Creator tools: The music industry’s new top of funnel

For most of 2020, MIDiA has been working on a major piece of work around the fast-growing creator tools space. The themes we had already started working on became rocket propelled with the onset of the pandemic, with an unprecedented volume of artists starting to engage with music production tools, services and hardware. Even before COVID-19, the creator tools space was set to transform the entire music business; now that future has become the present. This landmark report ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ is immediately available to MIDiA Research clients here (more details of the report can be found at the bottom of this post).

Music production used to be a siloed segment of the music industry that revolved around studios, hardware and packaged software – at best a cost centre for labels. Now that is all changing. A new wave of creator tools companies are meeting the needs of a new generation of artists with innovative and intuitive music production solutions. Adding to an already vibrant marketplace, this new breed of production tools and services, often subscription-based, are reinventing the creative process and will reshape the long-term view of what a music company is. 

This is set to be the most dramatic product strategy shift the music industry has experienced in decades catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 68% of independent artists reported making more music and 36% doing more online collaborations during lockdowns.

There are 14.6 million digital music creators globally, of which 4.7 million are self-releasing ‘artists direct’, up 31% from 3.6 million in 2019.

The emergence of a subscription economy

In the same year, music software, sounds and services generated $884 million, with plugins and VSTs the largest single segment at 43%. Building on this ‘COVID bounce’ total revenues will reach $1.86 billion by 2027. Though music software is the most widely-adopted creator tools category among independent artists, sounds and services will be the two largest drivers of future growth. 

Subscriptions models will also be key, with new models, more self-sufficient tools and the rise of SAAS services making the market majority subscription by 2026, with subscription services reaching $870 million by 2027, up 477% from $151 million in 2019. The shift from software sales to SAAS models means these companies are collecting crucial creator data before they even get to the distribution or release stage, giving these companies the ability to identify the likely hits before they even get into streaming services. This is the music industry’s new top of funnel. Meanwhile at the other end of the funnel, Apple (Garage Band, Logic) and Spotify (SoundBetter, Soundtrap) are well placed to push up the funnel, with the foundations of what tomorrow’s record label will be. Sony Music’s move to invest in creation app Tully is the start of what will rapidly become a creator tools arms race. Expect Splice and LANDR to become sought after by both labels and streaming services. 

Creative feedback loops

The new breed of creator tools is also fostering creative feedback loops between other creators and in some cases with audiences—a dynamic MIDiA expects to become a mainstay of the future production landscape as digitally-native Gen Z and younger millennials mature in their production capabilities. The creator tools that build around such creative feedback loops will be those that resonate most with the young generation who will be the creators and fans of tomorrow’s music business. 

Snap’s acquisition of collaboration app Voisey illustrates how this is so much more than just a music tech play. We are on the cusp of a consumer revolution also. Just like TikTok made amateur video making a mainstream consumer activity as Instagram did photography, so this new generation of apps and games are aiming to do the same with music. Warner Music’s Tones and I making a soundpack available for fans to create music with inside Roblox’s Splash is an early indication of how music making is about to go mainstream.

Just as samplers and DAWs transformed music making, so this new approach to production will change the future of how music is made and in turn, how it sounds. Music production product strategy is at a pivot point, where a new breed of user experience-led propositions will rise to prominence. The smart services that have already empowered their users to go from zero to 100 more quickly than ever before, will grow their offerings in line with their user base’s growing capabilities. The business of music has always shaped the culture of music, but perhaps never more so than how the creator tools revolution will reshape the future of what it means to be a fan, an artist and a music company.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to the ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ then email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Report details

Pages: 48

Figures: 15

Words: 7,500

Vendor profiles: 12

Products tracked: c.2,000

Excel includes:

Music Software, Sounds and Services Revenue

Creator Tools Value Chain

Software Tracker Summary

Software Tracker – Plugins

Software Tracker – VSTs

Software Tracker DAWs

Software Tracker – Rent-to-own

Software Tracker – Platforms

Software Tracker – DJ Tools

Creator Tools Company Directory

Methodology Statement

Time to move beyond the song economy

The UK parliament is currently running an inquiry into the streaming music economy, having called for evidence from across the music business. Earlier this week were the first verbal submissions, from a number of UK artists including Tom Gray (Gomez), Guy Garvey (Elbow), Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and Nadine Shah.MPs heard impassioned but balanced submissions that shone a light on the reality of what it means to be an artist in the streaming era. Mercury Prize-nominated Shah explained that she makes so little money from streaming that she is struggling to pay her rent. Clearly, the demise of live during the pandemic has created a uniquely difficult period for artists, but it has spotlighted that streaming on its own is not working for artists. The fact that policy makers are hearing this viewpoint (albeit later rather than sooner) suggests that change will be coming. But, while the focus is understandably on how to ‘fix’ streaming, it might be that efforts would be better placed building a complementary alternative.

Direct action

In Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove, there is a intense scene in which Darcus Howe implores café owner and community leader Frank Crichlow that after Frank’s fruitless attempts to fix the problem via the system that direct action is the only way to change things: “self-movement – external forces acting on the organism”.

The equivalent of direct action in the commercial world is innovation – it comes from the ground up. In 2008 Spotify came up with an innovation that made the problem of the time –piracy – effectively redundant. What’s required now are new innovations that make the current streaming model look like an alternative, not the only choice – to enjoy music. 

Now is the time

Now is the right time to be assessing the long-term impact of streaming. It is a mature business model and is the largest revenue driver in most of the world’s leading music markets. Whatever streaming is now, is pretty much how it is going to be. The future of what streaming can be is already here, today. Assessments must be on what the model delivers now, not some future potential. 

Streaming’s current performance can be assessed as follows:

  • Record labels and publishers have experienced strong revenue growth and improving margins. Their businesses have been improved
  • Artists and songwriters have more people listening to their music than ever before and more creators are able to earn income than ever before 

However, beyond the superstars, most do not earn a sustainable income from streaming alone and cannot see a pathway to this ever changing. This is Guy Garvey’s reference to the lack of any new (financially viable) music artists in the future. 

A model for rights holders more than creators

Streaming benefits rights holders more than it does creators. It is far easier to enjoy the benefits of scale if you have scale. Here is a simple illustration: if a label has 100,000 tracks played 10 times each in a month (i.e., a million streams) it will earn around £/$5,000. But a self-released artist with just 100 tracks with 10 plays each (i.e., 1,000 streams) will only earn £/$5. Though this is the product of simple arithmetic, the first amount is the foundation of a small business, the other buys you a cup of coffee.

Record labels and publishers with large catalogues benefit from scale in a way that artists and songwriters do not, unless they have a megahit – and although streaming is great for megahits, they are few and far between. Changes to licensing (and there are many ways to do that) may make things better – but they will not change the underlying dynamic; it is simply how the model is.

We have a model that works for rights holders that is fuelled by artists and songwriters. Now we need an additional, parallel, model that works for artists.

Streaming music services are incentivised to drive consumption. What we need are additional models, incentivised to drive fandom. Streaming is a song economy, and we now need a parallel fan economy

Music used to be all about fandom. It was the way in which people identified and expressed themselves – a badge of honour and a symbol of personality. Streaming has industrialised music, turning it into a convenient utility that acts as a soundtrack to our everyday life. That may be fine, but it has simultaneously supressed those ways to express fandom. It’s not easy to express your fandom on a streaming platform, while on a social platform money must change hands. 

Music fandom hasn’t died, but it just has fewer places to live. 

The fan economy

So, what is a fan economy? A fan economy is one in which the value resides in the artist-fan relationship. Currently this model is pursued actively in Asia (e.g., Tencent Music in China, K-Pop in Korea) but far less so in the West. The fan economy will be defined by diversity but what its constituents will have in common is being built around micro-communities of fans.

Micro-communities that are built around an artist’s 1,000 true fans (or even fewer) allow the artist’s most loyal and dedicated fans to drive revenue that is small to the industry but large to the artist. For example, an artist with 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month would generate the same $5,000 a month that a million streams would deliver a record label.

There are a number of platforms that are making a start, but now is the time for this to become a central music industry focus. Music rightsholders have a model that works well for them, so now they need to ensure that their artists and songwriters have models that work for them too. There is thus an onus on rights holders helping drive the fan economy, but to drive creator income rather than simply be another rights holder income.

A multi-pronged approach

This is the three-pronged approach we propose:

  • Governments, support new, innovative companies building fan economy models and ensure that they provide equitable remuneration for creators
  • Record labels, build teams geared at helping their artists find fan economy income streams (and take a service fee or revenue share)
  • Streaming services, allow artists more real estate to showcase where fans can find other content and experiences

None of this is to say that efforts to make streaming more equitable should not be pursued; they absolutely should. However, it should be done with a clear understanding of the ‘art of the possible’. Even if rates were doubled, the self-released artist with 1,000 streams would still only earn £/$10. For an artist with a million streams a month on a big label it would change monthly income from £/$1,250 a month to £/$2,000, i.e., £/$24,000 a year. Not a sustainable annual income. 

Our case is that streaming should indeed be made more equitable, but alongside proactive investment in a new generation of innovative fan economy apps. This is an opportunity to make UK Plc the innovation driver for the global music business. A unique opportunity that is there for the taking with the right strategy and support, from all vested interests.

The opportunity for the UK streaming inquiry

With the streaming inquiry, the UK government has an unprecedented opportunity to set a global standard for building a vibrant and viable future for music creators, but it is an opportunity that needs seizing now. In partnership with music creators and rightsholders, it can create a structure that supports the innovation and change the industry needs. Now that streaming has come of age, we can see both its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s use the weaknesses as a foundation for building something new, exciting and equitable. It is time to bring ways to allow music fans to express themselves and their support to artists more directly. That will keep music the uniquely valuable product it is, and not just the grease in the wheels. 

Mark Mulligan and Keith Jopling, MIDiA Research 

Are rights holders missing the point with Twitch?

Twitch has apologised to its users for the growing volume of rights holder takedown notices for music used in Twitch videos. Twitch is in an awkward transitionary phase with music rights holders, not dissimilar to where YouTube was when it was acquired by Google. 14 years on from that acquisition, YouTube’s relationship with rights holders is in a better place but short of where it should be. Article 17, weaving its way between the competing lobbying efforts of rights holders and tech platforms, is just the latest mile marker on a long and winding rocky road. Twitch, like YouTube, does not fit the licensing norms of most streaming services, resulting in repeated stand offs. But just like the music industry still hasn’t grasped the full potential of YouTube, it may be making a similar mistake with Twitch.

Firstly, for sake of clarity, MIDiA firmly believes that copyrighted work should be used correctly and remunerated. We are not, in any way, suggesting that a platform should be able to use music without permission. However, the current licensing structures are:

  1. Not flexible and agile enough to truly capitalise on user-generated content (UGC) music (a market which will be worth $4 billion by year end – download our major new FREE report on UGC music here)
  2. YouTube and Twitch represent an opportunity to create new growth drivers, especially for artists, that can help fix the ‘broken record’

A lack of sync in sync

Let’s address the first point, well, first. Platform-native creators on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok create content so frequently they make the music industry’s volume and velocity problem look like child’s play. Usually, creators who want music in their videos have a choice: 1) get sync licenses, 2) get library music, 3) use music without permission and get taken down or demonetised. 

The problem with option one is that sync clearance is a lengthy process that can take weeks and cost a lot. Not a great fit for creators who create and upload videos the same day. Companies like Lickd are trying to fix this with catalogues of pre-cleared music, but the industry as a whole is moving too slowly. For the record, MIDiA’s preferred solution is for platforms securing large ‘sandboxes’ of pre-cleared tracks for creators and developers to work with. An early example of this is the NFL making all of its soundtracks available for creators on a Synchtank powered site.Unless music rights holders want to cede the growth in the music UGC space (which will be worth $5.9 billion by end 2022) to library music companies, they need to put alternative approaches at the core of their licensing strategy, not simply pursue them as interesting ‘edge’ experiments.

Going beyond the stream

However, the biggest music industry opportunity is not licensing music. It is monetising fandom. The #brokenrecord debate has shone a light on how streaming’s scale benefits do not trickle down at a sufficient rate to creators. Artists compete for tiny bits of highly valuable ‘real estate’ – playlists, artist profiles etc – but most often do not get enough to earn a living. While efforts like user-centric licensing and better songwriter rates will help, they will not change the underlying fundamentals of streaming economics. The counter argument is that scale will change everything, but:

  • Average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Spotify’s premium ARPU fell 34% between Q1 2016 and Q3 2020, a 34% decline
  • Streaming growth is slowing in developed markets
  • Consumption is slowing – last quarter Spotify reported an increase in consumption hours to pre-COVID levels but as there were 49 million new monthly active users (MAUs) compared to pre-COVID this implies a reduction in hours per user
  • Emerging markets are growing but a) ARPU is lower and b) domestic repertoire will drive most of the long-term consumption – so this means only a small uplift for Western creators

Before live stopped, streaming existed in a mutually beneficial ecosystem, giving artists more fans for concerts and merch. Now that live is out of the equation, streaming isn’t enough. 

This is where platforms like YouTube and Twitch can come in. They enable creators to build loyal fanbases of which they can monetise the loyal core to build sustainable careers. The idea of ‘1,000 True Fans’ was first put forward years ago by Kevin Kelly but now the dynamics of social platforms have made this a realistic possibility for any creator. Nevertheless, music artists are still way off the pace. 

Micro-communities

Twitch and YouTube enable creators to build (often small) loyal fanbases that can generate them income that far exceeds what artists get from streaming. MIDiA terms this dynamic ‘micro-communities’ and we think it will be one of the trends that will shape the music business in 2021 and beyond. As part of our creator tools research we will be exploring how platforms like Splice and Landr will be able to build their own artist-fan communities that can be as valuable to artists as Bandcamp is to many already. 

Streaming created a superstar economy where even within the non-superstars, superstars exist. For example, Tunecore states it has ‘thousands’ of artists that make more than $100,000 a year. A simple bit of arithmetic shows that this means the remainder make less than $100.

Micro-communities represent an opportunity for artists to fill the income gap that streaming leaves without live in the mix. This probably does not reflect a direct revenue opportunity for rights holders – indeed, that would be missing the point. Instead, they can ensure those platforms are supported to empower artist monetisation without speed bumps. Why? Quite simply, rights holders have a model that works for them (streaming), so now they need to support a model that works for their creators so that they can in turn continue to support the streaming model that works for rights holders. 

If the industry does not support this new virtuous circle ecosystem, then it could bring the streaming model crashing down due to creator discontent. 

How YouTube can be a music industry growth driver

In the coming weeks MIDiA will be presenting the third edition of its biannual YouTube music report, State of the YouTube Music Economy 3.0: End of the Beginning. This is a major report that presents the definitive traits of the YouTube music economy, including revenues, royalty payments, streams, subscribers, user behaviour and user demographics. One of the key themes in this report is how the music industry, or at least the Western music industry, is failing to capitalise on the revenue potential of YouTube. Royalty rates play a part, and Europe’s Article 17 will have some role (exactly what is yet to be determined) in changing this. However, music rightsholders can also get more out of YouTube by better utilising the dynamics of the YouTube economy. As subscription growth slows in developed markets, YouTube has the potential to be a major revenue growth driver.

Music does not naturally fit YouTube’s channel template. YouTube’s ‘channels’ are better considered talent and content feeds; they perform the same role as following a creator on TikTok or Instagram, ensuring that the subscriber gets immediate access to all the latest content without having to go looking for it. Most artist channels on YouTube deliver content infrequently and, crucially, only sporadically. YouTube audiences expect more from YouTube channels. This approach implicitly treats YouTube channels as fan clubs rather than the content feeds that they are designed to be. 

Treat channel subscribers like you would friends

It does not need to be this way. In fact, an emerging breed of non-Anglo music channels are finding success by doing things differently. Across the top 10 most subscribed music channels on YouTube, one is Brazilian, two Indian and one Korean. Unlike the Anglo artists that make up the remainder of the top 10, these four channels deliver a frequent, regular flow of content. The contrast between the two approaches to content is clearly visible. The top three non-Anglo channels had uploaded more than one video a day for the first 10 days of October. Of the Anglo artists, however, only Marshmello had uploaded a new video recently, while most of the others had not uploaded in months. Ed Sheeran was the worst culprit, with nine months having passed since his last video, his ‘BRB’ logo notwithstanding. Taking nine-plus months off and then simply expecting the audience to still be there, waiting, is little short of arrogant. YouTube subscriber bases need treating like friends. How would you feel if a good friend went dark for nine months and then got back in touch and asked you for something? A similar dynamic is at play here.

Label-led curation and programming

A unifying factor of these top performing non-Anglo music channels is that they are ‘label’ led rather than artist led. Artist-led YouTube strategy is a natural extension of label marketing strategy but it falls short on YouTube because most artists deliver far too little content. Of course, a label-led approach flies against how music fandom has worked for decades (niche afficionado labels excepted) but a genre or label approach alongside artist channels can be a way of driving subscriber engagement and pushing up ad revenues. Yes, Indian music companies are dramatically different entities to Western labels, but the principles can still be translated – and KondZilla (the second-most subscribed music channel) is Brazilian.

Innovating the format 

Then there is the issue of format innovation. MIDiA has been arguing for years that labels should be considering longer formats to complement the core music videos. One way is stitching together curated collections of tracks with chapter markers between each one to create more video ad inventory opportunities. This is something the non-Anglo channels are already doing. For example, in the 10-day sample period, Zee Music Company posted an extended video the ‘Best of Amitabh Bachchan’ that featured ten separate music videos spliced together with chapter breaks.

Despite being so well established, YouTube is growing fast in terms of revenue, audience and views. Yet, music monetization is not growing at the same (watch out for the report for exactly what this divergence looks like). Now is the time to start experimenting with new formats and content strategy. Done right, YouTube monetization can grow strongly for music rightsholders, regardless of what happens with Article 17.

Why Rishi Sunak is both wrong and right

Earlier this week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak suggested that creatives such as musicians who had seen income dry up during COVID-19 should consider retraining for the new ‘opportunities’ the lockdown economy is generating. 

The principle makes sense from an economic perspective, but it is just that – an economist’s solution to a cultural problem. A guitarist becoming an Amazon van driver or a Just Eat courier will certainly have the desired economic output (i.e. more economic productivity), but the cultural damage is potentially irreparable. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is throwing in the towel after the first round of the fight. 

A quick lesson from history

Culture is one of the most important outputs of society and the more developed a society is, the more it normally invests in that culture. A brief overview of history illustrates the point. The Roman Empire, one of the first great civilisations, was focused on warfare and expansion. It spawned some famous philosophers and orators, as well as great art (sculpture and mosaics especially). Yet warfare was the defining trait of the empire, and so the majority of the great figures we remember are the military generals and emperors. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in the same Italian peninsula and we had the Renaissance, ironically rediscovering the lost art techniques of the ancients. Although Italy in this period was dominated by warfare, and although there are no shortage of generals and petty princes to fill the history books, it is the art and culture that the period is best known for. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are the great names of this era. There was no structured art marketplace, however; instead, rich benefactors (bankers, princes, generals) patronised them, subsidising their art. They did so often in the hope of immortalising their own names, but instead immortalised the artists. Art does not always pay for itself. Sometimes it needs a helping hand.

Small venues create national economic output; virtual ones may not

Now to be clear, I am not advocating that music should become state subsidised. Nor am I comparing the musical output of a bedroom musician with that of a renaissance master (though Kanye does think that he is ‘unquestionably’ an even better artist than even those Italian greats). The lesson to learn from history here is that in tough times, society benefits from supporting culture. If small music venues continue to fall like flies,smaller and emerging artists will be bereft of real-world places to perform and to build audiences. The music market will stagnate with new talent having one more hurdle to success put in its way. Live streaming will pick up some of the slack and may even become a valuable alternative for many artists. For the UK government, however, that will mean swapping the economic output of UK venues for that of predominately American technology platforms. That economic output will leave the UK economy – and at a time of trade uncertainty leading up to Brexit, to lose music, arguably the UK’s most culturally renowned global export over the last century, would be a weighty hit.

Artists need to experiment and innovate now more than ever before

This is bigger than national economic protectionism, and it is certainly bigger than the UK. To use that horrible management consultant phrase: change is difficult. We are cursed and blessed to live in interesting times. Technology has changed the recorded music business beyond recognition; now, because of the pandemic, technology is going to accelerate change in the live business as well. This process may be difficult, and it may be long, but it will result in a differently shaped music business in the mid-term future. Artists have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to innovate and experiment. Before COVID-19, live, merch, recording and publishing were – in varying degrees – the majority of the revenue mix for most artists. Live is unlikely to return to anything resembling normality until 2022. From this moment on, then, artists need to experiment with new models, new ways to engage with audiences and to generate income – whether that be writing for other artists on Soundbetter, making sound packs on Splice or Landr or selling digital collectibles via Fanaply. Artist income is more varied and sophisticated now than it was 10 years ago. The reality is that this trend is going to accentuate both in the lockdown economy and post-pandemic. 

However, new models take time to become viable. In this interim stage, if there is a role for state support, it is to provide artists and songwriters with the financial support and technical and business training to enable them to be winners in this new creative paradigm. Rishi Sunak was wrong to suggest that artists should retrain out of music. But he was right that they should retrain. They should retrain from being artists of the 2010s to artists of the 2020s, and that is where he should be providing support.

Independent artist creativity and innovation in the age of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the music industry upside down in many ways but among the direct artists community there have also been signs of resilience and creativity in the face of adversity. For these ‘unsigned’ artists, 2020 is both the best of times and the worst of times. 

Self-releasing artists are not bound by industry promotional cycles, and in many cases, today’s artists must not just create their music but ‘sell it’ as well. If you have the drive to create music there is very little stopping you from writing, recording, producing and indeed releasing that music. All the tools and platforms are available. 

It’s been a boom year for music making – from record Fender guitar sales to yet another peak in streaming demand. Yet there’s never been a tougher time competitively—with 40,000 tracks released daily, cutting through the clutter is a very real challenge. The age of ‘create it and they will come’ never really existed, but today’s music market started to obliterate the notion completely and COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for the changes that were already taking place.

For MIDiA’s latest independent artist survey report in partnership with artists services and distribution company Amuse, we interviewed 346 artists around the world during the heart of lockdown to get a unique view of how the crisis is affecting artists. What we found was anxiety mixed with aspiration and creativity. The full report is available for free here but we’ve pulled out here five key themes for artist success:

1 – A sector with real scale: Artists direct (i.e. those without record labels) generated $873 million in 2019, up 32% from 2018. These independent artists represent the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business, a segment of global scale with real impact and influence. They are also more streaming native than label artists.

2 – Lockdown was a unique creative window: Nearly 70% of independent artists took the opportunity in lockdown to spend more time writing or making music, and a further 57% created more content for social media. Artists took full advantage of being away from the spotlight and the treadmill of promotion, to dive back into their creative spaces and make new music. In terms of releasing music, artists were split – with 46% releasing more music, but 40% putting projects on hold.

3 – Collaboration: 36% of independent artists reported working more on collaborations during lockdown than before. Music is becoming more of a collaborative undertaking than ever before and a whole ecosystem of digital tools and services is emerging to meet growing artist demand, providing more structured and networked process than many labels ever can. An unintended consequence of lockdown is that it has compelled more artists to explore ways of doing remote collaboration and many of these new learned behaviours will persist beyond the pandemic. A new way of making music is being born.

4 – Independent artists need side hustles like never before: Artists need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentumFor independent artists, streaming is their primary source of income at 28%. Live revenue is second at 18% (which means they are less exposed to lockdown’s impact than established label artists). But the key for today’s artists is to make revenues from multiple sources including publishing, teaching, session work, sponsorship and merchandise. Artists’ need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentum. The number of artists offering online tuition has grown hugely during the pandemic, as has artists selling their old kit. Additionally, artist skill platforms will only grow as the number of aspiring creators grows, and, as with live streaming and making sound packs, is yet another revenue stream for artists. Artists are small entrepreneur businesses. They need four or five income streams to get off the ground.

5 – Marketing IQ is becoming key: Half of all direct artists do their own marketing, with one third managing their own marketing budget, but less than one in five are working with a distributor or label on marketing activities and 40% spend nothing at all on marketing. Artists are self-reliant but still inexperienced with marketing and most are not making the most of the tools available. While almost two-thirds of artists are using Spotify For Artists, few of them are using any other marketing related tools. The independent artist must know that marketing is about research, experimentation and persistence and is even more important for independent artists that do not have labels to do this work for them.

Making and marketing music is both getting easier and harder at the same time. Easier because artists can be in control: releasing music when you want to, growing and using social media, seeking out like-minded artist collaborators and sponsors, not having to rely on paymasters or gatekeepers. Easier also because artists can go global right from the beginning. 

On the other hand, the road to a career is longer and possibly never ending. The gap between artist and fan, creator and consumer is narrowing. Equipment makers are having a boom year, and one of the many things people have done with more time on their hands is fulfil their passions. So, for aspiring independent artists, a whole new wave of competition has arrived in the form of talented amateurs, armed with the tools and the time to make their own entertainment. 

The independent artist sector had another boom year in 2019 and the early signs are that it has not only weathered the COVID-19 storm but has made the best of a bad situation, seeing lockdown as an opportunity to create, experiment and innovate. Which should not surprise us, as after all these are some of the defining characteristics of one of the most important and exciting elements on the modern music business. Pathfinding through the pandemic requires innovation and patience and it looks like the direct artists sector has plenty of both. 

Why Kanye West is the modern-day Prince

Not ‘prince’ in the Machiavellian sense of the term – though there is an argument for that too – but as in the artist formerly known as. Back in 1992, Prince fought his label Warner Bros to get ownership of his rights and more creative control, struggling to get out of a deal he signed when he was 19 and had since decided was unfair and overly restrictive. He famously started appearing with the word ‘slave’ on his face. The bitter conflict resulted in Prince changing his name to ‘symbol’ and self-releasing via an artist subscription service long before subscriptions were even a thing. He then came back to a label deal on his own terms, later returning to Warner Bros and winning ownership of his masters, and finally signed with Tidal (read this for a succinct history of Prince’s label deals).

Now we have Kanye posting pages of his UMG deal on Twitter and saying it represents slavery. Why, nearly 30 years later, is history repeating itself?

Many artists start naïve and become educated 

Many artist careers follow a similar path: 

  1. Sign a deal as a young, commercially naïve artist 
  2. Become successful
  3. Learn how the business works
  4. Realise that the deal you signed was heavily stacked in favour of the label

In recent years, this path has started to change, with most artists initially spending a few years as independent artists, learning how the business works, before getting a deal. When that deal comes, more of them go into it with eyes (relatively) wide open and negotiate terms that are more equitable for them. Companies like Cooking Vinyl, BMG and Kobalt’s AWAL helped change the market dynamic, pushing a new paradigm in artist deals and, in turn, driving the wider industry in the same direction. Label services, distribution deals and joint ownership deals are now commonplace even among major record labels.

A two-tier system

This dynamic has created a two-tier system. Many of the new generation of younger artists who own their masters have favourable royalty splits and high degrees of creative control. The older, established artists – including many of today’s superstars – are meanwhile still locked into the old way of doing things. These artists are starting to question why, as the artists with most sway, they seem to have less negotiating power than smaller, newer artists, and they don’t like it. Enter stage left, Kanye.

The reasons why artists did, and still do, sign traditional deals are simple: 

  1. They are often what is first offered to them by many labels
  2. They reduce the artist’s exposure to risk by putting more of the risk on the label
  3. They give them the best chance of getting the full marketing heft of the label to make them into superstars
  4. They get a big advance

Kanye signed the deal he signed

Kanye’s Twitter posts indicate that he was given millions of dollars in advance payments. Now, however, with his ‘nemesis’ Taylor Swift enjoying the benefits of a new(ish) deal that gives her ownership of her rights, Kanye wants the same treatment. (Kanye’s advisor couldn’t avoid having a little dig suggesting that Kanye’s masters are worth more than Swifts’). I am not a music lawyer so I am not going to get into the details of whether Kanye’s deal is fair or legally watertight, but it is nonetheless the deal that he signed. And it was long after Prince’s campaign to get ownership of his masters. Kanye, knowingly or otherwise, signed the deal that he signed despite other deal types being available. It is a deal that may now look outmoded and out of pace with today’s marketplace, but he remains tied to its terms – for now at least.

From indentured labour to agency-client

Kanye and Prince’s use of the word ‘slavery’ is emotive and has extra connotations for black artists – and there is some logic to the argument. In a worst-case scenario, traditional label deals can resemble indentured labour, with the artist permanently in debt to the label, having no ownership of their work and unable to take their labour elsewhere. Modern day label deals are able to reframe the relationship to one of an agency-client model.

When Prince took on the music industry, he was a lone voice trying to bring a new way of doing things (though others such as the Beatles had previously fought the battle for their masters too). Prince’s actions helped pave the foundation for today’s better-balanced music business, and many superstars have taken advantage of his pioneering efforts, with Rihanna and Jay-Z just a couple of those that now own their masters. Nor is this the first time Kanye has been angling for ownership of his masters.

So, to answer the opening question, why is history repeating itself? Simply put, many young artists new to the profession will take the big cheque and the promise of being made into a superstar over getting a better deal. Many of the newer generation of music companies will note that it is no longer a binary choice if an artist signs a deal with them; nevertheless, the case of Kanye West shows us that for many artists it still is. 

What has changed is that a new artist today has more opportunity to educate and empower themselves – to get a deal that will enable them to build an equitable, sustainable career. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to Prince.

Who will own the virtual concert space?

2020 will go down as a rough year for many artists, largely because of the income they lost when live ground to a halt. Unfortunately, the live music sector is still going to be disrupted in 2021 and it may take even longer for the sector to return to ‘normal’. In fact, we could see the bottom of the live sector thinned out as the smaller venues, agencies and promoters do not have the access to bridging finance that the bigger players have. So, smaller artists may find the face of live permanently changed for them in a way that larger artists do not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: live music is not going to be the same again, and the innovations in virtual and streamed events are not simply a band-aid to get us through tough times. Instead, they are the foundations for permanent additions to the live music mix. The big unanswered question is, who is going own the live-streamed and virtual concert sector?

Bringing it all together

One of the most important things digital tech does is to bring things together. The smartphone is a perfect example. 20 years ago people switched between phones, calendars, diaries, computers, maps, phones, music players, DVD players etc. Now these are all in one device. Streaming did the same to music, taking radio, retail, music collections and music players and putting them together into one unified experience. Until now, live music was not subject to streaming’s great assimilation process. But COVID-19 changed all that. Live used to be separate because it required logistical assets like buildings, ticketing operations, relationships etc. The last few months have shown us that the virtual live sector can operate entirely independent of the traditional sector’s frameworks – which is one of the reasons so much innovation and experimentation has happened. Sure, lots of the early stuff was scrappy and of patchy quality, but is through mistakes that we learn the right way forward. Thus, we have new companies like Driift emerging to bring a more structured and professional approach to a fast-growing but nascent sector.

Disruption is coming

The big traditional live companies right now may be most concerned about whether the still-dormant venues are looking at the new ticketing models being deployed with the likes of Dice and wondering whether they can rethink their entire way of doing business when they reopen. While that may trigger what could prove to be the biggest-ever shift in the live business, the virtual part of the business is where the money is flowing right now: Melody VR bought pioneering but struggling streaming service Napster, Scooter Braun invested in virtual concert company Wave and Tidal bought seven million dollars’ worth of access into virtual concert ‘space’ Sensorium. Virtual reality (VR) spent much of the last couple of years in the trough of disillusionment but now COVID-19’s catalysing impact may see it starting to crawl onwards and upwards. Prior to COVID-19 VR was a technology searching for a purpose. COVID-19 has created one. This is not to say that all of VR’s prior failings no longer matter – they do – but it at least has a set of music use cases to build on. VR can now realistically aspire to be a meaningful component of the wider virtual event sector.

Streaming+

It is no coincidence that streaming is playing a key role. Nor is it just the smaller streaming services at play – Spotify has built the tech infrastructure for live events, while Apple is introducing artificial reality (AR) into Apple TV+, so it is not too big a leap to assume Apple Music AR experiences will follow. Live was the last major component of the music business that streaming could not reach, and that is all about to change. The value proposition for music fans is clear: why go to multiple different places for all your favourite music experiences when they can all be in one place? Think of it as Streaming+. Whatever the future of live is going to be, we can be certain about one thing: it will never be the same again.

What AWAL’s $100k artists mean for the streaming economy

Kobalt’s AWAL division announced that ‘hundreds of its artists have reached [the] annual streaming revenue threshold [of $100,000]’. Make no mistake, this is major milestone for a record label that has around 1% global market share. It is compelling evidence for how a label built for today’s streaming economy can make that economy work for its artists. So, how does this tally up with all of the growing artist concern in the #brokenrecord debate?

It’s complicated. The short version is that we have a superstar economy in streaming quite unlike the old music business, one in which artists on smaller independent labels have just as much chance of breaking into that exclusive club as those on bigger record labels. Given that AWAL states its cohort of $100k+ artists grew by 40% (assuming they mean annually) while global label streaming revenues grew by 23%, the implication is that AWAL is getting better at doing this than the wider market. And it is the implied growth of the rest of the market where things get really interesting.

(A model with more than 50 lines of calculations was required to build this analysis so I am going to walk through some of the key steps so you can see how we get there. Bear with me, it will be worth it I promise you!)

Finding the third data point

To do this analysis I am going to share one of MIDiA’s secrets with you: finding the third data point. Companies, understandably, like to share the numbers that make them look good and hold back those that do not help their story. Often though, you can get at what that third number is by triangulating the numbers they do report. A really simple example is if a company reports its revenues and subscribers but not its average revenue per user (ARPU), you can get to an idea of what the ARPU is by dividing revenue by subscribers (and if you have a churn number to work with, even better).

In this instance, Spotify gives us the ‘second’ dataset to go with AWAL’s ‘first’ dataset. In early August, Spotify reported that 43,000 artists generated 90% of its streams, up 43% from one year earlier – you’ll note how similar that 43% growth is to AWAL’s 40% growth. Combining Spotify’s data with AWAL’s, we now have what we need to create the picture of the global artist market.

Superstars within superstars

Spotify generated 73 billion hours of streams in 2019, which equates to around 1.3 trillion streams. Interestingly, taking its roughly $7.6 billion of revenue, this implies that its global per-stream royalty rate (masters and publishing, across free and paid) stood at $0.00425 – which is a long way from a penny per stream. This highlights how promotions, multi-user plans, free tiers and emerging markets are driving royalty deflation. But that’s a discussion for another day…

For the purposes of this work let’s assume that the average artist royalty rate (across standard major, indie and distribution deals) is 35%. Spotify’s 90% of streaming label royalties in 2019 was $3.9 billion, which translates to an average artist royalty income of $29,221 for each of those 43,000 artists. That is obviously south of AWAL’s $100k cohort, which illustrates that those AWAL artists are not just superstars but an upper tier of superstars.

$66,796 is good, as long as you don’t have to split it

But how does this look outside of Spotify? Firstly, the top 90% of global streaming label revenues was $10.8 billion in 2019. We then scale up Spotify’s 43,000 top-tier artists to the global market and deduplicate overlaps across services and we end up with a global base of around 56,000 top-tier artists earning an average of $66,796 per year from streaming (audio and video).

$66,796 is a decent amount of annual income but it looks a lot better if you are a solo artist than, say, a four-piece band splitting that revenue into $16,699 slices. Interestingly, AWAL seems to skew towards solo artists (94% of AWAL’s featured artists are solo acts) so the $66,796 goes a lot further for them than an average indie label rock band.

And then there’s the remaining 99% of artists…

But of course, this is how things look for the most successful artists. What about the remainder that have to share the remaining 10% of streaming revenue? That remaining label revenue is $1.2 billion of which $0.7 billion (i.e. 57%) is Artists Direct. That means the entire global base of label-signed artists that are not in the top tier have to share 4% of global streaming revenues. This translates to an average annual streaming income of $425. Artists Direct meanwhile earn an average of $176 (only 59% less than those non-superstar label artists).

The 90/1 rule

The key takeaway then is that streaming is levelling the playing field for success. Consistently breaking into the top bracket is now achievable for artists on major and indie labels alike and, if anything, independents are enjoying progressively more success. But this is a very different thing from all artists doing well. Music has always been a hits business. Streaming is widening the distribution but with less than 1% of artists generating 90% of income, the spoils are far from evenly shared. Music streaming has taken Pareto’s 80/20 principle and turned it into a 90/1 rule.