Streaming Music Exclusives: Is This Just The Beginning?

1Yesterday, Cortney Harding declared that streaming music exclusives were over. But former Apple Music staffer, Sean Glass wonders if their just getting started, and takes a hard look at streaming in general. 

 

Guest Post by Sean Glass on Medium

After hearing about Universal allegedly banning exclusives, I felt this crucial narrative had been mismanaged. I’m not writing on behalf of Apple. I left Apple Music in June, and these words and opinions are my own.

Part 1 was written on August 23 in a stream-of-consciousness style for my personal newsletter, not expecting such a response. Part 2 is a follow-up essay, inspired by the Medium responses to the first piece. This is far from completing this gigantic conversation, but I tried to tackle the largest points.


Frank Ocean’s album is out, what do you think? Who got that zine? Mine is sitting unopened, framed on my wall right now. In addition to what we already knew about it, this album will be historic for an unexpected reason. It will be, allegedly, Universal’s final exclusive.

Having been deeply involved in all of this, I have lots of feelings. I have been at Apple Music since before launch, but left recently, so while I still can’t talk about details, I can share my opinions on these issues that are already public knowledge. I have no loyalties here, I’m no longer employed, I have no horse in this race. But I fully support Apple as the leader and only relevant party.

Here’s a summary of how I feel:

1. I’m not in favor of exclusives, I’m in favor of the work and value Apple is putting into music
2. Exclusives are easily and cheaply accessible, often free
3. Fans complaining about exclusives refuse to spend $10 per month on music. Otherwise, it’s the major labels complaining.
4. Exclusives provide incredible value for artists and fans
5. Exclusives provide little value to major labels
6. Exclusives at Apple come through one guy working directly with artists, putting invaluable creative energy into every release
7. Apple is the only company doing this, so this is not a response to exclusives, this is a response to Apple.
8. Exclusives are not the problem, major labels owning the streaming services and all of their playlists is. Indies are powerless.
9. When majors own everything, we all lose

Conceptually, limiting the spread of music is bad. No brainer. Would it be really cool if Apple did all this awesome stuff without requiring exclusives? Sure, I also want Frank Ocean to release two albums in two days to make up for the wait (oh, right, that happened). But that’s not realistic. And the end result is more value to the artist and consumer, which I consider a good thing.

Contrary to what you read, there’s no scary Apple board room conspiracy where corporate is plotting to take over creativity via artist exclusives. There’s one guy who is behind ALL of these campaigns — and he is light years ahead of everyone else. He works intimately with each artist as a creative peer, and develops an amazing plan. This is no simple land grab. He works closer with the artists than some labels do.

He’s building a club, or a “community” as we like to say. Everyone is invited, at a very low cost. If you’re in, you are not complaining about exclusives. Those complaining about exclusives are not participating, which means refusing to pay $10 a month for music, so why are we letting them get airtime?

Why are we backing up Spotify here in contrast? They have never invested in artist’s content, and are now renegotiating their rates to pay artists less than they already were. Apple is paying higher royalties, and investing tens of millions in content. I hate to even mention Tidal, but the simple comparison here is that Tidal is a reductive strategy, withholding the music from anyone who does not subscribe to something unrelated to the consumption of the music, and providing zero added value. Apple always pairs exclusives with some exciting added content. It’s like startup economics, you’re either leveraging equity or cash. Tidal is giving artists equity, but that does not get passed to the fan. Apple is giving artists cash, which gets translated to content, and delivered back to the fan.

Go back and examine every single Apple Music exclusive that’s come out. Each has been paired with an amazing campaign, full of content and experiences that just simply would not have happened without Apple’s involvement. Frank Ocean’s rollout was historic — two albums, a film, a livestream, a pop-up, a zine, etc. Drake, you got sooooo much… “Hotline Bling” video, OVO Sound Radio, etc. The 1975 had a fully produced concert film on a rooftop in DTLA, and tons of access to the artist in Beats1 interviews. Dre and Straight Outta Compton was a wild experience last summer, constant content and excitement. There was a feature length Taylor Swift documentary. Khaled. What a time to be alive. #WATTBA There are many smaller, developing artists working on these as well, notably the Anderson .Paak documentary, without any exclusives even. There were TONS of music videos that just would not have existed without Apple’s involvement.

I believe the success here is that Apple is putting itself alongside the most exciting stories in the industry. When you hear about Frank Ocean, you hear about Apple. Drake… Apple. Dre… Apple. Not only is it associated, but Apple made it all happen. We might not have had a Tom Sachs’ 140-hour staircase movie, or Endless, without Apple Music. I do not believe anyone is subscribing to Apple Music because Apple held them hostage by withholding music they couldn’t get anywhere else. I believe they subscribe because they want to be around this platform and community that is constantly churning out amazing art. That cannot be said of the reductive Tidal, who simply keeps everyone away from music they want, and do not add to the experience.

These aren’t situations where Apple was just paying for things. There’s intimate creative involvement from the Apple side, down to actually directing videos. Labels are rarely involved.

I think that’s where we’re missing what’s really going on. When Frank Ocean puts out a 17 song mood piece without any singles, it will dominate for a few weeks on release (because 17 tracks count more on streaming than a typical 12 track album), and then go away from the charts, and the label loses. Frank Ocean and his management will make lots of money on any number of things he chooses to do. He’ll also earn more on the payment for exclusivity than he’d likely make on royalties overall.

Look at Kanye as the example. He didn’t care how many streams he got from TLOP, because he’s doing millions in merch and touring, which the label only partially participates in. The album is a brand building exercise for most of these artists now. I don’t think Beyonce makes her money on Lemonade the LP, but in everything else surrounding it. These exclusives also effect less than 1% of the music out there.

There’s a much, much worse problem out there, and it’s affecting 100% of the music out there. Major labels own the playlists. Indies simply do not have access like majors do. Check what happened with Ministry of Sound. One of the strongest indies ever sold to Sony because MoS could not monetize playlists the way they do compilations, and they could not break artists outside of the U.K. Indie artists charting on Spotify are all anomalies. Sure, it happens, but it happens pretty randomly when a song gets hot. It’s not like the indie label has the promotional power to manufacture a campaign to get that artist playlisted and charting.

At the same time, every single release on certain major labels charts on Spotify because it’s placed directly into the playlists that first give the boost on the debut, and then become feeder for all of the other playlists. It’s not just about the one big playlist, it’s about the 5000 UGC (user generated content) playlists that come afterwards. Spotify says 60–90% of total plays come from those UGC playlists. Spotify works such that the major label dominated playlists are the gatekeepers to the UGC playlists. Sure there are exceptions, there are playlisters that actually just chart what they feel like, but the majority chart stuff from Universal, Sony and Warner. Indies are powerless. They’re left to leverage better A&R to hope they snag something great before the majors do.

There are solutions to all of this, but nobody in power wants them. For now, I recommend enjoying the best content out there, which happens to come from Apple exclusives, educating yourselves on exactly how these services work, and supporting artists you love. The internet is a democratic tool, and we’re stripping ourselves of our rights by asking people to do everything for us. Demand more from your services, demand variety. And next time you see a really, really bad pop star’s new single written by 16 people on the top of New Music Friday, don’t add it to your personal playlist.

do not want music to be exclusive to any platform. At Apple Music though, exclusives (or windows) are not about excluding. They are about surrounding the release with exciting content and conversation, creating cultural moments that Apple elevates—and in return becomes forever associated with. At Tidal, they are solely about withholding. I believe Apple can remove the “Exclusive” tag from its strategy, let everyone have it at once, change it to “Brought to you by,” and be even more effective. Rather than being perceived as a land grab, make it a race to who can build the most excitement around their platform. I hope this happens.

$10/month is not too much, $50 might be. Think back to CDs. Music should not be free, IP has value. Music cannot just be subsidized by brands that sell soda and just using music as an ad to sell concert tickets is NOT OK either. I believe the underdeveloped Apple Music Connect is a better answer to Freemium than ads. Effectively, we should shift from sampling to connection. Fish where the consumer fishes and build feedback loops.

Playlists must democratize, or the indies die, and diversity goes away, taking creativity with it. There are three indies on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits, and I lost count on Apple’s Hot Tracks, plus it’s all new, not just Top 40 Radio. I do not trust the studies that tell us playlists feature a healthy amount of indies. Indies are dying for lack of representation. Apple needs to do better as well, but at least Hot Tracks is there and it’s the first thing users see.

I wrote about pre-Troy Carter Spotify. A Spotify that preaches music be free. A Spotify that, to my knowledge, exclusively markets artists by playlisting them (save for Metallica doc). A Spotify that features three indie artists on Today’s Top Hits (out of 50). I believe platforms need to focus on more than playlist placement to develop artists. Troy is the best person I could imagine for this job. I am confident he, along with Tom Calderone, will do great things, but my article was written before we’ve seen any of that impact.

Beyond playlists, Kiiara, Gallant, A.Chal (many more) premiered (non-exclusive) on Beats1, developed through Apple Music’s ecosystem, and have all gone on to big things. Kiiara’s “Gold” has been in heavy rotation at Beats1 for over a year, along with three other singles. “Gold” featured in Hot Tracks June 2015, when she was anonymous and unsigned. Kiiara is now signed to Atlantic Records, but I’ll never forget the day when Zane flipped over “Gold” and I tracked down the manager to be the only one he would give the .wav file to. A year later, “Gold,” signed to Atlantic, sits on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlist.

Apple did not break Chance the Rapper, Apple was just a deserving and a little lucky beneficiary to be his partner. Chance has an incredible team around him and does not need Apple or anyone else. This is not a template, he is unique.

Read the Rolling Stone profile on Carl Chery and Bryson Tiller. Everyone should look at the work that Carl, Neil Dominique and Tunji Balogun did together to develop Bryson Tiller.

Discover Weekly is a great first step, exposing new artists to listeners constantly, but we can do much better. Scott Vener will find something before anyone else, put it on OTHERtone on Beats1. Blogs pick it up. UGC playlists pick it up. People start listening. It’s tested against algorithms. It passes and gets thrown into the DW mix. Francis and the Lights featuring Bon Iver “Friends” is on my DW this week. Way too late, I listened to that immediately on release day on repeat. I prefer to just have the human Scott Vener tell me what’s good.

Discover Weekly (30 songs), Fresh New Finds (30), New Music Friday (66), Viral 50 (50+50) and Release Radar (26). 252 songs. Who has time to consume 252 new songs every week? Are there 252 new songs every week worth listening to? That’s excluding, by the way, any real dance music, which has been shut out of streaming services — no EDM playlists do not count.

Give me the 10 best songs of the week, genre agnostic. I’d rather spend more time with the unforgettable, than a little bit of time with so much that I can’t even remember if it’s memorable (oh snap good quote!). Make that list the holy grail with major bragging rights and exposure.

I don’t know what “Happy” or “Chill” means as a playlist, but I read Hypebeast’s newsletter every day, and their Best Of Week playlist is a must listen for me. Flume’s and Odesza’s. “Never Be Like You” and “Say My Name” are great songs — classics. But they do not reflect every single mood or activity in my arsenal as a human being. That’s what happens when you let the computers do all the work.

Let’s build a better streaming world together!

Love, sg