During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.
Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain
With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.
The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All
There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.
So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?
All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.
Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It
Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.
Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.
Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.