Essays on Technology and Culture

The Coming Fractured Landscape of Streaming Music

Back in the late 90s, or early 2000s, there was a commercial for some telecom company where a man checks in to a remote desert motel. He asks the clerk about the place’s amenities, to which the clerk lackadaisically relays a distinct lack thereof—save one. They apparently have every movie, In every language, ever made, and on-demand. “How is this possible?” asks the man, before we smash cut to a logo and a pitch that some day, in the future, this would be possible.

The future came, and suddenly every movie was at our fingertips. And then, just as suddenly, every movie was locked behind one of a dozen streaming video services. For $9.99, you can sign up of Netflix, and watch what they have. For another $9.99, you can sign up for Hulu, and watch that. There’s more: Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now, Crackle, Vudu… the list goes on. Some of these services libraries overlap, but there are endless exclusives and no end of complaining from cord-cutters about content going away from the one they’ve paid for.

And these same voices often love their music streaming service, just like they loved Netflix back in the day. Unfortunately for them, it’s inevitable that the same forces that fractured the landscape of streaming video are going to do the same for streaming music. When it does, all you streaming partisans will not be very happy.

The seeds have already been sown. There are artists who are holding out on different streaming services. Prince, for example, only allows his music to be streamed on Tidal. The music video for “Hotline Bling” was originally an Apple Music exclusive. Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify due to royalty issues. For the most part, though, music streaming licenses are handled on the label level, much like video content is handled on the studio level. What happens when a label decides they don’t like the deal, Spotify is giving them?

Imagine Universal Music Group pulling their entire catalog from Spotify. Here is a list of UMG artists, though I don’t know if that includes artists in their subsidiary labels. I bet there is at least one artist on that list that you’re a fan of. If you want to listen to them, you will have two choices: either buy the record, or pay for a second streaming service. And that’s only if the record is available to even be bought.

The next step is going to be streaming music services becoming music labels of their own. We already have digital exclusives, sometimes even locked to one digital music store, but these are often temporary. But, say Taylor Swift signs a deal with Apple to release her next album exclusively on Apple Music. No physical release. Not even a download. If you want to hear the new T-Swift record, you have to pay $9.99 a month for Apple Music. What are her fans going to think? If they’re signed up to Apple Music already, they’ll be okay with it. If they’re on Tidal… well, how would you feel?