Monday, November 14, 2016

Exclusive Album Releases raise new concerns in Music Industry

Written by Connor Dziawura, Editor-in-Chief, Puma Press — The music industry has seen a dramatic shift with the advent of the Internet. After decades of fans consuming music through traditional formats like vinyl, CD and cassette, the introduction of the World Wide Web brought the ability to deliver music to listeners in an instant through streaming services.

While some artists and labels may see this as an opportunity, many fans feel it has done more harm than good. As the music industry has shifted to subscription-based consumption, artists and record labels have begun partnering with streaming services to offer their releases exclusively through one service; however, some fans and industry insiders feel that this practice harms listeners and their ability to access the music.

A Push for Exclusives

While Spotify would go on to push streaming into the mainstream and become one of the most popular streaming services in the 2010s, it had a slow rise to prominence. It was initially launched on Oct. 7, 2008, but the US release came later, with Spotify expanding service on July 14, 2011. Offering free and subscription-based packages, Spotify offered listeners access to an extensive database of music. However, the rise of Spotify led to an increase in competitive services such as Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play, YouTube Red and SoundCloud Pro.

While a common complaint about streaming is that the artist is receiving very little money in return, it is actually a more complex issue. Spotify for Artists, a division of Spotify that explains their service, shows it pays rights holders 70 percent of all revenue. While Spotify does not pay at a fixed per play rate, a simplification of their process reveals that artists receive an average of $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream. And with Apple Music reportedly paying a worldwide average of $0.005643 per play, artists and labels may view exclusives as a better option.

Because these services offer much of the same content and functionality, the industry has turned to exclusives as a means of promoting certain services over another. These exclusive albums are generally available on one service for a limited amount of time, with many having lasted one to two weeks.

“In terms of initial money, the exclusives are generally better for labels and, to a certain extent, the artists under those labels,” said Dr. Brett Reed, director of Paradise Valley Community College’s commercial music program.

“They’re getting a chunk of cash upfront. So, for them, short term, that’s much better. They get a chunk of cash, and then, regardless of what happens in terms of the plays, they’ve got some income.”

Artists like Frank Ocean, The Avalanches, Lil Yachty, Drake and Chance the Rapper have already released exclusive albums through Apple Music this year, while the JAY Z-owned Tidal procured exclusive releases from Kanye West, Rihanna and Desiigner.

In 2015, before exclusive albums became a common practice from Apple Music and the like, Tidal began differentiating themselves from the competition by pushing exclusive content from Rihanna, The White Stripes, Daft Punk, et al. One of the first exclusive albums came on July 4, 2015, when Lil Wayne released “Free Weezy Album” exclusively on Tidal.

Displacing An Audience

With the advent of the Internet, torrenting had become commonplace, with listeners favoring illegal downloads over paying for music. However, the rise in streaming has been hailed by some as a potential saving grace for the music industry. A 2015 study by the European Commission showed a decrease in piracy as a result of the easy access to streaming services. But with the recent influx of albums exclusive to one service, reports once again show high piracy rates for albums released as exclusives.

Following Tidal’s exclusive release of Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, the album amassed over 500,000 illegal downloads by Tuesday, Feb. 16, according to TorrentFreak. Another high piracy count came just six months later when Frank Ocean released his sophomore album, “Blonde,” exclusively through iTunes and Apple Music. According to Music Business Worldwide, citing data provided by “content protection, market tracking and audience connection solutions” specialist MUSO, “Blonde” had been illegally downloaded over 750,000 times in less than a week following its Aug. 20 release. While the album was released to other services at later times, MUSO shows over 2.3 million illegal downloads as of Oct. 6.

These increases in piracy are perceived to stem from the lack of availability of certain albums across streaming platforms.

“Like many things that have happened in the change to digital content, there’s this initial period where some users are alienated from the artists that they like because they can’t get them on their particular (service),” said Reed. He added, “I don’t run across a lot of people that subscribe to multiple services, so you end up just getting locked out of content for some period of time.”

While the number of exclusive albums has risen throughout 2015 and 2016, some of the first exclusive releases came before the rise in streaming. In 2012, Ocean released his debut album, “channel ORANGE,” on iTunes a week ahead of its scheduled physical release date, provoking Target to refuse to carry physical copies of the album. Beyoncé also released her self-titled 2013 album as a surprise through iTunes with no prior promotion. In response, Target and Amazon refused to stock physical copies at a later date, a practice which potentially foreshadowed the controversy that would come from locking listeners out of access to an album.

“It’s really about trying to drive each of those services–how to make them different from the others,” explained Reed of the current trend. “And I don’t think as an end user it’s particularly good.”

Now, Spotify is the latest to take a stand against the exclusives its competitors are promoting. In an interview with Billboard, Troy Carter, the new global head of creator services for Spotify, said, “exclusives are bad for artists, bad for consumers and bad for the whole industry.”

A Digital Future

In the midst of all the successes, struggles and controversies surrounding this business model, it will be a difficult task to gauge the path of the exclusive in the future. Despite an initial displacement of listeners, the exclusivity deals generally last for a set time period, with most of Apple Music’s deals having lasted one to two weeks from their initial release.

However, following Apple Music’s exclusive release of Ocean’s “Blonde,” Universal Music Group abandoned all support of streaming exclusives, Billboard reports. This likely stems from the fact that Ocean was initially signed to Def Jam, a subsidiary of UMG. By releasing a “visual album” entitled “Endless,” which contains non-album tracks, he was allowed to fulfill his contract and reap the full benefits of “Blonde” under his own label, Forbes reveals.

In addition to the already established streaming services, Amazon made its own foray into the streaming market with Amazon Music Unlimited on Oct. 12, 2016, CNN reports.

While companies across the world are continuing to sign on to the streaming train, Spotify and UMG’s stand against exclusives poses questions about the future of this business model. But regardless of the means for distribution, Reed feels the active role music plays in society has not changed.

“It certainly hasn’t changed how much we love music, people wanting access to it, how much time we spend listening to music,” said Reed. “None of that has effectively changed.”