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How music streaming service exclusives make pirating tempting again

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NBA All-Star Game 2016 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Streaming services have been massively successful. Spotify debuted in the US in 2011 and has 30 million paying subscribers worldwide as of last month. Apple Music, which launched this past year, now has over 10 million paying users. Forty million people are paying to stream music instead of pirating it is a big win for musicians. But it’s becoming more and more difficult for users to live with a single subscription. Rampant piracy could make a comeback, solely because streaming service exclusives, and complete artist opt-outs, make it impossible to get all music in one place.

The music industry was, and continues to be, determined to tackle illegal downloads. Napster and its descendants have been shut down, people have been prosecuted under threat of immense fines, and the music industry even tried to blow up the internet as a last resort. One report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry estimates that 20 million Americans continue to pirate music, as well as about a fifth of the world's population. The streaming service numbers show, however, that when good options exist, listeners will gladly pay for music. Paid streaming’s massive popularity is a testament to its value — but that proposition could be tested as companies rush to compete with exclusives.

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This week, Drake dropped two new singles off his upcoming album Views from the 6. The tracks are currently only available on Apple Music. Last month, Kanye West released his newest album The Life of Pablo on Tidal only. It came to Spotify this month after an estimated 500,000 people had already torrented it. Big Sean and Jhené Aiko released their collaboration album TWENTY88 on only Tidal at first. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj released a Tidal-only music video for Feeling Myself. Tracks and albums are still coming to all services, but at a much slower pace and without as much buy-in from recognizable artists. The exclusives will, certainly, help to at least expose users to a service. More than a million people signed up for Tidal over the course of a day just to get Kanye's new album, though it's assumed that most won't stick around. At what cost to listeners are these exclusives being made and where does it leave fans?

If users wanted to subscribe to only one service, it would come out to approximately $120 per year. Two services will cost $240, and three services — say, Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify — will cost $360, which will be a substantial cost to casual listeners.

Streaming services are hurting listeners in their quest to tempt them into subscribing for exclusives. I used to pirate music through old-school services like WinMX when I was growing up. I now pay for Spotify, assuming that the music I want to hear will always be available, whether it's old or new, and whether I'm offline or not. The dream of streaming all the music in the world won’t last long if it becomes just another expensive patchwork of barriers.