We’ve covered the concept of streaming exclusivity before, including our extensive deep dive on streaming services and our multiple opinion pieces on Protest the Hero‘s Pacific Myth. But 2016 has seen an explosion of high-profile artists releasing exclusive, stream-only releases on platforms like Tidal and Apple Music. With industry heavyweights like Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean signing on to the trend, it seems as though this might be a new feature of modern music consumption that – for better or worse – might be here to stay. So we assembled a group of editors and contributors interested in the subject to dissect the issue in our latest Heavy Chat. The conversation ended up running long, but we think you’ll find we covered a lot of ground and – hopefully – you’ll learn a bit more about the way your music consumption is likely morphing right in front of your eyes.
Scott Murphy: So what’s interesting about this conversation is that it’s been delayed several times but still remains relevant. My first question to you guys is broad but important: are streaming/purchasing exclusives the new normal, and are they a positive or negative thing for artists to do? I didn’t include a part about their efficacy, because I think it’s pretty obvious they don’t work the way they’re intended. Frank Ocean’s album was pirated an insane amount of times, and in terms of amassing subscribers, and Spotify has been outpacing Apple without using any big name exclusives.
Nick Cusworth: Well, whether they’re the new normal, I think the fact that you’re already seeing so much pushback and controversy after only a few artists really starting to get involved with this is pretty good evidence that at the very least, there are some major players who very much would like this NOT to become the new normal. Whether they have the power to do so though remains to be seen.
Noyan Tokgozoglu: As a minor point, Spotify have many years of precedent being the de facto service though, Apple just got into the game last year.
Scott: True, buy Spotify still outpaced Apple in recent months.
Noyan: I think that’s about momentum. When you’re the de facto service you have a lot of inertia.
Scott: Also true. At the very least, I don’t think the numbers support exclusives as effective for Apple to catch up, at least as quickly as they’d like.
Nick: As I know Noyan and Eden have discussed before, Apple is such a bigger company overall than Spotify or any of the major labels.
Noyan: They are, but they also can’t strong-arm people. I have a diehard Apple fan friend who uses all Apple products but he still uses Spotify because he’s been using it for years and sees no need to switch.
Cody Dilullo: Spotify have the word of mouth advantage. More people who use it and more people who know how to use it result in easier growth. As well, Spotify have deals with cellphone carriers and Playstation that highly incentivize its use and makes it easily available to a lot of people.
Noyan: I think if/when Apple catches up, it won’t be a flick of a switch, like “oh they got the new Taylor Swift and thus people all immediately switched” – it will be a slow build of many factors.
Cody: So are exclusives instrumental to Apple catching up?
Nick: It’s interesting that I believe Tidal was really the first one to get in on the exclusives action because that was kind of one of their initial “hooks,” but it’s really been only since Apple has started getting in on the action that the labels and Spotify are pushing back.
Noyan: That’s because Tidal is kind of a clusterfuck that no one’s really afraid of.
Scott: I think that’s due to how hokey and muddled Tidal’s launch was.
Noyan: It’s generally a trend in the tech industry that things aren’t a big deal until Apple messes with them, even though they’re usually not the first to do it. But in general, is it a good thing for music to be exclusive to services? I think the answer varies depending on whether you’re coming at it as a label, musician, listener or streaming service owner.
Has Music Lost its Value As a Commodity?
Nick: At the moment I’m still not really seeing how it’s a net positive for anyone EXCEPT the streaming service.
Colin Kauffman: I think unless a service or company has a hand in financing an exclusive that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise, exclusives are pretty dumb as a concept.
Noyan: Yeah, the thing is that people just don’t want to pay for music as a whole – which by the way is another reason why Spotify is popular – they have the free tier.
Scott: I don’t see how curtailing access has any positives, to be honest. It will only push more people to pirate than to fork over money to a specific provider. I Also agree with Nick that the only one benefiting is the service from the handful of people who sign up for memberships or trials to hear a specific artist. But piracy makes that irrelevant. All it takes is one subscriber to upload a hi res rip and then it’s game over for the idea of exclusivity
Noyan: I mean, if you factor in piracy pretty much every model fails anyway. And services like Netflix, for example, have their own exclusives and that’s generally widely accepted and praised as a format, so why should music be different? I know Cody has his counterpoint ready so I’ll let him have it.
Scott: Yeah, but Netflix has a ton of non-original content that you can purchase, stream or pirate from several other places.
Cody: And with Netflix, a lot of people only consume their exclusive series in full one time. I think people like to have their music for a much longer period of time.
Nick: Music is in a different category because, as you already said, there has been bred a culture in the digital age that has essentially devalued music in a similar way it’s devalued news and information, which is not what’s happened with TV/movies to the same extent.
Noyan: What Colin said is why I was trying to steer this towards whether streaming music is profitable or not. The point of exclusives is that artists ostensibly make more money from an exclusive release
Colin: Music is a really weird commodity in that people who wouldn’t bat an eye at paying $12 to see a movie once balk at paying $10 to own an album forever
Noyan: Maybe it’s societally devalued by decades of radio?
Nick: I think Napster and Limewire are more responsible than radio, to be honest. It became possible very early on to pirate music/audio on dial-up or early broadband in a way that it wasn’t for video.
Scott: I think it might be due to the fact that the average consumer views seeing a movie as a greater source of entertainment than sitting down and listening to an album. Plus movies and TV just inherently have more going on.
Colin: A lot of people I know (the majority actually) don’t think about music as art, it’s usually just background noise to some other task or a distraction while driving, and even the ones who actually do pay attention don’t really dig any deeper to find out more about the band or similar bands. Music is seen as this thing that isn’t inherently lower in value than other artforms.
Cody: Music is a passive entertainment.
Scott: Music is used as a supplement to other entertainment – video games, sports, movies, TV, etc. People don’t view it as something truly equal on its own. Other than a few favorite artists, perhaps.
Noyan: I mean, it still costs a lot of money to make quality music as an artist, and those people need to fund their endeavors, hence the offer for an exclusive by a streaming service is probably lucrative.
Colin: The music that needs funding isn’t the kind of thing to attract enough interest to appeal to a corporate sponsor, so no. Also; music is inherently a risky business so the less risk a company can take securing an exclusive, the better.
Nick: Yeah, but we’re not seeing that yet. Do you really think in the next year or so you’re gonna see Apple put out an exclusive for an album they funded? Is it likely that streaming platforms will start taking on artists to fund production and license digitally for new albums?
Noyan: They did do an exclusive Taylor Swift live album/video.
Scott: Yeah, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean both had Apple exclusives, but neither needed any backing from Apple to stoke interest or fund the recording.
Noyan: I mean, sure they don’t NEED the money to make the music, but having that extra capital probably makes them doing their next thing easier.
Scott: True, which is where exclusive deals probably have some merit for artists.
Colin: Also, the stigma of “selling out” is still a very real thing.
Amazon and Pandora
Noyan: You guys remember that article from the other day about Amazon and Pandora doing a $5/mo streaming service with a more limited library?
Colin: Now that’s unsustainable.
Nick: The $5 thing is a total crock.
Noyan: That’s almost like a reverse exclusive and I bet a large mass of artists won’t be on those. It goes deeper into the devaluing of music
Colin: I think streaming services have contributed to devaluing music in a lot of people’s eyes, and I always kind of cringe a bit when I suggest a new album by a lesser known artist and someone just replies “I’ll Spotify it.”
Scott: I can see that, though I will add my personal take and say Spotify has been an incredibly valuable tool for trying out new artists and has led me to buy many, many albums
Colin: I don’t usually go down this road, but I think there’s a difference between people who enjoy music and people who both enjoy music and enjoy supporting artists. Not saying one is better than the other, mind. Music is seen as something that’s just there and available, and people feel like they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Noyan: I do agree with Colin on that, but I can also bring my own hard numbers from NYN into this thing. NYN has made the vast majority of its money on Bandcamp. Anything beyond that has been rather limited – non-bandcamp digital streaming and download services all combine to a total of about $120 over 2 years. About $30 of that 120 is from streaming services. Out of that $30, roughly $10 is Spotify, the rest is distributed across a bunch of services, with Tidal coming in at a whopping 2 cents
Scott: That’s crazy, Noyan…
Noyan: I just wanted to provide some insight on whether streaming services bring any money. I’ve been really lucky to earn this much from Spotify because the tech death community is really passionate, but I don’t think that would be the same for other 3k-facebook-like artists.
Scott: Ok, so now might be a good time to bring up Pacific Myth. It brings it back to our own community.
Noyan: I think stuff like Pacific Myth and Blonde, for the average listener, ends up being a marketing gimmick at best. No one stayed signed up for Tidal after a month for The Life of Pablo.
Colin: Tidal is the Ben Carson of streaming services
Nick: But I think a lot of that is because, to this point, nothing significant has remained exclusive permanently.
Scott: On the positive side, Protest the Hero’s fan base may have been the most likely to buy in, and they paid in a lot more money than streaming royalties would have
Noyan: Actually, this can circle this around to something I talk about often – The whole “1000 dedicated fans” thing. The short version of the idea is that over the long term if you cater to 100m people, most of them will give up and not fund you for a very long time. but those 1k dedicated people will pay for super expensive shit. So, the point is, most people won’t care about the 1 month Pablo exclusive to Tidal, but the super dedicated fans will.
Nick: That was definitely the thinking behind Pacific Myth it seems.
Colin: It’s better to have 1000 sugar daddies than it is to have 100 million booty calls.
Cody: Those 1,000 dedicated fans are bread and butter too. They’re the ones that will make sure their friends check the thing out once it’s commercially available too.
Noyan: Whether that amount of people is worth all this, depends on the artist and model I guess – seems to have worked for PTH.
Nick: In that sense it makes more sense PROVIDED that it’s a timed exclusive and not a permanent one.
Noyan: I mean, as we’ve established, piracy kind of guarantees no exclusive is fully forever.
Scott: I still find all of this problematic because of the gate keeping of content from fans and, as Nick and I have mentioned, it simply doesn’t work. It promotes piracy so much better than it discourages it.
Nick: Well, sure, but piracy exists regardless of what anyone does.
Noyan: I don’t remember who among us made the point that Pacific Myth is stupid because piracy exists, but it’s not for the people who’re gonna pirate it, it’s for the dedicated fans.
Scott: Well I think offering an exclusive would make piracy higher than usual. Since people can’t even stream it via Bandcamp, that cuts out another chunk of people who may have streamed it before buying it.
Nick: So, the thing with Pacific Myth currently is that the documentary that was originally subscriber-exclusive is now being planned for public release, but as of the moment there are still no plans to release the actual music publicly, is that correct?
Scott: As Cody pointed out, the music will be available eventually.
Noyan: I mean, anyone who wanted to get it already pirated it anyway
Cody: Pacific Myth still provided exclusive content too. Every subscriber had access to tabs, lyrics, artwork, exclusive merch releases and even had the opportunity to provide input on upcoming tracks.
Nick: I honestly don’t see a huge difference between that and the kind of tour-exclusive rarities on physical media that you still see. It’s possible to pirate it, but that’s besides the point. It’s more a collector’s item for the most dedicated fans.
Colin: The difference between tour exclusive merch and exclusives like pacific myth is that the music was only available, and still only available, through one service, to people who wanted the whole package.
Noyan: 1.) Streaming services don’t pay a lot so it doesn’t really matter if people pirate, 2.) Exclusives are a good marketing tool for the artist and streaming service, 3.) Streaming service writes artist a check. Seems like a net monetary positive for the artist
Cody: Why is it a good marketing tool?
Noyan: Let me put it this way Cody, I would never have even known Frank Ocean existed if not for this whole ordeal
Nick: So in a sense the biggest effect exclusives have is in further accelerating the process of music devaluation by essentially conceding that their music is going to be pirated anyway so might as well get money from a reliable source.
Noyan: Well, Nick, I disagree partially. By kind of locking music behind a specific service, you create the perception of value I think – that’s how the entirety of console gaming works anyway – for people who are already on the service it’s a value add, and for people who aren’t on it they realize that they need to pay something to get access to this music.
Nick: Or pirate it.
Scott: I’m not a Follower of PTH, but if a band I loved did something like Pacific Myth, I’d be be annoyed. I don’t pirate music and I only buy physical, so an exclusive digital download has no use to me.
Cody: As an anecdote to that Scott, my computer broke shortly after I subscribed to Pacific Myth and as a superfan, I didn’t have access to my downloads of the tracks until the EP was finished. It took me about half a year to listen to pacific Myth in full because of that.
Noyan: Well, in a sense piracy is conceding that this thing has value that you’re not willing to pay, but it still creates the notion of value
Scott: Yeah, I think it would annoy people into piracy rather than give them a sense of value for music.
Noyan: I mean I agree principally that more restrictions always drive people away
Colin: Yeah Pacific Myth annoyed me at first because I had no idea if the music would be worth the price of entry to me and still annoys me because there’s no way to group it all together as a single EP when downloading, and if I want to stream it’s a pain. Half the reason I use Bandcamp and primarily buy digital is convenience.
Noyan: But we’re also music enthusiasts so I don’t know how representative our opinion is. The average person isn’t generally super piracy savvy. And idk if you guys looked recently but piracy is getting a lot more difficult lately. Many major piracy sites got shut down over the past few months.
Scott: I can’t remember the last time I pirated an album, so I’m definitely not an expert on that.
Nick: I think all of us rely mostly on streaming services and legal purchases these days.
Cody: I can attest to that. Also, pirating sites require a lot of engagement and patience. There’s nothing that’s really “a click away” these days. It’s super unfriendly to new users who want to pirate. And it also requires some savvy to avoid malware.
Colin: Finding a good torrent of an album that’s not huge and noteworthy requires a ton of patience and digging
Noyan: Unless you’re a member of a private site, which isn’t easy to get and they force you to be uploaders to keep up membership. But Circling back around, I think piracy is a non-factor for the most part in these discussions, at least I don’t think streaming services care. I mean in the sense that I don’t think they think “If we make this music exclusive more people will pirate it”. I think overall this is a bit of an anti consumer move but similar things have happened in other industries and people have gotten used to it. And it creates competition for services to increase the value of their product.
The Future of Exclusives
Nick: So for services like Spotify that so far haven’t been able to get in on exclusives due to their size and pricing structure, what effect to you think this might have on them long-term, if any?
Noyan: I mean, we already know that Spotify is facing some big chances in the next few months for their IPO. If this exclusivity business keeps ramping up Spotify will have to combat it by offering more convenience and value somehow. But I feel that they’ll be stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the only thing keeping them afloat will be their inertia. the market inertia of people already having subbed to it, I mean
Scott: Spotify has reportedly been in talks with labels to make some of their content exclusive/subscriber only (details are vague thus far). I honestly don’t see them needing to do that, as long as they still offer things like the free tier (which is also under fire from labels but is still in tact for now).
Noyan: I think Spotify Premium and Apple Music are for the most part equivalent feature wise so if you don’t care about the exclusives they have the same library for the most part and work the same way so it’s all preference/market inertia there
Scott: Exactly. If I had signed up for Apple Music instead of Spotify Premium several months ago, I would feel the same way as I do now.
Noyan: Free Spotify is probably going to get uglier in some fashion very soon if it doesn’t go away completely. aka more ads, less availability etc
Colin: I don’t think exclusives will play much of a role in attracting new customers or keeping existing ones going forward.
Nick: I’m still convinced free-tier (at least as we know it) is going to be gone within the next year or two
Scott: Didn’t Frank’s label respond very negatively to the Blond exclusive?
Noyan: I think every company involved in this mess is going through a shit fit phase right now. We saw that UMG thing, Spotify just did something childish etc. Once the dust settles down Apple probably have deep enough pockets to grease things. I think in general the ball is in Apple’s court here – if they choose to invest more and ramp up exclusives labels will eventually play along and Spotify will have to adapt
Nick: They did, but I agree with Noyan. Labels are really wandering through the dark now and just kinda lashing out where they feel like it while investing in other areas where they maybe see a future (hence this nonsense with Pandora and Amazon).
Scott: But I think this will also be a slow, slow process. As we said earlier, it takes an artist of a certain size to make exclusives worth it, and you;re not going to get new albums like that every month or even every few months.
Noyan: Yeah, but as I said way earlier, if something happens here it won’t be immediate, it will be a buildup of many small things
Cody: I think a monopoly isn’t worse case scenario here either. I want something to come out on top and be the clear cut choice for monetizing music because have access to that large pool of fans/marketing/money is better for the music industry. It’s better for collaborations, copyright and touring.
Colin: The music industry as a whole is still kind of flailing about, trying to adapt to how the Internet changes things and how it’s evolved.
Noyan: The reality will probably be that we will have several big competitors with their own exclusives, Cody. It’s pretty annoying for customers but it’s always what ends up happening
Scott: And I think they’re flailing because they’re trying to come close to where they once were, and that’s just not possible
Nick: Yeah, there’s no other media industry example that would indicate things funneling in towards one source.
Scott: This convo has gone in a lot of different directions, but the main topic was exclusivity and what effect it will have. I think we’ve covered that quite a bit from several angles, but does anyone else have any last words?
Noyan: Coming back around, I think we all agree that it’s annoying for the listeners, lucrative for big artists and streaming services, and confusing for labels? However as they become more of a norm I think listeners will get used to it and if services start doubling down on this (which remains to be seen if that will actually happen) it will get more competitive and interesting. With ramped up competition the user may end up winning – without streaming service competition we wouldn’t have gotten a show like Stranger Things or Daredevil for example
Cody: With the ball in Apple’s court, I think we agree.
Scott: That’s a good summation, and since I only make up one of those categories, I feel that’s why I’m so anti-exclusive.
Nick: I think that’s a pretty fair assessment at this point. There’s still not really enough data points yet to determine how successful this sort of model can be yet, but it looks like Apple is determined to experiment with it some more and potentially start making it an industry standard.
Cody: Also worth noting that a subscription to Spotify and Apple Music is only about $20 so for diehard fans who can afford that and the minor inconvenience, competition won’t be the end of the world.
Noyan: One thing for artists that we didn’t cover is that it allows them to experiment
Noyan: If you’re guaranteed some money for your album from, let’s say, Apple, you can make a more experimental album because you already got your money. I think overall this thing isn’t necessarily a net negative but it can very easily become so for consumers, but it can also enable artists to earn a more comfortable living. Probably the worst is more likely to happen but we’ll see if Apple pushes forward, I guess
Nick: As seems to be the norm these days, whether we like it or not, Apple seems to hold the key to how we consume media and interact with tech.
Noyan: I guess we’ll see how it goes, and maybe return to this in a year :P
Scott: At the end of the day, as much as consumers complain about these inconveniences, all of this came about as an attempt to monetize a lack of music sales, and that rests on consumer choice to do so. As much as it may suck to have these kinds of options springing up, the average music listener is truly on the hook.
Noyan: Yep! Things cost money, so support your favorite artists, preferably not through streaming services!