Get All You Deserve: An Interview with Steven Wilson on Streaming Music

Stephen Humphries
Photo: Susana Moyaho

Porcupine Tree's centerpiece Steven Wilson held out to streaming services longer than the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Why he changed his mind recently proved worthy of a lengthy discussion.

In 2009, a fan approached Steven Wilson before a show in Portland, Oregon, with an unusual request. The fan, in his early 20s, handed Wilson a hammer and his iPod and asked the musician to smash the device to pieces. By then, of course, Steven was something of an expert in such matters. The documentary Insurgentes included scenes of the songwriter using a shotgun, a blowtorch and a car to destroy Apple's digital music player. It was a playful protest against the poor sound quality of MP3s, the shift away from physical records, and the way that iPods encouraged listeners to place less importance on the album format. Before Wilson wielded the hammer, he wryly told the fan, "I'm going to strike a blow for music today."

Seven years later, Steven's views on those subjects haven't changed. Yet he has decided to release his solo catalog to the music streaming services that have largely usurped the iPod and downloadable MP3s. On 17 June 2016, Steven released Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), Hand.Cannot.Erase., , and Cover Version to Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play, Napster, Spotify, and Tidal.

What prompted the move? Discussing it with Wilson, it's clear that he still believes streaming is a flawed model that in many respects goes against the art of listening, but just as Wilson made concessions to the iPod era by making his music available to digital retailers, he's responding to his deepest artistic impulse: to share his music with as many people as possible.

"I've always said that I would rather that you hear my music by any means, rather than not hear it at all," says Wilson. "The reality is that in the past two or three years, the signs suggest that the number one method and means that people engage with music these days is through streaming services."

An ardent fan of physical albums and their artwork, Wilson believes that you'll still enjoy a better listening experience with your HiFi than your WiFi. But in many ways, streaming services go a long way to ameliorate some of the issues he had with the iPod era, including sound quality and the primacy of the album format. Wilson sat down to talk about the pros and cons of streaming media, the role that streaming media plays in marketing music, and the challenges of fully engaging with music in the modern world.

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The iTunes era allowed listeners to cherry pick songs from albums and create their own portable jukeboxes. Streaming services similarly allow listeners to listen to single songs and create their own playlists, but could streaming services also encourage people to listen to albums again? I say that because a streaming subscription allows you an unlimited buffet of music. You're not paying for each song. It doesn't cost you anything more to listen to the entire album.

The first question I asked my manager and my label when I started to find out about streaming was, "Will people be encouraged to listen to the album in sequence by the way the music is presented on the services?" The answer is yes. That isn't necessarily true of iTunes, which did encourage cherry picking. Now, because people pay the same price, and aren't paying on a per-track basis, they are much more inclined to just put the album on, let it flow and listen to it in sequence. My records are designed to be experienced in the form of a continuum, the way that a movie or a novel are supposed to be experienced. The record was sequenced to be listened to in a certain way. In that sense, that is a positive change to the way that music is being experienced. It can once again be about the album. I do know that people are encouraged to create their own playlists in Spotify, but when I was a kid, I used to make mixtapes and there is something fun about making mix tapes and creating a sequence, whether it's for a friend or whether it's for yourself. As long as the option is always there to listen to the album, and it's understood that's how the artist intended it.

Was there a tipping point that made you decide to stream your music?

I'll tell you what really brought it home to me: when Prince passed away, I was in Vienna that night with my band. We heard he died about a half hour before we went on stage. I was very affected by that, because Prince for most of the '80s was my number one musical hero. I still maintain he was the most naturally talented individual artist the pop music world has ever produced. That night, I tried to do a little bit of a tribute to Prince. I remember introducing the song and it became obvious to me that about 50% of the audience didn't really know who Prince was, maybe they heard the name and a couple of hits, but that was about it. I asked myself how could that be?

Well, for most of the last 20 years of his life, Prince went out of his way to have his music removed from YouTube and streaming services. I think that affected his mainstream profile. That's why a lot of young people didn't really know too much about who Prince was. If you hadn't seen a Prince show there wasn't really any way to see footage of Prince live outside of purchasing a DVD. Most of his videos were removed from YouTube and other video services.

Most of his music was unavailable. But as soon as he died, there was a massive surge of people uploading all this incredible material like live shows and live videos. Like many people, I spent a lot of time in the following weeks watching all the stuff. I was blown away by the talent of this guy. But I thought to myself, "If you weren't someone who was aware of Prince at his peak in the '80s and early '90s, then maybe you would be unaware of this musical genius." Being available on the streaming services is a way to expand your audience and expand awareness of what you do. Conversely, to be absent from them is almost to write yourself out of history.

You held out even longer than Led Zeppelin and The Beatles in withholding your catalog from streaming services -- was it because of the low royalty rates?

A lot of people think that the main reason that artists such as myself object to streaming is because we don't make much money from it. I really don't care too much about that, because I believe that the majority of people that are going to listen to the music on streaming services would never have bought it, or perhaps even have come across it. It simply wouldn't exist for them.

For me, not making as much money from the catalog is not the issue. The reality is that we've arrived at a point in time where if my music continues to be absent from the services, then it will not proliferate in the way that I would like it to. Ultimately, all the arguments that I heard against being on the services are effectively rendered moot by one overriding fact: I want people to hear my music. I want to share my music with as many people as possible.

By making your music available on streaming services, do you anticipate a drop off of sales of your music on physical formats?

Right now my sales are still rising, but I don't know for how long. I can be stubborn and say, "My records sell OK, so I'm not going to put my music on Spotify." But the people who don't buy CDs, which these days is an increasing majority, aren't going to be hearing my music, and Steven Wilson not being on streaming services isn't going to make them suddenly change their music listening habits to start buying physical product. The point is this: there is already too much music in the world. It doesn't help me if I say, "I'm not going to let people hear my music on streaming services," because those people are just going to listen to other stuff instead!

Many artists now place "official streams" of their albums on YouTube, which is effectively the world's largest streaming service. Will you place your catalog on YouTube, too?

It's all there anyway, isn't it? YouTube is essentially an open platform, anyone can upload anything. I'm pretty sure that Hand.Cannot.Erase. is pretty easily available to stream on YouTube. What would be the point of me doing it officially?

In markets such as South America and India, are your audiences largely hearing your recorded music via YouTube rather than on CD or vinyl?

I doubt you can even get my records in India. And yet I'm going there soon and I'm probably going to play to a lot of people who will know the words to every song! That is certainly what it was like when I went there with Porcupine Tree in 2009. That was six years ago and I suppose people were downloading albums or copying albums for each other. And now they will be hearing it via YouTube, streaming or whatever means they are using to hear the music. They're not paying for it, but I don't care. Because isn't it fantastic that I can go to India and there are people that know and love the music? They're deeply engaged with it and have been touched by the songs. That's all that matters really.

When I started out, as I think is the case with most artists, you just want to give whatever you do away. It's only later on when you become "professional" that you start stressing about people paying for what you do. But you forget that there was a time when you were just happy that anybody would be even interested enough to listen to it. I think the majority of the audience now would never even consider paying for the music, so what are you going to do? Are you not going to let them hear it?

Do you make more money these days through live shows and touring than through album sales? That seems to be where the all money is now.

Haha, no. I still make most of my money from the physical releases. Hand.Cannot.Erase. sold close to a quarter of a million copies, which is pretty good in the current climate. I'm a solo artist, so that's a substantial amount of income even if I spent quite a lot of money making the record, which I did. We do special editions, which are very popular. I still make the majority of my money from record companies, licensing records, releasing records, remixing records.

I'm peculiar in that I lose money when I tour because I spend so much money on the show. If I come back from tour and I've broken even, I'm lucky. That's really a personal choice. I could make a lot of money touring a much more basic show if I wanted to, but I prefer to spend money on the multimedia, the best possible musicians and the best possible crew to put on that show. I'm moving 14 or 15 people around the whole time with a big screen and it costs a lot of money. I'm playing to 2000 people a night if I'm lucky. I lose money, but I make up some of it by selling T-shirts and programs. At this stage, I need to be looking to be playing to 3000 or 4000 before I start seeing some profit. But then, the bigger the audience gets, the more money I seem to spend on the production!

Many bands and their managers swear that allowing audiences to videotape their shows, however imperfectly, has resulted in greater concert ticket sales because it gives other people an idea of what they're missing out on. What's your take on that?

People can upload clips, I don't have a problem with that. I think it's great advertising. There's a big difference between someone posting a whole DVD -- something which the artist may have spent a lot of money professionally filming and packaging and need to make their money back on -- onto YouTube, and someone posting one song filmed on their phone from the balcony at the back of the audience. I don't have a problem with the latter at all. The problem I have is when I see people holding up their phones in front of the faces of the people behind them. I've been in the audience when people have been doing that to me! I think that's extremely inconsiderate, and I do sometimes ask from the stage for people to stop doing that.

You've never had a huge, mainstream media profile. It seems to me that you've built a sizable audience largely as a result of word-of-mouth. Streaming services allow listeners to create playlists and share them with others or to hear what your friends are listening to. Do you anticipate that streaming services will further empower your fans to engage in grassroots evangelism?

Yeah, absolutely. This comes back to my point that music is ultimately for sharing. Spotify and all these other services are all geared to this idea of social networking, where you can share the music you like. Through something you're listening to, you can also happen across something else which may appeal to you. That's something that has been absent from my whole marketing strategy over the past two years. I've struggled without that. In the last year or two, this technology has come of age.

Word-of-mouth has always been the best way to discover music and it's been what I've relied on. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to know if it wasn't for word-of-mouth -- people recommending me to others and dragging them along to my shows, or buying an extra copy of the album to give someone for Christmas. That's how I've built my audience. In a way, Spotify and streaming services become an extension of that. This is about making fans. Once these people are fans, they may never actually buy a CD or vinyl, but that's okay. The important thing is that the music has reached these people and maybe they were really moved by it. Maybe they'll come to a show. They might buy a T-shirt.

Unfortunately, the way the industry works, people really notice chart positions. I'm not talking about the fans, I'm talking about people at the radio stations and people in the media. So if the new Steven Wilson album goes into the top 10 in the UK, that is a big profile boost for me. So in a sense, everything -- the downloads, the streaming, the physical release, the special edition, the Blu-ray -- has to be geared toward that first week to maximize the chart effect.

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