diversify a library faster than buying digital albums, it will be less cost-effective, especially when considering the costs of used physical formats. Finding a used CD at a thrift shop or record store could save you over half of the cost of buying the album new or digitally, while still allowing access to the same amount of songs which could be digitized, played on a stereo, or in a car (this possibility sadly seems to be dwindling as fewer new cars are built with CD players).

Finding used copies in person or on sites such as Discogs would equate to a streaming-like library once built up. One of the many appeals to streaming music is the quantity-over-quality aspect of music discovery, something that purchasing music will never be able to compete with. (For more on the rabbit hole of music discovery streaming can take you on, read this piece by XPN’s own Roni Birchak.) However, when using more cost-effective strategies to discover music, such as free versions of music streaming services, YouTube, blogs, or the radio, a consumer could then take their free recommendations and source their favorites to add into their owned library.

Could streaming go out of fashion?

In a time where music streaming dominates the market, it is hard to see why the format would ever go away. Without being deeply researched and scientific, what could cause streaming to go out of fashion? A large rise in monthly prices over time could discourage subscribers from renewing their plans. In July 2023, Spotify bumped the premium monthly rates for their individual, student, and family up by $1 each. Earlier last year, comparable streaming giant Netflix also changed their family plan preferences to crack down on password sharing, causing a price increase in the process.

As streaming companies attempt to raise the value of art and combat the well-known underpayment of artists through streaming, a battle of exclusivity could begin to rise between music streaming platforms, leading the landscape to look more like video streaming with certain artists being bought up by a specific provider. The industry saw an early attempt at this in 2015 and 2016 with a slew of TIDAL and Apple Music exclusive album deals for projects such as Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Drake’s Views.

The streaming quality of audio has been a factor embraced by platforms like TIDAL and Apple Music, who boast Dolby Atmos playback abilities and lossless streaming quality as perks of their services. As the recording qualities of audio in general progress and humans become more adapted to hearing audio of higher quality, streaming services will need to be able to host and provide these larger files to listeners. This falls more on the speed of general technology advancements, though, which will have to allow for better cellular connection in order to stream higher quality audio at a pleasing speed. Also, there is no telling when artists could come together for a mass boycott of streaming services in order to demand a higher value for their product; Spotify has recently come under fire for adjusting its royalty payout system where it does not pay for tracks that get fewer than 1,000 spins.

One large, undeniable disadvantage that the freedom of music ownership encourages is piracy. Having a file at a listener’s disposal means that they could email it to their friends, make copies of it, burn it to a disc, or share it online. Streaming has helped combat this timeless problem, and raises a great argument on how the renting of music has aided the industry immensely. Illegal file sharing is a loophole that music ownership may never be able to fully patch, even if Web3, the projected future of the internet controlled by individuals instead of billion dollar tech companies, has something to say about it.

For any generation, music has been and will continue to play a large part in society, commerce, and everyday enjoyment of life. Since the turn of the century, music consumption has progressed quickly and sizably in ways people may not have seen coming. There isn’t a surefire way to predict where the industry will go, but it is worth considering where your music is, who actually owns it, and its accessibility.