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.

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.

Songwriters Aren’t Getting Paid Enough and Here’s Why

Music Business Worldwide recently ran a story on how Apple has proposed a standard streaming rate for songwriters, with Google and Spotify apparently resistant. Of course, Apple can afford to run Apple Music at a loss and has a strategic imperative for making it more difficult for Spotify to be profitable, so do not assume that Apple’s intentions here are wholly altruistic. Nonetheless, it shines a light on what is becoming an open wound for streaming: songwriter discontent. In the earlier days of streaming artists were widely sceptical, but over the years have become much more positive towards the distributive medium. The same has not happened for songwriters for one fundamental reason: they still are not paid enough. This is not simply a case of making streaming services pay out more; rather, this is a complex problem with many moving parts.

Songwriters don’t sell t-shirts

Streaming fundamentally changes how creators earn royalties, shifting from larger, front-loaded payments to something more closely resembling an annuity. In theory, creators should earn just as much money, but over a longer period of time. If you are a larger rightsholder then this is often wholly manageable. If you are a smaller songwriter or artist, then the resulting cash flow shortage can hit hard. Many artists, especially newer ones, have made it work because a) streaming typically only represents a minority of their total income, and b) the increased exposure streaming brings usually boosts their other income streams such as live performances and merchandise. Professional songwriters however – i.e. those that are not also performers – do not sell t-shirts. Royalty income is pretty much it. There is a greater need to fix songwriter streaming income than there was for artists.

The four factors shaping songwriter income

There are four key factors impacting how much songwriters earn from streaming, and most of them can be fixed. To be clear, though, just fixing any single one of them will not move the dial in a meaningful-enough way:

  1. Streaming service royalties: Songwriter-related royalties are typically around 15% of streaming revenues, which represent around 21% of all royalties paid by streaming services – around 3.6 times less than master recordings-related royalties. This is better than it used to be, when the ratio was 4.8. However, there is clearly still a large gap between the two sets of rights. Labels argue that they are the ones who take the risk on artists, invest in them and market them. Therefore, they should have the lion’s share of income. Publishers, on the other hand, argue that they are increasingly taking risks with songwriters too (paying advances) and working hard to make their music a success, e.g. with sync streams. They also argue that everything is about the song itself. Both arguments have credence, but the fact that streaming services have historically negotiated with labels first helps explain why there isn’t much left of the royalty pot when they get to publishers. There is clearly scope for some increase for songwriters, but if there is not an accompanying reduction in label rates – not exactly a strong possibility – then the net result will be reduced margins for streaming services. Given that Spotify has only just started generating a net profit, the likely outcome would be to weaken Spotify’s position and skew the market towards those companies who do not need to see streaming pay – i.e. the tech majors. If the market becomes wholly dependent on companies that thrive on squeezing suppliers… well, good luck with that.
  2. CMOs: Many songwriter royalties are collected by collective management organizations (CMOs). These (normally) not-for-profit organisations administer rights, take their deductions and then either pay to songwriters directly or to publishers who then pay songwriters (after taking their own deductions). It gets more complicated than that, however. If a songwriter is played overseas, the local CMO collects, deducts and then sends the remainder to the CMO where the songwriter is based (however there are a good number of exceptions to this with a number of CMOs not deducting for overseas collections). That CMO takes its deduction and then distributes. It gets more complicated still – some CMOs apply an additional ‘cultural deduction’ on top of their main fee before distributing. So, if a US hip-hop artist gets played in Europe, the local CMO will take its cut, and an administration fee. Then it goes to his local CMO which takes its fee before sending it to the publisher which then takes its own cut (typically just 25%) which however is much better than label shares.
  3. The industrialisation of song writing: With more music being released than ever, songs have to immediately grab the listener. To help ensure every part of the song is a hook and to try to de-risk their artists, bigger labels commission songwriter teams and hold song writing camps, where many song writers get together and write the tracks for albums. This means that the royalties for every song are thus split into small shares across multiple songwriters. Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ has 20 songwriters credited. That means the already small royalties are split 20 ways.
  4. The unbundling of the album: When music was all about selling physical albums, songwriters used to get paid the same mechanical royalty for every song on the album, regardless of whether it was the hit single or filler. Now that listeners and playlists dissect albums, skipping filler for killer, a weak song simply pays less. Tough luck if you only wrote the filler songs on the album. On the one hand, this is free market competition. If you didn’t write a song well, then don’t expect it to pay well. Some songwriters argue that it should go the other way too, though – if they wrote the song that made the artist a hit, then shouldn’t they be paid a larger share? 

Here’s another way of looking at it. With the above analysis, this is how many streams the songwriter needs to earn income based assuming the songwriter is equally sharing income four ways with three additional songwriters:

songwriter streaam income

It is incumbent on all of the stakeholders in the streaming music business to collectively work towards making earning truly meaningful income from streaming a realistic objective for songwriters. No single tactic will move the dial. Increasing the streaming service pay-out from 15% to 20%, for example, would still see the above-illustrated songwriter only earn 25% of that. All levers need pulling. Until they are, songwriters will feel short-changed and will remain the open wound that prevents streaming from fulfilling its creator potential. Ball in your court, music industry.

Note – since originally publishing this post I have had useful feedback from a number of rights associations and publishers. My assumptions actually translated (unintentionally) into a worst case scenario that was not representative of usual practise. The post has been updated to show a more typical revenue flow. The underlying arguments of the piece remain unchanged.

Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.