A year before my local video store closed, a friend told me about Netflix — instead of paying $1/day to rent a movie, his reasoning was, I could pay $12/month and have unlimited movies, two at a time, via the mail. “Their warehouse is in Queens – the turnaround is super quick!”, he said. I counted up the number of days in a month and reasoned that I wouldn’t possibly have enough free evenings to watch so many movies at home. But evidently everyone else on the Upper West Side did their math differently, because all of the video/DVD/rental stores closed within a year or two. Little red Netflix DVD envelopes were everywhere, and everyone talked about polishing their Netflix Queue over brunch as a new life goal, their prime aspiration, their personal Mount Everest…
These days, Netflix is different. While their DVD rental business is (apparently) still going, many of us subscribe to their streaming service instead. However the focus is no longer on your personal queue — with Netflix, as with Amazon Prime Video, the focus is now on original programming. Binge-watching seasons of original shows online is the new Netflix Queue, the thing that distinguishes one service from the other. And, to their credit, many of the shows are great and are winning awards by the dozen.
But looking for classic films — particularly kids films — is challenging. “Home Alone” is not available — how about “Paddington” instead? Netflix says it’s a “93% match” — good enough?
Searching Netflix for “Silence of the Lambs” gets you “Red Dragon”. Searching for “Police Academy” nets you “Johnny English Reborn”, “Talented Mr. Ripley” nets you “Friends”. Searching for “Alladin” gets you “Hercules”, “Nightmare Before Christmas” nets you “Moana”. “West Side Story” — “Mamma Mia!” (By the time you read this, or based on your personal search history, your results might vary.)
You can’t always get what you want in the all-you-can-eat buffet of streaming movies — that is, assuming that you insist on watching “West Side Story” instead of settling for the recommended “Mamma Mia!”
In the music world, for now, the story is quite different.
With a Spotify or Apple Music account, you can listen to just about everything ever released, instantly, for $5 (student) to $15 (family) per month. Few artists and labels choose to withhold their music from streaming catalogues, where royalty rates range somewhere between $0.002 to $0.005 per stream.
But I can already see the blinders closing in the music world, too. I recently chatted with a room of teenagers about their music consumption – all of them had either Spotify or Apple Music subscriptions. Apple Music was advantageous, they said, because they were on their family’s plan and everyone had iPhones. Spotify was better, someone else said, because of the playlists and recommendations. For example, Spotify knew that they tended to listen to sad songs on Mondays, the beginning of the work week — and so Spotify automatically created a sad playlist for their Mondays. I wanted to ask — but didn’t dare — if they ever checked out a happy Monday playlist, just to jinx their sad Mondays. I wanted to ask – but didn’t dare – if they ever bought a download of something.
For now, the catalogues of Spotify and Apple Music seem to be largely similar, though Apple Music has some exclusive releases and Spotify has exclusive playlists. How soon will it be before the focus of these streaming services will be on original, exclusive content? It can’t be too far away as the next logical step of brand differentiation. The core catalogue will retreat to the background, and perhaps one day searching for “Morton Feldman” you might find… well, not sure exactly, but according to the algorithm it’ll be a 99% match.
What will this mean for artists? One takeaway from the Netflix catalogue is that participation in the streaming economy is optional. Films appear and disappear from Netflix every day, it’s normal ebb and flow.
Still I wonder how many people will watch “Mamma Mia!” instead of “West Side Story” simply because it wasn’t available tonight. Same question for “The Sound of Music”, “My Fair Lady”, “The King and I”, “Annie Get Your Gun”…. and “Singin’ in the Rain”… How much are you willing to insist on your choices vs. letting the algorithm make the choices for you?