This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Media and Music Analyst Zach Fuller.
For a brief moment last year, windowing seemed like the future of music streaming. Already common practice in the film-industry, the strategy was being touted as a way of utilising artist fan engagement to drive registrations (both freemium and paid) to streaming services, thus engendering the payment behaviours that would ultimately grow the industry. Yet, as MIDiA addressed last year, Frank Ocean’s bait-and-switch manoeuvre with Universal in August 2016 sent shockwaves through an industry still acclimatising to streaming economics. Arriving on the coat-tails of a windowing gold-rush that had seen releases by Beyonce, Kanye West and Chance the Rapper all utilising the strategy, Ocean’s move effectively put the brakes on the practice, leaving Universal CEO Lucian Grainge allegedly so infuriated that he ordered a company-wide halt to any further windowing projects.
Fast forward to 2017 and Jay-Z’s 4:44 has brought windowing back to the fore. Whilst numerous personal revelations (as well as receiving Jay-Z’s best critical response since 2003’s The Black Album) have meant blanket press coverage across social and traditional media, it is also notable that 4:44 is the first major windowing project to arrive this year. This is despite 2017 presenting two substantial windowing opportunities with Ed Sheeran’s new album and Harry Styles’ self-titled debut – however neither were windowed on any service. Jay-Z however, is in a very different position to most artists. Aside from owning his own streaming service, Jay-Z’s control over his artistic output extends back to the very beginning of his career. He co-founded his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records (distributed through Universal), to release his debut back in 1996, and as was reported last year, he is now in full control of his own master rights. Such self-determination over one’s career at the scale of his audience is rare, thus enabling 4:44’s window release while the rest of the industry retreats from such practices.
Audience reticence can also be attributed to the unlikelihood this is a move to build TIDAL’s user base. Kanye West claimed his 2016 release ‘The Life of Pablo’, ‘My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.’ This position lasted around a week, with Kanye now allegedly having left TIDAL over unpaid royalties. Similarly, Beyonce’s TIDAL exclusive lasted just 24-hours. It is therefore fair to assume that music fans have become naturally suspicious about the nature of windowing and how long they will have access to exclusive content should they subscribe to a particular service. This accounts for the trend of free-trial hopping between streaming services as well as the fact that Jay-Z’s album has already been subject to high levels of piracy.
Streaming services themselves also continue to exhibit agnostic positions on windowing. Apple Music’s Jimmy Iovine earlier this year seemed to infer the company would move away from such practices, stating ‘We’ll still do some stuff with the occasional artist. The labels don’t seem to like it and ultimately it’s their content.’ Spotify on the other hand, having previously stated they were against windowing, have in recent months suggested they may transition towards windowing certain releases on their premium tier. For these reasons, 4:44’s window should be considered less about swelling the subscriber base, as was the intention of windowing efforts last year, but rather reaching his most engaged audience first. Jay-Z’s fanbase are likely to be already on the platform when taking into account the immediate rush of subscribers that followed its release last year. Interestingly MIDiA Research’s consumer survey data shows that Tidal subscribers over-indexing as older and more prominently male than on other competing streaming music services. Whilst TIDAL’s problems are therefore unlikely to subside with this release, 4:44 could at the very least resume the dialogue on how windowing will be employed going forward in growing streaming’s paid users.