So musicians are taking music streaming back. Jay Z has been joined by a consortium of big-name artists including Coldplay, Rihanna, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris, Madonna, Kanye West and – rather more predictably – Beyoncé as co-owners of his recently acquired Tidal streaming service, offering ‘high-quality sound, video and exclusive editorial’.
Jay Z isn’t the first artist to launch a high-fidelity music streaming service – that prize goes to Neil Young. And he isn’t the first, to borrow from the Tidal sales pitch, to offer ‘expertly curated editorial’ (there’s that word again) either. Just ask Armin Van Buuren, the only artist in Spotify’s Top 100 curated Browse playlists, or Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Guy Garvey or countless other artists that programme and present wonderful radio shows.
No, artists have always been very adept, more so than their labels it must be said, at curating music. If George Ergatoudis is right that albums are, with very few exceptions, edging closer to extinction, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the artist and label community is getting in on the curation game. What’s new about Jay-Z’s new venture is scale and ownership.
This and recent other events, not least the inclusion of streaming data in the official UK chart last year, have had me pondering the rapidly shifting hit-maker power dynamic in 2015, in particular the effect that an apparently turning freemium tide might have on the major players in streaming and radio.
Late last year I chaired a panel at the Music Futures conference in Gateshead entitled Playlists vs. The Album, about the diminishing interest in bodies of work from individual artists compared with the rising popularity of pick-and-mix playlists.
What seemed like a fairly open-and-shut session – there are, for example, about 1.5m albums on Spotify and 1.5bn playlists – had come about largely in response to a minor Twitterstorm whipped up by one of its panellists, Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis, who earlier that year had made the declaration about the demise of the album format. The balance of power seemed to be shifting from creators to curators.
A month later I attended the BBC’s On The Beat conference, where Spotify’s director of economics Will Page gave a fascinating presentation comparing the differing growth curves of Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ in the US versus the UK. His central point – that in an age of instant gratification, windowing represents a risk of demand going unmet by supply – seemed less important, to this ex-broadcast guy anyway, than the fact that radio airplay peaks last after Shazam tags, streams and downloads:
That’s a major shift from the established hit-making dynamic. Since early uptake for All About That Bass arose from its curated Browse playlists, one had to ask: is Spotify becoming a hit maker? Can streaming services more generally editorialise their way into the chart?
Then last week I found myself moderating another panel – this time on Fifty Years of DJ Culture – for Mixcloud’s conference series at Convergence Festival in London. In a wide-ranging conversation taking in the shifting artistry, technology and geography of DJ culture, one thing seemed certain: in a world where neither owning records nor being able to mix are considered prerequisites for success as a DJ, all roads lead back to the one thing technology can’t replicate: curation.
None of this is news to the tech giants of course. Google paid a rumoured $39m for human recommendation service Songza last year, Apple has just snapped up king-of-curators Zane Lowe and now, in something of a reverse takeover, Jay Z and friends are owner-curators of Tidal.
Nor is it news to the labels. Universal, Sony and Warner Music have their own ‘independent’ curation brands in Digster, Filtr and Topsify respectively, all sitting directly on Spotify and Deezer. Apparently curation, not content, is king.
So Wired editor Kevin Kelly has been proved right. In his seminal 2008 piece Better Than Free, he noted that since the internet is essentially a giant content copying machine, that content is effectively rendered worthless by ever-increasing abundance. Kelly predicted the subsequent rise of what he called ‘generatives’ – qualities such as trust, immediacy, personalisation, interpretation and authenticity – that can’t be replicated, and therefore increase in value relative to those worthless copies.
Looked at in this context, curation is more than just a solution to the tyranny of choice, it’s a kind of ‘super-generative’ ticking almost every box on that checklist of value-driving qualities above. For music recommendation Zane Lowe and Jay Z embody trust, immediacy, authenticity and interpretation. The gravitational pull of the people and products that exemplify these qualities is understandable and, for Wired readers at least, nothing new.
What is new is the number and nature of the players now muscling in on the curation game, and the extent to which all parties can influence the value chain right down to the point of consumption. It used to be that labels and artists did the creating, while publishers – in the broadest sense of radio, TV and press – did the curating. And that worked very well for a long time.
Now all that has changed. Radio stations have been originating music content since at least the mid-nineties – Global Radio’s publishing and management arms being the most obvious UK example – and, in the form of Digster, Filtr et al, now record labels are curating it. The question is whether it’s possible to be good at both, and the extent to which being a content creator compromises your ability to curate, and vice versa.
The labels own about 15 per cent of Spotify, but do they control more than 15 per cent of its editorial voice? How well do they do editorial anyway? Read Part 2 of this article for an in-depth analysis of the major-label curation brands’ share of voice on Spotify.
‘On-air/on sale’, the new label release strategy by which new tracks are made available for download and streaming as soon as they are serviced to radio, was a turning point in this shifting dynamic. UK radio was largely behind the change in 2011, as was MTV, and as ammunition in the fight against piracy it was hard to argue with.
But even at a time when streaming services were viewed more as retail – that is, as a threat to à la carte or bricks and mortar over broadcast radio – I could never shake the nagging feeling that radio was sleepwalking away from the de facto six-week exclusive it had enjoyed for decades. As streaming services take on more of the features of broadcast radio, the latter’s early enthusiasm for on-air/on sale is starting to look like folly.
(Likewise the BBC’s excellent Playlister, which allows audiences to save music they have heard on the BBC and then export it to Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and iTunes, probably needs to evolve. As these latter partner services look more and more like traditional radio in terms of functionality and editorial, the BBC is increasingly sending its audiences away to the competition.)
As Will Page pointed out in his presentation, when the traditional ‘label to radio to retail’ supply chain is disrupted by services like Spotify and the BBC’s Playlister – or by a consortium of artists in direct control of their publishing platform – it starts to resemble a circular cell reference in an Excel spreadsheet. Radio DJs drive consumption, which drives chart positions, which in turn drive consumption, which drives airplay. The same might be said of Shazam, these days both a reflection and a driver of editorial decision-making.
For now it seems Spotify’s hit-making capabilities are limited to trafficking home-grown hits between territories, be that Meghan Trainor from the US to the UK or Mr. Probz in the other direction. Whether Spotify et al, through curated playlists, can rise to the ranks of true hit-makers depends on scale. And that depends on having a free tier.
If we are seeing the beginning of the end for freemium, that’s probably a good thing, editorially speaking, for broadcast radio and radio-like services such as Pandora, Blinkbox Music and MixRadio, whose music selections (and selectors) increase in value just like Kevin Kelly’s generative theory predicted.
Ironically, given the new owners of Tidal, a world in which programmed music is free and on-demand consumption is not – one in which playlisting features presumably remain behind a paywall as well – is one that looks a lot more like the ‘old world’ hit-making dynamic in which creators create and curators curate. And given the labels’ track record curating their own content, that might not be such a bad thing for audiences either.
For a more in-depth analysis of the major labels’ share and tone of voice on Spotify read Part 2 of this article.