Alex Ross’s recent article in The New Yorker gives a good example of the old adage ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ regarding the current debate over paid for vs. rented—or ‘streaming’—music. This is a debate that was going on close to two hundred years ago in classical sheet music:
The musicologist Deirdre Loughridge recently published a blog post about the history of music-subscription services, which date back to sheet-music lending libraries in the eighteenth century.
By the eighteen-thirties, pundits were fretting that such libraries were undercutting the economics of the music business and altering the nature of listening. “One enjoys superficially, one always wants something new,” a critic groused in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. A few decades later, a piano teacher wrote, “Music lending libraries could very well be called ‘music snacking libraries.’”
Almost identical complaints are being levelled at Spotify, YouTube, and the rest. These anxieties are now forgotten because, as Loughridge notes, the very existence of music-lending libraries has been forgotten. If they hurt music sales, the damage was soon repaired. Loughridge suggests that this obscure history should promote a “healthier skepticism toward claims that any model represents ‘the’ answer for the music industry.”