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Why Taylor Swift Snubbed the Major Streaming Services with “Red”—For Now

It appears you can’t always play your favorite music for free on Spotify, Rhapsody, Mog or other streaming music services. The artist and label have to release it to those services. It was all over the news this week how Taylor Swift’s hot new release Red was decidedly NOT going to be available for streaming, perhaps for a couple of months, at least.

In other words, if you want to listen to the album (legally), you have to buy it. At least for now.

It has become something of a trend with new major releases these days to withhold the release from streaming services during the initial push to try and sell more records. This delay can sometimes last a day or two, or a couple of weeks, and sometimes even months. It’s further evidence that the major labels are still not quite okay with the changes in modern music technology and the ways their product is delivered to the audience.

Why the resistance to music streaming? Even though legit streaming services like Spotify do pay the artist/label for use of the music, it doesn’t come close to the amount of money made by an actual sale, either by selling hard-copy CDs or through paid downloads through retailers like iTunes. Not to mention that album streaming is seen more along the lines of radio airplay, and the number of plays don’t count toward actual sales numbers. Now, for lesser known bands and acts for whom online streaming means more exposure, the artist and/or label often counts it as a trade-off, hoping that the added exposure will add up to increased income in the long run—and in most cases, that’s true. But for someone like Taylor Swift, her album was already in high demand long before it hit the market. The label gambled that people would pay to get it, and that they could make more money that way. Supply vs. demand. Make the product scarce, and you can get more moolah for it.

At first glance, the gamble seems to have paid off. Red is expected to go platinum in its very first week, and is already on track to be Swift’s biggest release ever. By most accounts, it seems to be a big success.

And yet…

There is an alternative argument about legitimate streaming that if you withhold the product, fans will try and get it for free elsewhere. The idea is that if you make the music accessible through legitimate ad-based and subscription based streaming services, you reduce the risk of music piracy—even if you are paid a little bit less, you’re still getting paid. There are critics of the scarcity strategy that suggest that making Red scarce only encouraged people to get it illegally—something that is still easy to do—or to access it through more “questionable” streaming services. How much impact this has made on overall sales remains to be seen. All I can tell you for now is that within hours of its release, all the tracks for Red could be found on YouTube (uploaded by individuals) and on Grooveshark, which is currently fielding lawsuits from all the major labels for its streaming practices.

The point is, whether or not you agree with the legitimacy of these tactics, the fact remains that holding Taylor Swift’s album from the streaming services did not stop the songs from becoming accessible to the public without having to pay for them. If anything, the rate of piracy actually increased.

Does that mean the tactic didn’t work? Obviously not. As with anything else, this is a numbers game, and while no one’s happy about music piracy, apparently enough people are buying the album legitimately that Taylor Swift is set to break multiple records. That’s got to make the label people happy.

Now, obviously, not every major release uses this ploy. Some artists and labels have fully embraced online streaming as just another avenue to get the product out. Swift’s pal Justin Bieber’s new record Believe was available for streaming the day of its release a few months ago, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting any. But if nothing else, this just proves that the changes happening in the music industry are still cause for debate and controversy, and it’s probably going to be awhile before the dust settles.

So what do you think? Do you think Swift should have made her album available for streaming? Why or why not?


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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