There's a theory that cable company executives trot out whenever they're faced with the argument that cord cutters are an existential threat to their business model: People are too lazy or too stupid to deal with video fragmentation. That is, it's not worth the effort for the average American to figure out if the specific show or movie they want to watch is streaming on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. Rather than look it up, they'd rather just watch something on their existing cable package.
This is a flawed argument that ignores the fact that there are plenty of Americans who have wrangled an assortment of streaming service passwords and have placed them all onto a Roku or Apple TV or other device that makes searching all of the services quite easy. Video content exclusivity is working just fine—just ask Netflix, which feels like it has barely anything worth watching on it that's not created as an in-house exclusive.
But while video exclusivity works, there's no evidence that music streaming exclusivity does, or ever will. And it's for the exact same reason why those cable executives thought Americans would cut the cord: Dealing with multiple music streaming services is too much damn work.
When Kanye West's The Life of Pablo dropped earlier this year, I wrote that it's highly annoying to keep track of which albums are available on which services, and, as expected, the situation is only getting more complicated. For example: in the last 48 hours, there have been roughly 1,000 articles written about where, specifically, you can listen to Beyonce's Lemonade and about when it might be available on Spotify or Apple Music. (Lemonade can be purchased for $17.99 on most music selling sites and you can stream it on Tidal, with Tidal's exclusivity lasting "in perpetuity." You can also watch the Lemonade video special on HBO.)
In four days, expect the same flurry of articles when Drake's Views From the 6 will drop with Apple Music exclusivity.
Data I want: Tidal accts created in last week. Data I want #2: accts destroyed in < 30 days.
— Danielle Kurtzleben (@titonka) April 25, 2016
Granted, Beyonce is Beyonce, and lots of her fans are buying the album, or pirating it, or stealing their friends' HBO Go logins to listen to or watch the video album. Some people are even subscribing to Tidal, probably—though I would love to know how many Life of Pablo 30-day-trial users have decided Lemonade isn't worth the price of admission. Similarly: How many of them have scammed a separate 30-day trial with a separate address to listen to Beyonce? Are we going to pretend like Tidal is actually working because it has a mild surge in popularity every time a massive album drops for a couple days?
The thing that is becoming obvious is this: Music streaming exclusivity is inherently different than video streaming exclusivity. Unless you are some sort of psycho, you don't watch 40 three-minute videos in a row, you don't make playlists of video, you don't watch video over and over and over again. We consume music in an entirely different way than we consume video.
It's not really a problem if Transparent is on Amazon Prime and Orange Is the New Black is on Netflix and Game of Thrones is on HBO because you're going to binge watch each of them for a few hours and then probably won't watch them again for months or years or maybe ever. It is a problem, however, to figure out how you're going to DJ your party this weekend.
What if you want to play Lemonade (Tidal) and Views From the 6 (Apple Music) back to back? What if you also want to listen to Prince (Tidal)? What if you want to throw on some Taylor Swift (Apple Music) after that? What if you want to work in the playlists that you've spent years building on Spotify? What if you want to throw on something from Adele's 25 as the party winds down (not available streaming … maybe try YouTube?)
While a few megastars like Adele, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce may be able to get away without streaming or with limited streaming, time and time again we've seen even artists who championed Tidal or Apple Music exclusivity quickly move away from it. This is, presumably, because artists want their fans to actually be able to listen to their music without needing to keep an Excel chart of where they can do so.
The Life of Pablo, which was never supposed to be streamed anywhere except for Tidal, is now on all major platforms. Rihanna's Anti had a short period of Tidal exclusivity and is now available everywhere. Drake's "Pop Style," one of the first singles off of Views, is now available on Spotify after a week or so of Apple Music exclusivity.
Artists are quickly learning that even if diehard fans are willing to wade through the messy online streaming waters to find the music when it's new, they might not be willing to stick around if they have to open up a separate app or make a separate online account every time they want to hear an album. And that's the diehards. I'd like to listen to Lemonade, sure. But I'm not subscribing to Tidal to do it.