Music streaming is the future, but how we get there is a problem very much stuck in the present.
The issues with streaming have been well documented, it seems like everyday we encounter new hurdles. How do Platinum-certified albums count in regards to streaming? How do we quantify the success of The Life Of Pablo given its unorthodox rollout? The issues that need to be resolved are seemingly endless and while we know where we need to go, getting there is a whole different animal.
Case in point, a practice now being called “windowing” looks to become a standard for music releases. Similar to OnDemand vs. Netflix, “windowing” would allow streaming providers to release content to paying subscribers before those with free subscriptions. Recently, at the Code/Media conference in California, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton predicted that “windowing” will soon become a common practice in music as a way to encourage people to go from free services to paying subscriptions.
"The kind of a service that we would like to see, going forward, is a subscription service. What they are going to wind up doing is...they are going to window. You are going to be able to hear the music first in a subscription service and later in a free service rather than the other way around."
We saw the frustration when TIDAL got The Life Of Pablo exclusive (and the frustration that still burns deep). Now, imagine that exclusivity for every single album released. It’s frightening. It seems against the nature of music to release songs and albums to some and make others wait, and I’d have to imagine for fans with cult followings, (Future, Beyonce, Minaj) a divide in the fan community could cripple an artist's branding. For its part, Spotify, the leading service with the kind of non-subscription model Lynton is targeting, had this to say about the practice of exclusive windowing:
"We’re not really in the business of paying for exclusives, because we think they’re bad for artists and they’re bad for fans. Artists want as many fans as possible to hear their music, and fans want to be able to hear whatever they’re excited about or interested in — exclusives get in the way of that for both sides. Of course, we understand that short promotional exclusives are common and we don't have an absolute policy against them, but we definitely think the best practice for everybody is wide release." - The Verge interview
It could also hurt how we quantify an album's success via charts, sales and streams. How can an artist expect their album to reach number one when fans without a subscription to that particular servide have to wait? Soon artists won't be asking their fans to cop their album, they'll be asking them to sign up for Apple Music, Spotify, TIDAL and Pandora.
It seems like once again fans are being slowly but sternly forced into opting in to a subscription service, and of course labels prefer the sure money of a cut of a set subscription fee versus a share of ad revenue per stream. But whether the public will follow the labels' interests or turn to more clandestine methods of getting the music they want remains to be seen.
What's most frustrating, though, is it seems like with every “solution” and with every “advance” we only end up with more questions. The future is still far, far, away, but it looks like we'll hit a lot of speed bumps on the way there.