One of Spotify’s worst fears is becoming scarce.
As a publicly-traded media subscription company with ever-growing ambitions for global expansion, Spotify can’t afford scarcity. Its intent is to be available anywhere and everywhere that potential customers may be active, leaving no stone unturned with respect to geographic markets, technical integrations and bundle partners.
Company execs refer to this strategy simply as ubiquity
—and claim that that approach is a customer service as much as it is a business objective. At a press conference back in March 2018 (before Spotify went public), Chief R&D Officer Gustav Söderström went so far as to suggest
that ubiquity was a viable business end in and of itself, claiming that “we are solving the user’s problems by being everywhere.
VP of Product Sten Garmark further espoused this connection between ubiquity and personalization in a more recent interview
on Spotify’s website: “The end state here is to ensure that Spotify aligns more deeply with the multiple devices in your life so that you won’t need to find the songs or podcasts to suit the moment—they will find you.”
Such rhetoric pervades the tech world at large—particularly with the rise of connected devices and the Internet of Things, which can’t seem to get enough of words like “frictionless” and “seamless.” Intentionally or otherwise, this utopian stance on ubiquity now exerts a significant influence on the music industry as well.
Fearful of missing out on potential audiences and revenues, musicians face an enormous amount of pressure to make their products available “everywhere,” in a similar manner to the service providers that monetize their work.
On one hand, it’s easier than ever to apply ubiquity principles to an artist’s recorded music and wider brand: Nearly all social-media platforms allow users to create a profile for free, and the commodification of music distribution
has made uploading catalog to multiple streaming services simultaneously a matter of clicking a button on a free mobile app
On the other hand, any seasoned social-media manager will tell you that trying to maintain multiple social profiles at the same time with consistently high quality is labor-intensive, difficult to automate and susceptible to burnout. Plus, as is evident in almost every legal spat between a recorded-music company and a tech company in recent years (see TikTok
for recent examples), ubiquity and exposure are hardly sufficient for actually getting paid.
Spotify’s controversial campaign
for Drake’s Scorpion
—which plastered the rapper’s face over dozens of Spotify-owned playlists, regardless of the relevance of those playlists to the album—also demonstrated how ubiquity in the context of culture often tampers with customer satisfaction, rather than guaranteeing it.
Perhaps as a reactionary mechanism, many artists, labels and even streaming services have tried to counter this wave by adopting scarcity tactics to market their recorded music, refusing to accept ubiquity and “seamless” access as dogma. Some examples of these tactics, which I’ll discuss in further depth below, include windowing deals, geofenced content, private in-person events, livestreams and limited-edition runs of adjacent physical merchandise.
Across all of these approaches, the underlying assumption is that imposing scarcity on recordings will help not only to differentiate an artist in a crowded landscape, but also to increase the perceived value of, and subsequently the demand for, that artist’s work.
But I think there’s a fundamental, philosophical contradiction in trying to “limit” the quantity of a good like recorded music that is both more ubiquitous and more affordable
than ever with the ongoing rise of streaming. Some of these approaches may have worked back in music streaming’s infancy, when the technology was still considered a novelty, but now tend to fall flat of being genuinely meaningful loyalty drivers for consumers.
Below is an overview of three categories of scarcity tactics I’ve noticed in music streaming over the last few years, followed by a framework for why I think many of them will be ineffective in 2019 and beyond.