Grantland logo

On the Heels of Apple Music’s Big Announcement, What If Major Artists Stopped Releasing Albums?

Apple Music seems like a useful, integrated, modern service — for $9.99 per month, you can stream songs from Apple’s huge library, access a radio station staffed with celebrity DJs, and interact with your favorite musicians on Connect, Apple’s very own social network. The problem is that listeners can already get these things elsewhere.

In all of the postmortems written in the aftermath of Monday’s Apple Music announcement, a familiar question has recurred: At long last, is this the thing that will compel listeners to pay for music? Apple Music seems like a useful, integrated, modern service — for $9.99 per month, you can stream songs from Apple’s huge library, access a radio station staffed with celebrity DJs, and interact with your favorite musicians on Connect, Apple’s very own social network.

The problem is that listeners can already get these things elsewhere.

Every other streaming service gives users entrée to a celestial jukebox that (for now anyway) is more or less the same across platforms, all priced around $10 per month. Like Apple Music (and Beats Music before it), they all speak the same language: “curation,” “discovery,” and “experience.” Connectivity with other listeners is placed at a premium.

Ultimately, each streaming service has the same goal: to restore order to otherwise formless, narrative-averse 21st-century pop music. In the case of Apple Music, which debuts June 30, this is articulated by the tagline Jimmy Iovine shared in yesterday’s presentation, “One complete thought around music,” an obtuse phrase intended to denote a kind of GPS for overwhelmed music fans seeking to better understand a labyrinthine world composed of subcultures and microgenres. “We’ll help you figure it out” would’ve been more direct, though less profound.

Apple Music’s chief competitor is Spotify, which has 15 million paying customers, making up a quarter of the service’s 60 million active users, who listen to the ad-supported service. But the real player in streaming music is YouTube, which claims 1 billion users per month who watch 6 billion hours of video. About 38 percent of that traffic (or approximately 380 million people watching 2.28 billion hours of content) comes from the Vevo channel of music videos. A lot of that music isn’t currently available on other streaming sites — live tracks, obscure 7-inch singles, bizarro cover versions by amateur randos. Oh, and it costs nothing. YouTube launched a beta version of its streaming service, Music Key, in 2014, for listeners who would rather pay than watch ads. But when Music Key finally goes wide, it will have a hard time competing with its parent site.

YouTube is not the most elegant music-streaming site, or the easiest to use, or loaded with the most special features. Like pop itself, it’s overstuffed, disorganized, and generally chaotic. But it’s free. And it always comes back to free. The extras offered by its competitors are fine, but most people don’t care — that’s why YouTube’s traffic numbers dwarf all of the other streaming services combined.

Here’s a truism that’s been proven time and again for nearly two decades: People can’t be guilted into spending money on music. They’ll spend money only out of a sense of need or want. So, how do you make people need or want something that is everywhere? Charging money for access to music online is like putting part of the sky behind a paywall — even if it’s a really well-tended part of the sky, it’s too easy to simply look elsewhere.

One of the most reliable forms of streaming music is live music — in 2014, the concert industry in North America was valued at $6.2 billion, though the figure is likely much larger than that, since many festivals don’t report earnings. The most confounding quirk in the psyche of music consumers is that many people are more willing to pay to hear a song played live once than to hear a recorded version as many times as they wish.

Live music is special in ways that records can never be. You’re paying to be part of a moment that takes place only at a specific place and time with a select group of people. Unlike the mundane process of dialing up an online streaming service, a concert truly is a unique experience.

It’s now accepted wisdom that few artists can make their living from album sales. Instead, records are viewed as commercials for an artist’s brand, with an eye toward monetizing in the form of tours, merchandizing, licensing deals, and so on. But what if you’re already famous and don’t need advertising? What if you decided to just stop putting out records?

I don’t mean stop making records. I’m talking about no longer making your songs available to everyone at any time — on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, in record stores, or anywhere else. Why not?

Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Opens In San FranciscoJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Imagine for a moment that you’re Kanye West. For months, you’ve been working on your new album. Because you’re Kanye, you know that millions of people will want to hear your record as soon as it’s released.1 However, instead of just releasing your album via the traditional venues, you decide to take your master tapes out on the road and charge people $50 to hear your album in a large theater or arena.


1.

Apple Music has been thinking about this, too — the company has reportedly been in negotiations with West to acquire exclusive distribution rights, according to BuzzFeed.

Wu-Tang Clan already sort of experimented with this with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, producing just one physical copy of its double LP and offering it to the highest bidder. The album was played publicly just once, and people made fun of this to no end. But guess what. One person reportedly put up $5 million to hear Shaolin. $5 million! For a late-period Wu-Tang album!

You’ll be more generous than Wu-Tang — anyone can hear your record, so long as they buy a ticket. Bootleg recordings will be forbidden — no small feat — but attendees can tweet about the record and the live experience as much as they want. People will pay in part because they want to talk about it in social media. Forget about holding on to the physical or even digital manifestation — Snapchat has proven that the fleeting image or experience can be as satisfying for some users as holding the tangible alternative. Social media will fuel the demand for this new experience. And exclusivity provides its own kind of economy.

What would happen? At first, people will assume that you, Kanye West, have finally lost your damn mind. You’ll be accused of elitism. The media will denigrate your release strategy as insane and ill considered.

“But it’s not a release,” you’ll say. “Ownership of music as a concept is over — the public has moved on! So, why would I continue to ‘give’ people my songs? I own my songs, and I’m charging people for the privilege of hearing them at a place of my choosing, in the same way you go to a museum to see art, or a theater to see a play.”

I decided to run my cockamamy theory by Phil Waldorf, cofounder of Secretly Group, a consortium of indie labels that includes Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, and Numero Group.

“This is pretty batshit, but not the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “I think that superstar artists could try anything once. Kanye, Taylor Swift, Radiohead — they could pull off some sort of ‘live album experience’ instead of an album release and tour cycle one time, and it’d be unique enough and exciting enough of a story that it could work. It’s a fun idea, a onetime media event, but not something that is sustainable.”

As Waldorf noted, this won’t work for most artists. And it is, admittedly, a risky idea. Maybe even crazy. And it definitely is elitist. As a listener, I like having all the music I want to hear at my fingertips. But if I were selling music, this is the moment to blow up the equation, to lunge at the next iteration of the music business — because at first glance, Apple Music looks like just another version of something that’s available and convenient, but hardly revolutionary.

It’s a buyer’s market, but most buyers are more interested in simply taking. So why not shift the paradigm? Instead of begging people to pay, make them beg to hear you. For 16 years, as the music industry has struggled to acclimate to its post-Internet/ postapocalyptic reality, the focus has been on rebuilding what was lost. But as we all learned from Mad Max: Fury Road, there is no more Green Place. Don’t fight the formlessness. Embrace it.