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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Season Finale: Crazy-Ex Girlfriend – “Paula Needs To Get Over Josh!”

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Scott Everett White / The CW

There is no question that The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was among the year’s most ambitious shows, but it took me a while to warm to it.

The reason for this is actually fairly straightforward: I struggled with the fact that the “premise” of the show seemed so at odds with what made it compelling. Rebecca’s efforts to win the love and attention of Josh Chan were the central narrative engine of the show in the earlygoing, shaping her relationship with West Covina, and risking defining her character by a relationship I never bought. The show wanted to push against this, and uses its opening theme to give Rebecca a chance to articulate the intended irony of the show’s title, but the text and the title sequence didn’t always line up for me. The show was more about Josh than I wanted it to be, especially given that I thought Josh was kind of a dolt—I didn’t connect to the characters’ relationship, and so I didn’t connect to the primary way the show was pushing the story forward.

The show started to correct itself as it went along, and eventually it emerged with a fairly profound understanding of its premise: Rebecca may have come to West Covina because Josh lived there, but her actual “move” was focused less on what she was running to and more what she was running from: her unhappiness with her life in New York. And more recently, the show has approached a similarly profound realization that instead of moving toward Josh realizing that he was in love with Rebecca, his brief romantic moment with her would instead help him realize that he was unsatisfied in his relationship with Valencia. It was the show correcting my issue perfectly: Rebecca realizes that Josh was a means to an end of getting her into a healthier place, and Josh realizes that Rebecca was there to help him reach his potential (which extends into Rebecca helping him to get a job and believe in himself in other storylines).

And so I went into tonight’s finale believing that the show was heading in this direction, and was accordingly disappointed, although that’s as much on me as it is on the show. Basically, if everything had worked out the way I had wanted it to, there would be no show. Rebecca would be able to happily settle into a life of West Covina lawyering, free to pursue a relationship with Greg or anyone else. Josh could move on from Valencia, and pursue some of his various life goals in whatever way he saw fit. In the back half of the season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend basically choreographed its ideal ending, a realistic and honest consideration of the way we gain perspective in our lives, and so I went into this finale believing that this was imminent…which meant I also forgot that this was a television show.

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Louis C.K. was making a TV show: Of course he went into debt

Horace and PeteYou’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure: Louis C.K. went into debt to make Horace and Pete, his self-distributed, star-studded drama series. It came to light during a Howard Stern interview that, ultimately, represents C.K.’s most mainstream marketing yet for the project, and so his revelation comes as an implicit appeal: “buy my show so I can pay back my creditors.”

When I began reading reports about this interview, I made a joke on Twitter that Louis C.K. thought he was Beyonce, but he was really just Louis C.K. A few people thought that I was taking the piss out of him, but I wasn’t, really—I was just pointing out that he drastically misread the current TV marketplace, failing to realize that the “surprise launch” that rocketed Beyonce’s self-titled album to cultural event status in 2013 was never going to work for a TV series; it is impossible to create the type of sustained financial investment he imagined for this project. Being Louis C.K. still means his project was seen, purchased, and now covered by mainstream media, and will likely recoup its costs (and potentially profit) once additional sales and an eventual licensing deal are factored in—however, the idea that he could bankroll the production of additional episodes through the sales from the first four was a classic case of hubris, driven by that healthy combination of ego and entrepreneurism that has generally served him well but “failed” him here.

But the more I read news reports about C.K.’s apparent financial hardship, I struggle with the idea that we’re treating this as newsworthy. Have we forgotten that “going into debt to make a TV show” is actually the dominant way television gets made? Louis C.K. bypassed the studio/network/channel system to make his TV show, but he ultimately ended up funding it the same way everything gets made: you take a short-term loss in the interest of long-term gain, spending more than you’ll make from license fees (or in this case direct sales to consumers) knowing that you’ll eventually make money when the show enters into secondary markets. It’s called “deficit financing,” and while it’s true that these debts are typically not personal, usually weathered by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates who own TV studios, this is fundamentally what C.K. signed up for when he chose to self-produce an ongoing television series.

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For Your (SCMS And Flow) Consideration: Developing Critical Approaches to Media Industry Awards

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 12.30.23 AMThis week marks the yearly Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, being held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a fantastic opportunity for media scholars like myself to come together and share ongoing research as a field, and it’s one of my favorite times of year.

I have the good fortune to be presenting twice at this year’s conference. The first—G13 on Thursday morning from 11-12:45, if you’re putting together a schedule—is as part of a Workshop focused on studying media industries digitally, where I’ll be discussing the importance of researching Twitter as a platform within media industry contexts as well as how one can use Twitter as a tool to study the industry. I’m looking forward to hearing how others are engaging with digital research in our convergent era, and would encourage anyone with an interest or experience to come and share their thoughts in what will hopefully be a productive session.

However, I wanted to reflect a bit more on my second presentation, which will be held in the same room immediately following (H13)—this is both because of its connection to my past here on the blog and, most pressingly, some plans for the future.

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Why The Walking Dead Didn’t Promise to Walk Away From Georgia

georgia-travel-guide-the-walking-deadThe geographical movements of film and television production have long been understood through the concept of runaway production, an “exodus” of film and television projects from Hollywood to production centers across the United States, Canada, and around the world due to local production incentives and the growing infrastructure supported by them. States like Georgia have been the beneficiary of this now historical development, with generous tax incentives attracting blockbuster films and ongoing television series to an increasingly substantial production base supported by both local laborers and soundstages like Pinewood’s Atlanta Studios.

But while Georgia’s relationship with film and television could be understood as a byproduct of runaway production, its future depends on its ability to navigate a new production reality. In an environment where Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Louisiana, and Los Angeles—among others—are all actively and aggressively pursuing blockbuster films and ongoing television series, production is no longer “running away”: we are in an age of mobile production (which I wrote about at length for Media Industries Journal last year), where a project could land in—and then later move to—any number of locations given the infrastructure in place across the continent (or beyond), depending on the specific circumstances of the production and changes in a location’s production—and, often interrelated, political—climate.

Change often comes in the form of reduced production incentives as determined by state legislators (as happened recently in North Carolina), but in recent weeks the political climate in Georgia made news for a different reason. The Walt Disney Company, Netflix, and a wide range of producers came forward in opposition to a “religious liberty bill” on Governor Nathan Deal’s desk after being approved by lawmakers in March. As with other similar bills around the country, Georgia’s bill has faced intense criticism for enabling discrimination against LGBT individuals, but it was the criticism from within the film and television industry that started making national headlines. Disney, through subsidiary Marvel Studios, is releasing the Atlanta-filmed Captain America: Civil War in May, and is currently producing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in the region, which gave greater weight to their ultimatum: if Georgia passed this bill, they said they would “plan to take our business elsewhere.”

Disney actively leveraged the realities of mobile production: there are numerous other cities and states that could sustain the production of future Marvel films, many of which have been filmed in London to begin with. Netflix, who issued a similar ultimatum after recently producing two films and a TV project—with two more TV series upcoming—in the state, does not even frame it as any kind of inconvenience: regarding the two future projects, they simply state “we will move our productions elsewhere,” which could mean relocating to nearby Louisiana to take advantage of similar if not identical production incentives. The matter-of-factness with which mobile production was deployed by these industry forces speaks to its entrenchment: these projects have been mobile since they were conceived, and remain mobile in the case that the political situation of a given location changes as it did here.

Ultimately, this pressure—along with, one hopes, common sense, but let’s not get too optimistic here—led to Gov. Deal vetoing the bill, as announced earlier today. It’s a victory for common sense, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that of those organizations linked to the media industry’s protest of the legislation, not all took such a hard line. As we parse through the larger list, it reveals the shifting scale of mobility depending on context. Georgia resident Tyler Perry is among those who spoke out against the legislation, but he made no promises to vacate the state because he was not realistically in an easy position to do so: his relationship with Georgia comes through his growing Tyler Perry Studios, which is among the infrastructural developments that have helped build the state into a major production center. Perry can’t just pick up his studio and move it to another state—mobility in Perry’s case would require abandoning existing infrastructure, which is not impossible but is neither easily nor logically deployed as leverage in this scenario.

WalkingDeadThe MapThe same doesn’t necessarily hold for arguably Georgia’s most high-profile long-term tenant, AMC’s The Walking Dead. But while much reporting around this issue focused on the most popular show on television’s place, and AMC Networks released a statement against the legislation, it is notable that AMC never suggested their intention to move the series out of the state should it be signed into law. While the realities of mobile production create an implicit threat in their decision to speak out, AMC’s choice not to explicitly acknowledge the mobility of the series’ production speaks to the logistical challenges of moving a television series late in its run, as compared with choosing not to mount a stand-alone motion picture or begin production on a new series.

The Walking Dead has built a production apparatus around its location: relationships with studios, state and local governments, and individual communities have been crucial to finding locations, building sets, and serving the basic day-to-day logistics of running a hit television series. Moving would require restarting all of these relationships, and potentially doing so without members of the show’s crew—some might be willing to move, but production incentives often depend on the hiring of local labor, and many workers may be unable to uproot their families to continue work on the series. And while the instability of the show’s setting in any given season could help overcome the loss of existing locations should they have left the state, these disruptions would cost AMC money while also potentially creating logistical problems that could domino their way through the production.

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Therefore, while The Walking Dead is—like most films or TV shows in our contemporary moment—technically a mobile production, its mobility comes at such a theoretical cost that AMC was apparently not in the position to make the same ultimatum as some of its industry counterparts. Such an ultimatum would have carried significant weight: beyond the series’ high profile, television shows create long-term benefits for states like Georgia—the Pittsburgh film office has referred to them as the “holy grail”—with sustained employment and potential tourism from fans wanting to visit filming locations. Losing The Walking Dead would mean losing long-term employment, and diluting the significant tourism industry the show has generated in the area. However, AMC didn’t make this threat, signaling it is being cautious with its most successful and thus most profitable production—much as Georgia might be averse to disrupting its “holy grail,” AMC seems to feel the same way about a production apparatus that is crucial to its future as a channel.

The near unanimous criticism of this legislation from film and television studios, along with the NFL and a range of other corporate interests, placed intense pressure on the state of Georgia, and the threat was real: if this legislation had been signed, the production infrastructure that the state has built since introducing incentives would be in jeopardy, along with the livelihoods of those employed by or who benefit from the film and television industry’s potentially temporary presence in the state. But the studios that chose to speak out against the legislation without explicitly promising to leave underline the way mobile production has to be understood as a sliding scale, with financial and logistical considerations weighed against the political dimensions of Georgia’s decision-making.

It is possible that The Walking Dead could have left Georgia should this legislation have been signed into law, but their choice of words suggests AMC is very glad it doesn’t have to face the kind of moral dilemma that the show’s characters are faced with on a weekly basis.

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The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

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The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.

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American Crime puts Pedagogy before Story

LILI TAYLOR, CONNOR JESSUP

(ABC/Felicia Graham)

A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.

But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.

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