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The Life of Pablo, the Death of Streaming Music as We Know it

Streaming fragmentation is driving people back to piracy.

The release of Kanye West's new album was a monumental event, but not because of the fashion show, the Twitter controversy or the insane level of anticipation. The Life of Pablo has hastened the death of the first golden era of music streaming.

The music streaming landscape is now effectively segmented to the point where, as a consumer, it's inconvenient to have just one streaming service. Having to pay for more than one streaming service is of course par for the course in video—long gone are the days where it makes any sense to make do with just Netflix.


Likewise, gone are the day where you can fire up Spotify and play basically any song. Spotify has no Taylor Swift albums and only a handful of songs from various soundtracks she's done. Some of the Taylor Swift albums are on Tidal, but not 1989. All of her albums are available on Apple Music. Prince's new single (but almost nothing else) is available on Spotify, all of his music is available on Tidal, and a random smattering of his songs are available on Apple Music. Long the butt of jokes for its lackluster interface and over-the-top, star-studded launch, Tidal is now the only place you can listen to West's TLOP or Beyonce's "Formation". After a period of Tidal exclusivity, Rihanna's Anti is now finally available on Apple Music and Spotify.

Please for all music lovers. Please subscribe to tidal!!! I decided not to sell my album for another week. Please subscribe to tidal.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016

These exclusives (or maybe just the spectacle that is TLOP) has catapulted Tidal to the number one spot on the App store for the first time ever.

That doesn't mean Tidal wins or is the best music service. And it doesn't mean that you're going to have to subscribe to Tidal and Apple Music and Spotify, all while remembering which songs from which artists are on which specific streaming service (the playlist-obsessed of us are horrified at the prospect).

sending traffic to torrent sites. up and coming (not yet millionaires) artists are going to suffer as a result.
— lily (@lilyallen) March 31, 2015


Instead, this is likely an untenable situation. Apple can weather the heavy economic losses usually associated with music streaming, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Tidal and its 1 million-ish subscribersTLOP or not—can make ends meet for much longer. By all accounts, it's losing lots and lots of money and it's paying more for its music than Spotify or Apple is. Even if some Spotify users jump ship for Tidal's better library, how is the company going to become profitable in an industry in which likely no streaming service is (Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal all lose money; Rdio was bought out; Google Play and Apple Music numbers aren't known)?

So what's next? Music streaming seems to be an industry in which competition is bad for the consumer. As long as Tidal and Apple Music and Spotify manage to all stay afloat and continue to woo exclusive albums, we're going to keep seeing this fragmentation.

And with that fragmentation likely comes a return to the old days of piracy. It's impossible to stream TLOP on Spotify, for instance, but as some are quick to point out, it is possible to torrent it, import it into Spotify, and make it available offline on your phone. As long as Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal have most of what you want, you'll probably see people make do with whatever is available and augment their downloaded libraries with purchased or pirated music.

Eventually, when a clear winner emerges, we'll see consolidation once again. Whether that's a good or a bad thing, well, that depends on whether the company that emerges is willing (and able, financially) to treat both consumers and artists fairly.

Update: This article has been updated to note that Rihanna's Anti is now available on Apple Music and Spotify. These exclusivity periods are maddening, right?