The Art of Windowing: Why 4:44 is a Different Kind of Exclusive

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Media and Music Analyst Zach Fuller.

444.originalFor 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.

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Universal And Spotify’s Deal Is An Even Bigger Deal Than It Looks

 

Universal Music and Spotify have finally agreed on terms for the streaming service’s new licensing deal which reportedly includes better rates tied to growth targets and premium windowing. Check out Tim Ingham’s piece for detail on the deal. Although the big focus across the industry so far is, understandably, on what this means for Spotify, it is also part of a bigger story, namely that of the maturation of the streaming market and its associated business models.

What It Means For Spotify And UMG

Firstly, what it means for Spotify. As I have written previously, Spotify needs to create a strong narrative for Wall Street if it is going to IPO successfully. Within that narrative it needs to demonstrate that it is embarking on a journey of change even if the destination is some way off yet. Its relationship with the labels is central to that. Paying out more than 80% of revenue for ‘royalty distribution and other costs’ on a cash flow basis is not something potential investors exactly look upon with unbound enthusiasm. In pure commercial terms Spotify actually pays out round about the same amount (c70%) of revenues to rights holders as Netflix does, but because Netflix owns so much of its own rights it can amortize the costs of them to help generate a net profit while Spotify cannot.

The 2 ways of fixing that are 1) owning copyrights, 2) reducing rates to rights holders (which really means labels as publishers are pushing for higher rates). It is probably too early to flick the switch on the ‘Spotify as a label’ strategy as that would antagonize labels at exactly the wrong time. So reducing rates is the main lever left to pull.

However, the labels feel the rates are fair value, in fact many think the rates undervalue their content assets. So Spotify was never going to achieve a dramatic change in rates at this stage. Also, labels are wary of granting better terms to Spotify because Apple and co will immediately demand the same. Hence UMG has tied Spotify’s lower rates to growth targets, which you can rest assured will be ambitious. Why? Firstly the labels need continued big growth. The global music business grew by around 1 billion dollars last year, with streaming growing by 2 billion dollars. Thus without streaming’s growth the music business would have declined by 1 billion dollars instead of growing by that much. The labels cannot afford for streaming growth to be smaller than the amount by which legacy formats decline.

Secondly, Spotify needs better deals more than many of its competitors, so is more willing to agree to ambitious growth targets. Apple and Amazon (who both make their money elsewhere and aren’t prepping for an IPO) are less concerned about better rates and are less likely to be willing to be tied to strong growth targets. So UMG has a win win here. It gets Spotify tied into ambitious growth without a major risk of having to also give lower rates to Apple and Amazon.

What It Means For The Wider Market

With $5.8 billion in revenue in 2016, streaming has more than come of age, it is the beating heart of the recorded music business. But just as young companies have to transition from scrappy start ups to mature companies, this is the stage at which the streaming market as a whole needs to move from a cool emerging technology to a more nuanced and complex marketplace. It needs to develop the sort of sophistication that $5.8 billion market merits. Adding the ability to window new release albums is part of this process. And to be clear, the windowing does not mean that UMG’s new music is suddenly going to disappear off Spotify’s free tier. Instead UMG has the ability to choose to put selected albums behind the pay wall for 2 weeks as Daniel Ek’s press release quote makes clear:

“[This is a] new flexible release policy. Starting today, Universal artists can choose to release new albums on premium only for two weeks, offering subscribers an earlier chance to explore the complete creative work.”

While there is a risk that windowing may give piracy a little boost, those consumers that choose to Torrent rather than upgrade or simply wait 2 weeks were never realistic targets for the 9.99 tier anyway. What we may well see is a spike in uptake of free trials and the ‘$1 for 3 months’ super trials.

Getting The Right Kind Of Growth

The UMG – Spotify deal is more than just an agreement between 2 parties. It is the start of the next chapter in relationships between streaming services and labels. A deepening and strengthening of links. It is of course a unique product of its time (ie Spotify needing to get its house in order ahead of the IPO) but market defining precedents are often born out of such circumstances. Such as the time when AOL Time Warner wanted to ‘get smart with music’ following its recent merger and promptly sent off Warner Music’s CEO Roger Ames with Paul Vidich to carve out the iTunes deal with Steve Jobs.

Back then Apple was focused on trying to jump start iPod sales. Now though the labels need Spotify to start building a sustainable business. It is not enough for Spotify to simply clear the IPO hurdle, it needs to land on its feet and maintain speed. So while it’s great to see that UMG and Spotify have hit upon a framework for delivering better rates in return for better growth, Spotify must be careful to ensure that it grows sustainably and not pursue growth at any cost.

2016 was inarguably a great year for both streaming and the labels. This deal has the potential to lay the foundations for an even better 2017 and beyond.

The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

Jay-Z’s ambitions for TIDAL has triggered a lot of discussion about how streaming models can evolve.  One focus has been exclusives with a number of references to TIDAL ‘doing a Netflix’ by commissioning exclusives.  Netflix can attribute much of its growth over the last couple of years to its flagship ‘Netflix Originals’ such as ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’.  It is an appealing model but the Netflix Originals approach cannot so easily be transferred to music.

There are three main types of exclusives:

1.    Service Window: album is released exclusively to a single music service for a fixed period of time e.g. only on TIDAL for 1 month

2.    Tier Window: album is released across one type of music service tier before others e.g. only on paid subscription tiers for 3 months

3.    Service Exclusive: music service acquires exclusive rights to an album so that it will never appear anywhere else unless the service decides to let it

The first two will become increasingly common components of the streaming landscape over the next couple of years.  Daniel Ek and Spotify fought a brave rear guard action against Taylor Swift and Big Machine to ensure the Tier Window model did not carve out a beachhead with ‘1989’ but it is an inevitability.  If free tiers are to have a long term role alongside paid tiers they have to be more clearly differentiated.

TIDAL and Apple look set to become the heavyweight players in the Service Window, duking it out for the biggest releases.  TIDAL will argue it pays out more to rights holders (75% compared to 70%) while Apple will argue that it can directly drive download sales (which is where everyone still makes their real sales revenue).  Apple will have to play that card carefully though as it stands just as much chance of accelerating download cannibalization as it does driving new sales.

When Is A Label A Label?

The really interesting, and potentially most disruptive, exclusive is the Service Exclusive.  This model would start blurring the distinction between what constitutes a music service and what defines a record label.  If, for example, TIDAL was to buy out the rights of the next Beyonce album or sign a deal for the next two Calvin Harris albums TIDAL would effectively become the record label for those releases.

The irony is that this ‘ownership of the masters model’ by streaming services is emerging just as the next generation labels are distancing themselves from it.  A new breed of ‘labels’ such as Kobalt’s AWAL and Cooking Vinyl’s Essential Music are focussing on providing label services without taking ownership of the masters and in turn putting the label and artist relationship on a more equitable agency / client basis.  But there are far more impactful challenges to the Service Exclusive model for music than simply being out of step with where the label model is heading:

  • Scarcity: ‘House Of Cards’ is only available on Netflix (and some download to own stores such as iTunes). It is a scarce asset, which is not something that can be said about any piece of recorded music.  As TIDAL found with the near instantaneous Beyonce YouTube leak, music scarcity is ephemeral in the YouTube age.  As long as YouTube is allowed to hide behind its perverse interpretation of ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Safe Harbour’ there will be no music scarcity.  (Of course true scarcity is gone for good, but if that can be made to only mean P2P then the problem is manageable, as it is for TV content).
  • Consumer expectations: Consumers have learned to expect their video experiences to be fragmented across different platforms and services, to not find everything in one place.  For music consumers however the understanding is that catalogues are either near-complete or useless.  So if all music services suddenly started having high profile gaps then subscribers would be more likely to unsubscribe entirely than they would be to take up multiple subscriptions.  Ironically the net result could be a return to download sales at the expense of subscriptions.  Talk about going full circle….
  • Industry relationships: Netflix started out as a pure licensee, paying TV companies for their shows.  Now it competes with them directly when commissioning new shows.  It has become a frenemy for TV companies and is finding many of its relationships less favourable than before.  And this is in an industry that is built up the frenemy hybrid licensee-licensor model.  The music industry does not behave this way, so any service that took up the Service Exclusive model could reasonably expect itself to find itself developing tense relations with labels.  Which could manifest in those labels giving competitor services preferential treatment for their own exclusives.  Labels have long feared the disintermediation threat posed by the web.  It is unlikely to materialize any time soon but they are not exactly going to encourage retail partners to kick-start the process.
  • Appetite for risk: Buying up the rights to the latest release of an established superstar is the easy part, and we already have some precedents though neither were exactly run away successes (Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with Samsung and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ with Apple).  But being a label, at least a good one, isn’t simply about signing proven quantities, it is about taking risks on new emerging talent.  And that doesn’t simply mean having a DIY platform on a streaming service – though that can act as a great talent identification tool.  If streaming services want to start playing at the label game they need to also start nurturing and marketing talent.
  • Limited horizons: Stream is still only a small fraction of recorded music revenue.  There are few non-Nordic artists that rely on streaming for the majority of their sales income.  That will change but not for a few years yet.  So a release that only exists on streaming, let along a single streaming service, is only going to deliver on a fraction of its potential.  TIDAL and Apple especially could easily choose to loss-lead and pay over the odds for Service Exclusives to ensure artists aren’t left out of pocket.  But that only fixes part of the problem.  An artist locked into one single streaming service will see his or her brand diminish.  ‘House Of Cards’ may be one of Kevin Spacey’s most assured performances yet only a few tens of millions of people globally have ever seen it.  If it had been on network TV the audience would have been hundreds of millions.  With touring becoming the main way many artists make money the album is the marketing vehicle and if that album is locked behind the pay wall of one single music service the marketing potential is neutered.

Streaming music services will find themselves locked in total war over the coming years and while Apple’s cash reserves will likely make that warfare appear asymmetrical at times, exclusives of some kind or another will be utilised by most of the services.  Just don’t expect them to deliver them Netflix-like success because that’s not going to happen.

Streaming Report Card 2014

2014 was the year streaming broke through to mainstream consciousness, not because of the marketing prowess of Spotify but because Taylor Swift decided to withdraw her content from the Swedish streaming heavyweight and other freemium services. It was a mixed year of momentous achievement and intensifying controversy, which makes it an opportune moment for an end of term report card.

Growth – 8/10

No complaints here. Impressive growth for both paid and free streaming with a likely combined annual growth of about 50% and total subscribers getting to about 35 million. Although there are some signs of slowdown this is to be expected as much of the addressable audience for the 9.99 price point is reached. In fact the growth slowdown was less pronounced than expected in some markets. If it hadn’t been for the fact that download sales for the year will be down about 10% this would have been a 9/10.

Transparency – 2/10

Two years ago I asked the CEOs of 10 leading streaming companies what the coming years would hold. Unfortunately for 5 of them it meant looking for a new job. One thing most were in agreement on however was the need to introduce far greater transparency for artists. Two years on and the issue is every bit as problematic. For the most part the discontent has been voiced by smaller artists or those later in their careers, but not by frontline artists in their prime. Until last week that is, when Ed Sheeran told the BBC that it is ‘fact’ that labels are holding money back from artists. Some time soon, some time very soon, labels are going to have to get on top of this if they want the model to work.

Platform – 5/10

I had high hopes for Spotify’s app platform, it looked like it was heralding the dawn of the ‘music platform’ that the digital market has needed, well, forever. Unfortunately label wrangling ensured that Spotify was not able to get the deals to allow app developers to monetize their apps so the venture was effectively still born, save for the highly credible efforts of some traditional media brands, such as the BBC, Now! And Deutsche Grammophon who didn’t have to worry about making money from the apps. Luckily the streaming companies haven’t given up on the ‘streaming as a platform’ vision and a host of integrations with the likes of Bandpage and PledgeMusic have the potential to help artists transform streaming cents into digital dollars.

Pricing – 3/10

I’ve been banging the pricing drum for so long the stick has broken. Unfortunately there was pitifully little progress in 2014, with label fears of cannibalising 9.99 dominating thoughts. On the plus side there is a huge amount of negotiating activity taking place right now and that should bear fruit in 2015. Expect Apple to try to get to market with the same 7.99 that YouTube’s Music Key is currently in market with (and expect that short term promotion for YouTube to eventually become permanent). And if 7.99 is the new 9.99 then prices will have to cascade. 4.99 will be the new 3.99, 3.99 will become 2.99 and so forth. And there remains the super urgent need for PAYG pricing leveraging in app payments. I predicted pricing innovation in 2012 and 2013 and it didn’t happen. Here’s to third time lucky.

Global expansion – 6/10

Deezer had already set a great precedent for rolling out into a vast number of global territories and Spotify played an admirable game of catch up in 2013 which continued with another five new countries in 2014. Rdio’s acquisition of Indian streaming service Dhingana was another interesting move.  Meaningful revenue is yet to follow in these Rest of World markets though – the US and Europe accounted for more than four fifths of global streaming revenue in 2014.  But the foundations have been laid and that in itself is an important step worthy of credit.

Sustainability – 4/10

The ripple effects of Taylor Swift’s windowing antics will be felt throughout 2015 with countless other big artists and their managers already making it very clear to labels that they want to do the same. The sooner Spotify can agree to having the free tier treated as a distinct window the sooner the streaming space can start rebuilding.   The whole ‘changing download dollars into streaming cents’ issue continues to haunt streaming though. And with streaming services struggling to see a route to operational profitability the perennial issue of sustainability remains a festering wound. The emerging generation of artists such as Avicii and Ed Sheeran who have never known a life of platinum album sales will learn how to prosper in the streaming era. The rest will have to learn to reinvent themselves, fast, really fast.

Overall Streaming gets a 6/10 for a year that saw huge progress but also the persistence of perennial problems that must be fixed for the sector to succeed.

Why It Is Time To Make YouTube Look Less Like Spotify And More Like Pandora

2014 has been a dramatic year for the music industry and may prove to be one of its most significant. The brief history of digital music is peppered with milestones such as Napster rising its head in 1999, the launch of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, Spotify in 2008. The 2014 legacy looks set to be more nuanced but equally important: it is the year in which streaming started to truly transform the music industry. The significance though lies in how the music industry is responding. With download sales tumbling, royalty rates still being questioned, and Taylor Swift’s hugely publicised windowing, the music industry is taking a long hard look at what role streaming should play. Spotify and Soundcloud will find themselves in the cross hairs, but there is also a case for redefining YouTube’s remit too.

Don’t Throw Out Freemium With the Windowing Bathwater 

Swift’s windowing move centred around free streaming. If Spotify had been willing to treat the free tier as a separate window from its paid tier, the odds are it would have got ‘1989’. Spotify’s argument that weakening the free tier could affect their ability to convert is logical. But ultimately the purpose of the free tier is to persuade people to pay to stream, not to deliver a fantastic free experience. I first made the case for windowing back in 2009 and I remain convinced it will be crucial to long term success.

By playing an all-or-nothing negotiating game freemium services risk being left with the latter. And it would be a tragedy if freemium got thrown out with the windowing bath water. Windowing will quite simply make free tiers more palatable. Windowing can drive huge success. Look at Netflix: with 50 million subscribes gloably Netflix has the traditional broadcast industry running scared yet is far more heavily windowed than Spotify – how many new movies do you find on Netflix?

One Rule For YouTube Another For The Rest

But the core problem is that Spotify does not exist in a vacuum. While Swift windowed Spotify her videos stayed on YouTube and Vevo. Unless YouTube is treated with a similar approach to other free services then any windowing efforts will simply drive more traffic to YouTube rather than drive more sales or subscriptions. 5 years ago a YouTube stream could be seen as driving sales, now a YouTube stream drives another YouTube stream.

Among the Top 10 fastest growing YouTube channels (in terms of views), half are music. More people are streaming more music on YouTube than ever. The reason YouTube remains untouchable has much to do with the fact labels still see it as a promotional vehicle despite the fact it has become a fully fledge consumption platform. Without doubt YouTube plays the discovery role for youth that radio does for older generations. But it is also the end point for youth.

Time For A New Role For YouTube

So what is the solution? Simple. If YouTube is the radio equivalent for youth, make it look and feel more like radio, not like Spotify premium with video. Instead, make YouTube look like Pandora with video. If YouTube is all about promotion then swap out unlimited on demand mobile plays for DMCA compliant stations. Let any user search and discover a new song but once they have discovered it the next few music videos are automatically selected related videos.

I remember Beggars’ Martin Mills quoting music industry veteran Rob Dickens:

‘If you play what I want when I want I’ll accept it is promotion. If it is what you want when you want it is business.’

That is at the core of what makes a streaming service additive versus substitutive. This is why Pandora stands out as a complement to ‘sales’ revenue and why YouTube no longer can. If YouTube’s core value to the music business is still discovery then this approach is how that role can be protected without damaging the ability of subscription services to proposer.

Do Not Conflate Music Key With YouTube

Now of course, YouTube has its own subscription service too in the form of Music Key, which is great: YouTube is a hugely welcome addition to the subscription market. But this does not mean YouTube music videos should be free on demand to all. Only 3% of UK and US consumers say they would pay for Music Key (and consumer surveys typically over report on intent to purchase).   Instead, YouTube’s free on demand music videos should be only available for users that register for Music Key. This would be Music Key’s freemium base, not the entire installed base of YouTube users.

With on demand free music it is all about the conversion path: how many of those consumers that listen for free are likely to pay. With YouTube’s 1 billion users it is a tiny per cent so there is little business rationale for letting them take the Ferrari out for a test drive when they are only ever going to get the bus.

Is 9.99 too expensive for most free music users? Of course it is. Should PAYG options be added in to the mix? Yes, absolutely. But none of those will work unless the music industry takes a consistent and fair approach to freemium.

Turning YouTube into a video enabled Pandora is clearly a controversial proposal and it will have huge opposition. It may even cause some meaningful disruption in the mid term, but unless equally meaningful change is made the music industry will remain locked on course to a future in which subscription services will never be able to realise their full potential.

10 Thoughts On YouTube Music Key

Google just announced its long anticipated YouTube Music Key. You can find out all you need to know about its potential impact on the wider market in MIDiA’s report ‘Unlocking YouTube: How YouTube Will Change Music Subscriptions’. Here are 10 further thoughts:

  1. Identity crisis: We are at a crucial juncture in YouTube’s life. As I wrote last week, artists and labels have a conflicted view of YouTube. 10 million streams on YouTube is a marketing success but 10 million Spotify streams are lost sales. So following that logic does that mean 10 million Music Key free streams are better than 10 million Music Key paid streams?! Either way it will force the industry to reconsider its views on YouTube as a marketing vs a consumption channel. Streaming in order to buy was a model with clear outcomes. Streaming in order to stream is not. Music Key will act as a catalyst for the broader narrative of reassessing YouTube’s music industry role now that the end destination is increasingly streaming itself.
  2. YouTube just got a fantastic upgrade to its free tier: As part of the deal for the paid tier YouTube got new discovery features and full album streaming. Full album streams on YouTube have always been a contentious issue, now they are there officially. This small but crucial product feature transforms YouTube free from a discovery service to a fully-fledged destination.
  3. Two services for the price of one: YouTube Music Key and Google Play Music All Access are for now bundled together but ultimately there is little sense in keeping them both. Just as Ian Rogers is busy trying to integrate iTunes Radio and Beats into a single value proposition, so some one will have to do the same at Google. Let’s just hope the result isn’t a service called Google’s YouTube Play Music Key All Access…
  4. Is 7.99 the new 9.99?: Last month I suggested that the main subscription price point of 9.99 should come down to 7.99. Music Key will be priced at 7.99 for an indeterminate period to its first wave of users. Expect Google to use this as a test case for 7.99 as the permanent price point.   And if it works, expect other services to get the same deal.
  5. Spotify competition: 1 year from now Spotify will still be the leading subscription service but it will be facing fierce competition from YouTube and from Apple. It will also most likely have lost a bunch of subscribers to both. Just as Apple stole Amazon’s music buyers and then Spotify stole them from Apple, expect YouTube and Apple to steal (and steal back) a number of them. Also, neither Apple nor Spotify have video, yet. So with the same catalogue and similar pricing they need something else to differentiate. For now Music Key has the differentiation upper hand.
  6. Vevo competition: Music Key’s core addressable market is super engaged YouTube and Vevo music fans. 15% of Vevo music consumers accounts for in the region of 67% of its music ad revenue. If Music Key converts even half of those users to Music Key, it will leave a gaping hole in Vevo’s ad revenue
  7. Windowing: Taylor Swift has taken the windowing debate to a new level, adding further weight to the argument that free tiers should be treated as a separate window from paid. Google made it clear at the launch of Music Key that a song is on free and paid, not one or the other. While a growing number of artists would willingly sacrifice being on both tiers of Spotify how many would risk not being on YouTube?
  8. Rippers: 12% of consumers and 25% of under 25’s use YouTube rippers like iMusic Tubee Free which effectively do what Music Key does (remove ads, offline caching, playlists etc.). These sorts of apps are of course readily available from the Google Play Store. If Google is serious about Music Key being success they will need to crack down hard on these apps.
  9. What does success look like?: YouTube has 1 billion monthly users and about 140 million weekly music video users. That’s a massive audience to covert from, approximately three times bigger than Spotify’s monthly user base. Given that YouTube already sucks so much revenue potential out of the subscription space (25% of all consumers say they don’t pay for subscriptions because they get all their music for free from YouTube) YouTube’s measure of success needs to be much higher than any other music service. 6 million or so subscribers in year one would be a good start.
  10. Too little innovation, for now: If YouTube can harness all of its unique assets it can create the best music subscription service on the planet. Music Key isn’t yet anywhere near that but it is only a beta product, so expect YouTube to up its innovation game and put further blue water between it and the rest.

Windowing, Shake It Off

The removal of all of Taylor Swift’s albums from Spotify and other streaming services is sending minor shockwaves through the music industry. Swift’s label Big Machine has long adhered to a streaming windowing strategy and there is pretty compelling evidence that the approach has paid dividends. Swift’s ‘1989’ is not only on track to be the only million selling US album this year it is also set to have the highest ever first week album sales for a female artist, again in the US. No mean feat considering how much album sales have tanked. While it is impossible to prove the exact degree of causality, it would be fatuous to claim that windowing had done anything less than not hurt those sales. Windowing is an issue that refuses to go away but is a natural effect of the transition phase we are in.

Some artists and labels were just as fearful of iTunes in the 2000’s as they are now of Spotify. Heck, it took the Beatles seven whole years to finally license their catalogue. Right now there is still a very sizeable music sales marketplace. 79% of all recorded music revenue in 2013 came from sales. So it is understandable that some labels want to protect that Golden Goose as long as they can. And it is little compensation for labels that declining music sales are made up by increased live revenues. In even the most label friendly 360 deals music sales are still the core revenue stream.

However the shift to consumption models is an inevitable process. In the short term expect copy cat actions. Labels and artists will see the run away success of ‘1989’ and conclude that windowing played a key role. This may hurt Spotify just as it was beginning to feel good about proving its model. But the long view shows us that licensed streaming music will be ubiquitous five years from now, music sales will not. Even if Taylor Swift is still at the top of her game in 2019 she won’t be selling any 1 million albums anymore.

Spotify though can’t wait five years for Swift to shake off her streaming inhibitions. It can however help itself by accepting that its free tier should be on a different release window from its paid tier. If it doesn’t it makes windowing a binary equation which in turn makes it easier for an entire blanket ban to be conceived.

Of course the biggest irony in all this is that the free streaming services face no such blocks. All of Swift’s videos are still on YouTube and you can find her music all over Soundcloud, let alone Grooveshark. As MIDiA revealed last week, YouTube is one of the largest threats to music revenue. But because the music industry still views it as a marketing channel rather than a consumption channel it is measured by different standards. Thus 10 million YouTube views is a promotional success, whereas 10 million Spotify streams is x thousand lost sales. This hypocritical inconsistency has to end. Spotify premium customers are some of the most valuable music fans there are, most YouTube users are not.

taylor swift youtube

And both YouTube and Soundcloud also fail to crack down on blatant misuse of their platforms. As the screen grab above shows, YouTube makes it easier than easy to access the full ‘1989’ album, which in this instance is fully monetized and has 400,000 views. Meanwhile Soundcloud also has the full album, this time conveniently presented as individual tracks. And even if / when UMG catches up with these infringing files, not only will more pop up, YouTube also has this, a full ‘1989’ playlist, full of non-infringing, Vevo videos.   The simple fact is that too much is given away for free on YouTube. If Big Machine and Taylor Swift are really worried about cannibalizing album sales, they should take a long hard look at their YouTube strategy before pulling their content from Spotify.

UPDATE: UMG caught up with the 400,000 views full album YouTube video of ‘1989’ (that was quick) but the very same user has multiple other instances of the full ‘1989’ album which have hundreds of thousands of views and are still live.