Will Pop Stars Make Streaming Irrelevant?

Tom Sarig - Woman listening to musicIn the wee hours of aThursday night, December 12, 2013, Beyoncé did the unthinkable by dropping a full length album on iTunes, without warning nor promotion, save simultaneous Facebook and Instagram posts, signaling her arrival once the music was already available. In addition to scarce marketing, something else was noticeably absent: the album was not available on Spotify or other album-streaming services, like the singer’s four previous albums, and would not be until almost a full year later. Still, available only for purchase at $16 a pop, the album sold over 800,000 copies over the weekend and became the fastest-selling digital album to date.

Following suit and, perhaps, taking it a step further, Taylor Swift shocked the world by literally removing her entire music catalog from Spotify, without even providing a chance for her top-selling album, 1989, to grace the site. Like Beyonce’s, the album was massively successful and, to date, has sold upwards of 8 million copies, which is a huge feat in 2015. In fact, the album is already the second best selling of the decade after just a year, second only to the groundbreaking success of British pop singer Adele’s 2011 release, entitled 21.

Consequently, it would only make sense for Adele to test her powers with the same strategy. Last week, before the release of her latest record, Adele announced that she, too, would only allow her music to be purchased instead of streamed. The result: the album has broken multiple all-time first week sales records, selling about 2 million copies in the last few days, and, because of it, the entire industry is going bananas.

This growing trend is a display of power in the highest order, and a lesson in marketing for the entire business of music. These stars understand the equity of their brands and the loyalty of their audience. The surprise, though, is that just 10 years ago, these album would probably have been leaked, illegally downloaded (like the nearly 30 billion songs pirated online between 2004 and 2009) and sold on the streets of New York City without the record company or the artist seeing a dime. However, that’s changed.
Interestingly enough, these examples stand in contrast to the industry belief that streaming services are the answer to piracy, and that record sales are a lost cause. Undoubtedly, creating spaces online for music to be accessed, with the support of the recording industry (and their benefit as well) has definitely improved what seemed to be a losing battle; yet those improvements haven’t made everyone happy, and at this point, they may be a crutch rather than therapy. What Beyoncé, Taylor and Adele show us is that people will buy if they have to, and, perhaps, making them “have to” is the answer. Only time will tell.