Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Blonde Bombshell

The highly-anticipated followup to Frank Ocean’s 2012 “Channel Orange”, “Blonde”, was released yesterday. Like most records with a similar calibre of precedence, it debuted exclusively on a single platform — in this case, Apple Music and iTunes — as opposed to having a wide release across multiple outlets.

And, for some reason, it was this very decision that made longtime music industry commentator and grouch Bob Lefsetz think that fans are getting the shaft:

[The music industry has] come through the digital wars scathed, but it’s well-prepared for the future. Streaming has won and it’s been fan-friendly.

Until now.

[…]

But in music, you can find everything you want to hear, right at your fingertips.

Until now.

“Now”?

The gist of Lefsetz’s piece is that the exclusive-to-Apple Music release of “Blonde” is, somehow, the canary in the coal mine of the music industry. That its exclusivity is, somehow, a symptom of a music industry that doesn’t know how to build a fanbase and is, instead, spitting in the face of everyone from committed fans to casual listeners.

But, for some reason, Lefsetz is only angered now by the release of Frank Ocean’s record on Apple’s platforms.

Exclusive releases are nothing new. Back when people bought CDs, retailers clamoured to offer bonus tracks exclusive to their copies of the record. Taylor Swift’s “Fearless”, for instance, was released in twelve different versions, including four retailer-specific editions. Each had its own set of bonus tracks or videos, and many editions were country-specific. A Taylor Swift fan would find it difficult and expensive to acquire all the versions of her record.

While exclusive releases aren’t a new concept in the slightest, I’ve mentioned them a fair bit this year because of their increasing role in the rollout strategy for new music on streaming services. My stance has long been — and remains — that exclusives can be frustrating for many fans and likely do not decrease piracy of a new record, but they’re an important feather in a streaming service’s cap at little to no risk for artists — more on that in a bit.

Tidal’s numbers surged after Kanye West made his new record exclusive to the platform earlier this year, though the release also ranked highly on popular torrent trackers. It’s a gamble and a bit of a gimmick, but it can work fine for everyone involved.

However, the way that Lefsetz sees it, exclusives like this are nothing more than marketing:

[Most] people don’t give a crap about the new Frank Ocean album. We’ve got an industry that promotes marginal products that appeal to few and makes them unavailable to most people? That’s hysterical!

The biggest act in the business is Adele, and her music sounds like no one else’s. She can sing, the songs are well-constructed, and they appeal to almost everybody. This is the music industry that used to triumph, it’s one being left behind, as insiders pursue a pop game wherein the youth are everything and if you can’t get it on the radio they don’t care.

This is an utterly ridiculous argument. Ocean’s last record debuted in the number two slot in the United States and United Kingdom, and has been certified gold.

Meanwhile, the notion that Adele is being “left behind” is absurd. It was heavily marketed worldwide and became 2015’s highest seller after just three days. The only way she was being left behind was her decision not to release the record on any streaming services at all — it was, in effect, exclusive to a CD release. (And, yes, there was a Target edition, too.)

Funny how the press wasn’t interested in Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” which ended up being the biggest track of the year on Spotify.

“Lean On” was written about by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Spin, and NME — to name just a few of the most popular music publications in the world. Many of those even put it on their year-end lists. I’ve no idea what argument Lefsetz is trying to make here, but it is — as he would put it — hysterical. (Exclamation point.)

But this isn’t about exclusives, per se. According to Lefsetz, this is something vastly more sinister:

Because there’s a conspiracy between Apple Music and the industry to change the game, to get everybody to pay for a subscription by putting hit content behind a paywall.

Setting aside the first part of that sentence, which I will return to later, so what?

From the perspective of a fan not willing to subscribe to a bunch of different platforms — that is, virtually everyone — exclusives can be a pain in the ass. But putting a much-anticipated new release behind a paywall is a very good thing because getting people to pay for music is also a very good thing.

Lefsetz:

We need a free tier. We need a place where casual fans can experience new music. We’re in the business of building lifelong fans, but how do you do this when you can’t hear the music first, when you’ve got to overpay to experience it, that’s a twentieth century model but we’re deep in the twenty first!

I think it’s funny that Lefsetz complains about paying for music being an old business model, as the free tiers of services that offer them — Spotify, Pandora, and so forth — are effectively a light re-imagination of radio. Spotify, for instance, only allows shuffle mode to non-paying members, and they insert ads and assorted other tracks into the stream. Pandora users on the free tier have a skip limit.

Update: Reader “Charles” has written me to say that the desktop version of Spotify does allow listeners in the free tier to select tracks on demand. The mobile version is shuffle-only. The rest of the limitations I described, including limited skips and plenty of ads, seem to apply to the desktop version equally.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Frank Ocean — or any other artist — is bothered by not offering their newest record to people who will consume it for free in a legal way. Their gamble is that they’ll get a decent agreement from Apple or Tidal for making their album exclusive to the respective platform.

Those who will ante up for the opportunity of listening before anyone else are probably fans, so that’s fine for the artist and for the platform operator. It’s likely that these kinds of exclusive contracts include a small slice of revenue from new subscribers who, within a specific timeframe, listen to the artist’s new release.

Listens from existing subscribers, meanwhile, are likely paid out at a typical rate. Meanwhile, the album will be uploaded and torrented by a wide range of people, from casual listeners to committed fans that don’t want to — or cannot — pay for a subscription.

What does an artist lose by not uploading the record to Spotify or Pandora? My guess: almost nothing. Both platforms pay notoriously poor royalty rates, and the free tier of both platforms mandates a lower quality experience through forced shuffling. Ocean is the kind of artist that cares deeply about all aspects of his record, including the track order. I bet he’d rather have someone not pay for his record and listen to it in the correct order than to receive a measly royalty rate from a non-paying user of a streaming service listening to the album in the wrong order.

Now, back to that “conspiracy” argument:

Apple should be investigated by the government for antitrust. How do you compete with the world’s richest company that’s got endless cash on hand? You can’t. It’d be like expecting hillbillies to get into Harvard if slots went to the highest bidder. The rich get richer and the rest of us… we’re left out, just like in America at large, which is why Bernie and Trump got traction, the usual suspects doing it for themselves have rigged the game in their favor, and now the music industry is trying to do this too.

I’m not sure why Lefsetz has chosen to associate a weeks-long exclusive release of an album he apparently doesn’t care much about to a populist political movement in the United States, or a classist argument, but it’s silly.

I’m not sure where the antitrust angle comes from, either. Not all new releases are exclusive to Apple Music. Some of this year’s highest-profile albums have been, while others have been exclusive to Tidal. Some lower-profile releases have been exclusive to one of those as well, including Neil Young’s newest. None that I can think of have been exclusive to Spotify because it’s not that friendly to artists.

If Spotify wants their own exclusives, perhaps they should pay artists better.

Is there a conspiracy here? Only insomuch as artists, labels, and Apple executives have vouched for the idea of listeners paying for music. This doesn’t prohibit users of the free tiers of Pandora or Spotify from ever hearing “Blonde” — it just means they have to wait a couple of weeks to do so, or they can buy the album on iTunes without subscribing to Apple Music. Simple.