Why Legacy Acts Are Finally Joining the Streaming Game

ISSUE 12 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
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From left: Seger, Paul McCartney, Brooks, Plant and Metallica’s James Hetfield.

For any artist making music now -- or hoping to profit off music they’ve already made -- absence from streaming platforms can feel tantamount to absence from the public eye, period. Yet plenty of the industry’s biggest legacy acts had, until recently, chosen to withhold their catalogs. Those ranks included country stars Garth Brooks and Jason Aldean, and rappers like Dr. Dre -- a streaming player himself with his Beats brand, which was eventually sold to Apple -- but mostly comprised classic rockers, with core acts like AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and (of course) The Beatles holding out for years.

Their reasoning varied, ranging from disputes over paywalls and royalty rates to the artistic sanctity (and commercial value) of an album as a whole. Most of those acts also had avoided digital services at the height of the iTunes single-download era, preferring to keep consumption of their albums -- several of which rank among the all-time best-sellers -- to the all-or-nothing approach (and greater accompanying profits) physical sales offer, especially when their fans might have been more inclined to listen to music on record players rather than phones.

But as digital sales overtook physical, and as streaming increasingly supplants digital sales, nearly all of those holdouts have relented. Often they’ve chosen splashy debuts: Led Zeppelin paired a Spotify exclusive with the platform’s major brand expansion into 20 new countries (and its free version for mobile and tablet) in 2013; Pink Floyd premiered its 1975 power ballad “Wish You Were Here” on Spotify in 2013 and promised to release the rest of its catalog once the song was streamed 1 million times. Still, even after reaching truces with streaming platforms, many artists made it clear they had joined the fold reluctantly. In 2014, Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant said that Spotify’s digital audio compression represented a “hell of a compromise” for his music, while in 2015, former Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters called streaming giants “rogues and thieves,” adding, “That they’re allowed to get away with it is just incredible.”

Over the past two years, the list of major artists still absent from streaming services has become fairly slim. Aside from acts like De La Soul (currently in an ownership dispute over its discography with former label Tommy Boy) and the late Aaliyah (whose uncle, Blackground label head Barry Hankerson, has left her catalog tangled in a web of bad business deals), the last holdout of note might be prog-metal band Tool. But even that group was reportedly in discussions about signing up as long ago as 2017. Ultimately, the draw of streaming -- along with the chance for older musicians to return to the headlines and potentially acquire new listeners in the process -- may be too great for heavy hitters to resist forever. “It’s put the excitement back into this thing we’ve been doing for 40 years,” said Joe Elliott of ’80s arena rockers (and longtime streaming no-shows) Def Leppard in 2018, while announcing a new tour. “It makes it worthwhile, really.”

This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.