Peloton Musicology, volume 1

Seriously, how could I not choose THIS image?

Though Peloton makes most of its money selling exercise equipment, people tend to talk about it less like Apple (whose streaming service Apple Music exists mainly to drive sales of hardware like iPhones) and more like other streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. For example, in 2021 there was a lot of chatter about the fact that Peloton pays artists significantly more per stream than the big streaming platforms. This has less to do with any altruism on Peloton’s part and more to do with the fact that U.S. copyright law requires them to pay both mechanical royalties like Spotify or FM radio, and synch or performance royalties, like when the British sci-fi classic Dr. Who played a clip from The Cult’s 1989 song “Fire Woman.” Peloton isn’t just playing recordings back to listeners, these recordings are soundtracking new streaming content. In that respect, Peloton appears to be more like the film- and TV-streaming service Netflix and less like the audio-only Spotify. However, Peloton acts in other respects like a more traditional music broadcaster, releasing year-end and weekly charts and allowing listeners to like and create playlists of their favorite in-workout tracks. Music is central to the Peloton experience, but because that experience is a unique one among today’s streaming platforms, Peloton’s approach to music is both idiosyncratic and instructive.

Peloton approaches music less as a commodity to be sold or licensed asset and more as a universe of brands that it can partner with to leverage the value of both its own brand and its stock price. Peloton approaches music as it does many other areas of its business like apparel and instructor-influencers: as a vehicle for brand partnerships.

For example, music distributor TuneCore’s website sells Peloton’s music strategy to artists by emphasizing co-branding opportunities: 

Peloton Music premieres new releases, works with artists to co-curate classes based on their own music or influences, and partners with artists to create original tracks…Peloton Music offers TuneCore artists the opportunity for social media exposure through class content, significant reach from member social media presence and sharing of class experiences, and the chance to sync with Spotify and Apple Music from class content.

Instead of just saying “Peloton streams are exceptionally lucrative for weird copyright reasons,” TuneCore emphasizes opportunities to “partner” and grow “exposure” and “reach.” At least from TuneCore’s perspective hard remuneration matters less to artists (and to Peloton) than brand vibes do. 

Peloton’s “Artist Series” are the most visible examples of these partnerships. From EDM-pop act The Chainsmokers to indie electronica duo Thievery Corporation, the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane, or the rap-rock of Linkin Park, Peloton’s Artist Series (find a full list here at Pelobuddy) cover about every genre you can imagine. The “series” in “Artist Series” refers to the set of classes across various exercise modalities that feature exclusively tracks by that artist. For example, the Janelle Monae Artist Series includes a run, a ride, a strength class, and a yoga class. Instructors for Artist Series classes often dress the part. There’s a social media blitz for each Artist Series, like this recent one for Joan Jett, with a splashy image of the artist and tags for each of the instructors who will be participating. In the Artist Series Instagram posts, the Peloton logo features prominently against an image of the artist and their name. Artist Series are one way Peloton leverages some of the music industry’s biggest brands to boost their own.

It’s not just musicians that Peloton partners with. It has partnerships with athletisure brand Lululemon and the British record label Defected. The way they push their instructors to behave like influencers on Instagram, you can even see them as being brand partners with their most visible employees.

Brand partnerships even shape the platform’s approach to their Peloton-branded remixes. In a 2021 post on the company blog, Producer of Music Programming John Michael Di Spirito explains that “A remix is a reinterpretation of an Artist’s song to make it accessible to a new environment and demographic.” Speaking of demographics instead of stylistic features, Di Spirito frames remixing as flipping IP to make it available for a different market segment than it’s traditionally been associated with. For example, that post announced three new bespoke remixes that Peloton commissioned from “DJs Dillon Francis, Outkast’s Big Boi and electro-funk duo Chromeo.” Pulling from mainstream EDM, 90s hip hop, and indie dance, Peloton had these three very different artists put their own spin on some of the music industry’s biggest if old-fashioned IP: Elvis. These remixes took music from a boomer-era-superstar and reworked it for millennials; from this angle, these remixes flip an asset whose value is decaying as it goes ever further out of style into IP that vibes more directly with contemporary audiences and tapes. The Peloton Elvis remixes are both a brand partnership and a brand refresh.

Though other music streaming platforms tend to treat music as content – fungible media designed primarily to drive engagement – Peloton treats it instead as branded IP that adds value to its own brand (reputation + stock price) and IP (the actual classes on the platform). In this respect, Peloton is aligned with the rest of the music industry, which is increasingly focused around IP as assets to be curated and invested in and less on recordings as commodities that are bought and sold. For example, in 2013 Jessica Hopper wrote about how indie rockers were writing songs with the aim of getting them licensed by film, TV, and ad companies because selling records and touring weren’t lucrative enough to live on anymore. Similarly, private equity firms are buying up song catalogs by superstars like Bob Dylan, Justin Bieber, and the like. Taylor Swift went so far as to re-record her earlier albums so that she could have full ownership over the rights to her music; this contributed to her becoming the first billionaire to reach that status just from songwriting and performing (and not through other side-hustles like acting or clothing brands). Much like today’s housing market where the only winners are (increasingly corporate) landlords and regular people are bled dry by rent that is too damn high, today’s music industry is one where asset owners win and everyone else suffers lots more than they have in the past.

IP assets are increasingly at the center of both how people make money from music, and how people make the music itself. Though sampling and remixing have long been central features of African-American genres like hip hop and house/techno and other Black eletronic musics, these days mainstream artists tend to treat sampling less like “signifying” and more like a form of sonic brand partnership. For example, Nicki Minaj’s 2023 album Pink Friday 2 features samples from aughts indie-dance duo Junior Senior, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, and Rick James-via-MC Hammer. As Julianne Escobedo-Shepherd points out in her banger of an album review, “mining several generations of nostalgia was a big financial win…as mining IP becomes an increasingly big business.” Not only were the owners of the sampled IP getting a ton of cash from Minaj’s label (Lil Wayne’s Young Money), Minaj’s album gets in front of audiences (and charts) across a number of genres. It’s like Billy Ray Cyrus partnering with Lil Nas X on the “Old Town Road” remix: Nas X couldn’t get on the country charts alone, and needed to partner with a legibly country (i.e., white) brand like Cyrus to get access to that market. If you were feeling particularly ungenerous and cynical, you could take some of Beyonce’s collaborations on Cowboy Carter as attempts to do the same thing. As these examples suggest, sampling, artist features, and other traditionally musical and stylistic elements of songwriting are treated as opportunities for brand partnerships broadly across the music industry. 

Focused on brand partnerships, Peloton’s approach to music is at the cutting edge of the mainstream music industry. From this angle, Peloton looks less like a tech/streaming platform and more like the music industry’s traditional players: artists, songwriters, labels, rightsholders, and so on. I’ve written elsewhere about one way Peloton bridges more traditional and established capitalist relations with newer, more algorithmically-driven ones. In some respects, Peloton is like a streaming platform; but in others, it’s more like a record label. This “both/and” character of its business model makes Peloton a perhaps unique case study in today’s media industries.

Even though Peloton tends to pay copyrightholders more than other streaming platforms do, it’s not inherently less exploitative of artists and everyone else the music industry typically screws over. Just like the rest of the industry, Peloton’s catalog of licensed songs privileges the biggest of the big names on major labels and gatekeepers out smaller players, especially those on the less formal, bureaucratic, and legalistic end of the industry. As TuneCore’s description of Peloton’s offerings for artists makes clear, Peloton only uses music for which artists/labels own 100% of the rights. One consequence of this policy has been their inability to program a lot of foundational grime records; UK bike and tread instructor Hannah Frankson has spoken about this issue specifically. Similarly, though the German instructors are doing more techno rides and Charlotte is regularly programming artists like Helena Hauff, as dark and darling to the underground as Hauff may be, she’s big enough to have had a BBC Essential Mix in 2017 (the Essential Mix of the year, no less). Smaller independent artists and labels are at a huge disadvantage, especially in genres that, like grime, emerged from grassroots scenes and far away from boardrooms. And in that respect, Peloton is absolutely in line with the mainstream music industry.

(Look for more installments of Peloton musicology in the future, as I dive into other aspects of music’s existence on the platform.)