Photo courtesy of Roc Nation

In the years leading up to and after the turn of the twentieth century, musicians had been split on an issue within their business. Recordings had changed what it meant to be an artist.

Some saw it as an opportunity for their music to be spread to the far corners of the world; others who were used to making money from performances feared that the composition of music had been given a death sentence because it would make it impossible to earn enough money. John Philip Sousa,
a composer and noted doom-monger, wondered if kids would lose their souls to the phonograph.

While this crisis over the state of the arts sounds myopic in retrospect, it is not unlike the fears labels and artists have about streaming now. Though their anxieties are the opposite of their early twentieth century counterparts as they fear performing until their death, the complaint that “the old times were better” continues.

In the last couple years, a “solution” has gained popularity: make the music less available. Chance the Rapper made a short term exclusivity contract with Apple. Taylor Swift leveraged her celebrity to get what she wanted from Apple then stayed exclusively with them until she was suddenly and mysteriously appeased by Spotify.

But the boldest bet came from hip-hop’s unofficial CEO, JAY-Z, when he bought and rebranded his own streaming service. The supporting argument posits that while fans are put in a hard spot and must pay more to listen to everything they want, streaming exclusivity is actually a victory for everyone since increased patronage for artists leads to more and higher quality music. In the unrelated words of Joe Biden, this argument is “a bunch of malarkey.”

As a rule of thumb, it is unwise to argue with JAY-Z on the topic of business. The rapper’s intuition has been built on years of experience and experimentation to incredible success. However, the major music label Universal disagrees completely and instated a policy that the company will not sell exclusive streaming rights. The label fears that the up-front millions that come from the deal will not make up for the smaller audiences.

In the modern era, a new term has been born: “Pirate Platinum,” referring to when an album has been downloaded illegally over a million times. Notable examples include Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” and JAY-Z’s “4:44,” which were Tidal exclusives at the time. The cool name hardly makes up for the money JAY-Z missed out on. Even if he does end up the winner in terms of financial gain, he is actively killing his own legacy as an artist.

Music fandom and music obsession have changed. What was once territory reserved for “super fans” of artists is now commonplace with the availability of entire catalogs in one convenient, digital place. As for those whose passion or even profession is music, the expected amount of knowledge is dizzying. A light skim of sites like “Pitchfork” and “Noisey” reveals enough jargon to be nearly on-par with that of lawyers’.

This changed environment is due precisely to the unbelievable convenience of streaming, not a newfound cultural mania. Just ask anyone under the age of 25 to name even three Aaliyah songs, and it quickly becomes clear why exclusivity can spell a death sentence for a body of work.

Aaliyah, for all her impact in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, has been forsaken by her uncle and the owner of the rights to her music, Barry Hankerson, to a slow march into oblivion. His refusal to allow her music to live anywhere online is an extreme case, but this situation fundamentally creates the same problem as exclusive streaming — limited availability.

While artists have been able to make up for the loss from royalty checks by touring, that option is not even available to many others in the business. Independent artists, label employees and background artists like producers and writers, whose bread and butter used to come from the percentages of songs and albums, have had to get creative. Some beatmakers for example have turned to sites like “The Drum Broker” to sell drum packs. Others have picked up DJing gigs. Yet unlike leading artists, the shifts in what it means to be a musician has not slowed down smaller players’ drive to continue creating.

Highly fragmented streaming is not unprecedented either: that is the current state of music’s sister industry, film. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO all fight for viewers’ attention and money with little to no overlap in their content.

Cinephiles see streaming as a blessing for obvious reasons, but many also see it as a curse for the effect it has had on the actual culture. Netflix has less than 50 movies made before 1970 while Hulu has none.

Fans of classic cinema are forced to find boutique services like FilmStruck. It is easy to imagine a world where music streaming services are similarly split by genre, age, label or any almost arbitrary marker. While this reality may sound ridiculous, it may not be too far if exclusivity
practices continue.

Unsurprisingly considering its history, Spotify, the first and largest player in the space, has a strict no-exclusives policy. Co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek was the former CEO of µTorrent, a company that ran the peer-to-peer technology that fuels piracy and that fueled Spotify in its early days.

The pirate ethos stuck around, and the company remains philosophically opposed to the practice of exclusive streaming. The company views it as a step of regression — a cardinal sin in
technology.

However, Spotify has the privilege of being much larger than Apple and Tidal, who are forced to differentiate themselves. From these companies’ perspectives, exclusive streaming makes all too much sense.

Why enter a perfectly competitive market when there is an easier way to differentiate themselves and to entice users while also playing into artists’ fears of not making enough money? In the years to follow, however, the parallels between angry musicians of the previous century, and today’s unsatisfied pop stars will become all too clear.