Streaming Exclusivity is the Most Dangerous Cancer in the Music Industry
Access to music is certainly one of the touchier subjects in the world of art, culture, and business. During the times of old when music acquired for a private collection could be managed through the sale of physical entities, there were few problems past the idea of the distribution of unauthorized tapes and discs. And though pirated CD’s seemed like a looming hurdle to overcome just a decade-and-a-half ago, the internet age has since brought an obvious and well-documented series of seemingly impossible challenges facing the music industry. From Napster and LimeWire to ITunes libraries filled with illegally converted YouTube mp3’s, technology was quickly crippling the music industry until the emergence and widespread adaptation of music streaming services.
Though the death of the iPod was sad and the complete restructuring of the way the music market consumed was frustrating for many, the age of free and illegal music was put to rest in lieu of an age of cheap yet quality ultra-convenience where any music could be listened to at guaranteed quality anytime and anywhere with access to the internet. It also gave back to creators, unlike illegal downloads. Though streaming services for the most part offer some sort of watered down, add-heavy free version, the majority of the world’s modern music market now pays for subscriptions to things like Pandora, Spotify, or Apple Music, while SoundCloud – the behemoth that supports any creative trying to get their name out there – exists as a less well-defined sphere of subscription necessity, where ads seem to appear and disappear at random as the company attempts to define itself and its boundaries.
While at first streaming services were slowly accepted as a fair compromise between greedy music executives charging $20 per album and the cheap consumer pirating thousands of illegal, free tracks, new problems have unsurprisingly begun to surface. SoundCloud’s creative sphere has become more commercialized in an effort to keep pace with and take advantage of the progress of other services. Frustrating as it may be, it’s a matter of time before SoundCloud too largely requires subscription. On the other end of the spectrum, costly yet more or less comparative streaming services like Tidal have allowed for the base median to rise in the world of streaming economics, resulting in all services quietly increasing their prices. But lastly, most importantly, and most damaging to the world of music and to the very notion of art, certain streaming services like Tidal and most recognizably Apple Music, have bought the loyalty of artists in order to attain exclusive rights to the release of their craft, angering the market and marginalizing the artists in the process.
In 2015, when Jay-Z spearheaded the purchase of Tidal in order to design and create a music streaming service owned and operated by the artists themselves, a tremendous amount of attention was brought to the brand. Tidal was claiming to offer superior sound quality, pay artists higher percentages of royalties, and even put on a series of well-orchestrated marketing strategies that included a press conference featuring a long list of modern music royalty. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Daft Punk, deadmau5, J. Cole, and a whole lot more gathered and spoke as the owners of Tidal and its importance to the progression of the consumer music experience. All in all, the conference and the service always returned to its mission statement – “to return the value to music by launching a service owned by artists.” Unfortunately, since its launch, Tidal has failed to be the force so many thought it might be, due in large part to the unparalleled price of subscription, double that of other top-tier streaming services.
But Tidal has its reasons. Marketed most heavily and publicly received most poorly, the idea of artists who partner with Tidal exclusively releasing their content on the streaming service has caused a rupture in the entire streaming structure, and once again put consumers, creators, and businesspeople at a crossroads. The most recognizable example of the problems caused by exclusive streaming rights was the 2016 release of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Instead of igniting a massive subscription push to Tidal, the exclusive release reanimated a dying piracy industry, resulting in half a million illegal downloads of the project within its first three days. It was clear that the world was not willing to return to the days of overpriced, under-resourced music when it had, just a few years prior, free albeit illegal and inconvenient music for all.
More than anything, Tidal’s blunder opened an unfortunate door for other services to work the exclusive route with artists. And because Tidal was the first to, depending on how you look at it, take the risk or the initiative, other services, predominantly Apple Music, are getting away with more exclusive content and less public outrage.
Just recently, Anderson .Paak, the globally beloved creator of all sounds funky, sexy, and smooth, and long-time understudy of old-school legend and new-school Apple higher-up, Dr. Dre, had the first of his lead singles to his anticipated 2018 album released exclusively to Apple Music. The move, though economically strategic for Dr. Dre and Apple has left much of .Paak's audience feeling estranged, unloved, and worried about the possibility of his entire project only being available for Apple subscribers. This strategy, one that is becoming increasingly common for Apple, seems to go against the very principals of art and music - especially for artists who spread messages of positivity, love, self-worth, and social reform - a slew of realms that .Paak' music continuously grasp through his thoughtful, storytelling style. The amount of fans whose lives .Paak was likely able to touch with his last album, Malibu, has only continued to grow since, and though that fact makes it economically viable for him to release to an exclusive market, it would be nothing short of shame if he did.
It's a sentiment that goes for all artists really. They touch the lives of some with their music, and some have the opportunity to touch the lives of many. All spread their art and influence their listeners creatively, socially, and personally. To limit their reach is simply unjust for the world and anti-art.
The most disturbing part of it all isn’t that Apple Music and Tidal are buying the creativity of artists in order to make a push for dominance in the streaming market; it isn’t the fact that streaming services are sneakily raising their prices in order to return the music industry to a controlled, expensive state where creativity is second to income; and it isn’t that artists themselves working with Apple Music and Tidal specifically are hiding behind the false masks of art and quality when in fact they just want a bigger cut of the industry’s check. The most disturbing adage in the quickly escalating streaming nightmare is that the creativity, reach, and influence of music is being privatized.
Art is for the people, and history tells us that when art becomes reserved only for the classes that can afford it, it dies. The age of impressionist painting was born by the hand of Gustave Courbet’s anti-establishmentarian idea to personally finance and exhibit his own work when refused by the aristocracy of the Parisian art community. In his wake, Monet, Degas, Renoir, and van Gogh came to overthrow and replace the then-dominant scene of fine art exclusivity, opening up a sea of creativity that brought art, inspiration, and influence to all who sought it. When technology advanced far enough and a few smart kids had an idea, the titans of the empirical recording industry were thrown for a loop and the art they controlled and made exclusive for the sake of personal economics was made public and free on the internet. And now as streaming services, several of which overseen by artists turned business moguls, are using their powerful positions and the talent of their fellow creatives to once again make music the exclusive right of only those who support their personal business endeavors, the world of art and culture again finds itself at a moral crossroads. And if the short history of the large-scale upheaval against streaming exclusivity has taught us anything, it's that the consumer is more focused on the art itself rather than the morality or legality of obtaining it, while in a strange turn of events the artist has begun to side with and transition into the businessman.
At the end of the day, there is no one fix to the problem. Consumers want their art, executives want their money, and artists are torn between spreading their influence and accumulating their personal wealth. Though it's doubtful that a consumer base with the existing infrastructure to obtain unlimited amounts of free music will immediately embrace higher prices for exclusive access to privatized collections, its also doubtful that the market is willing to keep up the fight forever, and in the long run, will likely side with convenience even at the cost of artistic freedom and, well... cost.
That is, until the next big idea comes along and once again breaks down the system.
All we can do is acknowledge the problem, patiently air our grievances, and wait for the next revolution to come.