Advance streaming has changed the music industry, but it won't last forever

It's making artists and listeners happy, but it could be rendered obsolete

If you were the kind of child who snuck into your parents’ closet for a glimpse at your unwrapped Christmas presents in early December, you can appreciate the appeal of advance streaming. For music fans, the presents in question — new albums made available in full, for free, weeks before their release dates — are being delivered by everyone from NPR and The Guardian to artists themselves, with several arriving under the virtual tree every week.

It happens regularly enough that we barely think about it anymore, which means it’s an easy concept to take for granted. Advance streaming isn’t as flashy or oft-discussed as services like Spotify and Apple Music, but it couldn’t have become a major part of our listening experience without a major philosophical shift on the part of the music industry. And while it’s become an integral part of almost every artist’s promotional cycle, we should enjoy it while it lasts: it might not be around for much longer.

The first advance streams were made available in the early aughts, about a year after Napster’s launch proved downloading music was a viable proposition. They were used as both promotional tools (RadioheadAshanti) and damage control for leaks; when Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaked before its release date, the band streamed the album on their website.

But advance streaming didn’t become widespread until piracy and the proliferation of cheap digital music posed an undeniable threat to the music industry’s health. By conceding that the internet had eroded music’s value from its CD-age peak, the industry unlocked an interesting new pivot — one out of the "if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em" playbook. Think about it from an artist’s perspective: if people are going to hear your music early and for free anyway, it’s worth trying to take advantage of that interest and anticipation yourself, right?

Proof that advance streaming could work as a modern promotional tactic came from an unexpected place. NPR Music launched its First Listen program in 2008 by streaming Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006, the latest in a series of insanely thorough compilations meant for Dylan obsessives. (A single from the compilation had already been released for free on Dylan’s website.) The chance to premiere the album fell into NPR’s lap: the programmer was pitched on it by Columbia, Dylan’s record label. "They said there was going to be a new Bob Dylan record coming out," said Bob Boilen, founder of All Songs Considered, in This Is NPR: The First Forty Years. "They wanted to premiere the record on NPR." Boilen was shocked; the organization had never premiered a full album online before.

The gamble paid off for both Dylan and NPR: the album charted at #6 on the American charts, still the highest position a Bootleg Series release has achieved to date, and the album’s First Listen attracted over 2 million streams according to a 2009 article in Billboard. It turned out that offering the album up for free didn’t compromise its sales; if anything, it amplified them, no small feat in a decaying marketplace. Advance streaming blossomed from there: publications around the world built their own streaming hubs, and Apple joined the party in 2013 by streaming highly anticipated new albums from artists like Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake.

rolling stones gary gershoff
Members of The Rolling Stones attend a New York City album release party in 1980. (Gary Gershoff / Getty Images)

Labels found it easy to integrate advance streaming into their existing promotional curve because they’d been doing something similar for decades on a private basis. "To me, the [pre-release] album stream is the contemporary extension of the album listening party, which is a thing that’s really waned in existence as the album stream has risen to prominence," says Phil Waldorf, the co-founder of Secretly Group. (It’s a family of independent labels made up of Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, and the Numero Group.) "The net result of the album stream is less about the listening experience, and more about having an event a week or two prior to the release of the album that gives you another reason to bang the drum, and to give people something to share and talk about," says Waldorf. NPR Music’s Bob Dylan example holds true for the great majority of new albums: the promotional value gained from advance streaming outweighs whatever small slice of revenue is lost by letting listeners have a free, premature crack at the music.

People still want to believe they "own" music

So where does all of that promotional value come from? Advance streaming is effective because listeners are still interested in legitimacy and a sense of ownership, says Eric Harvey, an assistant professor with the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. "It’s really easy for us to overestimate the number of people who are going to seek out leaks," Harvey says. "The vast majority of people still want to believe that they own something musically."

That desire for ownership is rarely consummated with a purchase in 2015, but it might be fulfilled in other ways: with a T-shirt sale, a ticket to a live show, or a recommendation to a bunch of friends and Twitter followers. The biggest players in advance streaming make their audience’s sharing and buying habits part of their pitch to artists and labels. "NPR is a well-known and loved name [artists] know they can trust, and a majority of our audience still buys music," said Robin Hilton, a music producer at NPR Music and host of All Songs Considered. (Hilton oversees the First Listen program.) And even if they don’t, they’ll repay the freebie by spreading the word about a new album.

Of course, some musicians see advance streaming as nothing more than a thinly veiled, label-sanctioned extension of piracy. It may be contributing something of value in other parts of an artist’s business, but for these artists, it’s not doing anything to restore value to the music itself — and that makes it part of the problem. "I see it as a controlled leak that’s used to boost chart position and album sales," says Alan Duggan, guitarist for Irish quartet Girl Band, whose debut album is out September 25th on Rough Trade. "It feels like a manipulative marketing ploy … it gets to the point where sitting down and listening to a record has been reduced. When you pre-stream an album, it compromises the potential experience."

But debates over the impact of advance streaming might not matter for much longer. Right now, streams are determined by partnerships between publications and labels: NPR Music will team up with one group of artists, The Fader will team with another, and some artists will eschew the concept entirely. In the future, however, publications’ role in the process could be subsumed by streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, platforms that are becoming increasingly prominent and competitive in today’s musical space. We’re not far away from a world where both streaming services and artists view songs and albums as marketing chips rather than objects of value in their own right. Streaming services will be interested in exclusivity as a means of creating artificial scarcity; artists will use their music as a loss leader driving profits from shows, merchandise, licensing, and other, more lucrative businesses.

The specter of exclusivity is on the horizon as we speak. There are already albums being released as streaming service exclusives: Dr. Dre’s Compton was only available on Apple Music, and Prince’s HITNRUN was only available on Tidal. If those kinds of deals become the norm rather than the exception, there’s little reason for advance streaming to exist; it would detract from the meaning of said exclusivity.

If advance streaming isn’t made antiquated by the fierce competition between streaming platforms, it might happen thanks to the artists themselves. The efficacy of social media has made it possible for savvy musicians to cut out the middleman. They can cultivate a sense of legitimacy or create a communal moment without the help of an established partner with an editorial voice. Chart-topping artists like Drake and The Weeknd can eschew massive lead-ups to new releases and dump new material on the internet without a second thought; mid-tier artists, including rookies like Alessia Cara and veterans like Duran Duran, are pushing their own advance streams on YouTube and SoundCloud. If artists are going to try to take advantage of advance streaming’s promotional effectiveness, they might as well take delivery method and messaging into their own hands, too. It yields more direct benefits.

It’s hard to believe how much the music industry has changed in the decade-plus since its financial peak. Music used to be valuable because of the scarcity of both access and information: it was harder to acquire and hear music, and it was harder to learn about it in the first place. In 2015, listeners can choose how they want to hear their music; they can learn about each new release and tour date from their favorite artists themselves, should they choose. Advance streaming’s current omnipresence is quiet proof of the industry’s total transformation, and it should continue to serve as a bellwether for the industry’s overall health for years to come. Music’s going to remain a volatile business, but one thing is clear: there’s never been a better time to be a listener.