I know it’s shocking that anyone in the music business would try to juice the charts. But sometimes there actually is a more innocent explanation for apparent conspiracy.
According to some press reports, about a year ago a Norwegian newspaper suddenly became interested in the credibility of the reported number of streams of two TIDAL exclusives, Lemonade and Life of Pablo. (For the geographically challenged, Norway is next door to Sweden.) Not sure why now, but this is not Spotify’s best week in the hip hop community.
If you recall, there was considerable hostility from Spotify about these two exclusives at the time, such as this contemporaneous comment on exclusives in The Verge from Jonathan Prince, the former Clintonista and current Spotify comms person:
“We’re not really in the business of paying for exclusives, because we think they’re bad for artists and they’re bad for fans,” Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s head of communications told me. “Artists want as many fans as possible to hear their music, and fans want to be able to hear whatever they’re excited about or interested in — exclusives get in the way of that for both sides. Of course, we understand that short promotional exclusives are common and we don’t have an absolute policy against them, but we definitely think the best practice for everybody is wide release.”
We are told in a pseudonymous post on Forbes.com:
Writers at Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv grew suspicious of the high streaming numbers – 250 million for The Life of Pablo in 10 days, and 306 million for Lemonade in 15 days – considering TIDAL’s claimed subscriber-base is only 3 million users.
What’s interesting about this particular growth of suspicion is that the time periods concerned either roughly or directly correspond to the Spotify-offending periods that TIDAL had the Beyoncé and Kanye tracks exclusively for its “claimed” subscriber base. That’s right–subscriber base. Because in addition to its evil exclusives, TIDAL also rejected Spotify’s beloved free tier in favor of a subscriber-only model. Which was strike two.
But wait…there’s more. Not only did the newspaper grow suspicious of this witchcraft, they were so suspicious they enlisted the help of others according to Forbes:
A year-long investigation, involving close collaborations with music research firm Midia and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Center for Cyber and Information Security (CCIS), has allegedly validated the suspicions of inflated numbers.
Any editor who put reporters on a story as trivial…sorry…banal…sorry…unlikely as this one for a whole year must have had a very good reason to do so. And the fact that the paper brought in a private consulting firm–which claims Spotify as a client–raises the question of who is paying for all this? (Also claims Google as a client, another exclusive skeptic.)
So TIDAL stands accused of the crimes of success derived from exclusively releasing new tracks by two of the biggest artists in the world that were available–heinously–on a subscription service. And perhaps a lesser included crime of tweaking the nose of the Saviour of the Music Business in the process.
Let’s say that TIDAL did juice the numbers a bit–does anyone really find the streaming count in the exclusive new release window to be that unusual for artists of the stature of Beyoncé and Kanye West? I can understand why there may be a bit of regional pride for the Norwegians to come to the defense of their fellow Scandinavian, but are they sure they want to start looking too closely at streaming counts?
Here’s what Forbes tells us is irking them:
Since streaming rates correspond to royalty payments, TIDAL allegedly inflated the value of the impacted tracks “at the expense of other artists.” According to reports by TIDAL, the company paid Beyoncé’s label Sony $2.5 million for Lemonade and paid West’s label Universal €2 million for The Life of Pablo….If the accusations find enough grounding, it is possible that TIDAL executives could be sued for causes of action such as collusion and/or fraud. Illegal cooperation between parties, internal or external, to inflate streaming numbers and thus increase royalty payments for certain artists is clearly illegal and fraudulent. Although there is no precedent, if TIDAL is found to have manipulated numbers, then Sony and Universal would probably be required to pay back some funds plus a possible penalty, similar to a clawback.
Well…”accused” might be bit strong given all the qualifications: “If the accusations find enough grounding, it is possible that TIDAL executives could be sued for causes of action such as collusion and/or fraud. [Just sayin’…] Illegal cooperation between parties, internal or external, to inflate streaming numbers and thus increase royalty payments for certain artists is clearly illegal and fraudulent.”
One might say that could possibly maybe arguably likely be a kind of symmetrical karma of a sort, bae. And it could kind of boomerang sort of maybe.
As Liz Pelly writes in her seminal “Secret Lives of Playlists“:
What are we looking at when we open Spotify? How did it get there, and on whose dime? Who owns visual real estate on Spotify? How do major labels control what the average Spotify listener is being fed? Who is shaping Spotify’s so-called “editorial voice”? Why is it so hard to tell which playlists are curated by humans and which are curated by algorithms? And how is the latter increasingly shaping the former?
I wonder if the Norwegians know what happens when you ask the authorities to start looking at all streaming playlists under a criminal microscope?
And now, back to sleep.
UPDATE: Norwegian PRO has filed a police complaint against TIDAL. I think it’s called discovery.
UPDATE 2: According to HITS, Jonathan Prince is no longer at Spotify (fully-vested?):
…Prince no longer heads communications for the company—he now presents himself as a policy and strategy specialist there—he is said to remain close to boss Daniel Ek. In his time at Spotify, Prince is believed to have been the instigator of the Taylor Swift skirmishes, the defense of the so-called “fake artists” and the whispering campaign alleging that rights holders were colluding with Apple about diminishing the influence of Spotify’s free ad-supported tier.
HITS also notes that Prince “spearhead[ed] the New York mayoral campaign of Bill Thompson….” Thompson endorsed the recently former New York Attorney General Eric “Raging Bulls***” Schneiderman, who just happened to open a state competition investigation into Apple Music when Apple launched its Spotify competitor and who failed to respond to David Lowery’s complaint about Spotify’s failure to pay songwriters.