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Peloton owners are pissed about bad music after copyright lawsuit

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Fitness companies are transforming into entertainment companies, and customers are paying the price

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Ally F.’s favorite Peloton class, a 45-minute cycling course, used to crescendo to her perfect playlist: a pleasant warmup to the tunes of Sheryl Crow before a heart-pumping climb alongside Pat Benatar’s powerhouse vocals. But today, Ally is disappointed to find that classes now feature repeats of pop songs from the Now That’s What I Call Music catalog, ruining her workout vibes. “Random songs are plopped in the middle of an otherwise consistently themed playlist,” she says, lamenting that the workouts don’t “flow like they used to.”

The changes in music selections resulted from a lawsuit Peloton faced last month, when the company was sued by members of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) for failing to obtain a sync license to use some labels’ musical work in their exercise videos. Peloton customers now say they have noticed a significant downgrade in music quality, with remixed versions of a popular song instead of an original, or limited song variety from an artist. Users also note that classes they’ve favorited have disappeared from the catalog, since they contain songs that were named by the lawsuit as having violated copyrights.

“It has affected the way I work out. I find myself scrolling through classes for at least five minutes before I can find a playlist with 50 percent decent songs,” Ally, a full-time working mom from Chicago, tells The Verge. “It’s annoying.”

Yet not all songs from a specific artist have disappeared. The lawsuit names individual songs rather than entire catalogs from a certain album or artist because the rights depend on whether writers on individual songs have consented to the synchronization license, which is required for videos that rely on timed music like a Peloton workout class, says entertainment lawyer Jeff Becker of Swanson, Martin & Bell. That’s why users might see Halsey’s “Heaven in Hiding” (written by Halsey and Greg Kurstin) still playing in a class, but not “Now or Never” (written by five artists, including Halsey) even though both songs were released by the same label in the same album.

This specificity also makes it harder for some Peloton users to find songs they enjoy that aren’t repeats of the few singles from their favorite artists that cleared copyrights.

It may seem silly to lament over music selections in an exercise class, but it’s an issue that fitness companies may increasingly face as they transform from traditional health companies into media publishers. Let’s face it: working out can be boring, and people are willing to pay top dollar to have someone yell at us while sweating to the latest Migos track. Combine that with the flexibility to exercise in your own home on your own time and it’s a revenue strategy that has helped brands like Equinox, Pure Barre, SoulCycle, and Physique 57 tap into a demographic that previously found the studios inaccessible. Even companies like ClassPass and Fitbit have also expanded beyond their initial product of a subscription service and fitness trackers, offering their own guided fitness sessions for $8 to $15 a month.

But as fitness companies dabble in media creation, they’re also navigating into the pains of becoming an entertainment company. After Peloton was sued last month, some users have taken to Facebook and Reddit to vent their frustrations, even creating memes to make light of the situation. “The music for all of the hip hop club bangers pop has been awful. I have had the bike [for] six plus months, never heard ONE T-Pain song... now I hear one every ride,” Peloton user Gregg P. said in a Facebook group. “Sorry but Cher and Aretha Franklin for HIIT just don’t do it for me,” another user added.

A fake playlist made by a Peloton member.

Some users also suggest poorly rating classes when they feel the music quality has significantly suffered, but resign to the fact that the lawsuit may take a while to settle. Instead, they’re relying on the instructors’ personalities to carry them through less-than-ideal music selections. When reached for comment, Peloton sent us a statement CEO John Foley sent to members last month, noting that the company has “strong creative relationships” with artists, managers, and licensors, and remain committed to offering “the most impactful music experience in fitness.”

Fitness studios and gyms spend a lot of money on their content: Peloton currently employs dozens of instructors, each with a producer that helps them review, edit, plan, and market their classes. Orangetheory has also recently hired a head of content, with plans to build out its own in-house media team. These cost premiums seem directly transferred to customers, with companies charging extra for access to streaming classes on top of what clients already pay for access to these boutique studios. Equinox memberships start at $160 a month for a single location to $250 a month for global access, with another $200 to $300 initiation fee. To access on-demand digital training through Equinox’s platform partner, Lift Digital, clients would pay another $100 a month for unlimited monthly sessions. Flywheel offers on-demand barre, yoga, and body training classes, but only for those who subscribe to in-studio memberships that start at $116 a month. Its cycling-specific streaming classes are limited to those who buy the $1,700 Flywheel Home Bike.

According to Fast Company, the digital fitness industry is estimated to be worth $27 billion by 2022. As boutique companies compete for a share of consumers’ heightened interest in on-demand fitness content, they’ll need to evaluate how much their premiums can stretch before customers reach their limit. For Peloton owner Ally, her options are increasingly plenty, especially if the company does not reach a resolution with music labels soon.

“I paid a considerable amount of money [for Peloton] and I expect a premium experience.”