Apple, the king of digital music sales, is reportedly going to great lengths to protect its crown from newcomers like Spotify and Beats Music. The company is pressuring major record labels to release albums on iTunes before they’re available from music streaming services, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Apple wants to establish a “new release window,” similar to the way movies are released in theaters well before they’re available on DVD or television. Billboard reported similar news last month. Apple declined to comment for this story.
The move would likely help shore up digital music download sales, which are on the decline. Digital track sales dipped for the first time ever in 2013, dropping from 1.34 billion to 1.26 billion, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Sales are down a further 12 percent so far this year, according to the Times. Apple is the biggest music retailer in the world, so this trend is bad for the company’s bottom line. The tech giant will likely try to convince record labels that the decline is also bad for them. If listeners stick to the free, ad-supported versions of services like Spotify instead of paying $10 per month for the full experience, industry revenue would decline.
Apple has already had some successes in its campaign for exclusive content. Beyonce’s self-titled surprise album debuted first on iTunes in December and became the fastest-selling digital album ever, moving one million units globally in its first five days in the online store. The album’s still not available for streaming on Spotify or Beats Music. More recently, Kid Cudi released his own surprise album first on iTunes and other digital retailers, selling 87,000 units in week one. Apple has also been offering pre-release listens to heavily anticipated albums through its iTunes Store for the past year. Major LPs such as Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Rick Ross’s Mastermind all streamed on iTunes before their release dates.
A shift to more iTunes exclusives would rankle not only Spotify but also physical retailers, who still sell the majority of albums in the United States. The different retailers already squabble over exclusive bonus tracks for big releases. Oxymoron, the current No. 1 album in the country from rapper Schoolboy Q, features two iTunes-exclusive tracks and two just for Target customers. If these types of pitched battles expand to encompass album release windows, that could benefit artists, who will likely get a big marketing push from a retailer who has netted an exclusive. But such windowing would hurt music fans, who would find themselves with fewer ways to enjoy new music. In fact, it's already started—Target refused to carry Beyonce’s album because it lost out on first-week sales to Apple.