So Taylor Swift’s big music-streaming standoff has come to an abrupt end, with the pop star announcing late yesterday that her entire back catalog is to be made available on all streaming services, including Spotify and Amazon Music Unlimited, as of midnight.
— Taylor Nation (@taylornation13) June 8, 2017
It was way back in November, 2014 that the pop star made the decision to pull her music from Spotify, claiming that the service’s free tier devalued her music. “I think there should be an inherent value placed on art,” she told Time in an interview. “I didn’t see that happening, perception-wise, when I put my music on Spotify. Everybody’s complaining about how music sales are shrinking, but nobody’s changing the way they’re doing things. They keep running toward streaming, which is, for the most part, what has been shrinking the numbers of paid album sales.”
Her music remained on some premium music-streaming services, including Beats Music, which was later acquired by Apple, and Rhapsody. “With Beats Music and Rhapsody, you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums,” added Swift. “And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings, or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music. I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created, and that’s that.”
This should not have come as a major surprise, given Swift’s previously stated opinions about how music should be accessed. Earlier in 2014, Swift penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, setting the tone for what was to come. “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently,” she wrote. “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
Despite some initial teething troubles, Taylor Swift was on board for the ride at the launch of Apple Music in 2015, and the two later teamed up for some exclusive content. But Spotify, the most popular on-demand music-streaming service in the West, remained on Swift’s blacklist until yesterday.
So what, exactly, has changed in the past two and a half years to change her mind?
Too big to ignore
When Swift pulled her music from Spotify in 2014, there was speculation about what this could mean for music-streaming, with some predicting that it could represent a shift of power back toward artists and labels. Capitalizing on this newfound industry bravado, Jay Z decided to take on Beats and Spotify with the acquisition of Scandinavian music-streaming services Tidal and WiMP for $ 56 million, in January 2015. A few months later, Tidal relaunched at an awkward ceremony with some big-name backers present, including Beyoncé, Daft Punk, and Alicia Keys. But things didn’t quite work out, and Tidal ended up selling a 33 percent stake to Sprint.
Earlier this year, Spotify announced it now has 50 million paying subscribers, up from 15 million at the time of Swift’s tantrum in late 2014. Spotify cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek has always maintained that offering a free ad-supported tier was all about leverage — it allows the company to lure new users on board without any kind of financial commitment, show them how good the service is, then ramp up the charm offensive to entice them to part with their hard-earned cash. In fact, 80 percent of Spotify subscribers began as free users, according to Ek.
Spotify has stopped announcing its overall user base, seemingly confident enough to now tout its paying subscribers alone. But using the historical 4/1 ratio that has typically represented its free/paid user base, it’s possible that Spotify has something close to 200 million users overall. And the company’s paid user base has typically maintained at least 25 percent growth over six-month periods, often much more. Throw those numbers into a giant melting pot, add a pinch of Ek’s “80 percent conversion” from free to paid, and what we have is potential for a considerable amount of growth still to come.
So Spotify is in good health, it’s mulling going public, and the future seems to be rosy for music-streaming in general — just this week, Apple Music announced 27 million subscribers, up from 20 million in December. This could be one reason why Swift may have unfurled the white flag on her anti-streaming crusade — it’s just getting too big to ignore. People aren’t downloading as much as they used to, and streaming is very much where it’s at.
But there are other reasons. Ahead of going public, Spotify has been building bridges with the record industry. Back in April, the company confirmed long-standing rumors that some new releases would be limited to premium subscribers for two weeks, which is leaning closer toward the model that Swift had envisaged, though it’s still miles away from her original assertion that she should have the choice to make her music available only to those who are paying. But Spotify has conceded some ground to the industry, which may well have been enough to pique her interest.
Elsewhere, Spotify has been doubling down on its efforts to help the music industry. The company recently acquired Mediachain to develop blockchain technology that matches royalties with rights holders — it’s basically all about entrenching timestamps and ownership data into media assets (such as songs), helping to ensure the owner receives their royalties. In short, Spotify has been working hard to ingratiate itself with the music industry.
The timing of Swift’s announcement is also notable. There has been a longstanding feud between Swift and fellow artist Katy Perry, and Perry actually has a new album coming out today. While it’s unlikely that Swift’s decision to bring her music to Spotify was influenced by Perry, her decision about when to do it may well have been linked.
But there is one overriding factor here worth considering. Taylor’s announcement only mentions her “back catalog.” Her 1989 album has been out for almost three years, and having passed 10 million album sales it is likely approaching saturation point — so why not ramp up the revenues by launching her existing music on the biggest streaming service out there? With a new album reportedly coming this fall, it will be interesting to see which streaming services (if any) are given access to the new music. But given the wording of the announcement, don’t be too surprised if it’s business as usual for Swift, with CDs, iTunes, and possibly even an Apple Music streaming exclusive awaiting eager fans.