by Kirk Douglas
The last week has been shaping up to be a heck of a week in the music industry. Over the last few days, we’ve learned a lot about streaming services, subscription numbers and the stars that attract users to each competing platform.
The numbers started rolling out on John Gruber’s the talk show podcast, (episode #146) where Apple’s Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi announced that as of June 2015 Apple Music subscriptions had hit 11 million paid subscribers. An impressive number considering how long (6 years) it took Spotify to hit the same milestone.
Not to be outdone by newcomers at Apple, anonymous sources close to Spotify (via the Financial Times) announced just days after Apple’s confirmation that Spotify subscriptions are on course to hit 30 Million within the next quarter or so. Truly impressive gains for both companies and perhaps indicative of the general public finally warming up to streaming.
All the while Jay Z’s own star-studded streaming service Tidal, is making its own headlines for similar reasons. Upon release of Kanye West’s newest [Tidal] exclusive album, The Life of Pablo, the service shot to the top downloaded app slot on Apple’s App Store charts, holding a brief stint at number 1, and falling to the number 2 spot as of this writing. Impressive nonetheless as Tidal was barely on the radar until recent releases from Beyoncé and Rihanna bolstered traffic to the service leading up to West’s exclusive.
Spotify no doubt leads the pack in subscribers with Apple Music in the nearest lead, having garnered quick growth. But the service grabbing headlines in the social sphere over the last week is undoubtedly Tidal, as Kanye West has released an album and pulled no punches making his intentions to release it there, and nowhere else, crystal clear. In the tweets below, Ye describes his feelings on offering the album for streaming or sale elsewhere.
Of course, a backlash ensued as it often does upon any bold Kanye rant, but that didn’t deter thousands of people from at least downloading the Tidal app and starting a free trial to hear his new release. The more important question is if those who’ve followed Kanye’s suggestion will continue using the service once their trial ends. Only time will answer that question.
The real enigma for me as a somewhat eclectic music lover, is wondering what these moves on Kanye’s (and Tidal’s) behalf might amount to long-term for end users. The service has arguably been the weakest of all until very, very recently. But with the help of top-tier pop and rap/hip-hop talent at the helm of the service pushing new releases it is clear they could change the tide so to speak on Tidal’s fortunes.
If Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye can’t help in long-term, they have at least propelled Tidal’s name back into the spotlight temporarily. And as many of us know, awareness and mindshare are critical when building a brand.
From the perspective of someone who has used just about every service under the sun, including Tidal’s initial trial period at launch, it’s a bit concerning in a way. The two biggest services don’t have these exclusives and that could spell trouble in the long haul if A-list artists continue to hold back their work from other platforms in favor of Tidal.
Although Apple has had two number one exclusive albums (with Drake and Future and Future’s latest release), and a highly successful Taylor Swift concert under its belt, Spotify still reigns supreme both in terms of subscription numbers and mindshare. Ask any high school or college-age kid what their streaming service of choice is and they are likely to tell you Spotify before any other name, at least in my experience.
Countless articles in the last few months have praised the service for its “Discover Weekly” playlists and its “Now” feature based on user likes and listening habits. Apple seems to be catching up quickly with its own curated playlists, Beats1 Radio and exclusives, but we must not forget the all-start lineup that makes Tidal what it is.
When Jay-Z’s Project Panther company acquired Tidal, one of the first big announcements upon reveal was that artists would have a stake in the high-quality streaming service. Those artists, ranging from Calvin Harris to Nicki Minaj, Madonna and back around to Beyoncé and Daft Punk are among the all-star roster of supporters and part-owners of the service. Follow the concert and album sales of each one and it becomes immediately evident that these are among the very biggest names in the music business. Not every heavy-hitter is there but there’s enough big names to start some momentum for the service if a hard-hitting lineup of releases is executed properly.
On the other end of things, the music industry in general is starting to acknowledge streaming as a low-yield, low-viability form of income for artists who are paid literal pennies per stream, thus leading artists into heavily financing their lifestyles through product endorsements and concerts and forgoing traditional avenues of income such as the album.
When you look at this data (see thoughts from Recording Academy President Neil Portnow here) and pair it with the continued desire for artists to create and earn income, it makes sense that some of the biggest names in music would follow the money to a service that promises them a bigger cut – that service is Tidal. It may be easy for music lovers to consider most artists as people with large fortunes, but who can really blame them for trying to capitalize to the fullest on their hard work and talents? Isn’t that what we all want?
I am not against artists achieving monumental success. My concern as a listener and user is ultimately on which service I might choose if exclusives become an unavoidable anchor across streaming products. If Drake releases something on Apple Music, but Jay-Z’s next album is on Tidal and what I really want is the Beatport dance music exclusive to Spotify, where do I go to get all of my listening needs met? I certainly won’t choose all 3 and I don’t think most casual listeners would either.
All of these questions, even while streaming seems to grow rapidly before our eyes, seem completely necessary for us to ask ourselves as we navigate the way we as users wish to consume things. Right now I just can’t bring myself to align with any one particular camp and I fear this could turn down the recent attraction being expressed through streaming growth if these services aren’t careful. Exclusive means the opposite of inclusive and for services trying to attract users this could be troubling.