The Golden Age of Online Music Is Over (and Another Is Beginning)

Beyonce and Rihanna's exclusive Tidal releases show that what was once a listener's paradise is now being carved into fiefdoms as competition between streaming platforms intensifies.

iHeartRadio, John Shearer/AP

It might just be the platonic ideal of music listening: hear any song of your choice instantaneously, whenever and wherever, without having to pay for individual tracks. For the past five years, interactive streaming companies like Spotify, Rhapsody, and Rdio made a version of the dream possible, with Spotify staging the greatest push towards cultural ubiquity—it has 60 million active users worldwide, 15 million of whom pay to subscribe.

Now, a group of new services want to provide real competition against Spotify and grow the total number of people who pay monthly fees for on-demand music. The latest is Jay Z’s Tidal, announced a week ago with a splashy press conference involving some of today’s most popular musicians. In the coming months, Google will take its YouTube Music Key service out of beta and Apple will put on an ambitious relaunch of Beats Music. Competition, the maxim goes, is good for consumers. But for anyone who’s been paying to stream music for the past few years, it’s hard to see how that will turn out to be the case: To gain the edge, these companies will try to partition what used to be a utopia.

When Spotify ruled more or less uncontested, streaming felt like a pretty simple proposition. No longer did listeners have to juggle the time-honored hassles/joys of maintaining a music library. They could just trust that nearly everything they wanted to hear, a vast bulk of the music ever recorded, was on Spotify. If they were willing to sit through ads, they could listen for free; if not, they could pay $10 a month, a pretty good deal, given the amount of music one got for less than the price of most CDs. Competitors like Rdio offered alternative interfaces, but the selections in its library were much the same.

But last year, Taylor Swift deleted all her music from Spotify, ostensibly protesting the service’s ad-supported “freemium” tier, which pays paltry amounts per stream. Other artists, like Bjork and Thom Yorke, have withheld new releases from the stream for similar reasons. In doing so, they challenged the notion of a reliable celestial jukebox, and reminded users of what was lost in the transition from music-collecting to music-streaming—the sense of ownership, the knowledge that the songs you listened to were yours to access forever (that is, of course, until the disk gets scratched or your laptop dies).

The feeling of uncertainty around streaming is likely to get worse as companies try to edge one another out. When it was introduced a week ago, Tidal promised great, can’t-legally-find-it-anywhere-else offerings, but its specials were fairly paltry: a streamable version of the recently aired Rihanna single, a Daft Punk short film from 2006, a playlist curated by Coldplay, etc. But this past weekend, it sweetened the pot by premiering another new Rihanna song (a political ballad titled “American Oxygen”) and a video of Beyonce playing an unreleased tune (“Die With You”) in her living room. If those aren’t exactly rare Beatles tracks (the Fab Four still aren’t on any streaming platform), they’re still pretty enticing to pop lovers. It seems possible that the other high-profile owners of Tidal like Kanye West or Arcade Fire could release music exclusively on the platform (at least for a certain window of time), which could drive those acts' sizable fan bases to sign up in droves—except for the individuals who resort to piracy.

Then there are the quieter exclusives; already-released music that appears on one service but not another because of the vagaries of record-label licensing. I had considered switching to Tidal permanently after signing up last week, because the interface is nearly identical to Spotify (what’s missing are social-listening capabilities and a desktop app, though it’s possible both features are on their way), and because I like many of the artists who co-own the platform. But I keep running into gaps in its library; Grimes’s excellent 2012 album Visions, for example, and the well-reviewed new release from Jlin, are on Spotify but not Tidal. So what am I supposed to do? Pay for two services? Make up the important gaps by buying albums on iTunes, even though it’s not clear which gaps will be permanent? These aren’t the most pressing problems in the world, but they are, at least, more pronounced inconveniences than the ones streaming consumers have faced in the past few years.

When the new Beats arrives, this state of affairs may get more hectic. In an interview with Billboard, Jay Z made clear that Jimmy Iovine, the legendary record executive who now works with Apple, had been competing with Tidal for celebrity-musician endorsements. This might explain why big names like Taylor Swift and Drake didn’t join their friends Nicki Minaj and Madonna at last week's press conference; it's possible they're aligned with Beats instead. Apple’s huge market reach and deep pockets also means that record companies have another party to negotiate distribution rights with, which gives labels power to ask for more favorable deals. It seems likely that this will lead to the various services' catalogues becoming patchier, perhaps fluctuating over time à la Netflix’s Friends-one-month-then-gone-the-next offerings. (Probably not as dramatically, though; it’s in labels' interest, generally, to have their music as widely available as possible.)

Services compete on more than content, of course. Interface matters—but only to an extent. Rdio has consistently won glowing reviews for its ease of use, yet it doesn't publish user counts and is believed to lag far behind Spotify in popularity. Beats has touted its robust recommendation engine, but it's not clear how many people are using it. Tidal’s dashboard looks like a clone of Spotify's, and its much-publicized $20 subscription is for access to lossless audio, whose superior quality can only be discerned by some people on some sound systems.

What about competition’s effect on price? It was rumored that Apple's Beats would undercut Spotify on subscription fees, but recent reports say that the music industry has demanded a base subscription of $10 a month—the same as a Spotify paid membership, or the basic (no hifi audio) Tidal tier. Many in the record industry have also been vocal about opposing Spotify’s “freemium” model; if Spotify got rid of free streaming, some might call it a moral victory, but it would be hard to call it a win for consumers.

None of this is to say that streaming isn't going to continue its rise as the listening format of the future. The publicity around the Tidal rollout likely led to new users trying out the technology, and Beats will be able to directly market itself to iPhone and iTunes users. More players going after more people is probably a good thing for music in general. When artists lament Spotify’s meager payouts, the real culprit isn’t the streaming service, which pays out 70 percent of its revenue to labels and musicians—it’s the fact that streaming doesn't make a whole lot of revenue to begin with. The most likely way for that to change is for there to be more paying users in the system. So if the golden age of simplicity for streaming's early adopters is coming to an end, the health of the music industry might be worth it.