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.

The Frank Ocean Days May Be Gone, but Streaming Disintermediation Is Just Getting Going

Aaron_Smith
At the start of this month Apple struck a deal with French rap duo PNL. PNL are part of a growing breed of top-tier frontline artists that have opted to retain ownership of their masters. In our just-published Independent Artists report (MIDiA clients can read the full report here)we have sized out the label services marketplace, and when it is coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) the independent artist sector was worth 8% of the entire recorded music business in 2018.

While that number may sound relatively modest, it is growing fast and represents the future. Traditional label deals are not disappearing, but they are becoming just one component of an increasingly complex recorded music revenue mix. This is the industry context that enables initiatives such as Apple’s PNL deal and both Spotify and Apple backing Aaron Smith, who incidentally is signed to artist accelerator Platoon, which is a company that Apple acquired in December 2018.

Independent artists open up new opportunities for streaming services

When Apple did its exclusive with Frank Ocean back in 2016it caused such an industry backlash that UMG head Lucian Grainge banned his labels from doing exclusive deals and the movement seemed dead in the water. If there was any doubt, Spotify kicked up so much label ill will when it launched its Direct Artists platform that it officially shuttered the initiative in July. However, now we are seeing that there many more ways to skin the proverbial cat. It is perfectly possible to disintermediate labels without having to actually disintermediate them. Doing an exclusive with an independent artist or giving him / her priority promotion is doubly effective for streaming services as:

  1. Record labels have no right to complain because independent artists have just the same right of access to audiences as label artists
  2. The more exposure independent artists get, the more their market share will grow, which will lessen record labels’ market share, which makes it harder for them to resist and easier for the streaming services to start making bolder moves down the line

Ambiguity will be the shape of things

Even this structure plays into the traditional view of labels versus the rest. The new truth is much more nuanced. For example, when Stormzy was duetting with Ed Sheeran at the Brits, signed on a label services deal to WMG’s ADA, was he a Warner artist or an independent artist? He was, of course, both. The evolution of the market will be defined by progressively more of this ambiguity, which will give streaming services equally more ability to not only play to these market dynamics but to stress-test the boundaries. The simple fact is that streaming services will become ever-agnostic with regards to artists’ commercial partnerships and in turn they will become a more important component of the value chain. Apple Music did the PNL deal because they had much more commercial flexibility dealing with an independent artist than dealing with a label artist. At some stage, labels will have to decide whether they want to revisit the exclusives model. Without doing so, they may not get a seat at the new table.

Big Machine (Inadvertently) Just Did a Promo Ad for Label Services Deals

Taylor-SwiftThe sales of Taylor Swift’s former label Big Machine Records to Scooter Braun has resulted in an ugly spat that has been played out very publicly. First Braun enthused about acquiring a ‘brilliant’ company and the global ‘opportunities’.Then Swift responded with an open letter saying that Braun had ‘stripped her of her life’s work,before Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta responded saying he had given her the ‘opportunity to own her masters’. The feud clearly has some distance to run but the issues of ‘who got what text message when’ are not the big deal here, the real deal is the big deal.

Whether she likes it or loathes it, Taylor Swift’s catalogue is Big Machine’s asset

Late last year Swift left Big Machine to sign a long-term deal with Universal Music that was most likely a label services deal. At the time she said it was ‘incredibly exciting’ to own her masters. But, however good her UMG deal might be, she is now in a position whereby her recordings are being sold to someone she’d much rather not have ownership of them. In her post she calls this a ‘worst case scenario’. From Big Machine’s perspective, it simply couldn’t sell the company without having either Taylor Swift or her recordings on its balance sheet. Without one of those, the company’s value would have been much lower. Swift may not like the feeling of being someone else’s asset but that is the very nature of what happens when an artist signs a traditional label deal.

Artists now have unprecedented commercial choice

Back in the early 2000s the Beatles wentto court to try to regain ownership of their master recordings because of a dispute with their label. Fast forward to now and we have another massive pop act angered at not having control of their own creation. At one level the world has not changed much, but on another it has done so, and dramatically so. The fact that Swift signed a label services type deal with UMG shows just how much more choice artists have with the type of deals they sign, whether that be label services, joint ventures, distribution deals or combinations of all three. Artists have never been so empowered and so educated. Nor have they ever had so many commercial options, from doing direct distribution with a CDbaby or Amuse, a label services deal with an AWAL or BMG or simply going direct to fans with platforms like Bandcamp.

Big Machine just highlighted the downside of traditional label deals

By allowing the dispute with Swift to become so public, Big Machine has just inadvertently done a promo campaign for label services deals. The more that the media is awash with stories like this, the more that artists will be considering their options. This does not however mean that all artists will be turning down traditional masters deals in favour of label services deal. A label services deal normally means trade-offs. A record label is going to get less, so in return it is going to give less back. Artists have to balance out factors such as smaller advances, lower royalty income, higher risk and bearing costs. For an artist that has spent years building to the point of signing a deal, a fat advance and guaranteed marketing spend will often be a more appealing prospect. Especially when you consider that successful artists will expect recording income to be just a minority of their total music income.

Artists increasingly use labels to build their own artist brands 

In this context, the record label becomes a marketing asset to the artist, a tool with which to become famous enough to ensure that all the other income streams (live, merch, publishing, brand partnerships etc.) kick in. In this era of empowered artists, more artists will be making an informed decision that matches their priorities. If they prioritise creative independence and control, then label services will make most sense. If they value building a large-scale audience fast, they may opt for a traditional label deal. Or they’ll take something in the middle. The bottom line is that there is no standard approach anymore. Any artist signing a deal now that finds themselves five years from now complaining about not having control of their masters will, to put it bluntly, only have themselves to blame. It will have been their choice.

Creator Support: A New Take on User Centric Licensing

User-centric licensing (i.e. stream pay-outs based on sharing the royalty income of an individual user split across the music they listen to) has stimulated a lot of debate. I first explored the concept of user-centric licensing back in 2015and stirred up a hornet nest, with a lot of very mixed feedback. The big issue then, as now, was that it is a very complex concept to implement which may well only have modest impact on a macro level but may also have the unintended consequence of worsening income for smaller artists. Fans of smaller artists tend to be more engaged listeners who generate a larger number of streams spread across a larger number of artists. The net result could be lower average income for smaller indie artists, and higher income for mainstream pop acts who have listeners with lower average streams spread across a smaller number of artists. Since then, Deezer has actively explored the concept and it continues to generate industry discussion. It is unlikely there will ever be consensus on how user-centric licensing should work, but the underlying principle of helping artists earn from their fans remains a valid one. So, here is an alternative approach that is both pragmatic and far simpler to implement: creator support. A new way to solve an old problem.

Creator support is gaining traction across the digital content world

In the on-demand world, monthly streaming income for creators can be both modest and unpredictable. Amuse’s Fast Forward,YouTube’s channel memberships and Patreon are illustrations of how the market is developing solutions to give content creators (especially artists, podcast creators, YouTubers and Twitch streamers) an effective way to supplement income. But it is Epic Game’s ‘Support-A-Creator’ model that provides the best example of an alternative to user-centric licensing. Epic Games enables Fortnite players to choose a favourite creator to support (which typically means YouTube and Twitch Fortnite players). Epic Games then contributes the equivalent of around 5% of all in-app purchases that the gamer makes to that creator.

How creator support can work for music streaming

Using Spotify and a selection of artists as an illustration, here is how a creator support approach could work for streaming music:

  • All Spotify subscribers get given the option to ‘support’ up to two of their favourite artists
  • For each artist that a subscriber supports, 1% of the record label royalties derived from that subscriber’s subscription fee goes directly to the artist, regardless of how many streams that user generates
  • The label of each artist then pays 100% of this ‘support’ income

creator support midia streaming model

To illustrate how creator support can work, we created a model using Spotify and a selection of diverse artists. We assumed that 75% of Spotify subscribers support an average of 1.5 artists. In the above chart we took five contemporary frontline artists across major labels and label services, and we assumed that 10% of their monthly Spotify listeners support them. Factoring the different types of deals and royalty rates these artists have, as well as the ratios between average monthly streams and monthly listeners, there is an intriguing range of revenue impact that creator support delivers. For Taylor Swift (on a major deal, but one in which she held the negotiating whip hand), Lauv and Rex Orange Country (both on Kobalt label services deals) the creator support income is between 18% and 22% of their existing streaming royalties from Spotify. For Billie Eilish and Circa Waves, both on their first major label deals, creator support income would represent a much larger 78% and 65% of streaming royalties. The rate is higher for Billie Eilish as she has a higher streams-to-listeners ratio.

Artists get paid more with minimal impact on the wider royalty pot

Putting aside the irony that this approach would help put many major label artists more on par with what label services and independent artists earn from streaming, the clear takeaway is that creator support can be an effective way of fans ensuring that some of their streaming spending directly benefits their favourite artists. Because we have structured the model to be just 1% per artist (rather than Fortnite’s 5%) the net impact on the total label royalty pot is minimal. Applying the above assumptions to Spotify’s 2018 label payments, the royalty pot (and therefore per-stream rates) would reduce by just 1.13%, meaning that non-supported artists would feel negligible impact.

We think the creator-approach model enables labels and streaming services to deliver on the ambition of user-centric licensing without the complexities and unintended inequities. But perhaps most importantly, it helps put artists and fans closer together, bringing the pledging model to the mainstream.

Let us know what you think. Also, we’ve added the excel model to this post for you to download and test your own assumptions against it.

MIDiA Research Streaming Creator Support Model 4 – 19