2016 was a great year for music and a horrible year for accessing music. The long-sought “celestial jukebox” was pillaged as various streaming services hoarded the biggest albums all for themselves, ensuring that no single platform could muster a complete music library. Artists like Rihanna and Chance the Rapper collected fat checks from tech companies while their shut-out fans tried to remember how BitTorrent works.
There was a hope that a new year would bring a change of heart to the music industry. After Frank Ocean punked Universal Music Group by giving it a carpentry soundtrack while releasing a critically acclaimed follow-up album just a day later independently, the record label vowed it was done with streaming exclusives. Yet news this week of a tie-up between Sprint and Tidal indicates that some music could end up locked behind a phone subscription in addition to a streaming one. And, for reasons unknown, more companies are planning to launch Spotify killers this year, even though Spotify doesn’t make money. So expect music streaming to remain needlessly cumbersome and confusing for the foreseeable future. Here’s the lay of the land:
For a while there, when Apple was rumored to be acquiring Tidal last summer, it seemed like the fractured music-streaming market might get some much-needed consolidation. But Tidal isn’t going anywhere. The Jay Z–backed company got a substantial investment this week from Sprint, which is purchasing a one-third stake in Tidal in exchange for “exclusive content that will only be available to current and new Sprint customers.” No one yet knows what that content will be, but us non-Sprint subscribers should be hoping it’s more playlists curated by Jay and fewer mega-albums from hip-hop’s biggest stars (Tidal-Sprint subscribers can also keep the rumored Jay Z response album to Lemonade all for themselves, if it ever materializes).
Spotify has avoided playing the exclusives game, and all signs point to that remaining the same this year. “Exclusives are bad for artists, bad for consumers, and bad for the whole industry,” Troy Carter, the Spotify exec in charge of managing artist relationships, said in August. Instead expect the company to double down on more algorithmically generated playlists like Discover Weekly. Sleeping technology is a booming industry, and CEO Daniel Ek has highlighted sleep as something Spotify could soundtrack, so maybe we’ll be getting some bedtime tunes this year.
With 20 million subscribers, Apple Music has become a formidable opponent to Spotify. This year could be the one when it gains an advantage with exclusives. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple is planning to invest heavily in original movies and television shows. The programming will be bundled with the $10-per-month Apple Music service. The move makes sense for the company, which needs to boost subscription revenue as its iPhone sales slow, but taking on Hollywood will be more challenging than working with the music industry, where Apple was already a key player. We’ll get our first taste of the company’s content slate with its game show about apps, a “Carpool Karaoke” series, and a scripted series about Dr. Dre.
The internet radio platform wants a piece of the on-demand streaming pie as well. Pandora plans to launch a Spotify competitor by the end of March. The service will have all the typical bells and whistles (millions of songs, no ads, offline listening), but Pandora believes its differentiating factor will be the recommendation algorithm it’s been honing for more than a decade with its free product. I’m fine with this existing as long as Pandora doesn’t vacuum up the Roots discography — Questlove has a Pandora show now and seems to be doing some promotion for the company in the lead-up to the new service’s launch.
Because there is no sector too far afield for Amazon to attempt to dominate, the company now has its own streaming service, Amazon Music Unlimited. Like Apple, Amazon will be able to use its massive reach to get the new service into a lot of people’s hands fast — it’s only $8 per month for Prime members, and $4 per month for an Echo-only version. And yes, it has exclusives, such as the discography of Garth Brooks. Amazon’s earlier music service had a narrow library that already skewed toward dad rock, so expect any future exclusives to target an older generation than the listeners Spotify and Apple are gunning for.
Yet another on-demand streaming service arrived in 2016 via SoundCloud Go, which aims to combine the millions of remixes and DJ sets on SoundCloud with traditional record-label catalogs. SoundCloud hasn’t said how many people subscribe to Go, but the company loses money and could run out of cash if it doesn’t get a new funding round in 2017. Spotify reportedly backed away from acquisition talks last year, leaving SoundCloud to fend for itself. Of the major streaming players, it’s definitely in the most precarious position.
Google quietly continues to offer the best deal in music streaming via YouTube Red. For $10 per month, you get YouTube Music (an on-demand music and video streaming service), Google Play Music (a separate on-demand music streaming service), an ad-free YouTube experience, and some exclusive shows and movies from YouTube creators. However, according to The Verge, Red had only 1.5 million paying subscribers as of last summer. Google is unlikely to pull the plug on Red — it has continued to support Google Play Music in relative obscurity for years as Spotify and Apple battle for streaming supremacy. But the service’s small user base shows that price alone isn’t enough to win the streaming wars.