The Problem With Streaming Albums On iTunes
You can download them for free. But it's not that easy.
Early last week, Daft Punk's highly anticipated and fiercely guarded fourth album leaked online.
But almost immediately afterward, Daft Punk released an official, high-quality stream of the full album on iTunes. When faced with the option of a low-quality, hard-to-obtain leak, or a legal, full-quality one-click option, the choice is a pretty simple one for most people.
Offering up these full streams in anticipation of the album release date is becoming increasingly common as both a promotional tool and as a battle against leaks. Shortly after Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience was leaked, the album was streaming on iTunes. Same with The National's latest album, Trouble Will Find Me.
It would seem like labels and retailers like iTunes have at last found a way to beat piraters at their own game.
Except for one little thing: With the right tool, you can download the high-quality version for free from iTunes.
Tech blog 9to5 Mac explains:
By using a tool to monitor HTTP requests (like HTTP Scoop), users can easily find the URL where the stream is hosted and save the full, high quality MP4 to their computer. By simply navigating to the URL where the stream is hosted, you can download the whole album for free.
Apple has not responded to BuzzFeed's requests for comment on the matter.
The Verge also found a loophole on Spotify that allowed users to permanently download songs using a (now-deleted) Chrome extension. (Spotify has also fixed its web player to prevent this kind of thing from happening.)
Though the loophole sounds disastrous, especially for Spotify, it is perhaps less damaging to record sales than one might think.
"The funny thing about people ripping an iTunes leak is that people think, like, 'Oh! We did it!' Like, 'Oh my god, they didn't know!'" says Adam Farrell, creative director of Loma Vista Recordings and previously VP of Creative and Marketing at the Beggars Group, whose client roster includes The National.
"Labels know. Labels know as soon as you put a track out there, or as soon as you stream it that it's gonna get ripped, it's gonna end up everywhere," Farrell says. But, he claims, labels typically enter these situations — be it with iTunes, an NPR First Listen, or a Pitchfork advance — only after they make sure that the trade-off makes sense.
"From my understanding, the pre-orders will double, at least, over the period of that pre-release stream," Farrell says. "I think to sell that many records is a good trade-off. And people who rip streams when they go there, you're never going to sell the record to them, anyway. So you just focus on the people that want to buy music and pay for music, rather than worrying about people stealing it or ripping it."
BuzzFeed reached out to Timberlake's label, RCA, and Daft Punk's PR team and label, Columbia, but neither label has yet responded with comment.
The streaming loopholes certainly haven't seemed to hurt either JT's or Daft Punk's sales. The 20/20 Experience was streaming in its entirety on iTunes for nine days leading up to its official release, and it still came away selling 968,000 copies in its first week. HitFix reported that it was also the 19th biggest-opening sales week in SoundScan's history, which started tracking album sales data in 1991.
Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is on track to sell upwards of 300,000 copies in its first week (the official numbers will be revealed Monday), despite having been leaked and streaming on iTunes for over a week now.
"The reason NPR First Listen and all these things work so well in terms of the setup of a record is, it kind of marks the release," Farrell says. "It's kind of like, 'OK, we're gonna let you guys all listen to this, get you really excited about it, and then [you can] go to the shops, or go to iTunes, or go to Spotify the next week and listen to it.' It's a marker in a campaign."
For most people, working these loopholes is a complicated hassle not worth the time.
Even though people have found loopholes in these sites' security, Farrell says user experience and convenience ultimately win out. YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, and iTunes have all created an enjoyable user experience for streaming music — which most listeners prefer.
"You know the stuff is the right album, you know it's the finished thing, you know it's the correct sequence, you know it's good quality, and you can put it on your phone," Farrell says. Bittorrents and download sites can't boast the same claim.
"If you go to Mediashare and download a zip file, it's not the easiest thing to listen to on your iPad or iPhone. You have to get an unzipper, and — it's clunky. [With streaming], it's like, 'Oh shit, here's a button. And now I'm playing it on my phone.'"
"It's taken a long time for record labels to license those companies and give them the rights to do these things from a user-experience perspective," says Farrell.
"I always say, with a musician there are probably three givens in life: You're gonna die, you're gonna pay taxes, and your album's gonna leak," Farrell says. "And while these are the facts of life, it's still a tough thing to see people just getting your music for free, especially when you put so much time and create value around it. Not a single artist I know enjoys seeing their music for free on the internet."