Let’s talk about business for a minute, or more specifically, competition within it. Let’s define competition in business like we’re writing the introduction to a boring high school graduation speech: the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines competition (as it relates to business and economics) as "the effort of two or more parties acting independently to secure the business of a third party by offering the most favorable terms."
In most scenarios, competition means that the consumer is getting a better product than they would have if one company had a monopoly. Simply put: Company A looks at what Company B does and tries to do it better. Company B notices this, and in order to survive and maintain or grow their market share, changes their product in an attempt to improve upon the offering of Company A.
There’s a problem when relating this to the business of music streaming services, however.
In most fields of business, companies are trying to offer the best possible version of a product, making it different and hopefully better than what’s already out there. In streaming, the product is music, but music isn’t being generated by Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and the other streaming players themselves, but by artists who are already a part of listeners’ libraries and lives.
Music apps and audio players seem to be pretty well figured out at this point, though, so there isn’t much room for competing services to stand out in that area. Although they offer different playlists and curation tools, Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal don’t significantly differ in how well their core functionalities operate, so it’s tough to convince a user to switch from one service to another, largely because there’s no compelling reason to.
JUST LET THE KIDS HAVE THE MUSIC BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT IT SHOULD BE ABOUT. - METRO BOOMIN
Apple Music and Tidal have found one way to be unique from each other—exclusive releases—and while that sounds like a win for them, it’s quickly turning into a loss for us, the music fans.
"Just searched iTunes for 10 minutes for song cry by Jay Z and couldn't find it, then searched 4 Blueprint and remembered Tidal vs Apple,” Metro Boomin tweeted recently, following that up with, "This streaming war shit is so sus with all the exclusivity bullshit. Just let the kids have the music because that's what it should be about... Shouldn't have to have subscriptions to 2 different services just to listen to blueprint and views. Makes me miss how simple CDs were.”
Streaming services promise the entire world of music at our fingertips, but when multiple companies are focusing their energy on securing exclusives, the consumer suffers. If I'm an Apple Music subscriber and Apple exclusively streams Drake's new album, I'm not getting a better product than if all platforms were streaming the album—the album still sounds the same whether it's an exclusive or not. Is my experience improved because friends and fellow music lovers who have chosen different platforms can't hear the album when I can? No, instead the impact of the cultural moment is lessened, as fewer people can participate in it.
Music streaming is a rare industry where competition is not benefiting the consumer—even when it's benefiting the artists—and this is because of the focus on exclusives. Competition among streaming services is supposed to make their respective products stronger, but all it’s doing at the moment is creating separate pools from which consumers can draw content.
You can’t promise to offer everything if you don’t have access to it all, and even worse, it recently came to light that this competition is getting in the way of the art itself. Kanye West said that the streaming war between Apple and Tidal is the reason another Watch The Throne album with Jay Z won’t happen and the reason that he and Jay Z didn’t feature on the album version of Drake’s “Pop Style,” both due to issues of contractual platform exclusivity. We have now reached the point that the distributors of music are indirectly censoring what art can be created and distributed.
We have now reached the point that the distributors of music are indirectly censoring what art can be created and distributed.
Subscribing to multiple streaming services is one solution, albeit an expensive one, and an option most music fans (certainly not Metro Boomin) don’t want to consider. Thankfully, it appears as though Spotify has decided not to get embroiled in the exclusives arms race, and will be keeping a free, ad-supported tier.
Spotify's Global Head of Creator Services Troy Carter told Billboard that exclusives are bad for the industry and that he doesn’t think paid-only streaming is practical when there are those who "can't even afford gas for their car." Chief Strategy and Chief Content Officer Stefan Blom reinforced that point, saying, "We don't believe that it is good for the artist. [...] I think you need to meet the fans wherever they are.”
While a division of the music pool amongst streaming companies might not be as big a problem if they all offered ad-supported tiers accessible to everyone, the fact remains that the music we love has already been made to suffer due to industry competition.
It doesn’t seem possible for any of these companies to offer the most favorable terms to a consumer, as the dictionary puts it, because as it stands now, it’s not possible for any of them to give the consumer the entirety of what they want. Their terms are favorable in different ways, but at the end of the day it's the businesses that are benefiting from the competition, not the consumer.
Of course, the streaming business is still relatively new to the music industry, and it seems that enough people are unhappy with the current state of things that a solution is bound to appear soon. Whoever finds that solution will change the music industry, and we'll all be better off because of it, regardless of how we choose to stream our music.
Read another side of the debate—a defense of Apple Music exclusives—here.