By now you’ll surely know yesterday’s big digital music story: Taylor Swift’s entire back catalogue being pulled from Spotify and some of its rivals.

Spotify chose to break the news itself with a blog post, telling users “we hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone”. Swift and her label Big Machine Music have yet to comment at the time of writing.

Our conclusion: nobody is coming out of this situation smelling of roses.

Not Taylor, because it’s been nearly 20 hours now since her back catalogue was removed from the world’s most popular subscription streaming service, and she hasn’t told her fans why.

It’s a surprise, given her quick response to recent complaints from British fans about an iTunes instant-grat release that didn’t happen in the UK, and a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece setting out her views on the value of music in July.

Yesterday’s pulldown wasn’t a snap decision – Big Machine informed Spotify of the plan last week – so not having a statement or Tumblr post ready to go is out of character in its un-fan-friendliness.

Not Big Machine, whose founder Scott Borchetta has also kept his counsel thus far. “We understand people are streaming, we get it. I’m not saying we’re not gonna be there,” he said last September.

An update on what changed his mind would help other labels and managers mulling their own streaming strategies, and could also dispel the confusion around the Swift pulldown, which appears to be focused on free streaming. Spotify and Deezer have lost her back catalogue, but it remains on subscription-only services like WiMP in Scandinavia and Rhapsody in the US, while Rdio and Beats Music also still appear to have it too.

Music Ally understands that Big Machine was even in talks with Spotify at one point to have Swift’s new album ‘1989’ available to stream for premium customers only early in its sales window, but was knocked back by the streaming service.

Streaming’s sustainability is THE issue defining the future for musicians and the music industry. Just as there’s an understandable push for more transparency around streaming licensing deals, there’s also a need for more explanation when albums are windowed or catalogues withheld.

If nothing else, Borchetta speaking out could address the suggestions in several reports yesterday – all citing “sources”, whose provenance even Inspector Clouseau could decode – that the Taylor Swift pulldown is related to his plans to sell Big Machine for upwards of $200m.

Not Spotify, either. The company has a real problem, because the Swift pulldown goes beyond windowing to full-catalogue removal for exactly the kind of artist for whom back-catalogue streaming makes most financial sense.

There are questions about its policy of refusing to limit some music to premium customers only; about the tone of some of its public responses to Swift and other holdouts – not everyone is a fan of playlist poetry and lyric-quoting tweets; and about the success of its standard line about paying nearly 70% of its revenue back to rightsholders.

It’s true, but that line hasn’t settled the debate. Pointing to YouTube as a haven of unlicensed streams – Spotify CEO Daniel Ek tweeted then deleted a screenshot of full Swift albums on YouTube yesterday – may be equally true, but is it convincing the holdouts?

That said, Spotify’s rivals have some questions to answer too: most have wound their necks in whenever the streaming sustainability and/or artist payouts debate blows up. Spotify has launched artist analytics, opened up some of its data and vision in its Spotify Artists site, and held a recent series of events in the US for artists that, although they received some criticism, showed more of a willingness to engage with those critics.

Spotify gets the most flak because it’s the biggest pureplay music streaming service, and because it’s closest to an IPO, but also because rivals could be doing more to support the case for streaming.

Meanwhile, Apple looms in the background, with longstanding suggestions that its strategy involves “running interference” (in one senior label exec’s words) on streaming to manage the decline of its ownership-based iTunes model until it’s ready to fold Beats Music back into iTunes and properly enter the market.

This is an ugly situation, and a dangerous point for musicians and the music industry. Streaming is going to be a huge part of the industry’s future, and one thing streaming services, their critics and labels alike seem to agree on is that streaming’s sustainability will depend on its success in selling subscriptions, rather than delivering free streams.

Every major album or artist holdout is another bullet in the foot in the race to reach that healthy subscriptions market, whether you blame the labels and artists holding out, or the streaming services that have failed to convince them that the model can work.

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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  1. Spotify has always had an issue off not making albums premium only, that was the reason I believe it took them a long time to get Pink Floyd. The streaming service I subscribe to is premium only and had Pink Floyd a longtime before Spotify as well as Adele’s 21. In fact when Adele’s new album comes out she may want her albmu to be premium only for a period of time if 21 is anything to go by

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