In February of this year an article was published where I evaluated the growing influence of streaming companies on the music industry, particularly the area of distribution. This came on the heels of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which was initially released only on Jay Z’s Tidal service, and since then many other artists have taken West’s move to heart. And no, we’re not talking about Tidal exclusives here, even though Lemonade was an additional massive success for the service. On that front, I had my story right. Elsewhere, the tale moves on.
Spotify and Soundcloud received their props from me for a job well done, but a new titan is just on the horizon, commanding respect. It is portrayed as descending down into the dramatic valley of embattled artists like Gandalf in the glittering sunlight of dawn, a thousand Rohirrim (think massive dollar bills, riding horses) at his back. The savior of independent release is apparently the big kahuna itself, Apple. Its streaming platform, Apple Music, has recently released two relatively high-profile hip hop projects, Drake’s Views and now Frank Ocean’s long-anticipated Blonde. Both are seeing a great deal of success, but Ocean’s release has catapulted Apple Music to as-yet uncharted territory, both in terms of success and competition.
Streaming services have already begun taking shots at one another as a result, with Spotify recently announcing a new policy to withhold certain playlist or promotional privileges to exclusive releases on other platforms. No one can argue that isn’t within their right, especially as one of the industry’s juggernauts. But Spotify’s position hearkens to an easier time: previously artists would — bear with me a moment here — make their music available on every platform on the day of its release. Already this strikes me as an idea that burned too brightly for some, quickly fading into darkness.
The process was unrefined, barely a decade old, but for the consumer, it worked. You could effectively find what you wanted to listen to, whether you were paying for it, building a playlist, or just listening casually. But in that decade much of the world has begun to look inward at itself, and that includes the domain of streaming.
The platform exclusivity question is one that revolves around a zero-sum appraisal of the music industry, where sheer amount of streams, coupled with artist’s revenue, defines an entity’s worth. These same zero-sum, “I demand unreasonable power” appraisals have fueled some of the greatest and unquestionably wasteful struggles in western history, including: the horrifying prisoner’s dilemma many of us endured learning economics, HBO trying to get people to stop pirating Game of Thrones by demanding they purchase cable, and most poignantly, any time anyone has ever seriously told you might actually makes right. The loser in the short run of all of these scenarios is invariably the person arguing from the position of weakness, known today as the consumer. We have very little say in moves of the great game, and voting with our dollar seems less and less important in a world where online services reach far beyond individual countries.
Artists deserve compensation for their work. But in this new model, should consumers be the ones who pay for it, month in, month out? Apple Music seeks initial exclusive licensing because of the spike in user count and advertisement an exclusive product brings. This worked extremely well for Tidal, but the process has no staying power without guaranteeing AAA releases every month. The precipitous drop that followed indicates many consumers are completely unwilling to play this new game, even as Apple Music begins to rise in popularity.
The short- and medium-term effects of the artist-industry power struggle sees artists falsely equating turning their back on shitty record labels with turning their back on shitty streaming services, a process supposedly providing a grain of independence. But chaining their music to a specific streaming service is not freedom by any means. Rather, it will force them to dance for a new master, even if that isn’t the case now. The pressure to perform both well and often will still be high, and only a few artists such as Frank Ocean will be able to avoid that call. Beyond that, it requires their fans to delineate their interests accordingly, determining which and how many streaming services are worth paying for. It seems as the war rages on, either only one service will be left standing, or the process will become so fractured it drives consumers away from the gladiatorial proceedings entirely.