Make Streaming Great Again

When I first heard about Spotify back in 2008, it wasn’t yet available in the States. In order to sign up, I had to use a Virtual Private Network to trick the new streaming music service into thinking my computer was located in Sweden. As a music fan (and professional) the access to almost any song I could possibly want to listen to was liberating. I’ve been a loyal subscriber ever since, but a new trend in the streaming world is troubling to me.

That trend is exclusivity and it entered “slippery slope” territory with Chance The Rapper’s new album. He’s one of the most popular rappers on the planet. He’s been on the cover of Complex and Fader. He’s played Coachella, Lollapalooza, and headlined Pitchfork Music Festival. Most recently, he stole the show on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”. He did this all without ever selling any of his music.

This somewhat-unspoken promise to fans (he once told Rolling Stone “I might not ever drop a for-sale project.”) was arguably broken last week when Coloring Book aka Chance 3 was released as an Apple Music exclusive. I was shocked to see the artist who embodied the utopian millennial ideal of free music suddenly switch gears for his biggest release to date.

“He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3
I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy
Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard
That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”
-Chance The Rapper on “Ultralight Beam”

The secret sauce behind Chance’s success story was “access”. Years of building a loyal fan base by allowing the music to sell itself — and giving fans the unbridled ability to share it with their friends— has now led to the leveraging of those fans for the benefit of Apple Music.

Granted, I do see the benefits for Chance. He’s on the cusp of A-list stardom. As a musician with a message, the goal is to reach the largest audience possible. Apple Music provides him with the access to mainstream fans his music hasn’t had yet. And I’m sure the check Apple cut wasn’t bad either.

My major concern, however, isn’t Chance himself — he’s an outstanding artist who’s going to have a net-positive impact on music — but it’s the greater problem his decision to limit access represents. The corruption of streaming music.

Streaming music services are obviously not without their problems (artists have no problem publicizing their meager Spotify royalty statements). But amongst the fight over dollars, streaming services don’t get credit for addressing something the music industry never (yes, never) has: consumer experience.

Consumer experience is an inherently tech thing to care about. Some nerds take a look at an existing industry and determine how they can use technology to better serve those consumers. They call it disruption and that was Spotify’s goal in the music industry.

In the past year, however, if you were a fan of Beyonce, Rihanna, Future, Drake, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, or Prince (which is damn near the entire population) you had to posses two separate music subscriptions — Apple Music and TIDAL— to hear their new music on the day it was released. That is hardly the promise of access Spotify had in mind when it launched back in 2008.

Last week, Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper addressed this very issue in an interview with Billboard, telling them “These days all anyone seems to be talking about is exclusives. A week-long exclusive can be a good thing, but I’d say as a general rule you’re better off offering fans the music everywhere at the same time.”

Throughout my career in music, the industry has been obsessed with “exclusivity”. Ask any publicist how many exclusive premieres they’re asked to pitch on a weekly basis. It’s the kind of low-tech, iron-fisted approach the tech industry loves to disrupt.

Unfortunately, disrupters like Spotify and Soundcloud are finding out that music industry monoliths like Jimmy Iovine (Apple) and Jay Z (TIDAL) can be just as scrappy without feeling the need to innovate. It’s not so easy, it seems, to outsmart someone when you’re arm wrestling.

With TIDAL gaining nearly 3 million new subscribers from the Kanye & Beyonce albums, there aren’t many signs that the pissing contest between Jimmy and Jay will slow up anytime soon . It’s my hope, however, that it doesn’t trickle down (no pun intended) to the newer artists who benefit from the discovery platforms provided to them by the streaming services.

I’ve discovered so much music — both new and old — on streaming services. It would be a shame to see their recommendation engines held hostage, prioritizing artists who choose to exclusively release music with one company over another.

Streaming music is still clearly learning to walk. Cooper also recently announced that WMG is the first major label to make streaming their primary revenue source. Thankfully, there are people like him who believe in streaming as a means of greater access that benefits both fans and artists.

So anyway, as a foolishly loyal Spotify subscriber, I still haven’t listened to Chance 3. But I’d like to. Anyone feel like sharing their Apple Music password?

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Brian Scully Twitter: @scullynj / Instagram: @brian_scully

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