Back in early 2009 when I was at Forrester Research I wrote a report proposing that the Music Industry should adopt release windows. It seemed to many something of an anachronistic concept, written just at the time with the Movie Industry – that bastion of release windows – was deeply engaged in a dialogue about compressing windows. But now, with the growing debate over whether streaming services are cannibalizing CD and download sales, the idea is beginning to look highly relevant. Because the simple fact is that a structured release window strategy for the music industry would do away with much of the access versus ownership debate once and for all.
Music products and services need segmenting into distinct windows
The basic structure of my release window argument was that music products and services should be segmented into tiers of priority and then each of those tiers be allocated a release window. The tiering would work something like this:
- Window 1, week 1: CDs, downloads and premium subscriptions
- Window 2, week 3: Radio (excluding web-only radio)
- Window 3, week 4: Subsidized subscriptions and web radio
- Window 4, week 5: Ad supported streaming services
All of the new releases would go straight to Window 1 and be available there, and there alone, for a 2 week period, with terrestrial and digital radio coming after that. This is a contentious point as radio is of course intended to act as a discovery and marketing tool but the time has come for the top tier of the music product pyramid to be held up as exactly that. After all, why should passive music fans who don’t pay for music get to hear new songs as soon as those who pay 9.99 a month or buy downloads or CDs? Users of free ad supported streaming services would have to wait a full 4 weeks before they get to hear the latest new music.
The problem with differentiating a free stream from a paid download is that there simply isn’t that much difference. Release windows however, put clear blue water between the download and the free stream.
Coldplay is already pioneering the window strategy
Coldplay’s decision to keep ‘Mylo Xyloto’ off Spotify until album sales have peaked is effectively artist level windowing in practice. The alternative strategy of just putting the odd track on there – such as Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep – treats streaming as a radio-like promo vehicle but if all artists did that then its promotional value would soon disappear as people would stop using streaming services. A structured, industry level windowing strategy however would bring consistency and effective results.
Of course the windowing approach isn’t free of problems. For example pushing radio to the second window will require a new approach to marketing music and a revision of assumptions of sales cycles. However both of those things are already in effect happening, forced along by the current streaming status-quo, and of course unlicensed free music. Windowing is an opportunity for record labels to take control of the situation and simultaneously protect music sales and define a long term, complementary role for streaming services. The alternative is a prolonged and unproductive debate about cannibalization that will cause deep fault lines across the music industry and may ultimately kill off streaming all together.