UMG’s buoyant stock debut is a new chapter for the music business

Universal Music Group (UMG) had an extremely positive first day of trading as a standalone entity, with shares at one stage trading 35% up from their reference point and making the market cap leap to $55 billion, while former-parent, Vivendi, saw a drop of two thirds in its value. Prior to the first day of trading, there were questions over whether Vivendi had pushed the indicative value of UMG shares too high, due to, in part, a series of UMG equity sell offs – but day one suggests that pent-up demand was sufficiently high to negate those concerns. Meanwhile, Warner Music Group’s (WMG) stock also surged, showing that investors see this as a market dynamic rather than a pure company dynamic. So, what is going on? Why is there so much investor enthusiasm in the music industry? The answers lie in the two-tier narrative that is building around today’s music business.

If the UMG listing had happened as recently as two years ago, we probably would not be talking about such a stellar trading debut. The fact that we are doing so now is because the music market has moved on a lot since then – and I mean a lot. This is what the music market looked like in September 2019:

For those deep in the music business, it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how much change has happened in such a short period of time. As CS Lewis once wrote: Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different? Crucially for UMG’s listing, these changes have contributed to a major shift in the music industry’s metanarrative for investors:

  • 2019: The Spotify vs the labels narrative was in full swing. Investors viewed the market through the lens of ‘rights vs distribution’. They were backing Spotify against UMG, vice versa or simply backing both horses in the race as a sector hedge. Record labels looked vulnerable in a market which was dominated by digital service provider (DSP) growth, which, in turn, was dominated by Spotify. Streaming’s future was bright, but there was a risk that as streaming got bigger, the labels would get weaker.
  • 2020: Streaming revenues continue to grow strongly, up 18.3% in 2020 with 467 million subscribers, and up a further 25.9% in H1 21 in the US. But, crucially, the market is diversifying beyond DSPs. New growth drivers (social, short-form video, games, fitness, and mindfulness) are now making a truly meaningful contribution to label revenues (around $1.5bn in 2020). Music is becoming the soundtrack to the new digital entertainment universe. Vitally, unlike the traditional approach of sync (an ad hoc model that struggles to be agile and to scale), the labels are applying scalable licenses, born out of the DSP model, to ensure music rights can be agile enough to grow with the fast-changing digital entertainment marketplace. On top of this, a) the catalogue M+A boom has established music as an investor asset class, b) recorded music grew during the pandemic while live declined, thus demonstrating it to be the most resilient component of the wider music industry. The outlook for music is now a multi-layered narrative, with DSPs still centre stage but no longer the only game in town.

What this all means is that music rights are a compelling investment proposition for bigger institutional investors. However, the thing about bigger institutional investors is that they typically like to invest in big established companies. So, looking at the marketplace, unless an investor wants to build a catalogue investment fund (which is a highly specialised approach), there are not many big companies to invest in. WMG is the smallest major, Sony Music is just one smallish part of the Sony Corporation, and Believe is an indie label. So, while those are still interesting options for investors, the opportunity to invest into the world’s largest music company was previously the exclusive domain of a few large investors. Now, finally, everyone can have a part of UMG. 

So, what we have is the confluence of two factors:

  • Pent-up investor demand
  • A compelling and diversified industry narrative

The timing for UMG is perfect, but, of course, it has not been a neutral player simply watching the sands shift. It has actively driven this narrative, not just through what Sir Lucian Grainge and other executives have been telling the market, but also through its succession of equity transactions which helped build demand and value recognition. Part of the reason UMG is the world’s biggest music group is because it is the world’s biggest music group. It uses its scale and influence to help shape the market and its future trajectory. This is arguably one of UMG’s most valuable assets: it exercises control over its own destiny.Whether UMG’s share price falls or whether it grows in the coming weeks, the listing represents a high water mark for the music business as an asset class and may well be reflected upon as a useful bookend for one phase of the music business as another emerges.

The record labels are weaning themselves off their Spotify dependency

The major labels had a spectacular streaming quarter, registering 33% growth on Q2 2020 to reach $3.1 billion. Spotify had a less impressive quarter, growing revenues by just 23%. After being the industry’s byword for streaming for so long, Spotify’s dominant role is beginning to lessen. This is less a reflection of Spotify’s performance (though that wasn’t great in Q2) but more to do with the growing diversification of the global streaming market. 

Spotify remains the dominant player in the music subscription sector, with 32% global subscriber market share, but streaming is becoming about much more than just subscriptions. WMG’s Steve Cooper recently reported that such ‘emerging platforms’ “were running at roughly $235 million on an annualized basis” (incidentally, this aligns with MIDiA’s estimate that the global figure for 2020 was $1.5 billion). 

The music subscription market’s Achille’s heel (outside of China) has long been the lack of differentiation. The record labels showed scant interest in changing this, but instead focused on licensing entirely new music experiences outside of the subscription market. As a consequence, the likes of Peloton, TikTok and Facebook have all become key streaming partners for record labels – a very pronounced shift from how the label licensing world looked a few years ago.

The impact on streaming revenues is clear. In Q4 2016, Spotify accounted for 38% of all record label streaming revenue. By Q2 2021 this had fallen to 31%.

Looking at headline revenue alone, though, underplays the accelerating impact of streaming’s new players. Because Spotify already has such a large, established revenue base, quarterly dilution is typically steady rather than dramatic. Things look very different though when looking specifically at the revenue growth, i.e., the amount of new revenue generated in a quarter compared to the prior year. On this basis, streaming’s new players are rapidly expanding share. Spotify’s share of streaming revenue growth fell from 34% in Q4 2017 to just 26% in Q2 2021. Unlike total streaming revenue, the revenue growth figure is relatively volatile, with Spotify’s share ranging from a low of 11% to a high of 60% over the period – but the underlying direction of travel is clear.

Spotify remains the record labels’ single most important partner both in terms of hard power (revenues, subscribers) and soft power (ability to break artists etc.). But the streaming world is changing, fuelled by the record labels’ focus on supporting new growth drivers. The implications for Spotify could be pronounced. With so many of Spotify’s investors backing it in a bet on distribution against rights, the less dependent labels are on it, the more leverage they will enjoy. From a financial market perspective, the last 18 months have been dominated by good news stories for music rights – from ever-accelerating music catalogue M&A transactions to record label IPOs and investments. 

Right now, the investor momentum is with rights. Should the current dilution of Spotify’s revenue share continue, Spotify will struggle to negotiate further rates reductions and will find it harder to pursue strategies that risk antagonising rights holders. Meanwhile, rights holders would be surveying an increasingly fragmented market, where no single partner has enough market share to wield undue power and influence. That is a place where rights holders have longed dreamed of getting to, but now – divide and conquer – may finally be coming to fruition.

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.

The productisation of music rights

News that New York-based Pershing Square Tontine Holdings is planning to acquire 10% of UMG is the latest in a wave of financial transactions in the music rights space. Alongside this, Believe’s impending IPO has the potential to be one of the biggest things to happen to the independent music sector in some time, and comes as part of a wave of IPOs (e.g. WMGUMG), SPACs (e.g. AnghamiReservoir) and no end of catalogue funds and acquisition vehicles. This trend, with good cause, has been referred to as the ‘financialisation of music’ but that only captures part of what is at play here. This is more than simply an influx of capital and debt; financial institutions are now becoming part of the plumbing of the music business, and in turn they are changing the definition of what constitutes success. This shift in objectives and desired outcomes has the potential to rebalance how the music industry operates.

Though the strategies and aspirations of financial entities that are investing in music are diverse, they are usually very different to those held by music companies, particularly those of traditional music rights holders. What constitutes success for one may not matter much for the other. For example, a credible music industry objective (e.g., get playlisted) might have little immediate relevance to asset class value. Even the macro market trends illustrate the disconnect: the value of publicly announced music catalogue transactions grew by 14% in 2020, while global music publisher and label revenues each grew by just 8%, i.e., the financial value of music catalogues grew faster than their ability to generate revenue. 

Music rights have become established as an asset class, with their value defined differently than how the music industry typically measures value. The value of a song to the music industry resides in its commercial and cultural performance. A hit is a hit. But that same song’s value as part of a catalogue as a financial asset is also defined by a wider range of factors, including the relative value of music as an asset class compared to other financial asset classes. When entities such as pension funds and investment managers acquire music rights, they add them to diverse portfolios of assets, with music representing a particular tier of risk and return. Those financial institutions accrue value by repackaging the assets in derivative financial products that they then sell on. A pension plan is a straightforward example. This is the productisation of music rights.

This all matters because the strategic objectives of the financial entities will inevitably shape those of the music rights company. For example:

  • The Tencent-led consortium that acquired 20% of UMG has made a bet on rights versus a bet on distribution (e.g. Spotify) and as such will have a set of views about what UMG’s relationship with streaming services should be. Right now, those views most likely align closely with those of UMG leadership, but if at some stage they were to diverge then UMG’s strategy itself could be affected. 
  • The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan’s investment in Anthem Entertainment forms part of an investment strategy that will expect an increase in asset value and return. Depending on the specifics of the strategy, this could, for example, favour Anthem focussing on catalogue acquisition over riskier creative investments in specific songwriters.

Neither of these examples are inherently positive or negative, they simply illustrate that the scale and nature of the investments coming into music rights are also changing how the music business operates. In some instances that will result in conservatism, in others bold opportunism. But the determining factors will be less about the music ethos of the music company and more about the investment thesis of the financial backer. 

External finance has long played an important role in the music business, but never before at this sort of scale. Music catalogue M&A transactions (not including IPOs, SPACs etc.) have already 74% of what was a record level in 2020. The scale of this inward investment shows no sign of slowing. So, whatever your views on the productisation of music rights, this is a market dynamic that is going to help shape the future of 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. 

Recorded music revenues hit $23.1 billion in 2020, with artists direct the winners – again

The global pandemic caused widespread disruption to the music business, in particular decimating the live business and impacting publisher public performance royalties. Although the recorded music business experienced a dip in the earlier months of the pandemic, the remainder of the year saw industry revenue rebound, making it the sixth successive year of growth. Global recorded music revenues grew 7% in 2020 to reach $23.1 billion in record label trade revenue terms. The growth rate was significantly below the 11% increases seen in both 2018 and 2019, and the annual revenue increase was just $1.5 billion, compared to $2.1 billion in 2019. These metrics reflect the dampening effect of the pandemic. Global revenue was down 3% in Q2 2020 compared to one year earlier, but up to 15% growth in Q4 2020, suggesting a strong 2021 may lie ahead if that momentum continues.

Streaming growth driven by independents (labels and artists)

Streaming revenues reached $14.2 billion, up 19.6% from 2019, adding $2.3 billion, up from the $2.2 billion added in 2019. So, 2020 was another year of accelerating streaming growth and, given that Spotify’s revenue growth increased by less in 2020 than 2019, this indicates that it is for the first time meaningfully under-performing in the market, due to the rise of local players in emerging markets and strong growth for YouTube. For the first time, the major labels under-performed in the streaming market – but not all majors were affected in the same way. Sony Music Entertainment (SME) was entirely in line with streaming market growth, Universal Music Group (UMG) slightly below and Warner Music Group (WMG) markedly below. Independent labels and artists direct both strongly overperformed in the market, collectively growing at 27% and thus increasing their combined streaming market share to 31.5%.

Market share shifts

The major record labels saw collective market share fall from 66.5% in 2019 to 65.5% in 2020. While this shift is part of a long-term market dynamic, most of the dip was down to WMG reporting flat revenues for the year. SME gained share and UMG remained the largest record label with 29.2% market share. Independent labels also saw a 0.1 point drop in market share, but there was a very mixed story for independents. MIDiA fielded a global survey of independent labels and the data from that helped us track the contribution of independents. Independent labels as a whole grew by 6.7% (i.e. slightly below the market), but within the sector there was a massive diversity of growth rates, with smaller, newer indies tending to grow faster than the market (some dramatically so) and larger, more established indies growing below the market rate. There were also many independents (of all sizes) that saw revenues fall in 2020.

The unstoppable rise of independent artists

In 2019, artists direct were the stand-out success story, massively outperforming the market. History repeated itself in 2020 with artists direct growing by a staggering 34.1% to break the billion-dollar market for the first time, ending the year on $1.2 billion and in the process increasing market share by more than a whole point, up to 5.1% in 2020. The continued rise of independent artists reflects the clear and pronounced market shift towards this new, emerging generation of artists. With lots of private equity money now pouring into creator tools companies like Native Instruments, expect this space to heat up even further in 2021. The recorded music business is changing, and it is changing fast.

Smaller independents and artists direct grew fastest in 2020

Last year we identified a small but crucial metric from Spotify’s annual report: the share of all streams accounted for by majors and independent licensing body Merlin. It was crucial because it enabled us to segment the streaming market in detail, when combined with market data from majors and independent artist platforms. The key takeaway was that independents grew fastest, but that not all independents grew at the same rate. Now the 2020 figure is out from Spotify and the trends have accelerated.

The share of Spotify streams accounted for by the majors and Merlin fell four percentage points in 2020 to 78%, down from a high of 85% in 2018. The recorded music market is one in which label market shares typically move at a near glacial pace. In comparison, this shift is nothing short of tectonic. What we are witnessing is not just the emergence of a new pattern of growth in the recorded music business but also the emergence of a new breed of record label.

Firstly, the methodological health warning: this percentage reported by Spotify refers to streams, not revenue, so will have some margin of error as there are certain types of labels that do better among ad supported users than paid, which means their contribution to revenue is less than to streams. Emerging markets such as India (which skew heavily to free users) will also over index. Also, non-Merlin independents will include by inference all record labels that are not majors and that are not Merlin licensed, so this will include big record labels in Korea, Japan, India etc. who in their own markets are the equivalents of majors.

All that said, the shares are still directionally invaluable and provide us with some great market insight. By applying the major labels’ market shares for revenue, coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) and independents overall, we can work out what the splits between Merlin, the majors and everyone else are.

The headline is that independents as a whole grew market share in 2020 from 29.7% to 31.1%. In 2018 the figure was 28.3%. That is nearly three whole points of market share gained. To drive such big shifts in market share in a fast growing market like streaming, big revenue growth is needed. The Spotify figures would suggest that majors grew by 14%, Merlin was down by 3%, artists direct were up by 28% and non-Merlin independents were up by 49%. As in 2019, artists direct and non-Merlin independents were the big winners. These two segments represent the new vanguard of streaming-era music strategy, entities that have learned how to use their smaller scale to be agile and play to the unique rhythms of streaming in a way that bigger, more established companies have not. 

Merlin’s dip in streams may well not be reflected in revenues, as Merlin labels tend to over index for premium streams. Even if they were around flat or even slightly positive in revenue terms, the contrast with the newer breed of smaller independent labels is clear. Of course, not all Merlin labels are the same, but the category-level trend suggests that many Merlin labels might be stuck in the difficult middle ground between the agility of newer, smaller labels, and not having the scale of tech, data and catalogue to enjoy the same scale benefits that majors do.

Even with all the caveats considered, the direction of travel is clear: streaming is paving the way for a new breed of independent, one that is gaining share at the expense of both majors and traditional independents.

Sony just became (even more of) an independent powerhouse

Sony Music has bought AWAL (and Kobalt Neighbouring Rights) from Kobalt for $430 million. By adding AWAL to its already-booming Orchard division (as well as other distribution companies), it now has leading brands for independent artists as well as independent labels. Sony Music just became one of, if not the, leading global companies for independent music. With a major now being one of the biggest indies, the obvious question is: what does being independent even mean anymore? 

Kobalt has been one of the music industry’s most important change agents with its publishing and label assets helping reframe some of the fundamentals of the business. Since its acquisition of AWAL, Kobalt has nurtured it into a brand that was synonymous with the age of the empowered independent artist and was seen by much of the independent artist community as their natural home. 

Now that AWAL is becoming assimilated into the Sony Music corporate structure, the independent artist community will be wondering whether Sony can keep AWAL’s independent spirit alive. The answer is most likely a qualified ‘yes’. Years after being fully incorporated into Sony, the Orchard continues to be a key force for independent labels. Sony has proven adept at striking a balance between corporate integration and divisional independence. Also, Kobalt had always structured AWAL in a way that more closely resembled a major label than it did an independent. This was reflected in its structure, leadership, strategic thinking, tech and marketing capabilities, and even in many of its more successful artists like Lauv and Rex Orange County (who Sony eventually poached). You could even make the case that what was really independent about AWAL was that it was not part of a major label…

Nevertheless there was, and is, a crucial, company-defining, independent principle: artist ownership of rights. This remains what makes the average AWAL artist different from the average Sony Music artist. But, of course, all of the majors have been betting big on label services too. Which brings us back to the original question: what does being independent actually mean? Is it about not being part of a big corporate structure? Does it mean an artist retaining ownership of their rights? Is it commercial and creative freedom for artists? Is it an ideology of music first, business second? In truth it is probably a mixture of some and all of those things, depending on the individual artist. What is however also true, is that nowadays an artist can be independent with a major label. A dynamic that AWAL just made even more true.

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.

Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’

The #brokenrecord debate continues to build momentum and new models such as user-centric are getting increased attention, including at governmental level in the UK. But as Mat Dryhurst correctly observes, there is a risk of the market falling into streaming fatalism; that the obsession with trying to fix a model that might not be fixable distracts us from focusing on trying to build alternative futures.

I have previously explored what those new growth drivers might be, but now I want to explain the unfixable problems with the current streaming system for creators and smaller labels. Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’, but that is mainly because of its inherent structure. Tweaking the model will bring improvements but not the change artist and songwriters need. Instead of exploring sustaining innovations for streaming, it is time to explore new disruptive market innovations

Product remuneration versus project remuneration

Smaller independent artists and labels are outgrowing the majors and bigger indies on streaming, so why are we having the #brokenrecord debate? Why isn’t it adding up? The answer lies in how artists and songwriters are remunerated. In all other media industries other than music and books, creators are primarily remunerated on a project basis. An actor will be paid an appearance fee for a film or TV show; a games developer will be paid for their time on a project; a sports star paid a salary; a journalist paid for a story. In many of those cases the creator will sometimes have the opportunity to negotiate a share of profit too, an ability to benefit in the upside of success. But, crucially, the media company has assumed all of the risk. Also, of course, the media company owns the copyright.

Artists and songwriters might get an advance, but that is a loan against future earnings, not a project fee. Artists and songwriters, like authors, are remunerated via product performance. They shoulder the risk, and most of the time they do not even own the copyright. Actors and sports stars do not have to worry about slicing up a royalty pot; they have been paid for their creativity whatever the outcome of the project. Any royalty splits are an upside, an ability to benefit from success rather than a dependency for income.

The consumption hierarchy has become compressed

Music used to be split into a neat hierarchy, with radio and social being about passive enjoyment and generating usually small royalties, while albums were about active fandom that generated large income. Streaming fused those two together into one place and created a royalty structure that, in artist income terms, resembles radio more than it does album sales. The problem does not lie with how much streaming services pay (c.70% of income is a hefty share to pay out), but instead:

  1. how those royalties are divided up
  2. the way they monetise consumption
  3. the fact royalty rates are determined by how much streaming services charge

Streaming rates are going down because users are listening to more music and streaming services are charging less per user due to promotions, trials, multiple-user plans, telco bundles, student plans etc. Even before you start thinking about how the royalty pie is sliced, it is getting ever smaller in relation to consumption – and there is no onus on streaming services to protect against rates deflation because they pay as a share of income rather than a fixed per-stream rate (for subscriptions).

Monetising fandom

Music fans care about artists and songwriters, and given the opportunity and the right context many fans will support them. But that context is often artificial and happens outside of the normal consumption experience; for example, a music fan listening to a band on Spotify then going to Bandcamp to buy an album. It requires a conscious decision for the fan to say ‘I want to support this artist’. No such decision is necessary for a sports fan or movie fan because the remuneration system already ensures the talent has been adequately remunerated. On top of this, most music consumers are not passionate fans of most artists, so most will not make that step.

There are two natural paths that follow:

  1. Build fandom monetisation into the streaming platforms, e.g. virtual artist fan packs, virtual gifting, premium performances, creator support etc. I have written at length about how Chinese streaming services do well at monetising fandom, but there it is the platform that benefits most, not the artists. Western streaming services have an opportunity to monetise fandom for the creators, not for the platforms.
  2. Create new models where consumers pay for artist-centric experiences. These will always be more niche and have the challenge of building new audiences rather than tapping into existing streaming audiences, but the decision does not need to be ‘either/or’.

The third way

There is additionally a less obvious third path, that would reframe the entire basis of artist/label/publisher/songwriter/streaming service relationships: direct licensing for creators. No streaming service is going to want to do this (they already prefer to negotiate with aggregators rather than small labels) and labels and publishers are unlikely to want to cede such power. But a pragmatic compromise could be a new generation of artist and songwriter contracts that provide for the creators to set stipulations for royalty floors to ensure that they do not pay for streaming services cutting their prices via promotions and multi-user plans. This would also require rightsholders to ensure that streaming services set a royalty floor which in turn would compel streaming services to start pushing up the average revenue per user and perhaps even introduce metered access for users.

Options 1 and 3 are not exactly easy to do and they would require seismic industry change with wide-reaching impact. But if the industry wants a significant change in creator remuneration, then it needs to embrace truly disruptive innovation rather than spend its time tweaking a model that simply cannot change in the way many want it to.