For some Beyonce fans, the wait was interminable. Having gone over a year and a half since the release of her last album, the roughly 24 hour-long delay between Lemonade’s debut on Tidal and it’s availability on iTunes felt unbearable to those who hadn’t subscribed to Jay Z’s virtual platoon of streaming exclusives. Another crisis of fandom looms this week with the imminent arrival of Drake’s highly-anticipated new album Views. After premiering on Beats 1, it’s almost certain that it will arrive first and foremost on an Apple platform, be that iTunes, Apple Music, or most likely both. Just like Lemonade, Twitter, Facebook and any other platform that’ll listen will be flooded with the deafening moans of consumers who will loudly mourn its absence from the reach of their indefinitely free Spotify account—or whatever else they signed up for that it isn’t on.
You can see why people get upset. They signed up to Spotify, they became accustomed to the dodgy interface, they got slightly obsessed with the "Concentration" playlists, and they finally emotionally committed to premium so that they could phase out the shitty ads—which always arrived at the wrong moment, killing the buzz as some man shouted about flu medicine. Soon, life was good. Then Rihanna dropped on Tidal. So they went through it all again. Their phone now has two apps, one for listening to music, and one for listening to Rihanna. Then someone drops on Apple Music. So they cancel Tidal and get Apple Music. Then Prince passes away and the only way to reflect on his genius is via Tidal. When will this end?
The thing is, it's not hard to feel like we've all reverted to spoiled kids at Christmas, screaming about our mountain of presents coming in less than desirable giftwrap. A month’s subscription to Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal costs less than a medium-sized margarita from Domino’s and grants unlimited, on-demand access to a multiplicity of recorded music. Fifty percent Spotify discounts are available for cash-strapped students, while persnickety audiophiles can pay a fairly modest premium to Tidal to ensure the highest-quality sound streams back into their high-tech eardrums. On paper, there’s never been a better time to be a music listener, regardless of genre.
Putting aside the markdowns and upsells, the sheer simplicity of streaming’s pricing model ought to make it complaint-proof. For a combined 30 bucks per month, someone could subscribe to all three of the on-demand streaming market leaders—Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal—and never have reason to miss out on platform exclusives like Lemonade or Views or Anti, while still enjoying vast music catalogs, curated playlists, and add-on content. To put that figure into perspective, 30 dollars didn't cover the price for three brand new CDs a decade ago, nor does it today. On all accounts, we’re living in a golden age of music consumption, one in which access to and availability of music can be had for less than the cost of a night out drinking. So why is everyone upset?
Shelling out a relatively small sum to access virtually everything one might wish to hear shouldn’t seem unfair, particularly at a time when so many pay for subscriptions to Hulu, Netflix, and a variety of other video platforms. But music is a little different. From Napster’s arrival in 1999 and onward, people have had the option of simply not paying for recorded music. Over the next 17 years, lo and behold, people overwhelmingly chose piracy—whether through Limewire, Mediafire, Pirate Bay, or just trawling Google. For a time, major record labels, artists, and empathetic industry groups resisted change, trying everything from subpoenas to public service announcements in an ultimately fruitless attempt to preserve or at least salvage an outdated business model.
Piracy has been good to fans, offering up the chance to listen to an entire back catalogue, a new album, or a collection of b-sides within minutes, and sometimes before release. But it's arguably the artists themselves who suffered the most from our decision. Services like Spotify and Apple seem to be coaxing music fans back into paying for music again. Yet given the shoddy state of artist compensation, it kinda stands to reason that music’s biggest artists and their labels would leverage their position to maximize the benefits of these dueling services. And why shouldn’t they? We lost the right to have a say in how artists release their music when we collectively stopped paying for music. It’s through our own delusion that we somehow feel entitled to have access to a vast catalogue of music for next to nothing.
In the time since streaming services launched, “surprise album drops” have gone from provocative industry disruptions to standard practice for most big-time major label artists. After a rocky start, Tidal remains a competitor for working platform exclusivity into that new release paradigm, securing deals upon deals to be the primary place to hear a particular album or even a music video—sometimes for even just a single day. Records like Lil Wayne’s Free Weezy and the Big Sean x Jhene Aiko collaboration Twenty88 are just a few examples of Tidal exclusives, to say nothing of the major drops there this year by Kanye West, Rihanna, and Beyonce.
These exclusivity periods have gone some way to providing specific artists with a new revenue stream, but it’s also helped musicians push back against music piracy in another way: by proving to be an effective mechanism for preventing pre-release leaks. The biggest albums of the year—which are indisputably Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, Anti, and Views, have all resisted the early album leak that previously affected other blockbuster releases. In the past, these albums would find their way to torrent sites weeks or months in advance, rendering entire marketing campaigns or artistic roll-outs obsolete. Arguably, streaming exclusivity has closed the lid on this part of problem, at least for the bigger acts. That said, these exclusives have also had the unforeseen effect of rejuvenating a piracy culture that seemed to be on its way out. Forbes reported that despite evading most pre-release leaks, Kanye’s TLOP was pirated over 500,000 times once it was released. And within 24 hours, Beyonce’s Lemonade went straight to the top of both Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents. Downloads, you suspect, by those who felt they just couldn’t justify the effort of a free trial or an extra 10 dollars per month.
For music fans, nothing ever seems to be enough. We want artists to be paid fairly, but we rip their albums. We lambast streaming services for their refusal to compensate musicians properly, yet decline to pay more than ten pounds a month to hear a perpetually refilled buffet of new music. It is that post-millennial Faustian bargain in which we ended up sacrificing our buying power as consumers and ushering in a new kind of power for industry players. In many ways, we all probably need to realise our own substantial role in both the creation and sustaining of album exclusivity. Our actions begat the sort of multi-million dollar deals that Drake has with Apple, ensuring the first place anyone will hear Views is on Beats 1, the first place they’ll stream it on-demand is Apple Music, and the first place they’ll be able to buy it is iTunes. It’s the best revenge artists and labels have on all of us for degrading the value of music in the first place.
Your complaints about the next Tidal exclusive will go unheard and ignored, as they damn well should be. The solution to your woes about Lemonade still not being on Spotify is a simple and affordable one. You are living in an extraordinary time to be a music lover and listener. Cough up and enjoy it.
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