Music Streaming's Pivot to Video
7 min read

Music Streaming's Pivot to Video

Hey, back at it again this week. Not too much new to say, except thank you for reading and if you wanna comment email me at and recommend the newsletter to a friend, colleague, or random person at a coffee shop if you enjoy it.

This week is about video. But, I’ll be upfront and say I won’t be talking much about YouTube—the world’s biggest internet provider—precisely because they’re the world’s online largest video provider. I’ll frequently mention the platform in this week’s newsletter, but their relationship to music is so unique I’ll save that discussion for another week. Instead my focus is on Apple Music and Spotify’s attempts to integrate video onto their platforms. The other caveat is that I won’t be mentioning Pandora, SoundCloud, and Tidal’s own attempts at video content, because Pandora/SoundCloud (lol) and Tidal’s original video content while fine, falls into similar traps I discuss with larger players in this space.

Apple Music to their credit back in 2015 sparked the first major moment for video on music streaming platforms with Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling.” The video became an instant meme with endless Vine jokes and eventually getting parodied on Saturday Night Live. The video’s far reaching impact beyond the limited confines of Apple Music’s in retrospect should’ve tipped off perhaps a slightly different way to approach video. Drake’s name recognition certainly helped the success of “Hotline Bling,” but it was the endless fan content that provided with a lasting impact.

The issue with “Hotline Bling” is that all of the content created around the video existed outside of Apple Music’s control. The memes occurred on Vine, YouTube, Tumblr, etc. all platforms that not only didn’t funnel back to Apple Music, but did the opposite and further cemented their ecosystems separate from Apple’s. An issue with all streaming platforms—not just Apple—is they aren’t ideal for sharing content and part of the success of online video the last decade, outside of Netflix, is the ease of sharing. That’s why Apple Music’s other major video project, a 1989 World Tour doc with Taylor Swift, showed how little they really understood contemporary online video. Documentaries and a music videos are two fairly different, and increasingly dated, mediums and while they’re easy to conceptualize, they’re fairly static content in a world where sharing is so highly valued. Apple Music showed the two paths for video on streaming platforms, but it unfortunately they along with their competitors made the wrong commitment.

Now before Apple Music launched, Spotify in early 2015 announced their own video content strategy. Now to quote Spotify CEO Daniel Ek: "More Than Music. For the first time, Spotify is adding video clips and audio shows to the music mix. We know there are times in the day you want to switch between music to catch up on the latest news, listen to your favourite podcast or simply watch something fun. And with a stellar range of entertainment to choose from there’s something for everyone. Spotify will suggest video and audio shows for you to watch and learn what you love."

That “We know” is doing a lot of work in this particular press release. Nearly three years later when I think of Spotify: Do I imagine seamless integration of songs, video, podcasts, and various kind of media content? No, of course not. Still, back in 2015 the Swedish streaming service signed on fairly big partnerships with ABC, BBC, Comedy Central, Condé Nast Entertainment, ESPN, Fusion, Maker Studios, NBC, TED and Vice News. I say all this with a slight mocking tone, because only a year later Digiday reported early push back from the same companies: "When Spotify first announced its video push last May, the company said the video section — which finally launched this past January — would feature video clips from TV networks like Comedy Central and ESPN, as well as digital publishers like Vice and Maker Studios. That effort fizzled with some media partners reporting view counts as low as “hundreds” or “thousands” per video."

Hundreds! Thousands! Spotify’s first efforts into original content didn’t go great, while Apple Music at least appeared to create at least one genuine cultural moment. Now let’s see if Apple Music built on that early lead.

In February 2016, the Hollywood Reporter announced Apple Music’s first scripted series titled Vital Signs, Dr. Dre’s semi-autobiographical retelling of his life. Nearly two years later we’ve heard nothing about the project. Ian McShane, a reported star of the project, said it was scheduled to arrive August didn’t. Apple Music in the March of 2016 they announced a six part Vice series called “The Score,” which if you search Apple Music today you only find two clips from a single episode of the series. Later in 2016, they announced a Cash Money Records documentary with the label’s founder Birdman. I’ll skip the jokes and just say a trailer came out last year and nothing’s been hear of since. I reached out to Apple Music for any update for these projects and the was told: “We’ll be in touch if there's anything to share moving forward.” Solid.

Not all of Apple Music’s video efforts fell off a cliff. They produced documentaries with the 1975 and Skepta, Frank Ocean’s Endless, a TV show with DJ Khaled, and documentary 808 about the Roland TR-808 drum machine. I opened with Apple Music’s 2016 struggles to show that making compelling video content isn’t easy. There is a strong financial incentive to get the higher tier advertising money attached to video and lock users into more exclusive content, but as Spotify would also learn even if you make big plans for video content that doesn’t make it any easier.

Spotify announced twelve original video projects that included documentaries, a Carpool Karaoke rip-off with accused rapist Russell Simmons, and an interview series called Trading Playlists. The scope of the video content was impressive, but similar to Apple Music’s effort much of this video felt like a continuation of the MTV/VH1 model of music presentation. The kind of content that would get greenlit, because it makes for a good sizzle reel and easily contextualized for a boardroom, but ignores all the changes in video consumption brought on by Snapchat, Vine, or especially YouTube in the music space. Last fall Tom Calderone, a the former VH1 executive, who was overseeing these projects was let go from the company, as they scrapped their entire previous video strategy.

After Calderone’s departure, Courtney Holt, the former executive vice president of media and strategy at Disney, took the title of head of video and podcasts. An early shift in Spotify’s video plans was to put their video content into their successful playlists (RapCaviar and Viva Latino) rather than continue to silo off their work into other parts of the app. Spotify, like Apple, doesn’t provide any public statistics for their video content, but knowing that a RapCaviar placement is often worth hundreds of thousands of plays a day, then I’d venture that these newer videos are finding a larger audience. Immediately this is a much better way to get people to actually watch their content, still I hold a concern over if people are: 1. Pulling out their phones to engage with the content, 2. Are breaking the fundamental idea of Spotify allowing passive music consumption to put their eyes on their phone. To quote an unnamed Spotify partner from that 2016 Digiday story: “Spotify is amazing when you have a passive audience — when the audience doesn’t need to look at a video.”

In 2017, Apple Music continued to find their groove by releasing music documentaries alongside programming like Carpool Karaoke. I’ll be rude and say similar to how Spotify’s non-playlisted content struggled to find an audience, I’d love to know how many people are truly engaging with the Apple Music exclusive video efforts. This isn’t a rhetorical question the email once again is

I wanted to go through a lot of recent history, because the last few years are littered with poorly executed video ideas that clash not only with how people consume video, but also how people even use these platforms. Spotify, like Pandora before them and Anghami internationally, pride themselves on the passive listening experience. Yet, all their video experience until recently by putting video directly inside their playlists, effectively asked users to hunt for the content instead of putting it right in front of them. Spotify and to a greater extent Apple Music continue to create MTV generation video content for a generation that never even knew MTV played videos. These video efforts not only exist within a closed system, even if a community were build up around this content they’d have to scatter to other online space, because where Instagram or YouTube allow for organic communities to thrive, nothing like that can build on Apple Music or Spotify.  

Neither Apple Music nor Spotify will run away from original video content in the next year. In fact Apple is supposed to be spending a billion dollars on it. Spotify earlier this month announced Highlight, which aims to visual elements to songs and podcasts, which is clearly just an attempt to force users to keep their eyes trained on their phone. I feel the last thousand plus words above give an idea about how I feel about such ideas. Apple and Spotify, at least right now, have shown little ability to capture the most dynamic parts of online video created around music. Music as a passive digital experience bloomed in the 80s when TV was king. A model of media consumption that feels painfully backwards thinking, as these platforms continue to try and replicate it. A strength, not a weakness, of music is its fluidity in our lives. That these platforms continue fighting this impulse doesn’t feel like the best way to serve their customers, but hey that’s just me.

YouTube Doesn’t Want Artists Shit Talking YouTube - TrackRecord
The newsletter this week is a bit long for my liking, so long so I’m keep these descriptors shorter this week.. YouTube may or may not want you to shit talk shit them, if they agree to work with the Alphabet owned company. I’ll refrain from being too snarky—cause Google may undermine my gmail account.

How Album & Concert Ticket Bundles Reshaped The Billboard Charts In 2017 - Genius
Now this trend is by no means new, but it’s a nice little piece contextualizing why you kept seeing so many rock bands hit no. 1, then plummet down the charts. Unrelated the Billboard charts are broken and need a massive overhaul, but that’s for another week.

The Long Fall of iHeart, Once the Most Powerful and Feared Player in Radio - Texas Monthly
Honestly I was hoping this was going to be a sprawling 8000 word piece on the history of FM radio, but instead its a concise piece about how iHeartRadio got too big and is now crumbling within itself. Maybe scale isn’t always good, just maybe.

The Follower Factory - The New York Times
I could, and one day probably will, write a thousand plus words on this article, but effectively the Times contextualized how Twitter and the many assumptions all social media platforms are based on false premises that should’ve been weeded out years ago.

Yonder And Streaming’s Less Travelled Path - Midia Research
Jumping off from last week, I’m still interested in how streaming takes off or doesn’t across the globe and this little piece on Yonder, a streaming service huge in Bangladesh, is doing exactly that.