Ask Jay-Jeeves

“Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” – Derek Thompson, author of Hitmakers

Post-Napster, the digital music war moved from illegal to ugly as the practices were legitimized and real business sprung up. YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Pandora, and others competed for consumer’s attention and loyalty.

If they were selling bars of soap, we’d be extra worried about a monopoly, but since they’re offering a business distributing the content – think more like a store that sells hundreds of variations of bars of soap, we look on in a different way. (Nerd note: No regulators are running around calculating HHI’s, yet).

The distributors themselves are more commodity-like in that consumer switching costs are relatively low. Apple and Spotify give you similar artist / album access for similar monthly fees. Per Thompson’s quote, it’s the originality of the content that invites users to pay up for streams, justifying their existence. There’s only glory to being king if you have a large kingdom, right?

Where consumers do tend to take action, is when profits become the priority to their experience. Enter Jay-Z’s desire to release this new album on Tidal. For whatever reason they believe this exclusivity is part of their value proposition – and I’m willing to be proven wrong here, but I think there’s a historical analogy worth noting.

Anyone today can build a website and get found via Google. Ask Jeeves, an early competitor search engine, told brands that they could pay up for higher search ranks versus Google’s relevance tests, making dollars a significant influencer on their search results. Once consumers found out that asking Jeeves led to inferior results, Google was in and Jeeves was out.

So when Beyoncé and Jay-Z decide to release a joint album on Tidal, the service they also own, it feels like an Ask Jeeves move.

Music doesn’t need to be “free,” and the streaming businesses do need to pay their artists (that’s how they’ll secure the content after all), BUT popular art is by definition accessible. An artist who restricts their own supply in an effort to either sell more physical units (ahem, Taylor Swift with her last album being released physically first, before a later streaming release date), or just to direct users towards their streaming service (which Jay-Z keeps trying) is in for potentially damaging the goodwill they’ve been afforded by their potential users. Some will try it, but it’s unlikely they will get traction for repeat customers given the nature of the other competition.

Limiting the audience, like Beyoncé did with Lemonade, which is still not on Apple or Spotify, seems like a selfish move on a longer time scale. Maybe they’ll successfully control the distribution of this one, but it will invariably struggle to reach what could be a far larger audience had it gone the other routes too. It might even be more profitable once we adjust the numbers for the inevitable piracy.

4:44 on the other hand jumped to Apple and Spotify much quicker. It seems pretty clear to be able to say it only did as well as it did because of its distribution. Would we honestly have been talking as much about it if it never left Tidal? I somehow doubt it.

For all of our sake let’s hope this trend ends soon. Not because consumers should be limited on choices of distributors, but because good art deserves a wide audience. Pop is by definition popular, which means it must be accessible.

Holding back access and forcing scarcity for sake of profits is a miserly game. Tidal will go the way of Ask Jeeves, it’s just disappointing to be forced to wait at the hands of two people who seemingly should know better.

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