Guilty by exclusive association

Spotify’s attempt to keep big artists down

AUGUST 26TH, 2016 — POST 235

A report out of Bloomberg today sheds light on something that didn’t feel that surprising. Artists with exclusive release deals with Apple Music or Tidal have been intentionally kept off the top of Spotify’s search results. Furthermore, as the Bloomberg report states:

”Artists who have given Apple exclusive access to new music have been told they won’t be able to get their tracks on featured playlists once the songs become available on Spotify”

Spotify have been vocal in their rejection of garnering a stable of exclusive artists. As far Troy Carter — Spotify’s head of global creator services — sees it, “exclusives are bad for artists, bad for consumers and bad for the whole industry”. Carter, speaking here with Robert Levine of Billboard, seems adamant in the belief that the streaming music industry really is a zero sum game — users just aren’t going to pay for more than one streaming service. Whilst exclusive content is integral to the operation of video streaming services — and many users do subscribe to more than one — Carter believes that exclusives can only drive piracy, or unpaid engagement through YouTube.

But a principled stance against exclusives and active suppression of artists who engage in exclusive deals are two very different things. Not only do valued users (and Carter is proud to announce Spotify now boasts 37 million of them) have to wait for a timed exclusive to reach Spotify, they also have to work harder to find it when it does show up after the conventional 2-week exclusivity window. Lizzie Plaugic of The Verge is quick to note that it remains unknown if Spotify’s tactics have had any effect on streaming numbers for records like Drake’s Views or Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, both of which saw timed exclusivity on Apple Music and Tidal respectively. But, at least in terms of optics, that’s really beside the point. This can’t help but feel shady.

With so many high-profile records released with some degree of exclusivity this year, 2016 will likely be remembered in one sense as setting the stage upon which music streaming services will compete. I’ve written a bunch about the corollary effects of the switch streaming services generally enable — I’ve even gotten to the point where I think the whole system might implode. The reason competition on the music side of streaming is so much more virulent than on the moving image side (Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and Hulu for the most part play nice) is because, really, the competition is lopsided and inelegant. Competition on the music side is happening on many more levels.

Spotify wants to play the technology game. They have Discover Weekly, a weekly playlist generated by their technology to foreground music it’s sure you will love. Spotify is generally a better app experience too than Apple Music, its main competitor. Spotify offers a desktop experience Apple just can’t touch as long as Apple Music is bolted onto iTunes with duct tape and crazy glue.

Tidal wants to play the content game. From the jump, the service billed itself as the premium alternative — charging more for better quality streaming and a reliably brilliant stable of artists (Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Prince).

Apple wants to play a bit of both, with one distinct ace up their sleeve: they own and operate popular platforms on which both Spotify and Tidal are forced to play. Apple recently denied a version of the Spotify app onto the App Store for non-compliance, a move that only Apple can make in this competitive landscape. As such, all these guys seemingly want to fight entirely different battles (at least the movies and TV guys just fight on quality of content).

This messiness might only prompt artists to take more autonomy. I’ve argued before that there are better models out there for artists, if they can pull it off. And Micah Singleton of The Verge recently suggested that Frank Ocean’s recent Blonde going onto Apple Music as an independent exclusive bodes poorly for exclusivity-based models generally “especially when the artists look at the numbers and realize an exclusive blockade isn’t in their best interest.”

If the numbers Troy Carter gave Billboard were accurate, Spotify is still winning — 37 million subscribers to Apple’s 15 million. But this Bloomberg report shows they’re worried. Their fear is not unfounded: a lot of their existence can be chalked up to surviving on platforms Apple owns and operates. They’re vulnerable. And yet, suppressing wildly popular artists because of their exclusive associations with competitor streaming services is frankly still a dumb move.

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