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2016: the year music went ‘exclusive’

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Whether it was what she intended or not, Taylor Swift threw down the “exclusive” gauntlet with her 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed about the future of streaming services. In it, she referred to music as something “important and rare,” and therefore, “valuable.” She was arguing about something only tangentially related to streaming exclusives, but she was also framing a mindset towards music that would morph into the industry standard over the next two years. And last summer, when she gave only Apple permission to stream her album 1989, she planted the seed of a powerful idea. In 2016, another year of war between the big three on-demand streaming services (Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify), having “important” and “rare” and “valuable” things like exclusive new albums from music’s biggest stars are the ultimate edge. While streaming was meant to make music more accessible and convenient, it’s now creating a series of walled gardens — beautiful houses for rare and important art. Let’s check in on how that’s affecting consumers and the industry at large.

Kaitlyn Tiffany: This time last year, you and Jamieson (our dear friend, former co-blogger, long-time Canadian, and Kim K stan) talked about how streaming services like Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify have made the music industry even more unequal — they solidify the 1 percent status of artists like Drake, Taylor Swift, Adele, etc., and make it even harder for indie bands to make a living off of releasing music. This year, I want to talk about something else streaming services have spent the year doing: exclusive releases. They’ve been solidified as standard practice, and this seems like the way things are going to be for a while. Do you feel like it’s a good solution?

Micah Singleton: It’s not a good solution, but it’s the best solution streaming services have come up with so far. Streaming music is a costly business — companies pay millions upfront for the rights to music and then give around 70 percent of that $10 a month you pay them back to the rights holders. That means none of these services — not even Spotify, with its 100 million users — are actually profitable. Apple Music, Tidal, and (to a lesser extent) Amazon Music all have the same goals when it comes to paying for exclusives: to drive subscriptions. But for regular people, exclusives can be a huge inconvenience.

Kaitlyn: We can all pretty much agree that exclusives are a pain in the butt for consumers. That’s barely even a conversation anymore — obviously it’s not convenient for me to have to pay for Tidal in order to hear the new Rihanna or Kanye album the day it comes out, and then also subscribe to Apple Music to hear the new Drake album the day it comes out, and then also subscribe to Spotify because it’s my personal preference for basically everything else (playlists, usability of the app, social functions, force of habit). These albums all become paid downloads (or in Coloring Book’s case — free!), and pirating still isn’t that hard, especially because someone finally taught me how to torrent! So it’s not that I get cut off of from the music forever, just that it’s a serious imposition on my time or wallet if I want to be part of the first morning of a new album hitting the world.

Micah: Yeah it’s definitely a pain, but you and I are already in the streaming ecosystem. It’s unlikely we’re going to leave it anytime soon, and the companies know that. And the companies also know that parents probably aren’t up on torrenting. If Tidal can lock in the moms with the latest Beyoncé release or if Amazon can convince the dads to get their Garth Brooks fix on its service, they may stick around afterwards. It’s hard for me to blame the artists, though — if someone was offering me millions to stream my album exclusively for a week in an industry where album profits keep declining, I’d take the deal too. I think the blame sits with the streaming services themselves that have failed to differentiate their products enough to make people interested in signing up for them without the need for exclusives. (Spotify excluded. Spotify is pretty great… except, of course, for the lack of exclusives. It’s a vicious cycle.)

Apple Music has been my main streaming service this year — not because it’s the best, but because it has the most exclusives and I don’t have to keep switching between apps all day. It’s not totally unprecedented -— DirecTV is the only way you can watch NFL games outside of the handful that air on cable — but it’s still annoying. Content is king, and these streaming services have taken that ideal to the furthest extent possible.

Kaitlyn: I’m still on Spotify, despite conning my way into more than my fair share of Apple Music and Tidal free trials. (I know there are other services and we’ll definitely get sass in the comments for disregarding them, but this is my lived experience!) That’s for a couple reasons — I respect anyone who spars with Taylor Swift without eventually bending to her will, and it’s just the ecosystem I’ve been living in since early college. The lack of exclusives, while obnoxious, also makes me feel like I’ve sided with the underdog… as much as a global corporation valued at $8 billion can be considered an underdog.

Micah: Here’s my thing: exclusives have been around for years with video and no one really complains about it. We all know that Netflix doesn’t have all the content, so there’s Hulu for people who love network sitcoms, HBO Now for everyone who doesn’t have someone else’s cable login, and Amazon Prime Video for… people who already pay for Prime. It’s sort of a given that you need to have access to multiple streaming services for video, so why is the response so different for music?

Kaitlyn: Right or wrong, I think we treat music like more of a public utility than we do premium TV or movies. It’s free on the radio; it’s free on YouTube. The modern expectation for someone who is “into” music is to have expansive and varied taste. That is much, much more labor-intensive than having what counts as varied taste for a consumer of TV, or even movies. You have to give at least a cursory listen to what — 15 albums a month? Name for me someone who really watches 15 theatrical release movies per month. Or 15 TV shows. Even in the new golden age of television — 455 scripted shows aired this year alone! — no one expects that extreme a range of reference. And in the era of social media and midnight surprise releases, the speed at which you get around to listening to new music is important too.

Apple and Tidal have latched onto that, selling us not just selection but the best available version of completism and timeliness. It almost feels like blackmail: how can I claim any sort of decent perspective or useful opinion on music if I allow myself to be locked out of the internet’s first-day listening party for the latest Beyoncé?

At the risk of sounding like an annoying stereotype of a Brooklyn snob-idiot, I recently picked up a copy of Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry, which contains his 1938 essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Most of it is hyperbolic, and incredibly (often racially) cynical about jazz music and honestly I did not finish reading it. But there’s one bit that jumped out to me as very relevant to this conversation: “Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in America today as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music.”

I don’t know about 1938, but I can see clear evidence of this in my lifetime. Music videos have Beats headphones or speakers in them as often as they have booty shorts. My first portable music player was a HitClip, for which you paid $3.99 to listen to a one-minute “HitClips special mix” of a song in incredibly low quality. Now, even more explicitly, the biggest albums of the year are not just albums — they’re also advertisements. Lemonade is Tidal’s biggest ad push ever. Coloring Book was a massive billboard for Apple Music. I think both of those albums are masterful artworks that make big statements, but I also think they were constructed and packaged with their distribution quite obviously in mind. Some Drake and Taylor Swift songs have literally been turned into ads. But maybe this doesn’t change anything. After all, pop music and capitalism have always had to walk hand in hand.

Micah: Music and commercialism are tied at the hip, and they always will be. The good thing is these exclusives won’t last forever. Once Apple Music gets enough subscribers to become profitable — two to three years would be my guess — these exclusives will stop making financial sense. Tidal’s fate will have been determined by that time as well. Universal Music Group has already pulled the plug on future exclusives after Frank Ocean dropped an independent album with Apple Music days after completing his contract with the label.

Some relationships, like Beyoncé with Tidal (or whatever Tidal will be in a few years) and Drake with Apple Music will stand the test of time. But in a few years’ time, when both Apple Music and Spotify have around 75 million people each paying them $10 a month for music, I expect exclusive releases will no longer be a major inconvenience.

Kaitlyn: So 2016 is a limbo year, and we’re still waiting for the market to course-correct?

Micah: 2016 has been an unmitigated disaster for everyone, and music fans weren’t exempt. But I think 2017 will be better. Hopefully. Music switches formats every decade or so, and exclusives are just the latest way to make streaming catch on. I think we can safely say by the time Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Drake, and Frank Ocean decide to drop “I’m switching streaming services” worthy projects in the same year again, market will have corrected itself.