The Streaming Wars & the Coming Free Music Apocalypse

By | Posted June 12, 2015
If Apple Music succeeds it could mean the end of free music on the internet. Are you ready?
2015-06-11-streaming-wars-free

The world was supposed to end on the Mayan calendar's final date. It felt like one of those crazy doomsday predictions that you didn’t take seriously, but the glimmer of possibility kept you wondering. The end of days theories were impossible to escape, especially after Hollywood turned the fear into a blockbuster movie. Drake even created an acronym for living life like the end is coming. Harold Camping used his Christian radio station to proclaim the rapture twice that year. The final days became an event, an eagerness to see if the premonition was true. There was more excitement than fear, and on what was supposed to be the last day in history, life turned out to be more party than apocalypse. Disaster averted, normalcy restored...for now.  

It’s the year 2015 and once again, a potential doomsday is upon us. The pending disaster will make Y2K look like a baby shower. What I’m foreseeing is the end of an era, the last days of a regime, the apocalypse of free music. Since I can remember, music on the internet came without rules or restrictions, or at least without rules or restrictions we were forced to take seriously. From the forgotten days of Limewire and Megaupload to today’s Soundcloud and Audiomack, music has always been easily accessible. It spoiled us, music became the birthright of anyone with a WiFi connection, our inheritance for being born in such a glorious generation. Every album I could think of was a Google search away. New songs floated across my timeline and in two clicks I was listening, another click I had downloaded. My parents didn’t have this luxury, the only way they acquired music was through purchase or borrowing. The music industry considered our privilege pirating, hated the low revenue generated by legal outlets like YouTube and Spotify, and has spent the better part of the new millennium trying to restore the ancient order, to kill the world of free music. 

Apple recently unveiled their streaming service, Apple Music. The same company that brought innovation with iPods, iPhones and iTunes, the company primarily responsible for popularizing downloadable albums, found themselves behind the innovation curve when it came to streaming and finally entered the battle ground against Spotify and Tidal. The difference between the services are relatively minor, similar features, similar music libraries, but Apple Music and Tidal have two fundamental characteristics that could change everything again: exclusivity, and no free listening option. 

That's why Apple unveiling Drake and announcing that his next album will be an Apple Music exclusive is a huge deal. This is the same Drake that broke the U.S streaming record by accumulating 17.3 million streams in three days with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The biggest rapper in the world turned down a seat within the Tidal castle to be Apple’s trump card, and so think about what will actually happen when that album drops. It won't be on Spotify or Tidal, they may not even make it immediately available on iTunes. You'll have to subscribe and sign up for Apple Music or risk missing out on all of Twitter quoting the new meme-able lines. The same goes for Tidal. When Wayne’s "Glory" was released exclusively through Tidal I naively thought I'd be able to find it instantly, but it took longer than anticipated, Audiomack links were taken down swiftly, YouTube streams complete with the songs so sped up or slowed down to escape detection it was unlistenable. Hours went by before it landed on Soundcloud. Patience is a virtue I rarely had to practice when finding music over the last few years, but that first experience with "Glory" may be just a small taste of the very near future.

There will always be the savvy, the outlaws, those who can navigate the back alleys of the internet. But the average person isn’t going to use torrents when they have an enormous amount of music streaming at their fingertips. So if the subscription models works on a mass level, as the labels are hoping, it will become hard to resist joining a subscribed side yourself. Exclusivity is a key component when trying to entice fans to become subscribers, I can’t imagine the artists aligned with Tidal will have their product on Spotify and Apple Music. Will Jay's next album even be available on iTunes? The streaming services are starting to resemble cable television, everyone will have the basic package but will have to pay extra for packages with the premium stuff like HBO. Apple Music will make Drake into Game of Thrones. Don't have HBO or Apple Music? Too bad, you're not seeing the show or hearing the album unless you're willing to travel to the the darkest depths of the internet. You know the sites that require you to cut off Norton and pray for the best. Right now we know Walking Dead is on AMC, Monday Night Football is on ESPN. Soon we'll have to memorize which service all our favorite artists are aligned with as well. 

After over a decade of being plagued by leaks and downloads, the labels might have finally defeated their adversary - the free music consumer. Instead of trying to sell single albums, they are selling subscriptions that package an extensive library of albums along with our most popular artists. It’s an old experience modernized thanks to applications and smartphones. The open world of music is shrinking, we are looking at a future where you won’t be able to casually send links to your friends, only the ones in your circle that is under the same service. Music goes from the open of the 2000s back to an exclusive club with a cover charge. The unanswered questions are piling up. Will these streaming services come equipped with their own player? It'd be self-defeating to make that player embeddable, so what will happen to blogs when they aren’t able to embed the latest singles? Websites will just be links to the streaming sites that can only be used by subscribers. What happens to Billboard when albums are no longer purchased at all but streamed via a subscription service? Right now my only real limitation to listening to every song I could possibly want to is time, soon we could ironically return to something closer to the pre-internet explosions. If you didn't buy it, you didn't hear it. We could be witnessing a seismic shift.  

Maybe, I’m overreacting. There’s no way they can stop us, we are the internet, and we are invincible. Maybe not. Case in point, Tyler The Creator has an interview with Seth Rogen you won’t find through Google or Twitter. It’s an exclusive for subscribers that download and joined his Golf Media application. He has found a way to curate content behind a veil that can only be seen by his most diehard fans. It's oddly unsettling, almost shocking, to hear about something existing on the internet that I really, genuinely, actually can't find without paying, to see "who's got the link?" comments on Reddit met with only silence. That's how deeply spoiled we've all become, actually not being able to have something we want seems like a violation of the laws of nature, gravity turned upside down. Maybe that attitude will prove to be hubris, the arrogance of an era that came and went. Maybe the internet won't always win.  

That kind of music bunkering is the end goal of the labels, and by extension Apple Music. Streaming isn’t just the future, the industry wants streaming to become the only option. Back in the day you had to get your music from the record shops, Mom and Pop stores, Best Buy, F.Y.E. That system was destroyed and decerntralized by the web, but now it's being resurrected. We could be living in the last days of free music my friends. They want the music industry back the way it was. They want us to pay again. Is it really so unthinkable that they'll get what they want?   

[By Yoh, aka The ApocYohlypse, aka @Yoh31]

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