Battlefield stream: the balkanization of music and movies

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 25, 2013

From The News Desk

Music and video selling and streaming platforms have become battlegrounds. After Beyoncé secretly released her latest album on iTunes, giving Apple a week-long exclusive, Target and Amazon, in an act of retaliation, announced they wouldn't sell it. There's no rational business basis for this, as Slate noted, since "Beyoncé fans will seek out a retail outlet that carries Beyoncé -- there are no 'Target fans' who'll just buy another album because Target is refusing to carry hers." Instead, the retailers are simply sending a message to other artists. Meanwhile, artists complain vociferously about the paltry money they make from streaming or net radio services like Spotify and Pandora, and in rare cases an artist has pulled songs.

In video, you have corporate goliaths fighting over licensing deals and eyeballs. With the rise of streaming platforms media consumers have greater choice than ever before while at the same time it's sometimes hard to find what you want. Each is a walled garden, offering different titles or the same titles but at different prices. As Netflix rose, it had the definitive collection of movies, both DVD rentals by mail and later streaming. When licensing deals came up for renewal the company backed away, preferring to concentrate on original content like "Orange is the New Black," season four of "Arrested Development," and "House of Cards." Amazon has stepped into the void and with its immense catalog has become what Netflix used to be.

As a result, many of us simultaneously subscribe to several services. As with Beyonce, its the content, not the platform, that attracts us. I don't pay Netflix, Hulu, and Areo monthly subscriptions, and Amazon and iTunes a la carte, because I'm enamored with their interfaces or the quality of their streaming experience is better. I do it because I can gain access to what I want, when I want.

The same goes for music. I'm a jazz fanatic, and often toggle between Mog, Spotify, Mog and iTunes to find every artist and album I want. For instance, Triosence is a German jazz trio that I recently stumbled on over Spotify and could, if I chose, purchase on iTunes, but it's not available on Mog. Likewise there's plenty of jazz I can find on Mog that I can't get on Spotify. My basic solution is to subscribe to both and stream the music over any number of devices in my home, office and on the run. Meanwhile, sSome music I like is so obscure it's only available on long out-of-print CDs or vinyl, which leads me to make MP3s with a digital turntable.

In a world of almost unlimited choice, we, in some ways, face greater limitations. Entertainment on demand then becomes entertain based on accessibility. We become dependent on organizational services like Can I Stream It, which let's you know if a specific title is available on Netflix, Android, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, and the like. It even tells you how much it costs. But it only helps us partially scale walls that content license deals have constructed.

Growing balkanization characterizes many industries, spheres and technologies. Unlike some countries, we don't have a single cellular standard, we have Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T. Why should content be any different?

Still, it's irritating to consumers, who gravitate toward the easiest solutions. Just ask any Beyoncé fans shopping at Target today.