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.

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.

Prev Page
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.