Sheeran is in the fortunate position of being one of the most in demand artists of the moment, but the broken nature of the ticketing market is locking his core fans out of his gigs. It is just the latest example of an industry in dire need of change:
Ticketing companies are playing double agent: Over the course of the last decade the live music market has grown almost dollar-for-dollar at the same rate the recorded business has declined. In 2000 live was around 30% of the global music business, now it is around 2 thirds. The live boom has long been seen as the good news for the music business, held up as evidence of value simply shifting from one part of the business to another, and the new way in which artists can build vibrant careers. The problem is that a) much of that growth has come in ticket price inflation, and b) most of the money does not make it back to artists. In fact, on average, artists only earn 14% of ticket sales revenue. Ticket resellers are a major contributory factor. Hiking up the prices and only distributing a small fraction back to artists, often in many cases (eg ticket marketplaces) nothing at all. The big ticketing companies are not merely passive observers, they are actively driving the reseller market, essentially acting as double agents and often cross promoting reseller destinations they own. For example, Ticketmaster is also the parent company of Seatwave and GetMeIn. Though Ticketmaster’s reseller destinations do not bulk buy tickets, some independent resellers have teams of people that do exactly that.
Resold tickets put gigs out of reach of core fans: Resellers argue that there is a market for high priced tickets. There is, but it is a different market than that of core fans. Many sports leagues have seen a ‘gentrification’ of crowds, with older, more affluent fans being the only ones that can afford inflated ticket prices. The result is more subdued crowds and less vibrant atmospheres. The same thing is happening to live music, with young fans being forced out in favour of older audiences. It might be good for the ticket resellers and venues and booking agents, but it is bad news for bands and fans. The presence of ticket reselling marketplaces actively encourages nefarious behaviour, with a whole segment of professional resellers that use technology such as bots to bulk buy tickets before real fans get their hands on the tickets. There is an opportunity, nay a moral obligation, for more connected action to be taken to eradicate this sort of behaviour.
It is a problem that can be fixed, but it requires coordinated effort: Ed Sheeran’s camp has told fans not to buy from resellers at inflated prices. But Sheeran’s camp have to shoulder some of the blame. The solution is as simple as it is complex. The simplicity is not to allow tickets to go to resell and to only admit fans whose names are on the tickets (which cuts out the ticketing marketplaces like Seatwave). But the complexity is that vested interests apply pressure to ensure this doesn’t happen. Nonetheless, action can be taken. Adele and her manager Jonathan Dickins took a bold stance last year, only allowing named ticket holders to attend some of her gigs. They even went as far as cancelling some resold tickets for other gigs. Mumford and Sons went one step further and booked Wembley directly, cutting out all the middle men.
But isolated action is not enough. Unless artists, managers and labels act together, to take a bold stance, change will not happen. And the losers then will be the fans.
One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other:
Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.
The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.
NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio. The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.