"Windowing" music has proven to devalue it, but accepting that the music industry is a listener's market and that the product is the artist not the art is the first step towards revitalizing the industry as a whole.
Guest post by Lucy Blair of Hybrid Language
If the last few weeks in the music industry have proved anything, it’s that the content exclusive is as deeply embedded as ever. Kanye West dropped his new album exclusively on TIDAL, and promptly declared that the album would never be available on other streaming or download platforms; having not only premiered Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ video, but also financed it, it emerged that Apple is also moving into creating exclusive video content with Dr. Dre; and OK Go chose to premiere their new music video on Facebook, which was pretty big news from a band who became famous thanks to YouTube. Meanwhile, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton suggested that in future, we will see music releases being windowed like movies, with new music being made available exclusively on paid subscription services first, and only on free services later.
The various forms of windowing and premiering music – whether premium-only first and free later, premiering new content exclusively via one platform only before rolling out to others, or holding back from streaming services altogether in order to drive sales – are now firmly established as common practice. In addition, there seems to be a growing school of thought amongst certain artists, labels, and entertainment execs like Lynton that it represents the future of the music industry.
LIMITED AVAILABILITY DEVALUES MUSIC
However, change is coming. Let’s take another look at the exclusives I mentioned earlier. Even the world’s self-proclaimed “greatest artist of all time” – hey, Kanye – couldn’t succeed in dictating to fans how and where they should listen to his album. As TorrentFreak reported last week, the combination of the huge level of demand for ‘The Life Of Pablo’ and its severely limited availability drove a huge surge in piracy, with over half a million pirated copies downloaded within the first 24 hours of release. It’s since been reported that West is allegedly considering suing The Pirate Bay over the fiasco; but as Forbes pointed out in the same article, the best way to deal with pirate sites is simply to stop giving fans a reason to go there.
As for OK Go, well, the video has certainly had plenty of attention – at the time of writing, over 48m views, 480k likes, 600k shares and over 30k comments. However, as the band’s lead singer, Damian Kulash, said in this interview, vanity metrics don’t really mean anything. It’s ironic that Kulash goes on to say that instead of focusing on the number of video views, the band just wanted to get the videos in front of as many eyeballs as possible – firstly, isn’t that essentially the same thing? And secondly, they then chose to upload the video exclusively to Facebook. Lots of impressive stats? Yes. A great experience for fans? Or one that might have helped new fans or casual listeners to move down the marketing funnel in some way? Not so much.
The tide has turned, and tipped the balance of power in favour of the audience. When consumers can access pretty much any kind of content they want, anytime, anywhere, it’s not surprising that an exclusive no longer holds much allure. Premieres present a plethora of problems, and usually a pretty terrible end experience, for artists, labels and audiences alike. By releasing content on one platform only, or windowing their content, artists don’t get the distribution that they deserve, and risk alienating fans; fans can’t access the content that they want to when they want to; and labels risk alienating other DSPs.
There are other downsides, too. The popular blog Indie Shuffle announced last week that it has stopped doing track premieres because “it takes the fun out of blogging”. Plus, premieres are now so standard and cliched that they barely provide any beneficial impact, for either the artist or the site. And as the artist RAC noted: “It’s not about the music. It’s become a status check, a symbol of how big you are, an industry calling card.” Artists use premieres to convince fans that they should pay attention to their new material; blogs, websites and streaming services use them to try and convince audiences that they should use their platform. And while a few superstar artists might get away with windowing their content, or putting an exclusive on one platform only, it definitely doesn’t benefit the music industry as a whole. Limited distribution, with a total lack of focus on the listening and discovery experience for audiences, only serves to devalue music even further.
THE LISTENER IS NOW THE POWER PLAYER
Both artists and fans deserve a better experience all round. As Spotify’s Jonathan Prince stated in response to Michael Lynton’s suggestion that music be windowed like movies: “Artists want as many fans as possible to hear their music, & fans want to be able to hear whatever they’re excited about or interested in…the best practice for everybody is wide release.”
The music industry should be focusing on giving the consumer what they want, which is access and convenience for a low price. We shouldn’t be trying to force people to listen to music in a certain way, or via one platform only. Just dropping a record on a streaming service for a certain period of time won’t have enough impact to drive subscription sign-ups; instead, listeners are more likely to opt for piracy, or wait until the album is available on free platforms. It’s hard enough getting audiences to sign up for one streaming subscription; they won’t pay for multiple ones. Instead of assuming that consumers care, and that they want to pay, we need to acknowledge that ultimately, the audience is bigger, and more powerful, than any artist, or platform.
Best practice would be to give audiences what they want, where they want and when they want it; a good example of this is Universal Music’s multi-platform live stream across Spotify, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube last year for their ‘This Is Dance 2016′ launch party. While this kind of catering to audiences on individual platforms may be beyond the reach of many artists and labels, there *are* ways in which we could turn the practice of premieres into a better experience for both artists and fans. Experiences that simultaneously deepen the artist-fan relationship, and that have the potential to drive streaming subscriptions, and monetisation of music. In an ideal world, this would happen via artist-owned channels (and I’m not talking about TIDAL); and we should aim to reach multiple audiences across multiple platforms, depending on where the audience is for each artist. However, given that the music industry is essentially run via third-party tech platforms, for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on suggesting solutions that could be implemented on streaming services (although some could potentially be adapted and used via artist websites or social networks too).
ACCEPT THAT THE ARTIST IS THE PRODUCT – NOT THE MUSIC
Thanks largely to the rise of social media and mobile consumption, the artist has become the product, rather than the music. Mass audiences are arguably more interested in celebrity and personality than art. Music has become a loss-leader, while the majority of artist revenue is generated via ancillary channels such as live, touring, merchandise, partnerships and so on. However, this trend can be a positive, rather than a negative – it presents an opportunity for music services to create better experiences, products and revenue streams. On iTunes, it’s common for labels and artists to release both a standard and a deluxe version of their albums – could that be extended to streaming platforms as a way to resolve the issue of whether or not to window content on freemium services? For example, while the standard version of an album could be made available to all audiences across all streaming platforms upon release, the deluxe version could be made available on subscription tiers only.
Moving beyond the music itself, streaming services could give artists the opportunity to create much more personality-led content around their music – perhaps making pure-play services more like YouTube or SoundCloud – and up-sell that content to audiences. This idea could encompass audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes videos, interviews, early access to tour tickets, exclusive access to competitions and artist Q&A sessions, and much more. For example, exclusive access to new music from your favourite artists first – whether that’s a new track, a remix, bootleg, mixtape, demo, acoustic session or a cover.
This model doesn’t need to be limited to up-selling listeners to a £9.99 monthly subscription fee, either – in the same vein as mobile apps and games, specific pieces of content could be purchased at individual price points. In the wake of the demise of subscription service Drip, perhaps streaming services could offer fans the option to support or subscribe to their favourite artist directly; and give artists the choice of how much content they make available for free, and how much to put behind a paywall.
Streaming services could implement this more artist-led, personality-led approach via adding new channels to their content programming and curation. A majority of casual listeners discover new music via Spotify’s own playlists and radio features, and don’t visit artist pages. But what if Spotify introduced personalised channels for artists you like? Channels that don’t just contain music from those artists, but the other content described above, and the option to subscribe to a premium tier, or unlock exclusive content for a fee. This could take the form of an ‘Artists’ tab in the dashboard of the desktop app, or as part of ‘Browse’ on mobile; and could be filled with personalised artist content depending on the individual’s usage of Spotify, their favourite artists, and their content consumption preferences.
HOW STREAMING CAN CATER FOR ALL AUDIENCES
By taking this approach, streaming can cater for many different audiences, from casual listeners to superfans via everyone in between, and give them better and more ways in which to engage with artists and music. There may be a vast audience out there who have never paid for content, and who will never pay £120 pounds a year for a premium streaming subscription – but introducing new options for content consumption, and different price points, can cater for those people who might only buy an album once or twice a year. It might also help to transition more CD buyers, more impulse purchasers, and more casual listeners over to streaming.
The opportunities here lie not just in monetisation, but also in data. If those of us trying to market music could identify the likes of superfans and casual listeners, it would enable us to segment audiences properly, and create the right products, experiences and offers for each type of listener at the right time. Every listener will be at a different point in the engagement cycle and marketing funnel; and we need to learn how to tailor experiences for them all in order to move them further down that funnel.
This is a strategy which will allow artists to tell their story, and make their audiences a part of that story. One that will add context around the music on offer, and enable monetisation through that context. Video will be key to enriching this experience, and could also help to provide further opportunities for monetisation. And music videos are just the tip of the iceberg here. For example, streaming services could host live video streams of concerts or premieres that are instantly ‘shoppable’, so that fans watching can instantly access new material; buy tickets to tour dates that are announced during the live stream; purchase or pre-order merchandise for that new track or album or tour. Turning a live stream into an immediate, instantaneous, intimate experience will help to create a compelling value proposition for both artists and fans.
THE BIGGER PICTURE IS ABOUT ADDING LONG-TERM VALUE
Premieres and exclusives are a perfect example of the music industry’s fascination with the new, and its short-sighted obsession with short-term results. But in a streaming world, we must move on from measuring success in units like plays and eyeballs, and turn our attention to implementing longer-term strategies that develop customer lifetime value and repeat engagement through a genuine artist-fan relationship. It’s time to turn the exclusive from a short-term show of ego, and into an aesthetic experience that builds a future foundation for artists and audiences to truly connect.