My excitement for the new Frank Ocean album was high, and it lasted until I read those three filthy little words: “Apple Music exclusive”.
Platform exclusives for new music drive me absolutely crazy. Since I prefer to buy music than to stream it, platform exclusives for buying are particularly infuriating to me, but for you exclusives for streaming might be more offensive. Either way, welcome in: this rage-tent is big enough for both of us. I guess the corporatization of the internet was inevitable all along. But of all the defeats we’ve suffered over the years, the partitioning of the internet and digital media into walled gardens has been, for me, the most tragic.
I’m happy to keep an open mind about some aspects of what it means for a megastar to release music in 2016. Surprise releases are fun; multimedia releases are the new normal; the idea that the work is not “finished” and that the artist reserves the right to alter and reimagine the music later, OK, it’s jarring to me but I’ll honor the relationship they want to their work.
But platform exclusives are unforgivable.
Going back at least to the early days of VHS (that’s a link to a Tripod website, because you’re goddamned right it is), media companies have had a tortured relationship with, well, media. The disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 stands out as a high water mark of regulatory capture. Time in this industry is most definitely a flat circle. New technology,: fear, litigation, tone-deafness, ham-fistedness, rapprochement, monetization. Like clockwork.
Look, I was there for Napster, Limewire, Kazaa… I realize that when zero-marginal-cost piracy comes along to ruin your afternoon, you’re gonna get a little defensive. Personally, I would hope that I wouldn’t get sue-teenagers-into-bankruptcy defensive, but, OK, I’ll meet ’em somewhere in the middle. But this isn’t about piracy anymore, if it ever was.
This is about carving out market power. It’s about middlemen eating the people’s desire for stories and songs and beautiful pictures. This is just like the zombie-parasitic world I’ve written about extensively in the case of academic publishing: artists want to create and earn a living, the public wants to be entertained, and all of that energy and love and goodwill is sucked up by a bunch of corner-office nobodies in between. We needed them once, our loveless pact with the capital needed to press and promote discs, but do we need them still? Maybe I’m being naive and we need them still: hosting a digital media empire ain’t free, I’m sure. But either way we’ve been duped.
Forgive me if I don’t find that any less disgusting just because Jay-Z is the one who owns Tidal.
The history of the commercial media landscape is littered with names that have become dirty epithets in the mouths of fans—their customers! ClearChannel, Ticketmaster, Comcast, LiveNation, the RIAA, the DMCA. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve got iTunes and Tidal on my list too. Making money off of the pop cultural public’s desire for music and moving pictures shouldn’t be so hellishly adversarial and complicated. At some point in the middle of the flat circle for music it looked like we had a tentative accord: make it as easy and enjoyable to buy music legally as it is to pirate, and you can still bite off a chunk of the money pie: fine. Just stay out of our way. Oops: that accord is shredded.
Am I surprised that platform exclusives, that make it more difficult and more inconvenient for consumers to enjoy the music they like, increase piracy? Of course not.
The economics of the internet rests on platform lock-in and network effects, the beating heart and dark soul of the industrial organization of the digital age. For social networks like Facebook, for two-sided platforms like Uber, these characteristics are innate. We must refuse to submit to the fallacy that the same is true for media. The only thing that makes the analogy is the strategic behavior of the media middlemen. What is it about selling or buying music that makes it inherently subject to network effects? Nothing at all. In the case of music, platforming is not a response to the natural characteristics of the product or the market. It’s just a flexing of market power.
One thing that I can’t quite put my finger on is why the siloing of music into platforms bothers me in a way that the siloing of TV does not. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are all buying or financing their own exclusive content, and signing exclusive deals to host third-party content; yet I find myself much more relaxed about that than the equivalent for music.
I think one reason for this is that buying and enjoying music seemed to me to work just fine in various technological contexts before Tidal and Apple started screwing around with it. Platform exclusives in music are unambiguously worse than previous prevailing ways to legally buy music. Going to the record store, DRM-free mp3 purchases, listening to the radio(!) are all—correct me if I’m wrong—clearly less restrictive ways to buy music. By contrast, the dopey Leviathan of the cable industry has, shall we say, a poor favorability rating. As we dragged television kicking and screaming into the New World—as broadband speeds finally subjected the TV industry to the same stress tests as the music industry had buckled under—we brought TV up a few notches, but accidentally paved the way to drag music down.
Maybe I should be as upset about Netflix exclusives as I am about iTunes exclusives. Maybe one day I will be. For now, though, they are apples and oranges, since the legacy technologies in the two cases are so very different.
The real tragedy here is that the next generation will see all this as the status quo. I’m not advocating a narcissistic nostalgia for bygone days of holding a record in your hands or taping from the radio. I just don’t want us to forget that music can be a thing that you pay for and own and enjoy, straightforwardly, a product and not a service. I want the middle layer to compete on prices, not exclusivity contracts. I want my relationship to enjoying music to be unlike trying to cancel a gym membership.
In sum, platform exclusives for music are evil and must be punished. Hopefully one day I will be able to legally buy the new Frank Ocean album without supporting the siloing of music. I hear it’s pretty good.
(post image via xkcd)