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The Free Streaming Gravy Train Is Coming to an End

A deal between Spotify and a major label signals the beginning of the end to no-fee music access

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The first time I booted up Spotify in the summer of 2011, it felt like I was getting away with something. How could a music platform be easier than piracy, legally condoned by the highly litigious music industry, and free? As a college kid who received a copyright warning from Columbia University’s IT department for illegally downloading Rubber Soul that very same summer, it was all I could do to not drop to my knees, weeping and singing, How sweet the sound that saved a pirate wretch like me!

So it was with a twinge of sadness that I learned Spotify appears to be caving on its yearslong effort to keep its free tier as the most bafflingly great deal in digital media. On Tuesday the streaming service announced a deal with Universal Music Group that will allow the record label to keep albums exclusive to Spotify’s $10-per-month paid tier for up to two weeks after release. The change takes effect immediately, so impending releases from artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, and Feist could make use of the new windowing strategy.

Over the years Spotify has cycled through a variety of tactics to hamstring its free service and encourage people to upgrade to a paid subscription. Cheapskates have, at various times, faced monthly time limits, desktop-only streaming, and limitations like only being able to listen to albums or playlists on shuffle. But until now, Spotify always ensured that its free and paid tiers had access to identical libraries. The company’s PR battle with Taylor Swift hinged on this issue: Swift thought that Spotify’s free tier devalued her music, but Spotify wouldn’t budge on its policy and ultimately lost her catalog. “Here’s the overwhelming, undeniable, inescapable bottom line: the vast majority of music listening is unpaid,” Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wrote during the peak of the Swift dispute. “If we want to drive people to pay for music, we have to compete with free to get their attention in the first place.”

But the dynamics of the music industry have changed since the Swift-Spotify showdown in 2014. Apple Music has emerged as a powerful rival that has a regular rotation of exclusive content and doesn’t offer a free tier. Tidal, which is also pay-only, has offered just enough zeitgeist-capturing moments to be important without being popular. And streaming is now the biggest revenue source for recorded music in the United States, meaning labels are beginning to view it as their primary means of distribution rather than a digital experiment. After losing control of the way people access music due to piracy, labels are trying to inch their way back to controlling distribution without sending us all scurrying back to BitTorrent.

Spotify isn’t the only free service feeling pressure to generate more revenue for artists and labels. The music industry has been growing ever louder in its complaints over the paltry royalty payments offered up by YouTube, one of the world’s most popular music platforms. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, music creators earn $1 for every 1,000 streams of a song on YouTube but earn at least $7 for every 1,000 streams on Spotify or Apple Music.

The RIAA is leading the charge in a political campaign to compel Congress to update the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make it harder for people to upload unlicensed content on platforms like YouTube. The music industry argues that the change would reduce piracy; open-internet advocates say the law is used as a tool for censorship. No matter how that battle plays out, it’s clear that the days of too-good-to-be-true free digital services will soon be behind us. We’ve reached the point where there’s too much money at stake.