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Exclusive albums are the new normal

Get used to it — they're here to stay

Up until a few months ago, albums from major acts were released wide — to the most outlets possible for the biggest impact — and it worked out fine for most artists. But as album sales continue to drop and streaming services grow, windowed or exclusive releases have become a testing ground for some of the music industry’s major players.

In the last six months, Coldplay, Future, Rihanna, Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Drake have all released albums exclusive to a streaming service. Drake’s latest album Views has sold over 1 million copies and set a first-week streaming record during its exclusive period with iTunes and Apple Music. After the success of Views and Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, windowed music releases are, in fact, the new normal — at least for superstars.

On Apple Music, Views crushed a streaming record set by Justin Bieber’s most recent album Purpose — which set the mark on Spotify, a platform with over five times the subscribers as Apple Music — and managed to sell 1 million copies in its first week on a single platform.

'Views' was a dream scenario for everyone involved in the project

Drake’s album was the dream scenario for everyone involved in the project. The artist gets paid a fee by the streaming service for the exclusive rights to release an album. In return the streaming service (in this case Apple Music) gets the spotlight for a week or two and picks up new subscribers. Most importantly, exclusive albums from major artists have the potential for an extended period at the top of the charts once the release goes wide after the exclusivity ends (which makes them more money).

There were three major factors involved the successful rollout of Views: a worldwide star in Drake releasing an album at the peak of his popularity; an audience of fans who understood where the album was going to be released after two exclusive projects and 20 episodes of Drake’s Beats 1 show OVO Sound Radio had aired over the last year; and Drake’s parent label Universal Music Group making it incredibly difficult to listen to the album on YouTube or anywhere else for free.

One million sold in one week. I am beyond grateful for this milestone. Thank you for listening. #VIEWS

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

Multiple sources tell The Verge that the major labels make large investments to keep major releases off YouTube. Universal Music Group and the other major labels spend millions of dollars a year on staff dedicated to taking down the user-uploaded copies of albums on sites like YouTube, which has become a serious point of contention between the music industry and sites like YouTube.

The success of windowed albums isn’t limited to Apple’s ecosystem either. The release of Lemonade proved that Tidal could handle the launch of a major album, and that a dual-service rollout — Tidal for streaming and iTunes for sales in this case — could be a strong alternative for artists who don’t want to fully commit to a single platform.

Even a single-service rollout like what Kanye West did with The Life of Pablo, which streamed exclusively on Tidal for the first six weeks, can also work out well. The album was streamed 250 million times in its first 10 days on the service, which would’ve placed it atop the charts if those numbers had been reported to Nielsen. Six weeks later when it became available on all streaming services, it gained a second life and earned that top spot on the Billboard charts. That kind of second wind is something very few albums achieve, outside of Grammy week (if they win) or the holiday shopping period.

The success of exclusive albums isn’t limited to Apple’s ecosystem

The appeal of a longer lifespan for major releases has convinced multiple music executives I’ve spoken with that windowed releases will be a serious consideration for top-tier artists moving forward. Apple Music and Tidal need to keep their growth rates up, artists like guaranteed money, and labels like their releases to dominate the charts for weeks on end. Right now there’s only two players in the exclusive album game, Apple and Tidal. Spotify has repeatedly said it won’t pay for exclusive albums, but if exclusives becomes the new normal for superstar artists, that stance may change sooner than later.

While windowing is completely normal in other forms of entertainment, like movies, it has been and will continue to be a big shift for music fans. Every time an exclusive release comes out these days, social media is flooded with people searching for the album or wondering why it isn’t available on their streaming service of choice, and that can be an inconvenience (especially if you’re on Spotify). But if exclusives continue to lead to more album sales or more users for streaming services, these companies will continue to pursue them — until they don’t.