Forget Taylor Swift’s futile Spotify boycott. The real news emerging from the music industry this week was the launch of YouTube’s streaming service. The new service consists of YouTube with streaming functionality (as opposed to being a new product with a different name, thus benefitting from YouTube’s brand reach). On November 17, YouTube is also launching (in beta form) YouTube Music Key, a paid streaming option offering ad-free online and offline listening for $9.99. YouTube now enters an increasingly crowded streaming industry that ranges from all-purpose services such as Pandora and Spotify to specialty offerings such as Muzooka (which matches emerging artists with both fans and members of the music industry). And YouTube, owned by the world’s most valuable brand, has more power to disrupt the game than anyone. In the aftermath of YouTube’s entry to the streaming field, I predict six possible directions for the streaming business:
1. We will see a shakeout among major streaming platforms. The survivors, faced with fewer competitors, will call the shots on artist compensation even more so than they do today.
2. We may see the emergence of a few more specialty streaming services, such as Muzooka, to act as the intriguing alternatives to big players. For instance, we could see an alternative boutique streaming service by an artist consortia (involving someone like Jay Z, whose brand transcends music). We also may see the launch of private-label services from music-savvy brands such as Pepsi. A house service by an American Express, offered exclusively to its customers, could act as an effective music discovery platform as well as a customer acquisition and retention tool. (Moreover, in a combination of the artist-owned and corporate private label approaches, we could see a a corporate service launched in association with a star like Jay Z acting as investor, brand partner, curator, or any combination of those roles.)
3. The conversation about fair artist compensation that Taylor Swift reignited with her Spotify boycott will subside without effecting any change in artist compensation, just as the debate eventually petered out after Thom Yorke and the Black Keys boycotted Spotify. Another artist may make the topic trend again with a well-publicized boycott, but the conversation will remain contained to pundits who won’t move the needle.
4. The have-not artists — the vast majority of artists who are not superstars — will keep their content on streaming services and continue to be compensated as they are now. Why? Because they lack the choices that Taylor Swift has.
5. Savvy artists will learn how to use streaming as a promotional platform together with other digital platforms. They will rely on their recorded content to support touring, merchandising, song licensing revenue, and co-brands with businesses.
6. Finally, and most importantly: fans will continue to stream music, legally or illegally (as they are doing with Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989). When it comes to music streaming, fans are loyal to songs, not artists. Fans don’t care about boycotts. And fans are no longer willing to risk money on an entire album’s worth of songs from artists they do not know. Fans don’t necessarily take time to write Wall Street Journal editorials about fair compensation or blog posts about the future of streaming. Fans simply shape the future of music with their listening and buying habits. Album sales continue to slide, and Apple’s iTunes business is slumping. As Adele’s manager, Jonathan Dickins, says, “Streaming is the future.” Why? Because fans make it so.
Oh, and here’s one more related prediction you can take to the bank: Taylor Swift will continue to build her empire from touring, brand deals, and merchandising sales. Any revenue lost from boycotting Spotify will have little impact on her success. The release of the album 1989 in 2014 is all about priming the pump for the 1989 World Tour, which kicks off in May 2015 — which is where the real money is going to be made. (Her Red tour, which concluded in 2014, grossed $150 million.) Taylor Swift’s approach to building her career — writing her own songs, creating music that crosses genres, building a fan base through touring, and honoring her fans in person and on social media — is the blueprint for aspiring artists to emulate. And artists will need to include streaming in the process.
What are your predictions?