More than ever before, 2016 has shown us the immense capabilities of music streaming. Streaming has well and truly taken over as the most common means of consuming music, and with that, many parts of the music industry have drastically changed. Physical albums, artwork and liner notes are increasingly rare, and artists often have to tour far more frequently to earn the money that album sales once generated – all thanks to the advent of downloads and streaming. It sounds negative, destructive even, and it certainly has been for some. Ultimately, the way we share, promote and find music has significantly shifted, and the whole industry has had to adapt.
2016 has seen official bodies like the RIAA and the Grammys finally recognise streaming numbers. Not only do streams now count toward gold and platinum certification, but streaming-only (and free) releases are now eligible for award nominations alongside traditional releases.
Now that the streaming war is starting to resemble the Seven Kingdoms, something interesting has happened: what stands out is not just the quality nor quantity of streamable music (to an extent, obviously). All major players offer the vast majority of the music you’d want to hear; it’s everything else that matters. It’s the frills: exclusives, access, playlists, collaborations, and direct artist involvement that stands out.
To quickly recap some of 2016’s big streaming events: after purchasing a bankrupt Rdio last year, Pandora announced they were considering an on-demand streaming service, and SoundCloud similarly launched paid platform SoundCloud Go, although it has not made any significant waves. Celebrity owned and endorsed Tidal lost almost $30 million in 2015 and has, according to Kanye West, been cooking up a spicy beef stew with Apple Music. Tidal’s dazzling star-studded launch set it up to be an elite service with high-fidelity sound and exciting exclusives, but numbers-wise it simply hasn’t matched up; there’s around 4.2 million Tidal subscribers, relatively tiny. Up the hill is the all-powerful Spotify, who, although comparatively lacking in the artist endorsement department, spread its wings to launch some nifty collaborations with Tinder, Starbucks and Genius among others. But above all, Apple Music emerged victorious in 2016.
Relationships & exclusivity
This year has seen conflict between streaming platforms and labels on several occasions, unveiling a few cracks in the relationships between artists, labels and fans. The most notable of these was Frank Ocean‘s dramatic and somewhat public break-up with Universal Music and Def Jam; Ocean dropped visual album Endless via Apple Music, ending his Def Jam contract just a couple days before Blonde, also out on Apple Music, but released independently. It took a while to figure out what the hell was going on, but it revealed itself to be a unique insight into a corporate tug-of-war.
Many other artists like Chance the Rapper, NxWorries and the Avalanches also released their music through Apple Music exclusively at first, while some, like Beyoncé and Kanye West, took their albums to Tidal before releasing them anywhere else. (Lemonade is still only streaming on Tidal.)
In direct response to Frank Ocean, Universal Music publicly announced that they will no longer be offering streaming exclusives, ever. That says a lot about behind-the-scenes relationships between labels and companies, but not as much as it does about the changing relationships between these services and artists.
That an artist in 2016 would actively choose to restrict their audience by launching on only one streaming service is remarkable. Should this a highest bidder situation or one or creative freedom is usually unknown, but the sheer fact that it’s an increasingly common option shows how much power these platforms hold. It speaks volumes about loyalty, especially for a company like Apple Music which appears to value artist input at every level of development, from Dr Dre and Trent Reznor on an executive level right down to artists hosting their own radio shows.
Speaking on Frank Ocean, former Apple employee Sean Glass recently mentioned that there is someone at Apple who “works closer with the artists than labels do… as a creative peer.” Similar comment have also been made about Tidal, given that it’s run by artists. It’s unsurprising then, that the rate of artists developing content and releases with streaming services is increasing at the same rate as artists dropping their labels.
Even more telling is the flourish original content that artists are developing in collaboration with streaming services, including original videos, interviews, visual albums and even live concert feeds. Tidal won out several times by exclusively streaming some of the year’s biggest albums (and related events, like ‘Ye’s The Life of Pablo Madison Square Garden premiere), not to mention being the only service where you can listen to Prince. However, Apple has excelled in artist-driven content, especially its intimate, lengthy interviews with Zane Lowe, Ebro and Julie Adenuga. Additionally, Apple’s artist-presented radio programs not only allow us a regular insight into an artist’s opinions and musical preferences, but provide a great platform to drop new tunes. For example, Drake has repeatedly used his OVO Sound Radio show to drop new songs and make announcements throughout the year. This is by far my personal favourite feature of Apple Music; there’s nowhere else where you can listen to such diverse artists talking about their favourite tunes: Vince Staples, Corey Taylor, Mike D, Mary J Blige, Elton John, Jehnny Beth and Anna Lunoe are just some of the many names on offer.
There is no doubt that playlists are one of the most important aspects of any artist’s development in 2016; marketing teams are today relying more on playlists than blog posts to promote new artists, while A&Rs are using them more than ever for early discovery. This demand will only keep increasing.
Both Apple and Spotify benefit from thousands of fantastic original playlists. Both curate regular ‘discover’ playlists, showcasing new music, local artists, etc., as well as using algorithms to find new music that the specific listener might enjoy based on previous listening. While Spotify has often excelled in producing mood and activity-specific playlists (including an exercise function which changes speed according to your heart rate), Apple appears to really thrive in the kind that introduces the listener to an artist or genre. That said, Apple seems to be getting a little more playful here – just this morning Chance the Rapper released an adorable bath time relaxation playlist (and let’s talk about that creative social marketing for a moment – getting Chance to post a video of himself naked in a bathtub singing Frank Ocean into a sponge as a promotion? Wow.)
And the winner is?
Frankly, the winner of the 2016 music industry is streaming, and the winner of streaming is Apple Music. The company, which was only first founded in mid-2015, has grown faster than any other streaming service, and is realistically the only proper contender to Spotify. Just last week it was announced that Apple had already reached 20 million paying subscribers, around half that of Spotify’s paying customers. Of course, another 60 or so million customers use Spotify’s free tier, which Apple does not offer, but if anything that only makes this growth more remarkable. Add to this the news that Apple were in talks to purchase Tidal, and that Spotify reportedly invested a billion dollars into battling Apple’s dominance, it’s clear they mean business.
At this point the main buoys keeping Spotify afloat above its contenders are offering a free account tier, and that it’s been around much longer, meaning that many users have years of archived music stored. Given the fierce push toward unique content, artist exclusives, user-friendly features (playlists etc.) and seamless integration with Apple products, Apple Music continues to edge closer and closer toward Spotify’s throne, although without a free option, it will never reach it.
2017 will see streaming services continue to grow and expand, not only for the user or label, but for the independent artist. Expect to see more added-on content (lyrics, commentary, recommended listening, interviews, videos, etc.), and probably more integration with other companies and services, such as how you can access Spotify in an Uber or in your Tesla.
Functionality will continue to improve across the board. For example, Apple’s inclusion of song lyrics will probably pop up on Spotify, and Apple will (hopefully) add a feature it’s sorely lacking, which is that if you close and reopen the app, it doesn’t take you back to the album or song you were last listening to. Embedding content on other platforms will become easier, as will sharing and perhaps even in-app space to commentate playlists (okay, maybe this paragraph is just a personal wishlist, but we’ll see).
While streaming favours big names, the future is looking independent. It’ll be interesting to see if, and how, Spotify and Apple integrate independent and upcoming artist usability to their services. Considering the likelihood that SoundCloud will fold relatively soon, there will be a monumental gap in the market for independent music to be released and discovered. I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see one of the bigger services
jumping through tens of thousands of legal hoops before adding an indie-friendly tier to its platform, one that operates similarly to SoundCloud and is kept apart from the major charts and playlists, providing a space for upcoming producers and listeners to discover and share. Not only would this provide the indie cred that has kept SoundCloud so revered for years, but it would provide a phenomenal data pool for trend identification and discovery playlists.
2016 has been a catastrophic year for almost everything around us except music. We’ve had an incredible run of new albums and we’ve seen huge changes, with streaming leading the way. It is changing how we find artists and hear music, how music is released and marketed, how artists make money, and almost all other aspects of the music industry – and this will only continue in 2017.