Category Archives: Music

Keep Your Money, I Got My Own: Lemonade and TIDAL Exclusivity

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As has long been expected after Beyoncé released “Formation” and announced a tour in support of a single song, the full album Lemonade debuted exclusively on TIDAL last night, alongside a visual album debut on HBO (which will also be exclusive to TIDAL after a 24-hour streaming window on HBO’s own services).

Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and (to a lesser extent) Rihanna’s ANTI before it, Lemonade’s TIDAL exclusivity fed into the internet’s running joke about the streaming music service, which has struggled to gain a foothold in a marketplace where Spotify was “first” and Apple Music benefits from pre-existing cultural saturation. TIDAL first attempted to differentiate itself based on its streaming quality, but has since focused on its exclusive content, helped by both the immediate social circle of founder Jay-Z and an artist-friendly policy that helps the service attract exclusives like Prince (whose absence from more established streaming services was a significant discourse following his death).

But TIDAL has struggled for a variety of reasons: those who already subscribe to other services (and who have built playlists, gotten used to interfaces, etc.) don’t see the logic of subscribing to more than one, given the relatively small number of exclusives (whereas TV has reached a point where this idea is more palatable); those who don’t subscribe to any services because they listen to music for free on YouTube are growing ever more resentful of paying more music in general; those who actually prefer to buy music resent the fact that exclusive albums like The Life Of Pablo and Lemonade are not (at least initially) available through outlets like iTunes or formats like Vinyl where they prefer to make those purchases. And while The Life Of Pablo did convince some people to subscribe, the album’s eventual release on Apple Music and Spotify (which you can use for free, with ads, unlike TIDAL) actually spurred talk of a class action lawsuit from those angry they’d been tricked into subscribing to the service.

That lawsuit foregrounds how the discursive construction of a TIDAL exclusive has yet to be wholly defined: it’s true that West and TIDAL were never clear whether the deal was long term (not that West is ever clear about anything), but I’m more interested in the way the reasons behind the choice can be articulated. Cynically, exclusive content exists to boost subscriptions, and to help the company’s bottom line when a significant number of the people who sign up for free trials forget to cancel their subscriptions or, in TIDAL’s ideal scenario, enjoy the service and continue to subscribe by choice. But West also used the time The Life of Pablo was streaming on TIDAL to continually tweak the album, the streaming window becoming an extension of the lengthy public tinkering with the album West performed on social media. TIDAL exclusives might be there to drive subscriptions, but they can also serve the artist-friendly brand, giving artists—or, at least artists who are Kanye West and intimately connected with the site’s founder—and their fans hope that it can become a platform for experimental modes of distribution.

The same does not apply to Lemonade: this, like ANTI, is a complete and finished album, and is similar to the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 that still launched exclusively, but to the industry standard iTunes Store. The logic there was the presence of the visual album, which required digital distribution, and which at that point precluded the use of streaming services: with both TIDAL and Apple using video—and soon television—as significant parts of their streaming platforms (with Apple the home to exclusive music video debuts like “Hotline Bling,” along with Taylor Swift’s 1989 concert film), Lemonade is an experience fit for the current streaming era, but not one that would have been impossible as a more traditional album release on iTunes. Therefore, it’s easy to read its placement on TIDAL as the most significant effort yet at driving subscriptions through exclusive content (with no clear window on if or when the album will be moving outside of TIDAL*).

* Well, there wasn’t a clear window. Hours later, The New York Times reports that Lemonade will arrive on iTunes at midnight tonight (Monday), per inside sources. Less clear, however, is whether or not the visual album will also be available for purchase as part of the bundle, or whether that content could remain on TIDAL exclusively, which seems like an option. The album, meanwhile, is also now available to purchase on TIDAL, as eventually happened with The Life of Pablo.

But in addition to thinking about the cynical business-oriented decision-making behind Lemonade’s exclusivity, there’s also a narrative of what is being sacrificed by making this choice. This likely includes, at least for the moment, any type of Billboard chart placement: TIDAL did not report its streaming numbers for The Life Of Pablo to Nielsen, meaning that despite obviously being the biggest album release of the year thus far, Beyoncé may not have the number one album in the country unless TIDAL (conveniently, which makes it possible) chooses to report those numbers this week. There are cynical business reasons for this (like hiding how few people are really streaming music on TIDAL, even with exclusives), but it also helps support the idea that TIDAL is doing things differently, and “challenging the status quo”: West eventually celebrated hitting No. 1 with The Life Of Pablo, so they’re not devaluing Billboard entirely, but he did so noting it was the first album to go Number One off of streaming.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.45.13 PMThat’s admittedly a bit misleading, given it was available for sale on TIDAL and West’s website and much—and potentially all, as I can’t get a handle on whether or not TIDAL included streaming numbers when the album went wider—of this likely came from Spotify and Apple Music, but it had the highest share of streaming of any No. 1, and Billboard reports noted the impressive feat of reaching “the pinnacle” even after being “available” on TIDAL for six weeks beforehand. It was West and TIDAL saying “We can offer the album on TIDAL, tinker with it for six weeks, and we’ll still go No. 1 when we release the album wider.” Regardless, it creates the potential for releasing an album on TIDAL as appearing “outside” of the traditional industry standard, albeit on a service that very much desperately wants to become an industry standard, and which is run by an artist who is just as much a business at the end of the day.

TIDAL will never be an outright counter-cultural service, but it’s a potential node of articulation as it works to convince the public that its exclusive content is eventually going to coalesce into a competitive advantage in the streaming marketplace. TIDAL is built for a world in which everyone subscribes to one music service or another, but we are not yet in this world, and whether or not the current marketplace can reasonably sustain three major services is still an open question. And while Lemonade cannot alone resolve that question, it certainly brings the conversation around “TIDAL Exclusives” further into the mainstream, and will generate a new wave of free trials they hope we forget about.

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Go Away, Justin: Carly Rae Jepsen, “I Really Like You,” and the Business of Bieber

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In January, Scooter Braun—the head of Schoolboy Records and manager to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others—gave us our first indication of how Carly Rae Jepsen would be following up “Call Me Maybe.”

True, she followed it up with a really great pop album that got unfairly ignored, but this is different. This is the follow up to a song of the summer, an earworm on a scale we rarely see from a “debut” artist (the quotation marks referring to her previous success in Canada, typically erased in her media narrative following her breakout success). And as Braun’s comments to Billboard indicate, there was pressure on Jepsen to recapture the success that started it all:

“Her new single is coming in March. I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of “Call Me Maybe.” And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”

That’s a lot of pressure for a new single, and I would argue that “I Really Like You” delivered as best it could: it’s not “Call Me Maybe,” but nothing can recreate the sense of discovery that came with that song. The narrative of an unsung artist being elevated to the status of sudden stardom through the help of some famous friends was not just about Justin Bieber/Selena Gomez lipdubs—it was that the song was something people discovered, and then shared, and then acted out themselves and shared again. It became, for lack of a better term, a “cultural phenomenon” in a way we rarely see, and in a way that makes creating something on the same scale nearly impossible.

“I Really Like You” succeeds in being catchy, and got the type of attention it deserved: lots of headlines debating whether or not it lives up to “Call Me Maybe,” with none of them being able to definitively claim the single lacks the same DNA musically. The issue is that there’s no way to recreate a cultural phenomenon, which is a big part of why my personal interest in Jepsen’s followup has more to do with the album—packed to the gills with interesting producers and collaborators—than with the single, which based on Braun’s comments is engineered to tap into a vein that I would argue was a product of a specific time and a specific set of circumstances.

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Come and Stream Your Songs?: The Jukebox Soundtrack in the YouTube/Spotify Era


When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.

This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.

Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.

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2 Channels of Discovery: YouTube, Stardom, and 5 Seconds of Summer


Around two years ago, America was meeting One Direction.

Pop music moves quickly: since then, One Direction has released three albums and a feature documentary/concert film, and is preparing for a U.S. stadium tour later this year. Building on my initial consideration of the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, the band and its fanbase have been a point of interest for me during this period. There was the time their fans threatened The Who on Twitter, the time they fought back against restrictive definitions of fandom reinforced by Ubisoft in a YouTube ad, and the time when Larry Stylinson shippers were shamed by promotions for a documentary airing in the U.K. And that’s only scratching the surface of a band and fanbase that remain at the epicenter of contemporary notions of stardom both on the Internet and within the music industry (where the band continues to function in a marginalized yet lucrative corner different from the “success” of the boy bands of my own youth).

Within this context, my brother Ryan—who, if you’re unaware, writes about music as I write about television—reached out for my thoughts on One Direction’s opener on their upcoming stadium tour, 5 Seconds of Summer, who are currently embarking on a similar American tour. His interest was in thinking about the function of genre, as the Australian foursome functions as what he calls “the next logical evolution of One Direction” through their direct engagement with rock music. Whereas One Direction’s expansion into the rock space was part of a gradual evolution (and a clear claim at legitimation relative to the bubblegum pop of their “youth”), 5 Seconds of Summer is starting from a place of playing their own instruments, writing their own songs, and resisting the label of “boy band” despite being a group of four teenagers with carefully cultivated haircuts.

The band raises many interesting questions, and considering the relationship between the two bands—who are not coincidentally managed by the same company—offers lots of broader considerations of the way we can understand “boy bands” as a construct that can cross generic lines in our contemporary musical moment. Musically, “She Looks So Perfect” looks set to make a run as a potential summer anthem, and the EP of the same name sold 143,000 copies in its debut (which is not far off from the 176,000 copies One Direction sold of their first LP in 2012).

But what I’m interested in exploring is what I discovered when I was prompted to consider the band more carefully. Searching for the band on Spotify turned up She Looks So Perfect and its four carefully curated pop songs, designed to break the band into the American market after previous success in the U.K. and their native Australia. However, what I found on YouTube was something entirely different, an extensive back catalog of original material and video content. The discovery has me thinking about the narrative of “discovery” as a form of branding, and the ways the band’s launch shows an interest in maintaining that narrative as the primary lens through which the band is to be viewed.

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It Came In Like a [Carefully Calculated] “Wrecking Ball”

Earlier this year, Billboard announced that it would be including YouTube streaming in its calculations for its Hot 100 chart. The same week, “Harlem Shake” became the number one song in America based on thirty seconds of it being used in thousands of viral videos.

Billboard chose to implement its new rules that week because it saw an opportunity to draw headlines, furthering their relevance while damaging their legitimacy (see the elder McNutt on that particular subject). They could have implemented them a week earlier, or a week later, but I’d bet money on them waiting for a moment to debut the metric when they could claim a song debuted at #1 because of their new streaming numbers that put Billboard on the pulse of how people are listening to music (Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo suggests it just happened to be that week, but I call shenanigans).

The impact of streaming has been less dramatic in the weeks since Harlem Shake’s five-week run atop the Billboard charts: One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” broke a Vevo record for most views in its first 24 hours and debuted at No. 2, but the single failed to gain traction and plummeted out of the Top 10 the following week (to No. 15). “Breaking the Vevo record” has become a new way for fans to support an artist, as Miley Cyrus set a record with “We Can’t Stop” (unseating Justin Bieber, who had unseated One Direction, who had unseated Justin Bieber), which was broken by One Direction, then tested—with some controversy—by Lady Gaga, before being claimed again by Cyrus with “Wrecking Ball.”

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Resisting This Kiss: A Carly Rae Jepsen Followup

Earlier this year, I offered some thoughts on the transnational nature of Carly Rae Jepsen’s meteoric rise on the pop charts, before “Call Me Maybe” become the song of the summer and before its memeification spread to the outer reaches of the solar system. Since that point, the meme has threatened to swallow the artist, which Katherine St. Asaph focuses on in a recent MTV Hive article, “How the Internet Killed Carly Rae Jepsen.”

It’s an interesting piece that highlights the low sales for Jepsen’s album Kiss, which has sold under 100,000 copies. St. Asaph makes the case that Jepsen’s attempt to establish herself as an artist has been impossible in the wake of her unprecedented success:

This sounds counterintuitive; shouldn’t it help Jepsen for thousands of people to remix, recreate and otherwise rejoice over her song? But the meme’s not about Jepsen; it’s about her song, and she is secondary…This is the problem Carly Rae Jepsen’s facing: loving “Call Me Maybe” as a meme hasn’t made people invested in her as a musician. To be fair, she’s at a few disadvantages. She’s 26, making music most people would call teenpop. She’s best associated with Justin Bieber, someone who’s still a moptop preteen in the non-fan imagination. Her 2008 debut, Tug of War, inexplicably remained Canadian-only. And she isn’t the type to flaunt the outsize personalities that bring success in U.S. pop. She’s just charming, to the point of being demure.

The article features some good analysis of how recent changes to the Billboard charts have changed the nature of pop hits, taking new metrics into account, but it doesn’t ask a question that has been on my mind—and that I’ve talked about with my brother Ryan, whose beat I’m encroaching on talking about this—since the album debuted: why was this album released when it was?

Answering this question does not dramatically change Jepsen or the album’s fate, but it does offer some different context for the logics Jepsen’s career is operating under at this moment.

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Group Writing Project Update: Day 4 Highlights

So, as you may have noticed, I had a Top 5 yesterday for ProBlogger’s Group Writing Project. And, since it’s a “Group” writing project, there’s over a thousand entries. I featured six of them yesterday, and there’s another five today I think are worth some time.

First, Jason Griffin at TVAholic runs down the 5 “bubble shows” which he wants to see renewed this week, which is conveniently timed to my Upfront Extravaganza. I agree with some of his choices, and one has even already been renewed, but the fact remains that everything is still up in the air.

At Toon Brew, meanwhile, Neal runs down his Five Favourite Comic Book Characters. His #1 is okay with me, but the rest of the list makes me feel bad for remaining so very disconnected from comic strips outside of my core three. Expanding that horizon might be a project for when I’m really bored at some point, and perhaps some further comic book purchases are in order.

On the music side of things, JesterTunes has a list of Five Songs That Make Jester Happy. I’ve added my own songs to their list in the comments section, and I think that happy music is something everyone should have. The most recent addition to my Happy playlist is John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.”

Meanwhile, Alan over at Big Ugly Couch runs down what everyone who has ever made a powerpoint needs to read right now. Seriously, people, I’ve sat through too many excruciating presentations to let you go on like this. Alan’s five suggestions are so bloody simple, and yet so categorically ignored. I’ll also add that, in my view, whether it’s a discussion class or not, I want to see a thesis for your argument or a summary of your point, not just random questions. *Shakes Fist*

ScribbleKing, meanwhile, has an interesting argument regarding why studios should stop making big-budget films. He’s right, on a lot of accounts, but I worry that it’s too idealist. I think that as long as an audience exists for and a studio-mentality supports such films, there really isn’t much of a chance of that trend ending any time soon.

For the rest of the entries, head over to ProBlogger. There’s some really interesting stuff there, entertainment-related or not.


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