OMG, have you heard the new Taylor Swift album? I haven’t. As it turns out, I don’t really care that much. It’s not that I’m staunchly anti-Taylor or anything. On the contrary, my interest level is just casual enough that I’m content to check it out when it lands on Spotify.
Whenever that may be.
Perhaps you had a different reaction to the arrival of Reputation. Given that we are now fully conditioned to expect instant access to most of the world’s music in our pockets, perhaps you were annoyed–angry, even–to discover that Swift has kept her new album off streaming services like Spotify, at least for the time being. Perhaps you are furious that you have to buy a physical copy, or pay to download it (or download it illegally), if you want to listen to it.
If that last paragraph describes you, I would respectfully argue that it may be time to chill. Because although I’m personally indifferent about Swift’s music, I think she’s onto something with her release strategy here. As frustrating as it may be for some, it could actually be good for artists.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the numbers: In its first day, Reputation sold 700,000 copies and is on track to break the 1 million mark within its first week. Evidently, many of the people who care most about her music felt compelled to do something that seems rare these days: They bought the album. Others, like me, did nothing. We’ll check it out in due time–and when we do, Swift and her label, Big Machine, will likely see a fresh surge in streaming numbers that will contribute to her Billboard rankings and bottom line alike.
And to be sure, many of the diehards who bought a physical copy of Reputation will likely add it to their streaming libraries as well. But by then, Swift will have already smartly extracted maximum value out of the people who care the most. And why shouldn’t she?
We saw a similar phenomenon unfold with the release of Adele’s 25, which went on to become the top-selling album of 2016 despite being kept off of streaming services for its first seven months. This strategy of “windowing” new albums might not work for everyone—certainly, it helps to have a fanbase as rabid as Adele’s or Swift’s. But if employed strategically and conservatively—seven months is admittedly a pretty long time to wait—it can help bring in more revenue for an artist by capitalizing on true fans without screwing over everyone else. All they have to do is sit tight.
Window In The Skies
Few will disagree that streaming is the future of how human beings listen to music. The academics who predicted a “music like water” utility-style model over a decade ago nailed it. Now Goldman Sachs predicts the streaming music market to hit $28 billion in value by 2030. But as magical as the notion of free-flowing music may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re entitled to *all* music *as soon as it’s released*. What if, in some cases, the first few weeks of an album’s existence are reserved for the most dedicated fans–those who care enough to buy it? Some will pirate it, sure, but that cannibalization will be short-lived if the window period isn’t too long.
As wonderful as the so-called streaming revolution is, this era of extreme convenience (for us) carries with it a sobering reality for many artists and labels: Even as subscriptions contribute to the first growth the music industry has seen in over a decade, streams still do not generate as much revenue per listener as downloads and physical album sales do (even though both are declining). Megastars like Swift will be fine either way, but her team is wise–and totally justified–to tinker with the model a bit while the economics shake out.
Short-term windowing is one option that seems worth toying with. The strategy does not, as some stubborn artists have, eschew streaming and subscription services all together. That would shortsighted. Instead, they’re rolling the dice on simple logic: Maybe there’s no reason to make new music instantly accessible to everyone on day one. Maybe, if we hold it back at first–even if it’s just for a week or two–we can make the most of the the people who are most eager to hear it.
Short-term windowing is by no means a flawless strategy, whatever Adele’s and Swift’s teams may think. Spotify’s Troy Carter hates the idea, which he predicts will encourage piracy. (The revenue Spotify is missing out on by not having Reputation available on week one is likely significant, it’s worth noting.) Windowing does indeed rub up against the entitled expectations of listeners who are accustomed to having instant access to everything. Who knows what that friction could spark?
For some smaller artists, this approach could well eat into their revenue and exposure to their detriment. Still, there’s no reason to believe that fans’ appetites for eagerly buying up new music is limited to music recorded by superstars. Just look at Bandcamp, which has turned a rare, enduring profit and bucked declining industry trend lines by selling physical albums, downloads, and merch to fans. Some indie labels, like Drag City, have even skipped out on most streaming services and opted to release music via Bandcamp instead.
Indeed, if Spotify wanted to make the most of fans’ appetites for new music–and throw artists a meaningful bone at the same time–they might consider building some kind of pay-to-unlock-early streaming feature for windowed albums. Or–who knows?–just go ahead and acquire Bandcamp.
The alleged promise of the streaming era, of course, is that with time and enough scale, such experimentation won’t be necessary: The all-you-can-stream subscription model should eventually reel in enough subscribers and revenue to pay everyone fairly. We’ll see about that. But in the meantime, don’t be surprised if more artists play hard-to-stream with their new records. And more importantly, try not to be mad, either.