The latest Radiohead album A Moon Shaped Pool will be streaming on Spotify from 17 June, six weeks after it debuted on Apple Music and Tidal.
There is a much bigger story behind this news, however: Spotify came close to having the album on its day of release – 8th May – and would have initially restricted it to its 30 million paying subscribers.
Sources have told Music Ally that Spotify was in advanced discussions with Radiohead’s management company Courtyard and label XL Recordings about a deal to make A Moon Shaped Pool the first album to be windowed to premium subscribers on the service.
That would have been a significant move. Ever since its launch in 2008, Spotify has held fast to its insistence on parity between its free and premium tiers: all music must be made available to all Spotify users at the same time.
That policy was the key to the company’s dispute with Taylor Swift in 2014 which saw the singer pull her entire back catalogue from Spotify. It was also understood to be the reason why Adele would not make either 21 or 25 available on Spotify on release.
Speaking at the Web Summit in Dublin in November 2014, Adele’s manager Jonathan Dickins said that Spotify could “make it easier for themselves” by being a lot more flexible over this issue of free and paid parity.
“The premium tier to me are real active record buyers, paying their $9.99 or €9.99 or £9.99 a month,” he said. “My feeling would be to get around the situation with someone like Taylor Swift – but Spotify won’t do it – is a window between making something available on the premium service, earlier than it’s made available on the free service.”
Having missed out on the initial release of several of 2016’s biggest albums – notably those of Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West – getting A Moon Shaped Pool would have been a coup for Spotify – particularly considering Thom Yorke’s infamous description of the service as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” in 2014.
The positive story here, though, is that Spotify is not deaf to criticism of its no-premium-windowing policy: exploring breaking it for A Moon Shaped Pool shows a willingness to test a new way of doing things in response to feedback from the industry.
Music Ally contacted Spotify and received this statement from Jonathan Prince, the company’s global head of communications and public policy.
“We are always looking for new ways to create a better experience for our free and paying listeners, and to maximise the value of both tiers for artists and their labels. We explored a variety of ways to do that in conjunction with the release of Radiohead’s latest album,” said Prince.
“Some of the approaches we explored with Radiohead were new, and we ultimately decided that we couldn’t deliver on those approaches technologically in time for the album’s release schedule.”
Reading between the lines of Prince’s statement, it seems that this is less a case of getting cold feet about premium windowing, and more a case of Spotify wanting to make sure the technology to make it work was robust.
“We’re going to keep exploring innovative release strategies and related tests in the coming months and, in the meantime, we’re extremely pleased to say that A Moon Shaped Pool will be available to free and paid Spotify listeners from next Friday 17th June,” said Prince.
The backdrop to all this is that Spotify is clearly thinking hard about how its policies evolve in response to competition from other streaming services, Apple Music in particular.
Behind the scenes, the message coming out of Spotify in recent months to the industry has changed, with executives suggesting that the no-windowing policy was not a ‘religion’, and that the company might be willing to run some tests to gauge the effects of a premium window.
Radiohead’s album may ultimately have not been one of those tests, but Prince’s statement hints at a willingness to move towards a gated system – something that could open positive discussions with a range of artists in the coming months.
With no free tier, Apple Music has been able to pitch itself as a premium-only option for album releases, as has Tidal. SoundCloud, meanwhile, made premium-windowing part of the industry pitch for its recently-launched SoundCloud Go subscription tier.
Would having some albums only available to subscribers drive Spotify’s conversion rate from free to premium even higher? It seems that the company will soon be able to start gathering first-hand data on that.
Music Ally contacted XL/Beggars Group and Courtyard for their responses to this story, but both declined to comment.