Justin Timberlake Proves Streaming Isn't A Death Sentence For Music Sales

Do music subscription services threaten music sales? Not if you ask Justin Timberlake.

The rise of all-you-can-stream services like Spotify have made some artists nervous about the model's potential impact on music sales. It's why bands like Coldplay have delayed the arrival of new albums on Spotify and others, like the Beatles and AC/DC, are holding out all together. Logically, it makes sense: If you make your music available to stream for free, people are less likely to buy it.

Right? Not always.

Ahead of its release on March 19, Justin Timberlake's new album The 20/20 Experience was streaming in its entirety not just on Spotify and Rdio, but at the iTunes store itself. Anybody who wanted to could quickly and legally access the album for a week. Then it was released. And it became the most pre-ordered album in iTunes history, surging past his record label's sales expectations by 63%.  

It's good news not just for Timberlake himself, but for the music subscription model that he plans to embrace when MySpace — of which he is part owner — launches its own service later this year.  MySpace will join Google, Amazon, Beats and God knows who else in entering the digital music subscription market in 2013. 

Timberlake's experience would seem to debunk the thesis that streaming can't support artists and thus isn't in their best interests. Indeed, his success will likely make him a poster child for the music subscription revolution as the industry marches toward a future in which music is rented more than it's owned. 

Music Subscription Services: Not a Silver Bullet

But hold on a second. For one thing, we're not all Justin Timberlake. The pop megastar released his first solo album over a decade ago, after years of global success as a member of a massively popular boy band. In the same way that Radiohead's 2007 experiment in "pay-what-you-want" record sales didn't create a new model that worked for everybody, artists can't necessarily look to Timberlake for cues about where their careers might be headed. 

It's also worth noting that streaming alone wasn't enough to constitute "success" in this case: Selling individual copies is still the ticket to revenue and publicity for artists. Timberlake's new album quickly became one of the most streamed records on Spotify, but that's not what everybody's talking about. It's the sales numbers. That's where the lion's share of the revenue for this record is going to come from. 

What The 20/20 Experience launch does show is that subscription services, while not ready to replace paid downloads as a revenue stream for the industry, can be a critical tool for marketing and ultimately driving sales. In time, the revenue available to streaming services may reach more sustainable levels. In the meantime, it's nice to know the artists who embrace them aren't shooting themselves in the foot by doing so. 

Streaming may have promise, but it's no silver bullet. The music market's digital future is going to be a hybrid of approaches, some of which will work better than others in particular circumstances. Timberlake's success is interesting — meaningful, even — but the way forward still isn't a simple one.

Photo via Flickr user Edward Kustoff, CC 2.0