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After Beyonce, Tidal’s Exclusive Strategy Remains Its Best (Perhaps Only) Weapon

The release of Beyonce's album Lemonade reopens the debate about exclusive releases in digital music. Do they help one service over another? Probably. Are they fair to consumers? That's more…

The release of Beyonce’s album Lemonade reopens the debate about exclusive releases in digital music. Do they help one service over another? Probably. Are they fair to consumers? That’s more complicated.

The performance of Lemonade isn’t known outside of Tidal since the album was released on Saturday, two days after the close of Nielsen’s reporting week. The strategy may help Tidal but probably won’t directly help Beyonce beyond the value of her equity in the company. However, giving Tidal a streaming exclusive is likely to hurt her chart position while taking away whatever promotional value would be gained if fans could streaming her music at their service of choice.

The greater question is whether or not exclusive content can help Tidal compete against Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Google Play Music and other subscription services.

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The numbers suggest Lemonade helped get Tidal much-needed eyeballs. Leading up to Saturday’s release, Google searches that include the words “tidal” and “music” rose 150 percent in the week ending Friday but reached a level only half of that after Kanye West released The Life of Pablo in February. Both events resulted in fewer searches than Tidal’s May 2015 launch. On the plus side, Tidal searches on Friday were about 150 percent greater than the level seen before The Life of Pablo was released.

Beyonce’s social numbers also show an increase in interest. For the week ending Sunday, Weekly growth in Facebook page likes rose 150 percent, Twitter followers doubled, YouTube subscribers increased 40 percent, and Wikipedia page views rose 9 percent. The increase in Google traffic gets to the potential in Tidal’s strategy: exclusive content of big releases generates significant awareness, interest and traffic.

Tidal’s reliance on exclusive content is smart on two fronts. First, the company has a unique ability to tap its A-list artist-owners for regular exclusives that clearly generate more media and social attention the company would otherwise be able to create. Many of these exclusives get mainstream news coverage and lead consumers to the service. Second, it doesn’t have many other options. At 6 percent brand recognition, Tidal lags far behind Pandora (82 percent), Apple Music (67 percent), iHeartRadio (65 percent), Spotify (52 percent) and Amazon Music (51 percent), according to Edison Research.

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Another question surrounds the effect of exclusives on fans. Following the release of Lemonade, Spotify released another statement on the potential damage of exclusive windows. Jonathan Prince, global head of communications and public policy at Spotify, said short-term exclusives are understandable and common but “long-term exclusives are bad for both artists and fans.” Keep in mind this the position of a company that has held long-term exclusives on the catalogs of Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But this doesn’t necessarily make the argument wrong.

But the argument against hurting fans is much more subjective. Spotify doesn’t appear to have suffered from an absence of Taylor Swift recordings. Since the singer pulled her catalog in December 2013, the number of Spotify subscribers has roughly doubled to 30 million. And there’s not much evidence consumers would feel wronged if their favored subscription service lacked a particular song or album. A recent survey by MusicWatch found exclusive content was the primary motivating factor in paying for a music subscription for only 9 percent of respondents in the U.S. and the most seventh-most important feature (behind interface, the ability to buy digital downloads and view music videos, better-than-CD sound, library management, and the ability to connect the service to home equipment).

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Until there is convincing evidence exclusives hurt the greater music industry, Tidal should keep doing what it’s doing. Consumers have lived through multiple windowing strategies (both in the CD and digital worlds) without much problem. Labels have lived through much more fraught political issues. Tidal’s ability to leverage it star-power is the best weapon — perhaps the only weapon — in its arsenal.