Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop 

Kanye West knows how to stir things up, not least in making us rethink what music is and nudging us away from considering it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Life of Pablo was a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, and now there is his Donda Stem Player – which we wrote about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but instead is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that, at the time, might look like inconsequential edge cases, but act as the ice breakers for the paradigm shift that follows. Digital entertainment in its wider sense is entering its lean inphase, where audiences participate with content, whether that be simply commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. Given simple but powerful tools, it turns out that the consumers like to be creators too. First it was pictures and video, but now it is audio’s turn, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a pivotal step in that journey.

Formats do not need to be how they have always been

The future always looks much more like the past. The Model T Ford looked more like a horseless cart than it did a 1950’s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone dramatic change, but the content itself much less so. We think of TV shows, movies and music as being clearly defined things that have always been thus, but, in truth, they were defined by analogue technology in the 19th century. Now that linear TV schedules, radio and CD players are entering their final phases, there is no need for the traditional formats to continue to dominate. Creatives who argue that a 45-minute drama and 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do so because that is all that they have ever known. Yes, they work, but that does not mean that other formats cannot also work. Just look at the album. Many artists still like the creative construct, but just 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.

Fluid audio erases the creative full stop

The Donda Stem Player, made for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and runs with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is fluid audio, and it fits into the Agile Music that we first identified back in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It did not matter if the artist’s creative vision had moved on, as the songs remained the same. This seems entirely natural, but until the recording era, this would have appeared as a creative anathema in popular music. Before recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed as a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. Songs evolved and changed. Whether that be centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades in American blues and jazz. Then recording came along and songs became petrified – the stuffed animals of creativity. 

Kanye took his first swipe at the creative full stop with his continual updates of Life of Pablo. Not everyone got it. Many fans simply wanted it to sound the way it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to get their heads around change – quite literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has obliterated the creative full stop. Donda will never sound the same twice, and that is now literally in the hands of his fans.

In some respects, making a piece of physical kit looks to be quite a retro move in this digital era, but the subtle, yet crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player an actual instrument. It is the ultimate form of creator culture, by turning songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!

Back in 2015, I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part history of the digital music business and part vision for the future. Some of my predictions did not age as well as I would have liked, but some of them are still looking good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that future music formats needed to be:

Dynamic

Interactive

Social

Creative

I mainly aimed this at the digital realm, and we are already seeing it happen, whether that be TikTok lip sync videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sounds pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music of its smartphone chains. One theoretical proposal was for pieces of art that would enable to the user to change the songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It is not a million miles away from the Donda Stem Player.

A lean in future

The entire music world is not suddenly going to go from static streams to interactive widgets, but change is a coming. In a year from now, we may look back on the Donda Stem Player as being a fun gimmick, but if we do, it will be because we have not yet found the Model T Ford, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. Of course, the majority of music listening will most likely remain lean back and static, but not all of it will. As audiences lean in ever further, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be certain of – the future of music creativity and consumption is changing, and Kanye just played his part, again.

Labels are going to become more like VCs than they probably want to be

When you are in the midst of change it can be hard to actually see it. Right now, the music business is undergoing a consumption paradigm shift that is changing the culture and business of music. Streaming may be well established and maturing in many markets but the market impact will continue to accelerate as behaviours continue to evolve and bed in. Whether it is the rise of catalogue or the decline of megahits, everywhere you look, the music landscape is changing. So it is only natural that the role of record labels is going to change too. They have already of course, but shifts like label services deals and JVs are not the destination, instead they are preliminary steps on what is going to be a truly transformational journey for labels. 

Record labels often like to compare themselves to venture capital (VC), taking risks, investing in talent and sharing in the upside of success. While that comparison is flawed, its relevance is going to increase, but not in the way many labels will like. 

Firstly, where the comparison breaks down: VCs invest money early in a company’s life and then earn back if / when a company has a liquidity event (e.g., it sells, it IPOs, a new investor buys out earlier investors). But record labels invest and then take money immediately. As soon as the artist is generating royalties, the label is earning a return, it does not have to wait until some distant time in the future. What is more, even after the label no longer has an active relationship with the artist, it continues to earn. So a record label basically has a perpetual liquidity event. Which means its risk exposure is lower than a VC. Even if the artist flops, it will have recouped at least some of its outlay. VCs can be left with nothing if a start- up fails.

But where the label / VC analogy works best, is when looking at how the role of labels will evolve. VCs are typically earlier-stage investments so start-ups use VCs as launchpads for future success, a means to an end. Labels will likely have to start getting used to the same dynamic. Ever more artists are going their own way, launching their own apps, labels, using D2C sites. But the reason why record labels are around (despite artists being able to create their own virtual label from a vast choice of services – see chart) is that artists still need someone to build their audience (at least in most instances). The investment and A&R support help too, though those services can also be tapped into ad hoc from standalone companies.

This value chain dependency is what has helped labels to stay relevant despite dramatic industry shifts. But the next stage of this evolution will see a cohort of artists viewing labels as accelerators rather than long-term partners. They will use labels to establish their fan bases and then engage with them on their own terms, sometimes with labels, sometimes not. This is of course already beginning to happen, but it will become an established and increasingly standard career path.

Major labels like to think of themselves in the business of creating superstars. But as the very nature of what a superstar is dilutes, more artists will simply see labels as a launch pad. Start-up Platoon positioned itself as an artist accelerator and was bought by Apple. In many respects it was ahead of its time, pioneering a model that labels will increasingly find themselves filling, even if it is not their preferred role. 

Labels as artist accelerators

The repercussions will be massive. Labels, especially majors, will often over invest early to establish an artist. The business model depends on recouping the investment on future earnings. But with ever more artists looking to retain their rights, the labels only have a finite window in which they can monetise those rights, unless they negotiate term extensions. What this means is that labels are becoming a utility for many artists, a stepping stone while their brands are built for them. Like it or loathe it, savvy, empowered artists will increasingly see labels as the launchpad for future independence, and in this respect, labels are becoming more like VCs than ever.

As disruptive as this paradigm shift will be, record labels will find a way to adapt, just as they have to streaming, TikTok, label services, distribution etc. The difference here though is that this may represent a complete recalibration of the role that record labels play in the music industry value chain. This will mean a riskier, more limited role for labels, which in turn will make them more like VCs than they may be comfortable with. Turns out that modelling yourself on VCs can be a risky business in itself.

Emerging markets may be about to change the superstar business

The traditional recorded music business was all about selling units, which naturally meant that the most important markets were not the most populous but the wealthiest. Throughout the late 20th century this created a ‘global’ market that was dominated by North America, Europe and a few others. This is why (among other political reasons) Japan became the biggest Asian music market, rather than China. 

Today’s music business is different. Streaming (particularly via ad-supported and bundles) can monetise large-scale audiences in lower per-capita GDP markets. Suddenly population size matters, and emerging markets become the world’s largest addressable music audience. The emerging markets opportunity has the western music and investment sectors salivating, but there is another layer many have missed: this shift is going to change how western record labels operate, not least by challenging the very notion of the global superstars which they trade in.

Anglo repertoire’s traditional dominance

Prosperity drives prosperity. Where music sales did well, music businesses did well. The music business did best in the US, as well as to a lesser degree in the other big English-speaking markets. These countries also benefited from English being the most exportable language for music. By the start of the 2000s (and excluding the US), of the top 10 music markets, domestic repertoire represented more than half of sales in only Japan and France. Anglo repertoire dominated the global music market and was extending its reach. Most countries across the globe were seeing their domestic repertoire shares falling year-on-year as we entered the new millennium. This of course meant less money feeding back into the local scenes, which meant more opportunity for international superstars to dominate. It was a cultural vicious circle. And then piracy happened.

A decade of piratical wilderness hit domestic repertoire hardest in many countries. For example, in Spain, the best way to keep track of domestic artists was ‘la manta’ chart. Literally ‘the blanket’, referring to the guys who would unfold a blanket on the street corner full of counterfeit CDs. So many local music scenes in lower-income emerging markets essentially remained largely organic and local for a decade. Then came along streaming, and suddenly artists can find their audiences in ways previously unimaginable. In geographically large countries like India and Brazil, touring the country was not a realistic option for most artists, so streaming enabled them to reach across their countries, and beyond, in an instant. 

Streaming, cultural catalyst for local scenes

Streaming’s cultural impact on local scenes was actually first seen at scale in Europe, with German, Dutch and French rap scenes fast emerging that found massive domestic popularity but that rarely export. In the old model, the lack of ‘exportability’ meant no record deal which meant no local scene. Streaming changed that. Another early milestone was the rise of Latin American music, especially Reggaeton. Although some Latin American artists have broken through on the global stage, the most important impact has been the rise of both domestic and regional superstars. This is the future that we are entering.

To expect emerging markets to lap up Anglo repertoire just because they are now streaming not only smacks of cultural imperialism, it also misses the underlying fundamentals of how music scenes and consumption are changing. The steady rise of Anglo repertoire up to the early 2000s has been replaced by a rise in local and regional music. Globalism is becoming replaced by internationalism, homogeneity with diversity. All of which means that global Anglo superstars will feel the pinch. The superstar business was already facing the headwinds of fragmenting fandom, so emerging markets are an accelerant to a pre-existing trend, along with multipliers such as the growth in the number of artists, releases and personalised recommendations. 

Build from within, not from without

None of this, however, necessarily means western labels cannot prosper in emerging markets. After all, they have the resources and expertise that decades of global success bring. They will need to shift their mindset from looking for export markets to territories where they can build new, domestic talent-centred business. A smattering of joint ventures from the western majors in Asia and Africa suggest the first steps are being made, but to succeed these strategies will have to be seen as the central plank of repertoire strategy for emerging markets, not a supporting strand. 

However, the western majors should not assume they will be able to out-perform local and regional labels. In Japan and South Korea, the western majors are minority players, having been unable to unseat the dominant local ‘majors’. Interestingly, both countries are long-term exceptions to Anglo repertoire dominance. Both are high per-capita markets with large economies that can sustain thriving domestic music businesses. Also, Anglo repertoire does not import as well to these markets (despite endless western acts trying to ‘break’ Japan), with international repertoire stuck at around a quarter of sales in both markets at the turn of the millennium. Now in the third decade of the millennium, it is South Korea that is exporting music to the world, from ’Gangnam Style’ through to Black Pink and BTS. This shows that global superstars will still be a long term-feature of the music business – though fewer will be Anglo artists. 

The outlook will thus be defined by:

  • Fewer Anglo global superstars
  • A rise in non-Anglo superstars
  • The rise of regional superstars
  • The rise of local scenes and domestic artists

It is an exciting time for music culture across the globe and we are most likely entering what will be the most culturally diverse era the global recorded music business has ever known.

If you are interested in emerging markets themes, then keep an eye out for a free report MIDiA will be publishing next week. Watch this space!

How Bandcamp could really fix the music business

“A thought: has streaming become the place to address consumers and the likes of Bandcamp the places to engage fans? i.e., fans and fandom inherently matter less on streaming because it/they are a minority.” 

I recently posted this tweet questioning whether streaming has become the place for finding fans, while Bandcamp is the place where fans really are. Some of the resulting conversation got me thinking that there are several related but disconnected industry dynamics which define today’s music business but are second-order effects of streaming’s rise rather than how anyone planned for things to pan out. If someone could join the dots between them then we might just have the makings of a solution to many of the problems artists face in the streaming song economy. And perhaps that someone could be Bandcamp…

When being empowered does not feel as empowering as it should

One of the great ironies of this era of empowered artists is that the empowerment only extends so far. Sure, they can choose whether to work with a label, whether to retain their rights, which distributor to use etc., but the vast majority are beholden to streaming. Streaming is where they build and find their audiences; streaming metrics are the success currency that drives or helps shape most of everything else that happens in their careers. Yet the economics for most middle class and independent artists do not add up. Even the ability to get bigger live audiences thanks to streaming does not help pay the bills for most emerging artists as they are still in the stage of their careers where they lose money touring. This is of course why Bandcamp has resonated so strongly in recent years: it is the place where artists bring the audiences they are building on streaming to a place where they can earn meaningful income. 

Streams or fans?

This discover on Spotify / monetise on Bandcamp flow works well enough, but it is like bottom-trawling fishing: most of what you catch you discard. But there is more to it than that. If labels and artists are investing their marketing efforts in driving streams as the way to find audiences and build fan bases but few listeners actually convert, this means that the streaming platforms are benefiting much more from that marketing spend than they are. Add to that the fact artists cannot build direct relationships on most streaming services (excepting, as always, Soundcloud and YouTube), then the question becomes: what are artists building on streaming apart from streams? Of course, there is always the unicorns and rainbows hope that they might blow up on streaming – but artist careers cannot be built around the hope of winning the lottery. What is pointedly not being built is, you guessed it, fandom. Audiences may fall in love with the music on streaming and they may follow the artist etc., but they build their fandom elsewhere, going to Google, Wikipedia, Instagram, forums, articles and the like to really get to know the artist.

Bringing it all together

Make no mistake, streaming does an amazing job of helping people hear new music and it does a pretty good job of helping people discover new music (there is of course a massive difference between hearing a new song once and really discovering new music). But the missing bit is nurturing fandom; feeding curiosity, enabling connections with others, facilitating self-expression, getting beneath the skin of an artist. A certain scale of audience is needed to turn Bandcamp into truly meaningful income for artists and right now too much of that responsibility lies with streaming. This is where Bandcamp has a ‘go big or go home’ opportunity.

What if discovery, consumption and fan building could all happen on Bandcamp, not just e-commerce? Apart from a little editorial, right now Bandcamp is not designed as a destination but instead as the place people go to buy stuff. Imagine if Bandcamp was also a place to listen to music, discover cool new artists (based on users’ stated preferences and behaviour to deliver personalised recommendations) and learn about those artists. A place for bands and alternative singer-songwriters. A place to reclaim the essence of ‘independent’ from major label-owned ‘independent’ artist platforms.

Of course, there is a tension: if Bandcamp suddenly starts doing streaming, then it puts sales at risk – the very essence of its market proposition. But Bandcamp doesn’t need to play by the streaming rule book. It doesn’t need to license the majors (or even the big indies); instead, it can build a completely new model with smaller labels who are open to creating something new. 

For example, a listener might be able to stream the songs from an album twice before then having the option to pay to unlock the album for unlimited streams using pre-purchased credits. Effectively creating a full streaming catalogue that can be unlocked one album / EP / artist at a time, rather than ‘simply stream before you buy’. This would combine the best of both worlds: streaming consumption and sales income for the artist. Once you start thinking about things in this way, the possibilities light up the horizon.

A fan accelerator

So now we have Bandcamp driving discovery, consumption and commerce. But it could do more still: it can become a fan accelerator. By combining all these assets and ensuring artists can always talk directly to their fans and know exactly who they are (opt-in emails, names, DOB, interests etc.) artists would be able to build fan bases like nowhere else. But rather than simply provide the tools to artists, Bandcamp could help them with guidance, support and fan roadmaps. Not all artists are one million follower artists; some might only ever be 100 follower artists. Using its data and expertise, Bandcamp could help artists understand what the right path is for them. For some, it would be providing the tools to get to 10,000 followers; for others, it might be how to truly engage 100. 

This might sound like common sense, but too much of the music business is shaped by over-inflating artists’ expectations, trading on unrealistic dreams. The first chapter of the independent artist economy was about establishing them as a serious force in the music business and getting platforms to scale. The next chapter should be shaped by independent artist tools and platforms shouldering a duty of care to their customer bases, to help them plot the right paths for them. There are as many different models for success as there are artists. Success needs redefining for those artists that will never hit it big, nor may ever even be able to give up the day job. Finding those ‘100 true fans’ can still be success; it just needs measuring differently.

There are plenty of other directions this could go in, and there are plenty of other entities that could go in this direction. What matters is that the siloes the industry finds itself with are broken down and that fandom and creator remuneration do not fall between the cracks. With new foundations, we could truly see the emergence of the empowered artist.

The paradox of small

When the history books are written about our current times, the rise of creator culture will likely go down as one of the most impactful paradigm shifts. It is a dynamic that extends far beyond music, but it is impacting the music industry more directly than it is other entertainment industries – in large part because the music business is not yet set up for the economies of micro audiences. Until it is, artist royalty woes will remain a festering wound that risks infecting the entire business. The solutions will require a combination of a new approach to monetisation and a realistic understanding of what streaming can truly deliver to an artist community that is continuing to grow faster than streaming revenues.

More mouths to feed

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, streaming revenues grew by 20% in 2020, with subscriber numbers growing even faster. Over the same period, the number of releasing artists grew by more than a third. The arithmetic is brutally simple: more new artists than more new music revenue meant lower average income per artist. As economist Will Page puts it, there are more mouths to feed. Even within the fast-growing artists direct segment, where revenues grew dramatically faster than the overall market (34%), the average income per artist grew by just 2% to $234 a year – that’s right, just $234 a year, across all recorded music formats. And of course, that figure is heavily skewed up by a few thousand ‘superstar’ independent artists, with the vast majority earning far, far less.

Big numbers, small income

With artists direct numbering five million in 2020, never have there been so many people releasing their music to the global public. This creator revolution is unprecedented and represents five million dreams being chased. But with just $234 of annual income up for grabs, the reality is that nearly all of those dreams will be unfulfilled. It has always been thus with music, but the difference now is that expectations have been raised, with matters compounded by the fact that streaming numbers can appear big but deliver only small revenues. For example, a self-releasing artist that racks up 100,000 streams might only take home $500, which could easily feel like a very modest return to an artist that does not have a comprehensive grasp of how streaming royalties work.

The 0.05%

This is the paradox of small: more artists can reach global audiences and drive sizeable streaming metrics but have little or no realistic prospect of meaningful income. Much of the streaming income debate has revolved around the plight of the middle class artist but the bigger dynamic at play is the creation of the amateur enthusiast class. In the old music business, these artists lived in a different world from professional artists. They played in local bars and sold a handful of CDs there that they recorded in a local studio. Now they use the same creator tools as the pros and have their music on the same platforms. This can give the impression of playing in the same league as the pros, but they’re not. If they are good enough, do the right things and get the breaks then they can get into that league, but that will only happen for 0.05% of them.

Dreams just out of reach

Having dreams appear to be within touching distance but somehow never quite within grasp is fertile ground for breeding discontent and resentment. The parts of the music business that trade on this segment (artist platforms, digital distributors, streaming services, creator tools) have a duty of care that must move beyond its current remit of trading on artists’ dreams.

Fixing streaming royalties will not change things. Even if you doubled royalty rates, 100,000 streams would still only generate $1,000 for an independent artist. Meanwhile, it would result in streaming services losing 40 cents on every dollar earned, and that’s just to cover the royalty rates, i.e., not even considering things like having a product, staff, offices, marketing or operations.

Looking elsewhere for income

Streaming royalties are never going to add up for most independent artists, in the same way radio would never do so. And this is not just a self-released artist problem: most artists will never get paid ‘enough’ money from streaming, and trying to make streaming royalty mechanisms do so is tilting at windmills. As I have previously written about, the music business needs to build out its ancillary revenue streams for music creators. There are already lots of options, such as:

  • Selling song writing services on Soundbetter
  • Selling beats on Splice
  • Selling merch on Bandcamp
  • Selling subscriptions on Twitch
  • Selling royalty free music on Artlist
  • Sell live stream concert tickets with Driift
  • Selling artist subscriptions on Fan Circles
  • Selling digital collectibles on Fanaply

Record labels, management, distributors, streaming services, and creator tools companies all need to invest in helping their artists build their fan bases and income on such platforms. This investment in their creators’ incomes will ensure that they are better able to continue to make the music that fuels the business models that all those other entities have learned to make work in a way most individual creators have not and cannot.

Streaming services must fix the problem… or someone else will

Nevertheless, the market also needs something more – a platform glue that binds together creation, audience and consumption. Contrast a music artist with a games streamer. A games streamer creates, streams, finds and monetises their audience all within one platform (e.g., YouTube or Twitch). A music artist, however, creates music in one platform, takes it to another for distribution which then feeds it into streaming platforms where the artist has no direct relationship with their audience. There are exceptions to the rule (Bandlab, Soundcloud and YouTube especially) but they are just that: exceptions, not the rule.

Either streaming services need to start backing up their creator-first language with creator-first tools, or instead watch from the side lines as someone else does it for them. Whoever leads the charge, the paradox of small will finally become slightly less of a paradox.

The music industry’s centre of gravity is shifting

Regular readers will know that MIDiA has been analysing the creator tool space for some time now and building the case for why the changes that are taking place will be transformational not just for the creator tools space itself but for the music business as a whole. In fact, we believe that the coming creator tools revolution could be at least as impactful on the wider music business as streaming was. Firstly, it establishes a new top-of-funnel that sits above distribution companies, meaning that creator tools companies are now able to fish upstream of labels for the best new talent. Secondly, audio will become the next tool with which consumers identify themselves, following the lead of images (Instagram) and video (TikTok). But there is another factor too: the fast-growing volume of institutional investment is changing where the centrifugal forces of the music industry reside.

Outside of the currently crippled live business, the record labels used to be the undisputed central force of the music business. Then streaming services grew in scale and attracted the first wave of inward investment into the industry. Alongside labels, streaming services became the joint central force of the music business, around which all else orbited. Big investors started to make bets on either side of a binary equation: rights or distribution.

The publishing renaissance

Then music publishers and publishing catalogues started to attract investment. At the time, the only real place big institutional investors could place their bets on the rights side of the equation was Vivendi – and even then, it was an indirect bet as UMG was just one part of Vivendi. SME is just too small a part of Sony Corporation for the parent company to be a viable music industry bet. Since then, UMG divested 20% of its equity and is on path towards an IPOWMG went public and Believe is on track to an IPO also

When growth isn’t growth

Investors may be given pause for thought by the way in which leading music industry trade associations such as ARIA in Australia and Promusicae in Spain have restated their 2019 figures, having the effect of making what would otherwise be declines in 2020 instead look like growth. Take a look at Australia (2019 total revenues AUD 555 million here versus 2019 total revenues AUD 505 million here) and Spain (2019 subscriptions €159 million here versus 2019 subscriptions €138 million here).

Publishing catalogues by contrast look more predictable, with performance still largely shaped by non-recorded music market trends, including radio and public performance – though COVID-19 threw a lot of that stability down the toilet. Music publishers used the inward investment to diversify their businesses. Kobalt pushed into artist distribution (recently sold to Sony), neighbouring rights and a PRO; Downtown pushed hard into the independent creator sector (CD Baby, Songtrust); while Reservoir is going public with a Spac merger; and then of course there is Hipgnosis.

The creator tools gold rush

With music publishing catalogue valuations over-heating, big investors started looking for places where they could still play in the music market but get better value for money. Enter stage left creator tools. Key moves include Francisco Partners’ moves for Native Instruments and Izotope; Summit Partners’ investment in Output; and Goldman Sachs’ investment in Splice

What this means is that the music industry now has an additional gravitational force at its core. Just as music publishers and streaming services used their newfound investment to push into other parts of the music and audio businesses, expect creator tools companies to do the same. With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into creator tools (and lots more set to follow), investors are making big bets on audio in a broader sense, with bold ambitions that will not be sated by staying in the creator tools lane as it is currently defined. Avid’s recent move into distribution follows on from LANDR’s similar move, and of course Bandlab has 30 million ‘users’. Adding label-like services (e.g. marketing, debt financing) and streaming functionality are logical next steps for creator tools companies.

Streaming may be the change agent that has enabled all of these shifts – but streaming is the start of the story, not the end point. The process of music business diversification is only just beginning and the next chapter may be the most exciting yet.

Creator tools platforms could become social networks

With all the growing interest and investment in creator tools companies, music production platform Bandlab hitting 30 million users points to a longer-term future for the space – one in which the boundaries spread far beyond the base of music makers. Unlike most creator tools companies, Bandlab has simultaneously built itself as a platform for creators and fans. While the 30 million ‘users’ does not specify ‘active users’, it nonetheless points to the potential of creator-centric fan communities. While this blog’s title says ‘social networks’, in truth the term is becoming redundant. Everything is becoming social; the distinction now is howsocial a platform is. Right now, most creator tools solutions are not very social at all, but that will change and those that harness the change early will have an advantage.

Artists have a branding problem 

The song economy of streaming has created a branding problem for artists, relegating the profile of the artist to the side lines. If streaming was a computer, the artist would be the processor chip, the Intel inside. There are no signs that is going to change in a meaningful enough way anytime soon, so artists need to look to other places where they can build their profiles and relationships with fans. One solution is to bring fans closer to the creative process. A growing number of artists that have done writing and production videos on Twitch have learned that there is strong fan interest in what might otherwise look like quite a niche topic. 

Music production software and hardware have traditionally been relatively complex, and so it is only natural that fan spaces did not get built around them. However, the music creation process is undergoing a user experience revolution, with elegant, intuitive design prioritised. This user-centric mindset means that the newer generation of creator tools products already have a more consumer-friendly feel, and many also already have strong creator community tools. These are the foundations for building fan communities.

Ecosystem plays

Bandlab is building an end-to-end creator tools platform, incorporating a DAW (the music making software), sounds, distribution and audience. This ecosystem play will become more widespread as investors put together multiple creator tools companies to build single combined entities, such as Francisco Partners’ investments in Native Instruments and iZotope. The depth and breadth of fan involvement will become a key battle ground for creator tools companies. The rise of these fan-micro-communities built around exclusive and early access to their favourite creators will become a defining characteristic of the future of the music business. Perhaps even more important is the way in which these micro-communities will open up new income sources for artists. Products like creator subscriptions and virtual merch could ensure that most creators would earn many multiples more from their micro-communities than they could from streaming.

Just one more way in which creator tools companies are set to transform the music business.

IFPI confirms global recorded music revenue growth

Last week MIDiA reported that recorded music revenues grew by 7% in 2020. Today the IFPI confirmed that figure, reporting 7.4% growth. (Similarly, the IFPI reported 19.9% growth for streaming, MIDiA had 19.6%). Given that the majors’ total revenues collectively grew by just 5.5% in 2020, this means that even by the IFPI’s reporting the majors lost market share, driven largely by the continued rapid growth of the ‘artists direct’ segment and also the similarly stellar growth of smaller, newer independent labels. Whichever measure you use, the recorded music market is transforming at pace.

There was one big difference between the IFPI and MIDiA figures. MIDiA’s figure for 2020 is $23.1 billion while the IFPI’s estimate is $21.6 billion. The gap between the IFPI’s and MIDiA’s figures is steadily widening each year, in large part because of the way in which the market is changing. The traditional market, which is of course the easiest to measure, is being out accelerated by an increasingly diverse mix of non-traditional revenue streams. MIDiA has spent the last few years putting considerable resources into measuring these emerging sectors. These include the music production library sector, of which the revenues do not flow through any of the channels that traditional music industry trade associations track. You have to go direct to company financials, ad agencies and sync companies to collect this data, which MIDiA spent a lot of months doing. The recordings side of that sector alone was worth the best part of half a billion in 2020. 

The long tail of independents is the other key area of variance, which is why MIDiA fielded a survey of independent labels to capture the revenue of independents of all ages, regions and revenue sources. This gave us an unrivalled view of just how much the independent sector was growing and its contribution to global revenues. 

Direct to consumer has also been a growth sector and one which access to the data is limited for traditional trade associations. During the pandemic impacted 2020, direct to consumer became a lifeline for many smaller labels and independent artists. MIDiA was able to size this sector through the independent label survey, an independent artist survey and data collected directly from platforms.

The key takeaway from all of this is: change. The industry is changing and in turn it is becoming more difficult to measure. There is also a host of additional challenges to how anyone measures the market in the future. For example, Bandcamp did $100 million of merch and live streaming revenue in 2020 and even though total Bandcamp revenues went up, recorded music income growth ground to a near halt. It turns out that aficionado indie kids only have so much disposable ‘fandom’ spending. As more platforms aim to monetise fandom, whether that be subscriptions on Twitch or NFTs, more music consumer spending will shift from traditional recorded music to derivative formats. The old distinction between merch and recorded may become counter-productive when trying to size the music business.

But these are all quality problems to have. The recorded music business grew in a year when the live music business was decimated. It was a rare beacon of hope when the world was falling apart. And as MIDiA’s recorded music market figures revealed, global Q4 revenues were up 15% year-on-year. The recorded music business weathered its fiercest storm in 2020 and entered 2021 in fighting shape. 

Native Instruments and iZotope: creator tools major in the making

At the start of the year private equity firm Francisco Partners acquired a majority stake in creator tools stalwart Native Instruments. It always looked like it was going to be the start of something big and today we saw the next step on Native’s new journey, with leading audio plugin company iZotope added to the Francisco roster. Although both companies will operate independently for now, this is the first step of a standard private equity strategy of creating a ‘roll up’ play, with Native the lead acquisition around which a portfolio of creator tools companies will be created. This is one of the first big moves of the new era of creator tools that MIDiA identified last year.

The cultural shift in music making

The music streaming market has enabled many things, not least the era of the artist. A new generation of empowered independent artists have an unprecedentedly rich (and fast growing) array of self-serve tools and services that enable them to replicate the traditional roles once performed only by record labels, marketing agencies and studios. This shift is underpinned by a seismic cultural trend: the act of musical creativity has been simultaneously simplified, amplified, and improved. Creators can go from one to 100 faster than ever before. Creativity has been accelerated and intensified. In doing so, the creator tools space has merely borrowed from wider consumer culture, where new tools enable the masses to make great content without having to put in the years of hard graft to learn the ropes. Just like Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for videos.

The new, predominately younger, generation of music consumers expect to be able to make great sounds at the swipe of a finger. New companies like Landr and Output have created tools that focus on great user experiences rather than overloading on features and complexity, the latter of which is the modus operandi of traditional creator tools companies.

Embracing the new

Native and iZotope both make great tools, but fall into the traditional category. If they are to represent the backbone of a future creator tools powerhouse, then Francisco Partners will also need to start integrating some next gen creator tools companies which can act as innovation catalysts for Native and iZotope. Key to this will be developing compelling subscription offerings. 

Thus far, most of the subscriptions from creator tools companies have been rudimentary, making the false assumption that subscriptions are a billing mechanism rather than a customer relationship. Output’s Arcade subscription (a sampler tool with daily content and a well-thought-out CRM strategy) is a better indication of where creator tools subscriptions need to go. It is this sort of thinking that is often embedded in new, young digital insurgents that needs baking into the DNA of traditional incumbents.

Going wide

The other move that Francisco Partners will be most likely considering, is how to construct a creator tools ecosystem that goes beyond music creation, and into all the other aspects of an artist’s needs. It is not a giant leap to think that rights management (e.g. Stem), distribution (e.g. Amuse), collaboration (e.g. Delic), sounds (e.g. tracklib) and marketing (e.g.  Linkfire) companies could be built into the portfolio. Perhaps even a certain DAW company might be in the sights.

The future of music companies

When Spotify was going big on independent artists the labels pushed back and it was forced to put its plans on ice, shifting focus to podcasts as its next growth driver. Meanwhile, it continued to leave its creator tools assets (Soundbetter, Soundtrap) to tick over, finally giving them some love in its recent Stream On event. As MIDiA has long argued, the labels may have stopped Spotify from competing with its business of today, but could do nothing to stop it building out what will likely become its business of tomorrow. 

Just as every label of size now has a distribution play to give it access to the ‘top of funnel’, sometime soon(ish) they will also need a creator tools play. Creator tools are simply becoming the future of what a music company is. Francisco Partners has an opportunity to not only build a future creator tools company, but the future of what a music company is. In fact, Francisco Partners might have the opportunity to create the first creator tools major. It is certainly showing more enthusiasm for it than Spotify is right now.

Women making music

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Hanna Kahlert.

Even taking into account the impact of the pandemic, it has never been a better time for independent creators in the music business. The various 2020 lockdowns may have prevented artists from earning vital touring income and disrupted release and promotion cycles, but for many it also pushed new creativity, with nearly 70% of independent artists choosing to use the time to write or make new music. 

Yet, with access to the industry easier than ever, a glaring discrepancy remains: why are there still so few women, and so many men? What is stopping female creators – artists, songwriters, producers and DJs from picking up an instrument or learning the software, and releasing music into the market? Despite women occupying leadership positions and topping the charts, women overall remain starkly in the minority and remain massively unrepresented in the music industry. Why?  

2020 has been a year of change, some of it very much positive, including months of protests within the Black Live Matter movement, driving global conversations and pushing for diversity, equity, and ‘minority’ recognition. The demand to recognise that more is needed from governments, businesses, and institutions, for a universal recognition of discrepancy in opportunity and lived experience, has forced changes in practise and behaviours – and hopefully attitudes too. While many want to forget 2020, it was the year that moved the global mindset forward unilaterally.

The challenges women and others face in the music industry (and beyond) are deep, varied and unrelenting – some obvious and now exposed (in part through #metoo), but many either subtle or deniable enough to have escaped accountability for decades, if not centuries. #metoo shone the spotlight on harassment and assault, often by men in positions of power. Yet discrimination and bias can also be as simple as girls experiencing discouragement from participating in “male” activities in schools, like technology, or from playing ‘male’ instruments likes drums and guitar. 

It’s well known that women creators in the music industry (and other sectors too) must work harder to achieve the same approval or reward as their male counterparts. They are sometimes treated with an air of dismissal, or are not as initially respected, or suffer expectations of childcare/parenthood as a burden or skill proclivity based on gender. 

Much has been done over the past few years to address a myriad of these issues in music by the likes of Women In Live Music (WILM), Women In CTRL, Pass the Aux and more. The F-List female creator database has removed the excuse that there simply “aren’t enough women in music to hire”. Female-centric projects like Rhythm Sister, She Is the Music and SheShreds are working to develop, provide resources for and spotlight female artists that both inspire and empower the journeys of more women and other minorities into music. The Annenberg Study highlighted shocking statistics, finding that only one-in-five of artists are female, but worse: only 12.3% of songwriters and 2.1% of producers are (2012-2018). While men and women of colour have climbed ladders, and female representation in the ‘big leagues’ is rising, behind the scenes it remains to be seen how much has really changed.

No in-depth work has recently consulted the global community of female creators. This, too, is changing. MIDiA has long focused on the path of the independent artist, and in conjunction with Tunecore and Believe Digital we are now conducting a comprehensive global study asking creators themselves about their challenges, inspirations and experiences. 

Through this we can discover the main issues they face, what is helping them along their journeys – or holding them back. We can point to solutions that can bring the industry forward. Let’s find out what we need from those working in the weeds of the industry today and those looking to carve out a living from music – whether independent, signed, solo or part of a band. 

The survey is now live here.

Due to the very issue of representation, we welcome people of all genders to take part, but it is imperative to hear as many female/femme experiences as possible. The more respondents, the better a picture we can uncover. These findings will be published in full, in a free report in March – International Women’s month. 

Survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ZZ8YFBL

Please also get in touch with hanna@midiaresearch.com or keith@midiaresearch.com if you would like to contribute to the study or discuss this research.