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Universal memo puts spotlight back on streaming exclusives

By | Published on Wednesday 24 August 2016

Frank Ocean

The chit chatters are chit chatting that streaming platform exclusives are officially out of favour at Universal Music, with a memo from top man Lucian Grainge seemingly discouraging the major’s labels from parking new releases with just one digital service.

Both Tidal and Apple Music have been using such exclusives as a marketing tool this last year, of course, in a bid to create hype, and drive people to their respective free trials, the hope being they’ll then become full time subscribers, either by being wowed by all that is on offer in the big house that is subscription streaming, or because they never quite remember to cancel their subscription. Tidal’s big exclusives have included new output from Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West, while Apple’s stand-out exclusives have included Drake’s new record and last weekend’s new material from Frank Ocean.

Just going by Tidal’s user-figures, the exclusives strategy does deliver some results for the platforms, even though there are plenty of critics of the approach. Many see the practice of only allowing one streaming service to access a big new release – for any length of time – as being anti-fan, and possibly driving consumers who have embraced legit digital music back to piracy whenever the big new release of the moment is locked to a streaming service other than the one they are signed up to.

Though a cynic – if you could find such a thing – might wonder whether a major label being down on streaming exclusives was entirely motivated by the interests of the fan. After all, if the streaming platforms are open to writing large cheques to big name artists for exclusivity rights, that provides said big name artists with another option for getting their new music out there, rather than securing an advance and marketing budget by signing on with a traditional record label.

Either way, it has always felt a little like the steady stream of big album releases being locked to either Tidal or Apple Music might be something of a temporary phenomenon, with the streaming services possibly using original content – like Apple’s documentary project with Cash Money Records – rather than album exclusives to differentiate their offer in the long-term.

Though, of course, even if Universal is making it default policy not to do exclusivity deals with the streaming services, many of the big name artists who the digital platforms would want such deals with anyway will have the power or influence to force their label’s hand if they really want to ally with a Tidal or an Apple on one project or another.

Then there are those big name artists who are basically free agents. It’s been noted that the latest big Apple exclusive, Frank Ocean’s ‘Blond(e)’, is seemingly a self-released album, last week’s other Ocean release, ‘Endless’, possibly fulfilling his contract with Universal.

Which means that, even if the biggest record company of them all is taking an official position on this, that doesn’t mean exclusives will stop over night.