Music streaming exclusives are turning Lemonade back into lemons

Two steps forward, one step back

lemonade

So, Beyoncé's new album Lemonade is streaming exclusively through Tidal and may appear on iTunes as a paid download later today. It might also remain Tidal-only for quite a long period of time - Beyoncé is heavily invested in the service - which is good news for service users, not so brilliant for everyone who's paying to stream their music elsewhere.

The future of music streaming is hazy - ad-supported free music distribution model does not seem sustainable - but so far it's been an effective, if not perfect, tool in curbing piracy. But Spotify couldn't reign supreme forever, and as new services pop up, securing exclusives, whether "windowed" or indefinite, is the easiest way for them to get the upper hand on the competition.

It doesn't just apply to new releases: Prince's catalogue is only available to stream through Tidal and Google Play Music, while Taylor Swift is exclusive to Apple Music.

Yet what music labels need to understand is that the Netflix/Spotify model works by the benefit of convenience. Many people will happily pay a reasonable monthly fee to access new releases at launch with minimal effort; Illegal downloading becomes less interesting.

I'd love to sit here and say that everyone should forget streaming and buy albums instead, but the horse has already bolted. We have to adapt in a way that makes sure artists still get paid, but as battle lines are drawn in this brave new world and exclusives become more common, we start moving back to a time when scouring Limewire and malware-riddled MP3 sites was more appealing.

It's inconvenient, but more convenient than subscribing to another service. Industry data suggests that Spotify et al are already charging a lot more than the average consumer spends on music each year, and so pushing us to subscribe to more than one service is going to be a big challenge. Some people might also convince themselves that piracy is okay for some music if they're already paying for one service.

Dangerous trend

For individual services the business case is easy to understand: in the face of the titans that are Spotify and Apple Music, exclusives are probably Tidal's best chance of wooing people over. But take a step back and you see the early signs of an industry shooting itself in the foot.

A good illustration of this was the Tidal-only release of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, which pushed Tidal to the top of the US App Store for a brief period of time but also led to a over half a million people downloading the album illegally in the first day, according to TorrentFreak's estimates.

"At the time of writing close to 10,000 people were sharing a copy of the most popular torrent simultaneously, something we haven't seen with a music release before," noted TorrentFreak, as Tidal celebrated its overnight popularity surge.

Multilateral releases make the most sense, and it's up to artists and labels to resist exclusive deals and ensure their music is being made available to as many people as possible. Otherwise it feels like we're just moving back in time.

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