In the first week since its release, Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 sold at pre-streaming numbers—that makes sense, because she never streamed it. The only (legal) way to hear 1989 since its release on October 27 has been to shell out the cover price through iTunes, Amazon, or an honest-to-goodness nondigital record store. It didn’t pop up on Spotify, iTunes never had an exclusive preview, and any unauthorized rips uploaded to YouTube are promptly shot down from the cloud. Earlier this week Spotify announced that all of Swift’s back catalog had been pulled by her label, Big Machine, as well. Swift went on to sell nearly 1.3 million copies of 1989, the biggest first-week sales we’ve seen since 2002 and the most copies a single album has sold all year. Where does that leave the music-delivery system that until this year seemed to be on track to replace MP3 downloads, just as MP3s once replaced CDs?
By keeping 1989 under wraps until its release date, Swift disrupted the 21st-century ritual that accompanies the album release. You don’t line up at record stores until midnight on Monday evenings anymore; instead, artists gift you a free, weeklong listening party before their albums go on sale. The biggest profile acts, like Coldplay, David Bowie, and Daft Punk, unleash their records on iTunes, a moneyed platform with tight DRM protections. A notch or two down, you’ll find artists going through NPR’s First Listen. Spotify takes up the middle class, while independent artists generally premiere their stuff on Soundcloud. There’s a hierarchy in place, and artists like Taylor Swift are above it entirely.
Artists like Swift who refuse to stream their music at all are punching holes in the idea that if music exists, it can be instantly played online for free. Thom Yorke pulled a similar move last year, yanking his work with Atoms for Peace from Spotify; Radiohead’s In Rainbows has never been available on the streaming platform. Plenty of classic albums are nowhere to be found on Spotify: you won’t see any albums by Silver Jews, Smog, or Big Black, though most of their songs can be heard on YouTube via unauthorized uploads. But while YouTube is an easy fix for the listener who wants to satisfy their musical whims on demand without having to lug around an MP3 collection, it’s not an ideal way to engage with the music you love. Artists won’t see royalties from illicit uploads, and more often than not the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired.
It’s the same story with Soundcloud, a streaming service that lets anyone upload music for free but transcodes everything to 128 kbps—a flat, dry bitrate that’s a lot like hearing a song on the radio. Plenty of up-and-coming artists, like Banks or Saint Pepsi, could say they owe their career to the platform, and their publicly displayed play counts would back them up. But they’ve never seen any money from the streams themselves. Soundcloud only just started to offer a way for selected artists to get paid by essentially letting them sell ads in front of their songs.
Both YouTube, owned by Google, and SoundCloud, which just inked a deal with Warner Music Group, are tasked with keeping copyrighted material out of their system, since anyone can sign up and upload whatever they want for free. There are algorithms in place to detect and remove songs that are supposed to be under wraps, though they’re generally only applied to top-tier artists. You can find full Radiohead albums on YouTube easily, but just try uploading a single cut from 1989 and see how long it lasts. While Spotify struggles with keeping the most sought-after new music inside its system, YouTube and Soundcloud suffer the opposite problem: keeping Swift and her ilk out.
What you’re left with is a group of services that prioritize the needs of the top-earning artists, or as Slate’s Chris Molanphy puts it, the 1 percent. Spotify pays notoriously low royalties and doesn’t even seem to be able to turn a profit for itself, while SoundCloud’s new Premier accounts—the only kind that earn artists money—are currently available by invitation only. The biggest players in the music business are great at pulling in revenue despite the web’s unstable infrastructure. It’s too bad that top-tier labels and artists aren’t interested in building infrastructure that works for people besides Taylor Swift.