Music has developed an attention dependency

The attention economy defines and shapes today’s digital world. However, we have long since reached peak in the attention economy with all available free time now addressed. What this means is that previously, when digital entertainment propositions grew, they were often using up users’ free time. Now though, every minute gained is at someone else’s expense. The battle for attention is now both fierce and intense. What is more, it will get worse when much of the population finally returns to commuting and going out, as 2020 was defined by entertainment filling the extra 15% of free time people found in their weekly lives. But there is an ever bigger dynamic at play, one which gets to the very heart of entertainment: the attention economy is becoming a malign force for culture. Consumption is holding culture hostage. 

The increasingly fierce competition for consumers’ attention is becoming corrosive, with clickbait, autoplay and content farms degrading both content and culture. What matters is acquiring audience and their time, the type of content and tactics that captures them is secondary. It is not just bottom feeder content farms that play this game, instead the wider digital entertainment landscape has allowed itself to become infected by their strategic worldview.

The attention dependency goes way beyond media

Do not for a minute think this is a media-only problem. The corrosive impact of the attention economy can be seen right across digital entertainment, from hastily churned out scripted dramas, through to music. Artists and labels are locked in a race to increase the volume and velocity of music they put out, spurred on by Spotify’s Daniel Ek clarion call to up the ante even further. In this volume and velocity game, algorithm-friendly A&R and playlist hits win out. Clickbait music comes out on top. And because music attention spans are shortening, no sooner has the listener’s attention been grabbed, then it is lost again due to the next new track. In the attention economy’s volume and velocity game, the streaming platform is a hungry beast that is perpetually hungry. Each new song is just another bit of calorific input to sate its appetite. 

In this world, ‘streamability’ trumps musicality, but it is not just culture that suffers. Cutting through the clutter of 50,000 new songs every day also delivers diminishing returns for marketing spend. Labels have to spend more to get weaker results. 

Music subscriptions accentuate the worst parts of the attention economy 

Perhaps most importantly of all though, music subscriptions are the worst possible ecosystem in which to monetise the attention economy. In online media, more clicks means more ads, which means more ad revenue. In music subscriptions it is a fight to the death for a slice of a finite royalty pot. A royalty pot that is also impacted by slowing streaming growth and declining ARPU. The music industry has developed an attention dependency in the least healthy environment possible.

This is not one of those market dynamics that will eventually find a natural course correction. Instead, the music industry has to decide it wants to break its attention dependency and start doing things differently. Until then, consumption and content will continue to push culture to the side lines.

It is time to take hold of the wheel

Some years ago, Andrew Llyod Webber said this: “The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass manufacturing business”. Although those words are of someone from the old world grappling with the new, the underlying premise remains. None of this is to suggest that streaming consumption is not the future. Nor is it to even suggest that all of the changes to the culture of music that streaming has brought about are negative. In fact, it may be that streaming-era music culture is simply what the future of music is going to be. But what is crucial is that artists, labels, songwriters and publishers take an active role in steering the ship to the future rather than simply getting pulled along by the streaming tide.

Global independent label survey

MIDiA Research is conducting a major study of independent label revenue in order to create a definitive review of the independent sector’s contribution to the global music market. MIDiA conducted this work for a number of years on behalf of the Worldwide Independent Network and is now independently creating a dataset for 2020. The last WINTel study can be found here. We are calling for all independent labels, of whatever size and geography, to complete our survey which can be found here.

Why this survey is so important

The most common method used to determine the global market share of independents is to take total recorded music revenues from MIDiA or the IFPI and then deduct the revenues of the major labels. This is how the independent sector has been measured for years. However, it under-represents the value of independents because many independent labels are either distributed directly via majors or via one of their wholly owned distribution arms such as the Orchard. This means that independent label revenue appears within major label revenue. Although MIDiA’s figure is higher than the IFPI’s to reflect the latter’s under-reporting of independents, the method still under-represents independents whichever total market figure is used.

The purpose of this survey is to pick up where WINTel left off, to separate out the revenue that is distributed by majors and allocate that directly to the independents, thus revealing the larger, actual independent market share based on ownership of copyright rather than by the company that distributes the revenue.

What is needed from independent labels

The survey asks a number of questions about each record label’s revenue, growth and the distributors it works with. We appreciate that this information is highly sensitive which is why we treat the data with utmost care and confidentiality, just as we did when we fielded the survey on behalf of WINTel.

As with all our previous surveys, all responses will be treated as strictly confidential. No individual responses will ever be shared. Instead, all responses will only ever be aggregated into national and international numbers. The respondent-level data will be stored securely, encrypted in an offline location and will never be shared with any third party whatsoever.

What is in it for independent labels

MIDiA will provide a full summary of the final, aggregated results to all independent labels and distributors that participate in this survey. The final data will present independent label market share data globally and at country level.

In addition, the survey asks respondents about issues such as how the global pandemic has affected their business and how confident they feel about 2021. We will also be providing this data to all respondents, enabling them to benchmark themselves against their peers.

Next steps

We are fielding this survey throughout December and the start of 2021. Once the survey fielding is complete MIDiA will build its market share model using the results of the survey and other inputs such as reported company financials and input from direct conversations with a number of larger independent labels.

As a reminder, at no stage will any label-level data be seen by anyone else other than the MIDiA analysts working on the project and they will not share any of this information with anyone else.

The survey can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DCM3VXG

We look forward to your participation. No independent label is too big or small to take part. If you have any questions regarding this project then email info@midiaresearch.com

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 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.

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.

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.

How the DNA of a hit has changed over 20 years

Recorded music has always evolved to fit the dominant format of the era, from three-minute songs to fit on 7-inch vinyl, through eight-song albums to fit on LPs, through to 16+ song albums to fill CDs. Format-driven change is nothing new, but streaming’s impact on the making of music itself is arguably more revolutionary than that of previous formats because it is both the consumption and discovery format rolled into one.

In the heyday of the album, the focus would be both on what makes a great album and what tracks would work on radio, and later MTV. Now all the considerations are rolled into the song itself, the central currency of the streaming era.

20 years of dna of hits

To illustrate just how significant this change is, we have taken a snapshot of the Billboard Top 10, now and 20 years ago. The caveats here are that this is just that: a snapshot in time, rather than a comprehensive data analysis – and it is a view of just the very top of the pile, the megahits of the day. Nonetheless, it provides some clear illustration of how the DNA of a hit has changed over the course of 20 years:

  • Shorter, snappier songs: The average length of the top 10 hits has fallen by 16% to 221.5 seconds (three minutes and 42 seconds, down from four minutes and 22 seconds). Meanwhile, intros have fallen from 13.1 seconds to 7.4 seconds. In the streaming economy where release schedules are weaponised with increased volume and velocity of releases, there is often just one chance to catch the attention of the listener. With ever fewer younger music fans listening to radio, there is little opportunity for the listener to hear the track again if they skip it in their streaming playlist.
  • Hip Hop’s apogee: The July 2000 top 10 was evenly split between pop, rock and RnB, with the latter two having the edge. In today’s top 10 Hip Hop reigns supreme, accounting for six of the top 10 tracks. Starting with the rise of EDM and now continued with Hip Hop, the hits business has become more focused, doubling down on one leading genre and in turn making it even more dominant.
  • The industrialisation of songwriting: As the buy side of the song equation, record labels are reshaping songwriting by pulling together teams of songwriters to create genetically modified hits. The more top-class songwriters, so the logic goes, the greater the chance of a hit. The average number of songwriters increased from 2.4 per track in 2000 to 4 in 2020. The upside for songwriters is more work, the downside is having to share already small streaming royalties with a larger number of people. Interestingly, the average age of songwriters increased from just under 27 to just over 31. It points to longer careers for songwriters but it does beg the question whether this means songwriters’ life experiences are that little bit more distant from those of young music fans.
  • The rise of the featured artist: Adding super star collaborators onto tracks has become a go-to strategy for streaming-era hits. In the July 2000 top 10, none of the tracks had a featured artist, by July 2020 that share had jumped to 60%.

The dominant theme underpinning these changes in the DNA of hits is reducing risk. More songwriters, more collaborations, shorter songs, shorter intros, fewer genres all point to honing a formula, following a blueprint for success. This evolution will continue to gather pace until the next format shift rewrites the rules. Until then, record labels, songwriters and artists need to ask themselves whether they are striking the right balance between business and creativity. If they are not getting it right, then the inevitability is that (at the hit end of the market) pop will eat itself. And if it does, expect an audience shift away from the increasingly homogenised head, down to the more diverse tail.

Time to stop playing the velocity game

We all know that streaming has transformed consumption and business models alike, but this is not a ‘now-completed’ process. Instead it is one that continues to evolve at pace, and the dynamic of pace is the pivotal variable. Consumer adoption continues to accelerate in terms of both time spent and take up. The streaming services – which are entirely geared to driving and responding to this behaviour – rapidly hone their systems accordingly. Labels, artists, publishers and songwriters are stuck playing catch up, running after the streaming train before it disappears over the horizon. The marketing strategies and royalty systems that worked yesterday struggle to cope today. But this ‘upstream’ side of the music business is inadvertently making it harder for themselves to ever actually catch up. By trying to play by the new rules they are in fact feeding the machine, ceding further control of their own destinies. It is time for a reset.

Streaming’s ‘upstream’ fault lines

There are three major fault lines for the upstream music business:

  1. Volume and velocity: releasing more music than ever before to meet the accelerating turnover of content
  2. The demotion of the artist: once the centrepiece of music consumption the artist is becoming a production facility for playlists
  3. Royalties: royalty payments built for the much more monolithic streaming model of the late 2000s do not reflect the complexities and nuances of streaming consumption in the 2010s 

Each of these are inherent attributes of the current model and favour the ‘downstream’ end of the equation (i.e. streaming services) far more than they do the upstream. Each problem needs fixing.

Volume and velocity

This is the most important and insidious factor, yet it is deceptively innocuous. Labels are releasing an unprecedented volume and velocity of music to try to keep up with streaming – especially the majors. But it is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many times you roll that boulder up the hill, the next one needs rolling up all over again and the hill gets steeper every time. Spotify is adding around 1.4 million tracks a month so, for example, if UMG wanted to release tracks on a market share basis it would have to release 420,000 every month.

Now that the data era has arrived in music, the risk of signing a new artists has been significantly reduced, but at the same time, an artist whose numbers are already trending does not come cheap to sign nor does she come with a guarantee of longevity. Many artists can do enough to have a successful song, but far fewer can make a habit of it. Labels have to decide how willing they are to bet on an artist one song at a time.

It feels impossibly hard not to play the game because everyone else is playing it and the system is geared that way. Feeding the velocity game habit is like feeding a crack cocaine habit. And yet, labels know better than most businesses that by breaking the rules, creative businesses can have more, not less, success.

The demotion of the artist

Western streaming services, unlike many Eastern ones, are built around tracks not artists and consequently consumption is too. Inadvertently, labels are feeding this dynamic because they are so focused on making tracks work that an artist is much less likely to be given the benefit of a long term strategy if her songs do not stream. The problem with chasing streams is that the process for one song might not apply to another. Failing at streams will often be a reason for pulling the plug on an artist, simply because ‘Plan B’ does not have a boiler plate. The more they push tracks the more they help the de-prioritisation of artists.

Fandom should come first, streaming second. A longer-term view is needed, one that puts building the artist’s fanbase first and streaming second. If an artist has a large, engaged fanbase then streams will usually follow. But if an artist gets a lot of streams on a playlist a fanbase does not necessarily follow. Marketing campaigns need to shift emphasis to a longer-term, audience-centric focus. It may be harder to measure the near-term ROI with this approach, but it will deliver better long-term returns.

Royalties

The #brokenrecord debate is not about to go away, especially as it will likely be 2022 before live music is operating at full capacity again and thus delivering artists the income they are currently missing. As I have previously discussed this is a complex problem for which there is no single solution but instead will require coordinated efforts from multiple stakeholders. A reassessment of the entire royalty streaming structure is needed from upstream to downstream.

Downstream, we need to stop thinking that every song is equal. They are not. Listening to 30 minutes of 35-second storm sound ‘songs’ in a mindfulness playlist should not be paying the same royalties as an album listened to its entirety. Also, some form of user-centred licensing solution is needed that rewards fandom, whether that is a user opt in model (‘support favourite artists’) or an actual re-work of the royalty mechanism, or a combination of the two.

Labels also need to work out how they can pay more to artists. Lowering their A&R risk exposure could free up some income. Of course, this is something that many have tried and failed at, but what if labels were to allocate 10% of their marketing budgets to top-of-funnel activity so that they can do even more work than they currently do around identifying talent early. This needs a commercial model that protects their funnel (e.g. first refusal terms for artists) and also needs to play in the creator tools space: the tools creators user to make music is the real ‘top of funnel’ – this is where the first relationships are established.

The holy grail for improving label profits would be for the label to improve the overall success rate for the artists in the portfolio. However, in the history of music, it is safe to say that no label has quite cracked it. Instead they live with it as a reality and a cost of doing business.

Labels do though, have some margin slack to play with. WMG improved its OIBDA from 11.9% in 2018 to 14.0% in 2019 while UMG improved its EBITDA from 16.7% in 2017 to 20.0% in 2019. Clearly, improved profitability is important in its own right and for investors, but the way to see this is a near-term expense to secure long-term profitability. A label without artists is not a label.

Breaking the habit

It takes a brave – some might say foolish – label to stop playing by streaming’s rules of engagement, to risk losing share in those crucial playlists. But label business models are not structured for the economics of single tracks – dance labels excepted. Their P&Ls are built around artists. When streaming behaviour started killing off the album, labels complained but then got used to building campaigns around tracks. However, this is not the destination, it is a stopover on the long-term journey towards a post-artist world. Playing streaming’s velocity game perpetuates an increasingly dysfunctional model. It feeds shortening attention spans, degrades the role of the artist and downgrades music to fodder for playlists. It is time to jump off the merry-go-round.

Just what is Tencent’s Endgame?

tencent logoTencent’s combined $200 million investment in WMG follows on the heels of its $3.6 billion joint investment in Universal Music. It is hardly Tencent’s first investments in music, having spent $6.2 billion on music investments since 2016. But music is just one part of a much larger, supremely bold and undoubtedly disruptive strategy that is making the Chinese company an entertainment business powerhouse in the East and West alike.

Tencent is a product of the Chinese economic system

Tencent being a Chinese company is not incidental – it is pivotal. The Chinese economy does not operate like Western economies. Rather than following free market principles, it is a controlled economy in which everything – in one way or another – ultimately comes back to the state. In China, the economy is an extension of the state. The state takes an active role in the running of successful Chinese companies, sometimes very openly, sometimes in less direct ways, such as ensuring party nominees end up in management positions.

Chinese companies are used to working closely with the state – in its most positive light – as a business partner. When a company’s objectives align with those of the state, an individual company may gain preferential treatment at the direct expense of competitors. This is exactly the opposite way in which state involvement happens in the West (or is at least supposed to) – i.e. regulation. Tencent has benefited well from this approach, not least in music.

Tencent Music is the leading music service provider in China (78% market share in Q1 2020) and is also the exclusive sub-licensor of Universal, Sony and Warner in China. This means that Tencent’s streaming competitors have to license the Western majors’ music directly from it. Tencent clearly has a market incentive to ensure terms are less favourable than it receives itself. Netease’s CEO call the set up ‘unfair’ and regulatory authorities are at the least going through the motions of investigating. But the fact this set up could ever exist illustrates just how different the Chinese regulatory worldview is.

Investing in reach and influence

Why this all matters, is that when Tencent views overseas markets it does so with a very different worldview than most Western companies. Taking investments in two of the world’s three biggest record labels might feel uncomfortable from a Western free-market perspective, but to Tencent it just makes good business sense to have influence over as much of the market as it can get. What better way to help ensure you get good deals in the marketplace? Such as, for instance, exclusive sub-licensing into China.

Music is not Tencent’s main priority. For example, its combined $6.2 billion spent on music investments is less than the $8.6 billion that Tencent spent on acquiring 84% of gaming company Supercell in 2016). Nonetheless, music – along with games, video, messaging and live streaming – is one of the central strands of Tencent’s entertainment portfolio strategy.

Just as Apple, Amazon and Alphabet are building digital entertainment portfolios designed to compete in the ‘attention economy’, so is Tencent. In fact, it is fair to say that Tencent is prepping itself as a direct competitor to those companies. But while each of the Western tech majors compete in familiar (Western) ways, Tencent is taking a more Chinese approach.

If you don’t like the rules of the game, play a different game

Tencent’s entertainment investment strategy can be synthesised as follows:

  • Take (predominately) minority stakes in companies to get the benefit of influence without having to shoulder the burden of ownership
  • Invest end-to-end across the supply chain, from rights through to distribution
  • Systematically invest in direct competitors so that they are all each other’s enemies but are all Tencent’s friend

This strategy has given Tencent access to and / or control of:

  • Audience (e.g. QQ, WeChat, Weibo, Snapchat (12%), Kakao (14%), AMC Cinemas – via its stake in Wanda Group),
  • Distribution (e.g. Tencent Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Joox, Spotify (10%), Gaana, KuGou, Kuwo, QQ Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Epic Games (40%)
  • Rights (e.g. UMG (<10%), WMG (1.6%), Skydance (5%–10%), Supercell (84%), Glumobile (15%), Activision Blizzard (5%), Ubisoft (5%), Tencent Pictures)

The Western tech majors have built similar ecosystems, acquiring the audience and distribution parts of the supply chain (e.g. iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Apple Music) but only rarely getting into rights (e.g. Apple TV+ originals) and never systematically investing in competing rights holders.

The Western tech majors may have often tetchy relationships with rights holders but their strategic focus (for now at least) is to be partners for rights holders. Tencent’s strategy is one of command and control: vertical supply chain integration secured through the sort of behind-closed-doors influence that billions of dollars’ worth of equity stakes get you.

Tencent may be the future of digital entertainment

Tencent is building the foundations of being one of – perhaps even the – global digital entertainment powerhouse. By taking stakes in two of the Western major labels, Tencent broke the unspoken gentleman’s agreement that streaming services and rights holders would remain independent of each other in order to ensure the market remains open and competitive. Now the Western tech majors have to choose whether to continue playing the old game or to get a seat at the table of the new game. Back in 2018 MIDiA predicted that over the coming decade Apple, Amazon or Spotify would buy a major record label. Maybe that prediction is not quite so outlandish anymore.

Artists are Learning How it Feels to be a Songwriter

The ‘broken record’ streaming debate that continues to rage on is a natural consequence of the instantaneous collapse of live music revenue following lockdown. As soon as it was clear that live was going to be gone for some time, MIDiA predicted that the artist backlash against streaming royalties would be a natural, unintended consequence.

With many artists used to live comprising more than half of their income and streaming by contrast a sizeable minority, it was easy for them focus less on whether streaming paid enough and more on how many extra fans it was bringing to their concerts.

In the absence of live, all eyes are on streaming. As I’ve written previously, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to what is a complex, multi-layered problem. But there is a really important issue that artists’ lockdown plight shines a light on: the long-term plight of songwriters. Here’s why.

Streaming did not grow in a vacuum

The streaming economy did not grow in a vacuum. It rose in the context of a thriving wider music industry where artists were earning good money from live, merch and (for some) sponsorship. Nor did streaming ever consider its relationship to live as being neutral. Spotify in fact is vocal in its belief that it  ‘supports and extends the value of live’.

This matters because it encourages artists to think about streaming delivering a wider set of concrete income benefits than the royalty cheque alone. The streaming case is that without it, artists would be playing to smaller crowds and selling less merch. A high tide raises all boats.

Without the halo effect benefits though, artists would have found it much more difficult to adjust to the shift of paradigms from a series of large one-off income events (i.e. selling albums) to a longer-term, more modest monthly income, namely trading up front payments for an annuity. Artists would have found it as difficult as…well…as they are now. This is how it feels not to have live music and merch paying the bills. This is how it feels to be a songwriter.

Songwriters only have the song

Professional songwriters (i.e. not those that are also performing artists) may have many income streams (performance, sync, mechanicals, streaming) but they all depend on the song. The songwriter lives in a song economy. The artist lives in a performance/ recordings/ clothing/ collectibles/ brands economy. Songwriters do not tour or sell t-shirts. As a consequence, they have been paying closer attention to streaming royalties over recent years than artists have. Now that artists are also unable to tour or sell shirts (at least in the same volumes) streaming royalties suddenly gained a new importance to them also.

The good news for artists is that live will recover (though it will take until late 2021 to be fully back in the saddle). The bad news for songwriters is that there is no easy or quick fix and things will get worse before they get better. One of the key imbalances is in streaming. Music publisher revenue is around 2.8 times smaller than label revenues but streaming royalties are four times smaller. As streaming becomes a progressively larger part of the wider music economy, if the current royalty mix remains, songwriters will earn a progressively smaller share of the total.

A generation of whom much is asked

Artists are fighting an important fight now, but when live picks up post-lockdown, songwriters will still be fighting their fight. This is not to in any way diminish the importance of artists getting a fairer share from streaming services and record labels, but it is to say that much of their pain will ease when their other income streams come back online.

Be in no doubt. Songwriters have a long and windy road ahead of them.

Songwriter’s streaming era plight reminds me of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 quote:

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.”

But just as streaming does not exist in isolation, nor do songwriters. They are the foundations of the entire industry. There is a well-used saying that ‘everything starts with the song’. It doesn’t. Everything starts with the songwriter.

Quick reminder: if you are an artist and you haven’t yet taken our artists survey, then there is still time! We are keeping the survey live for a few more days. All individual responses are 100% confidential. All artists get a full copy of the summary survey data so you can benchmark yourself against your peers, including how they are dealing with the impact of COVID-19. The survey questionnaire is here.