A new study by Spotify shows that "windowing" — the practice of delaying the launch of albums and songs in certain formats or locations — can be detrimental to an artist's success. Spotify analysts scrutinized the success of Meghan Trainor's pop hit "All About That Bass" in two markets — in the United States, where the song appeared in stores, on streaming services, and on the radio at the same time, and the United Kingdom, where the song only went on sale a month and a half after it first appeared on Spotify UK.
The graphs representing the song's streams, sales, and Shazam tags are wildly different in shape. In the US, where fans could buy or stream the song from June 30th, we see a steady bell curve, rising to a peak in late August, before dipping slowly throughout Fall and into Winter. Shazam tags, which kept pace with the sales and streams, are a less concrete measure of success, but do show that the song was becoming increasingly ubiquitous, forcing people to turn to their phones to work out what they were hearing. The proportion of those people who were researching the song with aims of hearing it again would have been able to either buy or stream it on the spot.
In the UK, however, the rush of Shazam tags for "All About That Bass" peaked a week before the song was available in stores. The windowing meant anyone keen to legally acquire a copy of Trainor's song would have to stream it via a subscription service, try to maintain their interest for seven days, or simply watch it on YouTube, where it had been available worldwide since June 11th. Despite the month-and-a-half gap between US and UK releases, streaming figures for the song remained strong in Britain, showing a similar curve to the US graph and propelling Trainor into the UK singles charts on streams alone. But unlike the US figures, Trainor saw her song's sales dropped precipitously a few days after "All About That Bass" became available to buy in late September.
In the US, the song was available for stream and sale at the same time.
The Spotify study concludes that "the practice of windowing on any licensed platform — be it streaming or downloads — looks distinctly behind the curve." Releasing the song as a buyable product weeks after the most people are searching for it "leaves money on the table," as Spotify says, but it also gives people who can't wait for the official release time to discover and download pirate versions. Of course, there's no guarantee those people would have bought a legitimate copy of Trainor's song, but huge fans might have had their hand forced with no other way to access an offline copy.
The answer — supported both by the Spotify's data and by consumers sick of arbitrarily varied worldwide release windows — appears to be for media companies to realize that the internet is a global creation, and end the practice of windowing. But as Taylor Swift and other musical megastars assert their control over their catalogs, removing them from streaming services and attempting to enforce exclusives, it doesn't seem like record companies will be smashing release windows just yet.