What comes after subscriptions? — Part 2

JUNE 25TH, 2016 — POST 173


With news yesterday that BitTorrent is releasing a purchase-streaming service called BitTorrent Now — distinct in model from subscription-streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal — I wondered whether this model could disrupt the market, especially for new artists. Thinking through what will be Louis C.K.’s app model once it launches later this year, purchase-streaming might be more significant than what The Verge’s reporting of BitTorrent Now might have suggested.

C.K. has been selling his comedy specials through his website that, whilst they can be streamed, are essentially a download of an MP4 file: one the consumer is able to do with what they want. The biggest driver of purchases to C.K.’s site this year has been his stealth-produced “television” series Horace and Pete. When his app goes live, presumably on every platform that matters, these purchases I have made, downloaded, and wrangled into a media server for viewing will now be viewable on any device (maybe through Chromecast or AirPlay for Apple TV). C.K. has also spoken recently about the eventual sale of Horace and Pete to one of the streaming services, be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu (the former being most likely). With the release of his app, those who purchased and those who subscribe to whatever service it ends up on will have an ostensibly identical experience. They’ll open up their phones, open an app, and beam it to their TV. Behind the scenes, though, these are very different propositions.

Whichever streaming service decides to take Horace and Pete will be up for a significant upfront for the streaming licence of the show, one which C.K. will surely manoeuvre around to maintain his own app autonomy (similar to the overall deal negotiated with FX that allowed Horace and Pete to exist at all). This license will need to be renewed periodically. However, during the period between renewals, the earning potential of the “asset” (as C.K. has been calling it) would typically be pegged to physical sales of Bluray and DVD. The overheads involved with the production and delivery of physical goods drive the price up, probably to around $30-$40 for a season. But right now, C.K. is selling the entire season for $31, a figure that has been slightly lowered in response to customer feedback but which now seems fair. And all C.K. is delivering is a bunch of files, the overheads of server maintenance unarguably lower than that for physical production.

Subscription-streaming could never make sense for any one individual — even one as busy as C.K. who has recently stepped into executive roles on shows like Baskets. And the same goes for most of the artists on BitTorrent Now or Bandcamp. For those without publisher support, or who don’t want to bother hustling for publisher support, the subscription-streaming world might never be able to get their music. And even if they do, the amount of middle-men chaff between an artist and a listener makes the trickle-down price-per-stream infinitesimal. Remember those guys who put onto Spotify short clips of silence and urged their fans to stream them on repeat whilst they slept to rack up their play count and get paid?. For any artists not named Beyoncé or Kanye West (or even notable SoundCloud alum Chance the Rapper) there just isn’t a world where their music would be worth their time sitting on Spotify’s or Apple Music’s servers.

Once I start to entertain the possibility of a purchase-streaming world, I start to wonder what exactly subscription-streaming is good for? Big artists and tentpole releases like Lemonade or Views. “Legacy” artists — those who are still making records but began before this whole thing took off like Radiohead or any Jack White incarnation, able to consolidate a sizeable fanbase than can dependably drive up a play count. But perhaps the biggest value of subscription-streaming is what can generally be called “the archive” — all the old stuff, basically. I’m not that interested in seeking out a compilation of The Coasters to hear Poison Ivy or do my research of what remastered version of Led Zeppelin’s IV is worth buying when these and a whole bunch more are there for a monthly fee. The same goes for movies and TV. Liar Liar is incredible, but getting that and so much more for half the price of a Bluray per month in the form of a Netflix subscription makes too much sense to pass up. The undeniable value is what has made these subscription-streaming services so wildly popular.

For new artists — or even established yet autonomy-craving artists like Louis C.K. — the economics of purchase-streaming just make a lot more sense. As they do for the consumer. Sure, it might be nice from my perspective if all these vaporwave artists on Bandcamp could just be folded into my Apple Music subscription, but paying $5 to get a record that can be listened to as easily as if it were in Apple Music is a very easily pill to swallow. Furthermore, the capacity for purchase-streaming to be tacked on to physical purchases — like vinyl or cassette — rewards an artist willing to produce a physical release. In providing such a seamless backend by which a record can be streamed digitally for the consumer, the physical purchase becomes so attractive that limited run releases (in most cases <500) from the most obscure of artists are able to consistently sell out. The UltraViolet logo that has adorned DVD and Bluray boxes for years has been a woefully implemented attempt to bring a similar functionality to physical purchases. Disney Movies Anywhere is another that, whilst reportedly good, just doesn’t see enough releases flow through it to make it feel like anything more than an appendix. As far as purchase-streaming goes, Bandcamp is an underdog champion.

With subscription-streaming just not worth it for new artists, the growth in purchase-streaming, whether in BitTorrent Now or Bandcamp, could legitimise the underground in the way that sites like MySpace did a decade ago for bands like Arctic Monkeys. In selling direct to consumers, artists enjoy far greater earning potential on their assets than if they were to float through a subscription-streaming service. Additionally, the capacity these platforms have to drive hunger for physical releases can limit the financial risk of pressing vinyl or cutting tape — as long as you keep it short run, you have a pretty good shot of selling out. The legitimacy the underground could see once supported by more purchase-subscription services could relegate the subscription-streaming model to archive maintainers: we’ll all still have a few subscriptions coming out of our accounts, but it’ll be for Groundhog Day and Let It Be. As for big artists, Louis C.K. might well be a pioneer.

Queen Bee is available in the iOS App Store in 2022, allowing all purchases of Beyoncé records to be streamed.

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