Photo: Susana Moyaho

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

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.

Do you still need awareness via the media?

I read an article that said there are four million songs on Spotify that have never been played even once. Given the sheer quantity of music available for listening on streaming services, doesn’t that make it even more difficult to be discovered? Do you still need awareness via the media?

The problem with the Internet and this modern age is that there is already far too much music. The best example of that was about 10 years ago when the Arctic Monkeys suddenly exploded seemingly overnight. They reached their audience in a way that, at the time, was unheard of, by releasing their songs through a little website called MySpace. As soon as that story broke, overnight a million MySpace pages popped up with 1 million artists trying to get the same people to all come to listen to the music on their MySpace page. The consequence was that nobody listened to any of it.

There are so many trees that you can’t see the forest anymore. We are in a world now where there is so much music that many people just go back to the same old things, buying their Led Zeppelin reissues for the 10th time. Buying the Beatles back catalog for the 10th time. Buying Adele albums and Coldplay albums because those are the most high-profile in popular culture. People have just stopped searching deeply for new music because it’s too hard to find the music that will appeal. It’s not enough to put your music up on streaming services. You still have to give people a reason to go and listen to it. So you back to the same old thing, marketing, promotion, spending money to advertise your music. Making a video, collaborating with someone with a higher profile then you, getting a song in a movie, going out and supporting bands. The same old stuff that’s been the meat and potatoes of marketing men in in the record industry for the past 60 years. Nothing has changed in that respect.

I’m one of the lucky ones in that I have an audience. One of the reasons for that is because I started 25 years ago at a time when it was still possible to build an audience through the old-fashioned way. I don’t know how I would get even the first person to listen to my music if I was starting now. That blows my mind. Young kids ask me that sometimes and my only answer is: make the music for yourself and do it because you love it. By all means try and get it out there, but don’t even think about having a career in the industry. It’s almost impossible to have a career in the industry by design now. It’s something that happens by accident or not at all.

You previously had reservations about streaming services because of poor sound quality. It seems to me that the streaming services are finally offering the equivalent of CD quality or better, which is a welcome alternative to the poor-quality MP3s that dominated the iPod era.

That was always my issue with things like iPods. They were full of this digital crap, compressed, brittle, horrible-sounding audio. At the risk of stating the obvious, MP3s were invented at a time when people were on dial-up connections. There was a necessity for files to be small because it was costing money to download them and it was very slow. Those kind of limitations are gone and are no longer relevant. Most people have very high-speed Wi-Fi. Storage capacity is now virtually unlimited. So there’s no reason for compressed audio to exist anymore. It still does exist, but we’re moving away from it. Deezer and Tidal both have full-resolution FLAC files available. Google Play has 320k, Spotify premium is 320k, Napster has tiers, but you can pay for it. That’s one thing that’s been very encouraging to me. Ultimately, there will come a day when you will only be streaming and only downloading full resolution that sounds as beautiful as it did when it left the studios of the people who made it.

Would you personally switch from listening to your favorite albums on vinyl and CD to the highest resolution streaming format?

I listen to CD and vinyl. I’m not one of these people who thinks vinyl is the be all and end all. In fact, a lot of vinyl sounds crap to me. There are things I would never listen to on vinyl, like ambient music and orchestral music. It sounds terrible on vinyl because any crackle, ticks, or scratches take me out of the zone. Ambient and orchestral music is what CD was invented for in a way. So I’m not a big vinyl apologist. I like vinyl with some things. Rock music is good on vinyl. Some jazz.

I still love CDs. They’re 16bit/44.1 kHz. Compared to what you can get on the Blu-ray nowadays and some of these high-resolution audio download websites, it’s actually quite low resolution. But it still sounds pretty damn good. Okay, if you’ve got a fantastic system and you’re listening to Blu-ray, you can hear a little bit of extra information. And I do record everything nowadays at 96K / 24 bit, mainly because there’s no reason not to, so even if only 0.1% of my audience can hear the difference, that’s enough.

But to answer your question, it comes back to the whole idea of having a collection. You could say, “You can have all your collection in your iTunes library.” It’s not the same. I love to go and stand in front of my collection, whether it’s vinyl or CD, pull things out, look at the artwork, check the track listing. Yes, it appeals to the nerd in me. But the things that you surround yourself with, the things that you collect, the way that you file things, all the nerdy things that we guys do, are part of what make you the person that you are. I personally (and I say this all with the caveat that I’m pretty old!) would never give up that physical collection. There is something inherently ugly to me about having all my music only in virtual terms. But I think the two things can coexist. There are some people that use YouTube and streaming services as a way to “audition” things, which they then subsequently purchase.

That’s what I do.

That’s what I do too. A lot of people do that. They go and “steal” music or stream music but only with a view to deciding whether they are going to purchase the CD or vinyl or the Blu-ray. These services can be great advertising and ways to preview music. And I don’t think that’s just an old people thing, I think young kids do that too. I see a lot of young kids with vinyl these days and they’ve probably discovered that music through YouTube or streaming. They bought the vinyl because they want to feel invested in that artist that they love.

Across society, the general trend seems to be that people are ditching physical books in favor of e-books, DVDs in favor of digital streaming, and CDs in favor of streaming. I think there are many reasons for that, ranging from convenience to a societal trend of simplifying; people wish to declutter their homes and storage space. Why are physical formats for your music so important to you — what do you think people miss out on by shifting away from physical media?

Are we going to say that there’s no need to ever go to an art gallery ever again? Is there no need to see the actual, physical painting hanging on the wall — to see the way the light reflects off it, see the texture of the paint on the canvas, see the painting in context with the other paintings and see the way that it has been positioned in the exhibition room to complement the other paintings, or be complemented by the other paintings? There’s something about going to see a beautiful painting in an art gallery that can never be replicated by having a JPEG on your laptop or on your phone. To me, you can make that analogy also with music. There’s something different about being able to hold the object in your hand and to have a tactile relationship with the artwork, the lyrics.

People still go to the cinema to see movies and yet you can still download movies, you can stream them from Netflix. But there’s something about the communal experience of seeing a movie on a big screen that people still value. I think there is an analogy there with music. It’s not the same to stream a 320 kilobit per second MP3 from a streaming service as putting on a beautifully recorded, beautifully produced, high resolution audio on a great, beautifully set up hi-fi in your home. For me, it’s about quality of experience, not convenience. Unfortunately, the history of the human race largely proves that convenience always wins out over quality of experience. That can apply to anything, from when you go on your holiday to what you eat, and I think the same is true of music.

Do we value things more if we’ve had to pay for them? Stated differently, if we don’t really “own” a copy of the music and we’re leasing the right to listen to it on a monthly basis, do we value it less?

The simple answer to your question is yes. But I think it’s more complicated than that. There’s two things here. Number one, did we have to pay for it? Number two, did we actually have to go to any trouble to obtain it? The two are not necessarily the same thing. When I was a kid, I discovered a lot of music, not by paying for it but by going to my local library and finding records and taking a chance on something that I didn’t know anything about. The point I’m making, is that there was some commitment and effort required. So it wasn’t necessarily just about money.

But I think you’re right that the principle here is have we had to inconvenience ourselves in any way to obtain this music? It’s something in human nature that the easier things come to us, the less we tend to value them. So there is a psychological connection between the amount of effort required to get something and the amount that we actually appreciate it. Not only the amount that we appreciate it, but the amount that we tend to persevere with it if it doesn’t necessarily connect with us immediately.

I’ll give you an example. When I was a kid I used to hear all the time about an album called Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart. Musicians and journalists would rave about this record as one of the most strange, if not the most strange, record ever made. I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t in any of my local record stores. I couldn’t get it out of the library. And yet, this record became somehow mythical in my mind — I had to hear it!

So, eventually, I managed to track down a copy by ordering it from America as an import. It took six months to arrive and I had to pay £20 or whatever it was, five times what I would normally pay for a record. I brought the record home, put it on, and I absolutely hated it! I couldn’t understand it. It sounded like a pile of garbage to me. But, I’d spent all this time and effort finding this record, so I forced myself to listen to it. It took me five, six, seven times listening to it for it to click with me. Then I absolutely loved it and it has become one of my favorite albums of all time.

Very often it’s the things that don’t necessarily connect with us the first time we experience them that actually become the most important of all to us. Same with people for that matter. There’s something about the music that has to be decoded and understood and sometimes that takes a little longer. With the whole world of streaming, where the whole amount of effort and application required to hear music is negligible, I worry that people won’t necessarily discover the music that will ultimately touch them in the most deep way.

If streaming services were to expand their scope to include multimedia and more artwork, would you put effort into utilizing those capabilities?

Very much, yeah. In fact, I’m talking to Lasse Hoile now about the next album and what we can do to close up the divide between physical product and virtual media. Have you seen how Kevin Godley from 10cc published his autobiography? He published it as a digital book, and embedded within the text are various hyperlinks and QR code technology that link to extra content. It’s a very interactive way of reading the book. I think there’s a future for that in the way music is presented.

Given that music streaming is tied to a mobile phone or a computer, doesn’t that facilitate and encourage multitasking on those devices while listening to music? A lot of types of music should, ideally, be experienced without distractions so that listeners have an inner experience, a reflective journey.

One of the reasons this is happening, of course, has to do with computers being central to everyone’s lives now. But is not the fault of the technology. It’s the fault of the human race and how we do things. So often, I will play something on my laptop or my CD player or my record player and I’m listening to it, but at the same time I’m doing my emails or paying my bills. I get to the end of the record and realize I haven’t really listened to it at all. I haven’t actually engaged with it in anything but the most passive, subconscious way. That’s to do with the fundamental change in the way that we live our lives.

We live in a digital world full of laptops, cell phones, gadgets. We are permanently distracted by those things. That has had an extremely adverse effect on our ability to engage with art and to engage with the world in a wider sense, even the view outside our window. It’s made it much more difficult for us to engage with the “simpler” things in life, but I would argue that they are the things that really matter.

When my studio was at my parent’s house, I used to drive there every day for about an hour and I used to love listening to music in the car. It was the time when I was distracted by nothing else. I was just listening to music. Now I have my studio in my house, so I don’t have that listening time anymore. A lot of the time that I’m hearing music, I’m not really listening to it, unfortunately. I believe that’s why artists like Coldplay and Adele sell so many records, because their records are the kind you can put on and they’re pleasant background listening, without having to really listen to them. It makes one wonder whether artists like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd would really be successful in this day and age because you really need to sit down and listen to those records more than I think most of us are prepared to do in 2016.

Maybe the key is to re-engage the listener in a new way. Earlier, you mentioned that you and Lasse were talking about how to visually represent the album on streaming media. There might be some way to present the music with multimedia that encourages the listener to engage with it directly. Something akin to picking up the album sleeve to admire the artwork.

The problem is with the virtual world of course, is that it just isn’t the same as picking up something beautiful that exists in the physical world, such as a beautiful book or record. The physicality isn’t there. The smell isn’t there. The tactile feel isn’t there. So you’re only relying on two senses: the visual and aural. The problem is that most people, including myself, are unable to concentrate on something in this digital world with those two senses for more than a few seconds. Before long we’re wondering whether there’s any emails or text messages coming through on our phone.

I don’t know how you can engage a mainstream audience these days. It seems like you have to do it within 15 seconds or you lose them. I’m not sure how you do that with music, especially my kind of music which sometimes can take 15 minutes to make its point! All I can really do is continue to try making the process of creating interesting for myself, and share it by any means I can in this brave new world.