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Spotify says it isn’t punishing artists who cut exclusive deals with Apple and Tidal

Spotify doesn’t like exclusives. But it says it won’t bury Frank Ocean and other acts in its search results.

Frank Ocean - 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival - Day 3 Jason Merritt / Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Spotify doesn’t like it when big-name acts take their music to Apple or Tidal first.

But it’s not punishing them when they do, by making their stuff harder to find in the music service’s search results, the company says.

That accusation, sourced to anonymous sources in a Bloomberg report out today, is “unequivocally false,” says a Spotify rep.

That makes sense, since it would be bad for Spotify’s business if its users had a hard time finding music they wanted from the likes of Drake and Kanye West, who have brought new releases to Apple and Tidal before releasing it on Spotify.

Spotify wouldn’t comment on other charges, levied by sources in reports from Bloomberg and the New York Times, that Spotify wasn’t going to go out of its way to promote releases from acts that went to rivals first.

That would make much more sense, since Spotify will want some way to signal that artists shouldn’t engage in exclusives, which Apple and Tidal have secured by giving artists some combination of cash, equity and marketing support.

For instance: Frank Ocean’s new album “Blonde” debuted exclusively on Apple Music this weekend, and industry sources say it will stay there for another week or two. When that exclusive winds up, Spotify will want to make it available to its 100 million customers instead of giving them a reason to move to Apple, which says it has 15 million subscribers. (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Spotify’s user numbers.)

But it will want to make the case to Ocean and other artists that they would ultimately have done better if they had let Spotify give it a full promotional push from the get-go.

“Blonde’s” Apple Music release this weekend triggered an internal announcement from Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge, where Grainge said he wanted to stop future exclusives. But even the head of the world’s biggest music label won’t be able to stop exclusives if Apple and Tidal want to keep paying up for them.

That’s in part because some superstars on his labels will have the clout to get them, simply because other big stars did. Meanwhile, other stars on different labels have different deals and leverage.

Beyonce, for instance, has a deal with Sony but is also a part-owner in Tidal, controlled by her husband Jay Z. She is streaming “Lemonade,” her last album, exclusively through Tidal, though she eventually let Apple and other services sell downloads.

Frank Ocean’s example is the most intriguing, since he released “Blonde” on his own, after finishing up a contract with Universal.

That makes him the most recent artist to become famous while signed to a major label, and then try releasing music on their own. Prince did it back in the CD era, and Radiohead tried it nine years ago with “In Rainbows.”

Eventually, though, most artists who have gone out on their own have ended up working with big labels again, at least for some parts of their music-selling operations.

Because while it is easy enough to record your own music, promoting it and distributing it have been hassles. And even really famous acts often like getting money before they make something, instead of hoping to make money when it sells.

But those examples all come from the pre-streaming era. Now, when streaming dominates, and a handful of platforms dominate streaming, it may be feasible for big acts to record their stuff and hand it to Apple, Tidal and Spotify on their own terms.

Which means the big labels will have to work hard — and pay up — to convince big acts to stick with them.

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