Dr. Streamlove or: how the music industry learned to stop worrying and love streaming

On April 23, Beyonce surprise-released her sixth album “Lemonade” as an exclusive on TIDAL, the music streaming service she owns along with her husband Jay Z. As if this wasn’t a significant enough cultural event on its own, it marked the beginning of a three-week thrill ride of noteworthy album releases, both expected and unexpected. Between April 23 and May 13, we saw the release of “Views” from Drake, “The Colour in Anything” from James Blake, “HOPELESSNESS” by ANOHNI, “Bottomless Pit” from Death Grips, “A Moon Shaped Pool” by Radiohead, and “Coloring Book” by Chance the Rapper.

If there is another period of time similar in length with the same amount of notable album releases, I’m unfamiliar with it. This incredible string of releases featured something for everyone — two releases in each of the major genres, one populist, one critically acclaimed, and a post-breakup Death Grips album just for good measure.

But while these releases inspired plenty of conversation, the talk was less “Did you listen to this album?” and more “How do I listen to this album?”

This is largely a result of the music streaming revolution. Where music had been found on iTunes almost exclusively throughout the 21st century, the rise of Spotify, the London-based music streaming service, changed that entirely. Now, music can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, or, in Beyonce’s case, TIDAL.

With the popularity of these music streaming services has come the exclusive release, where artists align themselves with the streaming service of their choice and make their music exclusive to that platform, attempting to force listeners to subscribe to that particular service.

This sensation reached a sort of peak with the recent notable releases. Most, if not all of these artists opted to make their album an exclusive. Beyonce went with TIDAL, while Drake, Radiohead, and even Chance, who has so vocally committed to giving away free music without the supervision of a label, all chose Apple Music.

So far, it seems to be working out for the companies (or rappers) looking to get their hands on some of that Spotify money. While so many music streaming services launch and fold before you know it, TIDAL and Apple Music have stuck around and stayed in the conversation.

But more notable than these streaming services staying in the conversation is the way they have managed to shift it.

After the invention and subsequent domination of iTunes, much was made about how Apple’s program changed the music industry. iTunes murdered the physical music industry, turning CDs, vinyl records, and cassette tapes into fun collectors items as opposed to essential listening devices once and for all. Or at least that was how it seemed.

However, in reality, the digital music industry didn’t fully seize control until last year. According to a yearly report done by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a non-profit which tracks the financial side of the recording industry, digital music revenue made up 45 percent of music industry revenue in 2015, compared to the 39 percent taken up by sales of CDs, vinyl records, and other physical formats.

This marks the first time in history that digital music revenue has outweighed physical music revenue. A strange revelation, considering jokes about the death of the CD are almost ten years old now. While it’s clear that iTunes started the digital music revolution, it’s just as clear that Spotify is what is finishing it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 6.07.59 PM

Music was made more accessible and popular by iTunes. But what it failed to do was make it more profitable. Just before the invention of the iPod, the music industry was at an all-time high in revenue, based on information collected by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

After iTunes became the dominant medium for music, the industry crashed, seeing drastic decreases in revenue in every year until 2012, when it plateaued.

The really troubling stat for the music industry over these years was one that would have been music to their ears just years before. While the revenue the industry was generating from music sales went down year by year, the amount of music being sold went up. The product they were pushing was more popular than ever — the only problem: it was worthless.

It would seem that music streaming is a move in the wrong direction, only furthering the changes iTunes made to the industry. Having virtually every song ever made available at the click of a button on Spotify just makes music more accessible and less profitable.

But the numbers say otherwise.

In 2015, the landmark of digital revenue finally surpassing physical music revenue was matched by a much more important one: the first considerable growth in overall music revenue in the 21st century.

Overall, recorded music revenue increased by 3.2 percent in 2015, but that's only part of the story. The truly encouraging stat was the change in digital music revenue, which experienced a massive growth of just over 10 percent that same year.

And there’s a clear correlation between the rebound of the music industry and the growth of music streaming. According to Nielsen, music streaming — both audio only and video — nearly doubled in 2015, increasing by 92.8 percent.

The rapid decline of the music industry not so coincidentally slowed when Spotify entered the public consciousness. As Spotify's subscriber count has grown from 20 million to 80 million over the last few years, the success of the industry has grown with it.

You could argue that the immense popularity of Adele revitalized the music industry, or the great success of "Party Rock Anthem," the amazing LMFAO song that was the second most popular song of 2011, a fact that gets more incredulous with each passing day. But all of the numbers will point you back to Spotify and the rise of streaming music.

But now that the industry has been saved, the conversation moves to this: how long will it last?

The appeal of music streaming services is obvious, but so are the drawbacks of the exclusive album release strategy these services are implementing.

Frustration was high when the exclusive album release strategy came fully to fruition with the release of Kanye West’s long anticipated “The Life of Pablo.” After teasing the release of the album for almost two years, West, at the last minute, revealed it would only be available to listeners on TIDAL, the most tedious and unnecessary of all the streaming services. No CDs, no iTunes — not for sale anywhere.

It has become common practice in the months since this album, but at the time, it was pretty bold for a musician of his stature and people were upset. But that album still landed at number one on the Billboard chart.

The phrases "How do I listen to" and "How can I listen to" have reached an all-time high usage in Google searches over the last six months according to Google Trends, the app which accumulates and charts Google search data.

Will the confusion about where and how to listen to significant albums sink music streaming? I’m a big Beyonce fan, but I was in no rush to listen to “Lemonade” once I found out it was a TIDAL exclusive, since my TLOP-inspired free trial expired long ago. And if I wanted to pay for all three major streaming services, I would just use that 30 dollars a month to buy the albums I wanted to hear, assuming that will continue to be a thing people do in the future.

The obvious concern for the music industry will be that people go back to pirating as their main source of music. Downloading free music was probably the main reason the iTunes-era was met with such drastic declines in industry revenue, and music streaming seems like it may be the antidote.

2015’s notable growth in both industry revenue and music streaming was nearly matched by the decrease in piracy. According to a report by MUSO, an anti-piracy company, piracy went down 5 percent that year.

Torrent Freak, a popular music piracy website, reported that they saw significantly more downloads of “The Life of Pablo” than any album before, though they were hesitant to declare any official records. Similar reports have yet to come out about Beyonce’s “Lemonade” or Drake’s “Views,” but TLOP could be the start of an unfortunate trend.

The exclusive album release strategy may be what is keeping music streaming competition alive. But if TIDAL, Apple Music, and Spotify can’t settle their differences and see the flaw in their newest strategy, they could squander the first piece of good news the music industry has gotten in what feels like a century.