Battle of the five armies

Sun Mar 13, 2016

Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, is fantastic. At least, that’s what people who’ve signed up for Tidal say. Because Jay Z’s streaming service is the only place you can get it.

Except for, of course, other illicit means. But we’ll get to that later.

So, after the album’s release, Kanye crowed on Twitter that his album will never be available on Apple Music (or on CDs for that matter).

It feels like the West Coast vs East Coast rivalry all over again. We have Apple Music on the West Coast, with Dr. Dre and friends. Then we have Jay Z and crew representing the East Coast.

Or, should I say, the metaphorical East Coast. Because it’s not like Jay Z or Kanye actually live in the godforsaken east. They live in California of course, along with everybody else famous.

But clearly, Kanye does not want to attend any more parties in L.A. So, what gives?

The music industry is in disarray and everybody is living in the wild west regardless of previous alliances. It’s a mexican standoff between Spotify, Google Music, Pandora, Apple Music, and Tidal. Or as I like to call it, the battle of the five armies.

What a mess. The heavy hitters, like Kanye, hold a gun to the heads of their fans and demand lock-in to their distribution channel of choice. Or, like Taylor Swift and Adele, simply abstain from the streaming wars altogether and rake in their own profits.

In the meantime, lesser-known artists spread themselves thin over the multitude of disparate options out there and hope that somewhere out there, some music recommendation algorithm will unwittingly promote their music because it sounds like a cross between Justin Bieber and Drake.

Which leaves us, the consumers, as nothing more than collateral damage as the five armies duke it out. Paying $120 a year for a streaming service is about $120 more than most people spend on buying CDs these days. But we are willing to pay it because of the incredible value proposition of having access to all the music.

However, there is no way we’re going to sign up for more than one service. Or jump ship and lose our entire libraries. Which leaves the doors wide open for piracy. It’s no wonder that Kanye’s new album is one of the most torrented albums of all time.

Let’s just address the elephant in the room. As music fans, of course we care about how much the artists get paid. But the world has moved on from buying $18 CDs. That cash cow is well and truly hamburger, and there’s no going back. We need a sustainable industry, and maybe some painful market correction, and maybe, just maybe, artistic integrity will blossom to breathe life into music once again. Cut the strings off industry puppets and all that.

And those hard-working musicians who don’t wield the same clout as Taylor and Kanye know what they have to do to survive. Tour. Tour like hell for the next twenty or thirty years, pandering and nurturing and keeping their fan base alive.

But as consumers we selfishly want it all. We want a new world order in music. One place to go for all our music. I think we’re all secretly hoping for some sort of consolidation and monopoly to unite the fractured mess of the industry. That is why we eagerly read rumours of Samsung buying Tidal and hope it’s true. Whispers of Google acquiring Spotify. Hell, yes. Apple buying, well, just about anyone they want to.

Services like Rdio go under, and we shrug at another casualty of the war. Because all we want is a winner. This war, after all, isn’t about us - or what is best for the consumer. So, all we can hope for is that when the dust settles, our new leader is the lesser of five evils.

Because that new Kanye album is really good, damn it. Just don’t ask me how I know this.

EDIT - April 8, 2016: So Kanye released his latest album on all the major streaming services, including Apple Music. So either Kanye is a chronic liar, or he's blowing in the wind like a whimsical fairy. That's the nicest way I can put it. Either way, I'm happy.

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