Artists Survey 2022 – MIDiA asks music creators: how will you grow your audiences, earnings and career?

As the music industry continues to debate the many pros and cons of ‘the streaming era’  (while enjoying the unprecedented industry growth that it has brought), the spotlight can sometimes move away from those artists and songwriters who make a living from music but are not the big stars or household names that we know and read about in the news. 

At the same time, the ‘creator economy’ continues to boom, something MIDiA has been following, researching, and supporting for the past few years. As part of our work with music creators, we have spent the past 12-months speaking to artists, songwriters, producers and their managers about their priorities, concerns, challenges and hopes for the future as they make music, release it and, just maybe, establish a career in doing so.

We have learned a lot from these conversations. There is great insight from in-depth interviews with artists and songwriters, many of whom will (and should) capture the attention of all of today’s industry players, from streaming services to labels and creator tools companies.

For example, we have learned that the most proactive, ambitious artists see themselves as small businesses / startups, with a key goal to ‘bootstrap’ their own careers, thus creating a self-sustaining business with existing resources, rather than borrowing money or hurtling headlong into a ‘record deal’. In the streaming era, for many up and coming artists, success is more about making a sustainable living from music than it is about fame and riches.

Another great insight we have found is that artists are focused very much on core, loyal fans rather than large audiences that may come and then go. While most artists would love to ‘have a hit record’, even more of them appreciate not needing or relying on that rare event happening. Artists are focused on building 100-1,000 core fans rather than marketing to the masses, hence they are looking for tools that will help them directly reach fans, as well as helping them collect all the actionable data about their fans, which will ultimately guide them into creating relevant and engaging content for them.

As for monetisation, many artists are, of course, concerned that streaming does not pay the bills. Many of the artists we have spoken with have the perception that streaming is passive listening, and while it is great for profile and promotion, it is the other revenue streams that they need to focus on (for example, live touring, live stream sessions, merch, sync, and even teaching and session work for other artists). Many have launched Patreon pages or are looking to commercialise their own fan channels, and when it comes to new technology, there is both excitement and trepidation surrounding NFTs.

As part of MIDiA’s mission to understand and support artists, and work towards a more sustainable future for creators, we have launched the first tranche of our 2022 artist survey, focusing, at this stage, on North America and Canada. We want to hear from up and coming artists who are just setting out on their musical journey, direct artists who are using creator tools and distribution services in particular, but also established artists who are a few albums into their careers. 


If you are an artist, songwriter, producer or manager, please help us by filling in the short, 10-minute survey here, and note, we are looking for 200 or so views and have five prize draws from this sample to provide $1000 in vouchers

Beyond our role in analysing, reporting, predicting and consulting within music and media, MIDiA is a team of people – many of us creators too – who are committed to make a fairer, more sustainable and creator-friendly music industry. This survey is your chance to make a contribution so please help!

Why Spotify cannot afford to make it three out of three with podcasts

It has been a couple of weeks that Spotify would be glad to forget – if it could. Although many of the arguments have been emotionally charged and the debate says as much about people’s political beliefs as it does business strategy, it is indisputable that there is a lot at stake for Spotify. Podcasters are its big bet on the future, music artists are the current bet that pays the bills. Both constituencies need to be kept happy, but can they both be kept happy enough and at the same time? Spotify’s big-future podcast vision has been sold to investors, divesting or censoring Joe Rogan would shake those investors’ confidence in Spotify’s ability to execute on podcasts. But it would be more than just that, it would be the third time that Spotify has had to backtrack on a big bet. Once may be careless, twice bad luck, but three times would most certainly not be a charm.

It is worth remembering why Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Strategically, it wants a slice of the $30 billion radio advertising business, and it wants to ensure it is competing in all lanes of audio. But that is more about the opportunity, the potential. There is also a more prosaic motivation: podcasts represent the ability to grow higher margin revenue and give Spotify more control over its own destiny. Rather than be beholden to music rightsholders and face continual calls for higher rates from artists and songwriters (which risks making margins even smaller), Spotify can plot a course to a future where it owns much of its own content. This means both more control and higher margins. Win-win.

Spotify as a label

The only problem is that as a music platform that has acquired its hundreds of millions of users through music, music rightsholders and creators do not take too kindly to feeling like they are yesterday’s game despite still driving the vast majority of the revenue. And yet, it need not have been this way. The origins of Spotify’s podcast bet lay in the failing of their second big bet: direct artists. In September 2018, Spotify opened up its platform to artists to release their music directly on the platform. The labels of course saw this as a massive threat of disintermediation, shook their fists in fury, and compelled Spotify to swiftly backtrack, dissipating the service in July 2019. The irony is that Spotify was trying to achieve the same objectives with direct artists as it is with podcasts: more control and higher margins. The labels managed to get the strategy killed off, but in doing so they pushed Spotify into pursuing what may be an even more disruptive strategy. Competing with Spotify as a label might have been daunting to the music business, but at least the world’s leading music subscription service was still going to be squarely focused on getting its users to listen to music…

Spotify as a video service

If direct artists was Spotify’s second failed big bet, then video was the first. Back in January 2016, Spotify announced that it was becoming a video service. Featuring original content commissioned from giants of TV, such as Viacom and the BBC, Spotify went big on video. Unfortunately for Spotify, its users did not and Spotify quietly backed away from what briefly looked like a major expansion of Spotify offering away from music. Recognise the trend?

Fortune favours the brave

Spotify’s bet-based strategy is both admirable and has underpinned its huge success to date. It is just unfortunate that the biggest, highest profile bets have not panned out. If Spotify were to fail with the podcast bet too, then the consequences could be catastrophic in terms of investor sentiment. But Spotify has to bet big. It is a tech growth stock, and thus its market value is defined more by what it can be tomorrow than by what it is today. Being the leading player in a commodified and slowing DSP streaming market is not the sort of growth story that underpins valuations like Spotify’s. So it needs big dreams to aim at. 

Yet the irony is, if podcasts do not pan out then Spotify will be back at where it started: as a music streaming company (just as it was after the first two failed bets). This would be an interesting contrast to Netflix, which (occasional foray into games excepted) has had a singular focus on being a video service and is still a video service, with no failed side bets along the way.

The House of Cards moment

The likelihood is that Spotify will make a big success of podcasts, and audio more generally –and the Joe Rogan phase will be looked back on like Netflix’s House of Cards phase: a hint of what will come, the genesis of something much bigger, much more culturally impactful, and far more pervasive. But Netflix did not get to where it is without antagonising (and losing) partners along the way. TV networks that had been licensing their content to Netflix suddenly realised it was now competing with them too. By making their shows available on Netflix they were actually helping a competitor compete against them. Disney and Fox took it so seriously that they pulled their catalogue.

Netflix cause ill feeling among some TV networks and became an outright enemy. That is something Spotify cannot do with music rightsholders and creators. Spotify is currently causing ill feeling among the music community by going to great lengths to accommodate its podcast creator community, which is in stark contrast to the numerous missteps it has made with the music creator ecosystem over the years. It can do so, because it has leverage over music creators (few feel bold enough to remove themselves from Spotify), but Spotify (despite being the leading podcast platform) is still a long way from having that sort of hold over podcast creators.

‘Too big to fail’ is not enough

Netflix survived its backlash, not because it was ‘too big to fail’, but because the video streaming market is fragmented, so it could survive without the networks it antagonised (and two of those networks could go it alone via Disney+). The music streaming market is very different – losing labels and artists would simply reduce Spotify’s value proposition compared to its competitors. Spotify cannot afford its podcast ‘House of Cards moment’ to be followed by a ‘Disney moment’ for music. Matters just got further complicated by a major investor now raising concerns about Spotify’s podcast editorial policy – which means that this is no longer even a clean case of managing investors-vs-the music business. Spotify has an intensely delicate path through which it must find its way.

If it does, then third time really will be a charm for Spotify. 

From binging to burnout: the creator economy’s fault line

The streaming revolution has been built upon audience choice and control, replacing linear with on-demand and in turn opening whole new consumption paradigms. No user behaviour better encapsulates this shift than binge watching, which is done by 60% of video subscribers. But there is an inherent tension with giving the audience so much control: content is consumed much more quickly. If you are a video service, an entire season can be watched in one or two evenings, whereas in the old world, those millions spent on making the show would deliver a return over a period of months, not two nights. Little wonder Disney+ has gone for weekly episodes of its shows. 

As big as the problem is for media companies, however, it is the creator economy that is most exposed. In order to keep up with insatiable audience demand, music, podcast and video creators (and more) are often pushing themselves to their creative limits. Creators are risking burnout in order to meet their audiences’ demand for binging.

When Daniel Ek suggested that artists should be releasing music monthly, he was simply reflecting the realities of streaming-era music consumption. With just 16% of consumers listening to full albums, music audiences are beginning to replicate wider digital audiences: they expect a steady stream of (mostly) new content. The creator economy first met this audience shift with the rise of YouTubers, signing up millions of followers and delivering ‘content’ every day or so. YouTube subscriptions acted as talent feeds, setting the blueprint for content consumption that now dominates social, from TikTok to Instagram. In this world, the creator is locked in a constant battle for attention with every other content provider, big or small. Creators thus end up in a perpetual cycle of content creation to ensure they can remain present in their audiences’ content feeds.

The harsh reality of this environment is that it creates a vicious circle of influence. The more that creators create in order to try to cut through, the more content there is, which means it is even harder to cut through. This is the exact same challenge that record labels and artists currently face on streaming, forced into the volume and velocity game of releasing more music and doing so more frequently. Creators are forced to focus on volume of output rather than quality, and most often feel that however much they create, it is never enough. The net result is a growing number of creators dealing with burnout and mental health issues.

Audiences and platforms both win in the binge economy, while creators become collateral damage. With content commodified, audiences en masse do not notice as individual creators fall by the wayside, because the platforms’ algorithms will seamlessly slot in another creator who is so close the one that went, that the change will be all but unnoticeable. Platforms may have created the environments in which content is commodified, but by playing the game, the creators themselves have played a central role in commodifying content to the degree that it is content, not the creator, that matters most.

Yet, whatever the role of platforms and creators might be, it is perhaps us, the audience, that is most to blame. It is our ravenous appetite for more that creates the market. Just like Western consumers’ demand for fast fashion underpins Asian sweat shops, binging is creating a digital supply chain which favours production-line output. Some creators are beginning to create work arounds by staggering projects, dropping teasers, or even engaging fans in the creation process and having fan input points become the content they crave. But even these tactics most often require significant creator effort and maintaining a constant dialogue with the audience. 

Despite the best efforts of the creator community, the dominant direction of travel is that there is little room for careful craft. Spend three months making a song or a video, and the algorithms will already consider you history.

Spotify chose audio over music, but bigger decisions lie ahead

The symbolism behind Spotify’s support of Neil Young removing his music from the platform, rather than Joe Rogan’s podcast being removed for peddling vaccine misinformation was inescapable. For many, this was a highly public test of whether Spotify put audio or music first, and audio won. For a company that still makes more than 95% of its revenue from music, that is a big call. But, of course, in this particular instance we are talking about a catalogue music artist versus a superstar frontline audio creator. Rogan is one of Spotify’s biggest audio bets, and audio is Spotify’s biggest strategic bet, so it would take a lot – a real lot – to see Spotify consider pulling the plug on the controversial podcaster. Yet, that is exactly the sort of decision Spotify is going to have to start considering before long, and if it does not, then the decision might be made for them.

Becoming a media company

Spotify’s audio problem actually has remarkably little to do with the music business, and everything to do with media company regulation. Back in the mid-2010s, Facebook started its transition from platform to media company, pushing away from a pure focus on users’ content and towards professional created media. In doing so, Facebook found itself beginning to face the same sort of regulatory scrutiny as traditional media companies. It cried foul, trying to make the argument that it was more platform than media company and, therefore, not subject to traditional media company regulation. Facebook won some battles along the way, but it also lost a lot too, catalysed by milestones, such as the Cambridge Analytica debacle and Facebook’s use by Russian covert powers to influence the US presidential election. Throughout this, Facebook, now Meta, has fought tooth and nail to try to build a case of exceptionalism and for the internet to regulate itself. But for many regulators and law makers, the arguments do not pass muster. So much so, in fact, that the case for a new, dedicated regulatory body is building, and supported by no other than a former FCC chair.

Spotify’s case is even more complicated in that it is paying for the content in question, making it much more difficult to build a platform argument. Added to that, regardless of how much money Spotify has invested in Rogan, outspoken podcasters around the world will be looking at this as a test case for whether their freedom of speech is safe on Spotify.

The growing regulatory momentum matters to Spotify because:

  1. It is going through the exact same platform-to-media company transition that Facebook went through
  2. Support for regulation is stronger now than it was in the mid-2010s. Spotify could find itself getting caught in the same regulatory drag net as social media companies and regulated in the same way at the same time, or close to

Fragmented fandom looks very different in audio than music

Spotify’s audio challenges are not, however, limited to regulation. Spotify is learning the hard way that it is far, far easier to serve the fragmented fandom of music than it is of audio. There are not too many people in the world who feel the strength of antipathy towards other music genres as socialists do against conservatives, and so forth. There is no such thing as mass-market political opinion. Opinions polarise, more so now than ever. The best you can hope to address is a majority of opinion, but even that is scarce, and will be equally disliked by the remainder. This is the nature of modern-day politics and culture. Of course, Spotify understood this going into audio – it is why it has both Joe Rogan and Michelle Obama on its audio roster. But whereas having a diverse music catalogue is a consumer benefit (i.e., more choice) for audio, diversity can be divisive, as Joe Rogan’s continued presence illustrates.

Dealing with Neil Young is one thing, but if there is a flurry of younger, frontline artists that voice concern, then Spotify may need to take action. It will be betting that most, newer frontline artists lean towards political neutrality for fear of upsetting portions of their fanbases. Many artists, and their labels, will be asking themselves whether Rogan is too popular within their fanbases to make a stand. The days of the politically active, protest singer are a thing of the past. Perhaps more realistic an option is for artists somewhere between new and old (eg Beyonce, Coldplay) to take a stand, artists that feel confident enough in their beliefs and their fanbases to make a stand while still being culturally relevant.

Time to choose? 

So, Spotify’s future as an audio company may not only be shaped by external regulation, but it may also have to regulate itself – culturally and politically. There is good reason that the global media landscape is defined by three key types of outlet: liberal / left; neutral; conservative / right. That reason is that it is really hard (perhaps impossible) to simultaneously appeal to both sides of the political divide. If you want to pursue the middle path, that means removing much of the sort of content that drives streams. There is no Joe Rogan in the middle path. Which means that Spotify is probably going to have to decide upon a political leaning, even before it feels the heavy hand of media regulation.

Music subscriber market shares Q2 2021

MIDiA’s annual music subscriber market shares report is now available here (see below for more details of the report). Here are some of the key findings.

The global base of music subscribers continues to grow strongly with 523.9 million music subscribers at the end of Q2 2021, which was up by 109.5 million (26.4%) from one year earlier. Crucially, this was faster growth than the prior year. There is a difference between revenue and subscribers – with ARPU deflators, such as the rise of multi-user plans and the growth of lower-spending emerging markets – but growth in monetised users represents the foundation stone of the digital service provider (DSP) streaming market. So, accelerating growth at this relatively late stage of the streaming market’s evolution is clearly positive.

Spotify remains the DSP with the highest market share (31%), but this was down from 33% in Q2 2020 and 34% in Q2 2019. With Apple Music being a distant second with 15% market share, and Spotify adding more subscribers in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021 than any other single DSP, there is no risk of Spotify losing its leading position anytime soon – but the erosion of its share is steady and persistent. Amazon Music once again out-performed Spotify in terms of growth (25% compared to 20%), but the standout success story among Western DSPs was YouTube Music, for the second successive year. Google was once the laggard of the space, but the launch of YouTube Music has transformed its fortunes, growing by more than 50% in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021. YouTube Music was the only Western DSP to increase global market share during this the period. YouTube Music particularly resonates among Gen Z and younger Millennials, which should have alarm bells ringing for Spotify, as their core base of Millennial subscribers from the 2010s in the West are now beginning to age.

But the biggest subscriber growth came from emerging markets. Between them, Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) and NetEase Cloud Music added 35.7 million subscribers in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021. Together, they accounted for 18% of global market shares, despite being available only in China. Yandex, in Russia, was the other big gainer, doubling its subscriber base to reach 2% of global market share.

Combined, Yandex, TME and NetEase account for 20% of subscriber market share, but they drive 37% of all subscriber growth in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021.

The strong growth in subscribers holds an extra meaning going into 2022. The surge in non-DSP streaming in 2021 means that the streaming market is no longer dependent on the revenue contribution of maturing Western subscriber markets (nor indeed ARPU-diluting emerging markets). With non-DSP streaming revenue looking set to have contributed between a quarter and a third of streaming revenue increase in 2021, streaming revenues look set for strong growth, even if subscriber growth lessens. That is what you call a diversified market.

A little more detail on the subscriber market shares report:

The report has 23 pages and 13 figures featuring country level subscriber numbers, revenues and demographics by DSP. The accompanying data set has quarterly subscriber numbers and annual revenue figures from Q4 2015 to Q2 2016 by DSP by country, with 33 markets and 27 DSPs. The report and dataset is available to MIDiA subscribers hereand also available for individual purchase via the same link.

Email stephen@midiaresearch.com for more details.

Major label revenue surged in 2021, but what does that mean?

2021 was an anomalous year for the recorded music market. Two of the majors did an IPO, the pandemic continued to disrupt the marketplace, and major label revenues grew at unprecedented rates. If the fourth quarter majors’ earnings follow similar seasonality patterns to previous years, collective major label recorded music revenue will be up by 29% in 2021, reaching $19.6 billion (a more bearish estimate is $19.3 billion). By way of comparison, 2020 growth was 6%, and 2019 was 10%. To put it another way, major label revenue increased by $787 million in 2020, and in 2021 it was up by $4.4 billion. 2021 was a red-letter year for the major labels, but was it a one-off or an industry pivot point?

To get to the answer, we first need to contextualise major label revenue growth within the wider market. 

Streaming 

Predictably, streaming was the core driver of major label revenue growth in 2021, accounting for 67% of the revenue, and up by 31% to reach $12.8 billion. That level of annual streaming growth has not been seen since 2016. 2020 streaming growth was 18%. But streaming’s leading player, Spotify, did see that kind of growth. Spotify’s full year 2021 revenues look set to hit €9.6 billion (which would be up by 22% from 2020), and if we only consider premium growth (i.e., the part that is not boosted by podcast revenue), then growth was just 19%. And it is not as if Spotify is losing much ground in the global streaming market – its subscriber growth was largely in line with the global market average (excluding China). So, the majors grew streaming faster, somewhere beyond Spotify.

The total market

The major labels’ total revenue growth also follows a different trajectory to other parts of the market, The year-to-date performance of just one of the top four recorded music markets matches the majors’ trend (bear in mind that these four markets were 62% of global label revenues in 2020, so they shape global growth trends):

  • US: 27.1% growth (H1) – RIAA
  • Japan: -1.0% (Jan-Nov) – RIAJ 
  • UK: 8.7% (FY) – ERA
  • Germany: 12.4% (H1) – BVMI

(It will be interesting to see how the IFPI allocates the revenue. There may well be quite a gap between their global total and the sum total of all the individual countries if this is indeed largely attributable to one off payments rather than reflecting organic, country level revenue.)

All of this means that the additional major label growth is likely reflective of factors such as:

  • Large, one-off payments from the likes of ByteDance, Twitch and Facebook
  • Licensing income from the same parties
  • Increased contribution from other markets
  • Market share increase from catalogue acquisitions 
  • Revenue growth from major-distributed independents
  • Organic market share growth

While all of these factors will be at play, it is the first two factors that are likely the most consequential. MIDiA estimates that these new non-DSP streaming income sources accounted for between $0.8 and $1.2 billion in 2021. Even at the lower end of the estimates, that revenue alone would have driven the same amount of growth in 2021 as all major label revenue growth combined in 2020. 

There is a clear narrative that post-digital service provider (DSP) revenue is now becoming a central growth driver for the recorded music business. Clearly a very beneficial narrative to have had during an IPO year, especially if the trend was accentuated by one-off payments and settlements – which would help explain the divergence between major label growth and local market growth. 

There are two key potential scenarios:

  1. Upfront payments for post-DSP streaming partners exceed organic mid-term revenue, resulting in slower growth rates in 2022 and 2023
  2. Post-DSP streaming partners meet / exceed expectations, making 2021 and 2022 look much like the late 2000s and early 2010s did for DSP streaming, with minimum guarantees being more often than not 

So, by 2023 we should be able to tell whether 2021 was a spike or a pivot point. If I was a betting man, I would probably put money on the outlook being closer to 2 than to 1.

2022 MIDiA predictions: the year of the creator

With 2021 nearly behind us, and 2022 fast approaching, it is that of year for the MIDiA predictions report. We have been publishing our predictions reports since 2016, and apart from being good fun to do, we have also established a pretty good track record of success. We had an 84% success rate for our 2021 report, and Facebook’s transformation into Meta certainly played to the report’s title: The year of the immersive web. The full 29-page report is available exclusively to MIDiA clients here. But, as with every year, here are a few of the top-level highlights to help you get your head around what 2022 might bring with it.

In addition to sets of predictions for music, video, games and sport, the report lays out the ten meta and cultural trends that will shape 2022.

  1. The year of the creator: all eyes are now on the creator economy
  2. Hybrid futures: the growth of AR and blended IRL / URL experiences
  3. Reasons, not ways, to spend attention: competition for time intensifies
  4. Metaverse edges towards primetime: the push beyond games
  5. NFT’s grow, but meet inflated expectations: boom and backlash 
  6. Asymmetry of competition: big tech will dig protective moats
  7. Lean-out: fans are leaning out, making their own fan content
  8. The remuneration revolution: creators need remuneration, not monetisation
  9. The whole world is a game: everything we do is becoming gamified, even if we do not realise it
  10. The internationalisation of culture: Money Heist, BTS and Squid Game are the start, not the end, of the trend 

I am going to dive into two of those here.

The year of the creator

2021 was a big year for content creators, fuelled by the growing accessibility of high-quality production tools and the fragmentation of consumption. 2022 will be bigger still. From social video, through to game streamers and independent artists, 2022 will be the year of the creator. But there will also be a growing need for a duty of care from platforms to their creators. Platform business models function by accumulating income from a large number of smaller contributing parts, which, in turn, contribute little individually, but form a majority as a whole. Creator platforms (from Splice, to YouTube and TikTok) are no different. The consequence is that creator platforms can prosper even when the majority of their contributors do not. Of course, the majority of creators will never be big, but the essence of the new creator economy is that success no longer has a fixed definition. The onus on creator platforms is to set realistic creator expectations – not to oversell a dream, but instead to enable each creator to fulfil their potential, whatever that might be. Creator platforms need to think of their creators not as wheat to be harvested, but as flowers to be nurtured.

Lean-out

Prior to the digital era, content could only be consumed passively in a one-way stream from distributor, through a designated channel, to a listener, viewer or player consuming on their own in a limited number of contexts. This one-way style is ‘lean-back’. Digital has prompted ‘lean-in’ behaviour, where consumers can engage with content by multitasking – socialising with friends online, researching the franchise, or following on other forms of the same IP. Now, creator tools are prompting a third method: ‘lean-out’. Consumers are now empowered to take that content of which they are fans and own it in new ways outside of immediate consumption, be that writing a fan musical on TikTok (e.g., Bridgerton), joining Discord servers, sampling for their own tracks, participating in a debate online (e.g., ‘did Karol Baskin kill her husband?’), playing chess (e.g., The Queen’s Gambit), or simply making and sharing memes. In 2022, this lean-out form of consumption will become a distinguisher between content that is simply good, and that which becomes culturally important.

As a reminder, the full report is available here.

What BandLab and Bruce Springsteen tell us about the music business at the end of 2021

2021 was another year in which capital continued to flow into the music business at pace. Two deals that got over the line before year end have shone an interesting light on the differing strategies that are underpinning this investment: Bruce Springsteen sold his catalogue to Sony Music for between $500-550 million, while BandLab raised $53 million against a valuation of $303 million. These two deals represent the opposite ends of music industry investment in 2021.

The Bruce Springsteen catalogue deal reflects the continuing surge in music catalogues as an asset class, with the total value of deals set to far exceed the $4.7 billion that was invested in 2019. The bulk of this investment has been driven by large, institutional investors, such as Private Equity (PE) and pension funds, as well as publishers and labels – many of whom have raised capital specifically to acquire catalogues. Big institutional money is rarely focused on high-risk opportunities, but, instead, often on low-risk, predictable revenue drivers. Music catalogue falls into this category. So, a bet on catalogues is a safe(ish) bet on today’s music business.

In contrast, the investment in creator tools company, Bandlab, reflects a bet on tomorrow’s music business – including investment from venture firm K3 Ventures. Today’s music business is dominated by music rights and by music rightsholders. A growing trend among investors (both venture and later stage) is making a bet that the future of the music business will increasingly be shaped by creators. 

So, we have a situation where big, safer bets are being made on rights, and riskier, bolder bets are being made on creators. There is little irony in the fact that if the riskier bets pay off then they could reduce the value of the safer bets, thus increasing the risk profile of those safe bets. Still with me?

BandLab’s $53 million investment reflected a 17% stake (based on the $303 million valuation). To acquire 17% of the $500 million Bruce Springsteen catalogue, it would cost $83 million (if it was available for purchase, of course). This means that there is effectively a 60% premium on investing in yesterday’s (proven) music business, versus tomorrow’s (unproven) music business.

Such is the nature of venture vs later-stage investments – and there are good arguments as to why this is not an apples-to-apples comparison – but it is nonetheless a useful lens through which to reflect on the music business at the end of 2021: the big money is banking on things staying the same, the riskier money is banking on things changing. Draw your own conclusions…

SEVEN (MORE) LESSONS FOR LONGEVITY IN TODAY’S MUSIC BUSINESS

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Keith Jopling in which he dives into some of the key insights he has gleaned from talking to artists as part of his side-hustle ‘Art of Longevity’ podcast (which you should check out if you haven’t already done so!)

This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the greatest songwriters in history. Bjorn Ulvaes commissioned MIDiA to produce the report ‘Rebalancing the Song Economy’ at a time when the UK government was making a formal inquiry into the economics of music streaming. Bjorn was amazingly articulate (of course he was, check out his ABBA lyrics) on the challenges for songwriters today, but one thing he said really haunted me. During the press interviews (and in his Ted Talk) Bjorn told the world “I don’t think ABBA would have made it today”. Imagine if ABBA hadn’t ever broken out of Sweden?


Meanwhile, as part of the UK inquiry, another great lyricist, Elbow singer Guy Garvey, eloquently told MPs “If musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”


This concern about the artists of today not replenishing those of the past is one of the reasons I have become fascinated with longevity in today’s music business. Longevity has to be the primary goal for any serious artist, yet achieving it in today’s music business means working miracles. The volume of music and the number of artists creating and releasing it makes today’s ‘market’ ultra competitive.


The Art of Longevity podcast is now two seasons in and I’m becoming even more fascinated by how music artists can continue to succeed despite the music industry constantly shifting around them.


What I’ve discovered this time around is that there is no ‘mainstream’ music industry to aspire to at all (something that has changed since Elbow first gained real success with their fourth album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ in 2008). Chart success for example, does not equate to being in the mainstream. These days most establishes bands can focus their efforts and get a number one or two album but a week later, the world has moved on. Most artists understand this. Success is a relative term best defined by you – the artist – on your terms and no one else’s.


My guests in season 2 were: KT Tunstall, Ed Robertson (of Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies), Fin Greenhall (Fink), Los Lobos, Mew and Portico Quartet. Between them they have amassed 150 years of commercial and creative viability and they are all still going strong – perhaps stronger than ever. The seven lessons learned from my conversations with them are:

  1. HAVE THE CONFIDENCE TO DISRUPT YOURSELF BEFORE THE INDUSTRY DISRUPTS YOU
    The mainstream no longer exists but in the 80s it sure did and in 1987 LA rock band Los Lobos discovered it by accident. Their cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ (the theme song to a surprise hit movie by a first-time director with a largely unknown cast) became a smash number one hit in a dozen countries. How do you follow that? With an album of traditional Mexican music of course! Thing is, Los Lobos knew how much of a fluke La Bamba was for them and that they had little chance of successfully repeating it. So they didn’t try or let anyone convince them it was a good idea.

    When the Danish rock band Mew first had breakthrough international success with their 2003 album ‘Frengers’, they had arrived in a place most bands (especially from non-English speaking markets) dream of: signed to a UK major label and on a European tour with R.E.M. Their next record wasn’t a mainstream follow-up to Frengers however but an ambitious indie-rock opera – a nod to progressive rock that no other band (on a major label) dared make in 2005. The band never entertained any notion of building on the success of Frengers with a more mainstream record. Yet the dramatic and complex follow-up album became a classic and a fan favourite, and ended up presenting the band with its only number one single in their home country, ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’.
  2. WELCOME IN THOSE LITTLE DETAILS THAT MIGHT CHANGE YOUR DESTINY AKA TRUST YOUR STUDIO TEAM
    Back in 1992, the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ finally broke the band in the USA and brought them international fame too. Although Ed Robertson had written the song and taken lead vocals duty (including that famous dexterous rap) Ed thought the idea of the record label, to make One Week the lead single for their new album, to be a joke. Then, the record’s producer (Susan Rogers) suggested the drum loop “wasn’t very cool”. Because of Susan’s input, the band changed the drums, a tweak which transformed the song and in effect, the band’s entire future. You need to be receptive to those little suggestions, accidents and tweaks that might turn out to be pivotal.

    That same year (1992 was a good one it seems) when Los Lobos hauled themselves into a downtown LA studio with six new songs and teamed up with producer/engineer partners Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the band was exhausted from the previous album and gruelling tour. Yet out of these sessions came the album Kiko, the band’s first genuine masterpiece. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos told me it was by tiny details that Froom and Blake were able to elicit a performance from the band that made the difference:
    “Tchad (Blake) could even take the mistakes and turn them into something that sounded genius. When we got together and listened to the record in sequence, we were all stunned”.
    It was the beginning of a decade of innovation that the team of Mitchell & Blake brought to recording production for Lobos and many other artists. Many of their now highly sought after sounds are available commercially as samples. Those producers and engineers really do make careers.
  3. EARN THE RIGHT TO SAY ‘NO’ AND RECOGNISE WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR CAREER
    After Fink made ‘Perfect Darkness’ (album number four) the band had earned the right to say “no”. No to playing small shitty venues. No to rushing out a follow-up record. No to some (of the many) sync offers that came rushing in. It was at that point, after seven years of saying yes to everything, that the band began to realise they had created something of real viability and were in it for the long game. They hadn’t hit ‘the big time’ (that might come later) but they earned the right to make their choices, including ‘no’.
    After the phenomenal success of her debut album ‘Eye to The Telescope’, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall began to feel the pressure from her label to “make another one of those”. In fact, KT began to get the feeling she was picking up a reputation for being “difficult” because she did not want to just repeat her debut. KT was hardly the first woman in this situation and she won’t be the last but, she stuck to her guns. Firstly, how would that be even possible when her debut was a decade or more in the making? KT had to navigate multiple challenges: make the sophomore record she wanted to make and fight off the insistence that she fit the mould of ‘female singer-songwriter’ that had become popular at the time (ironically down in part to KT’s success). In the end, her second album was a somewhat compromised product, with good songs but too much pop polish.
    Be ready to turn down what doesn’t feel right for you, even if those around you think it is.
  4. BE YOUR OWN COTTAGE INDUSTRY
    A common pattern with artists that have achieved longevity is that they tend to get started under their own steam. One of the best things about how the music industry has been transformed by technology, is that you can simply upload your songs onto the platforms and get working your socials, hard. However, is this really just the modern equivalent of the field of dreams approach? Build it and they will come…
    In reality it’s much harder of course. Many of the artists I’ve spoken with on The Art of Longevity gained early success without relying on any institutions at all – neither media or technology. Instead they have literally taken matters into their own hands. So often this is because those artists believe they are destined to make a career in music – maybe because they don’t feel they could do anything else.
    Portico Quartet spent their early years busking along London’s SouthBank. I bought a copy of the band’s very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold. Recently the band’s saxophone player Jack Wylie told me:
    “We’d go off to buy big stacks of blank CDs at Maplins and we bought this burner machine that could do eight at a time. I think we managed to do 200-250 a day. As a student, it meant we could make a living without working in a bar”.
    When I ask artists what advice they might pass on to those artists starting out now, most are pretty vexed (what do you say?). So much of success in music is still down to luck. But the point is, you need to make your own luck. With those SouthBank busking sessions, home CD burner factory and the Hang drum, Portico Quartet created enough word of mouth to amass an early dedicated following thousands strong. What followed was a Mercury Prize nomination and so far, an 8 album career.
  5. TAKE YOUR TIME
    British indie wonders Alt-J took 2019 off from music altogether. Their prodigious drummer Thom Sonny Green was recently asked by The Observer if he worried they would be forgotten about. He admitted that he “thought about it every day”. In this day & age FOMO drives everything. The creator equivalent is ‘FOBF’: fear of being forgotten.
    But FOBF doesn’t bother Adele. And it doesn’t bother Jonas Bjerre of Mew. Over 25 years Mew has made seven studio albums which is one every four years. That’s not something Spotify would advocate as an operating model for bands these days, is it? But the truth is – there is no point racing your way to the front of an endless rush of music. The pandemic showed the true colours of many artists. Some quietly went away and took time out to work on their craft or take a break, while others couldn’t drag themselves away from social media and online duets. You cannot make memorable songs by fidgeting and frittering away ‘content’. Well you can, but the more confident way through is to quietly focus on your art. The fans will welcome you back long after the ‘followers’ have forgotten you existed.
  6. HAVE OTHER PURSUITS OF MEANING OUTSIDE OF YOUR MAIN MUSIC VEHICLE
    In life there are four elements: work, family, relationships and you – and a balance has to be achieved. Artists struggle with this balance. Between the intensity of writing and recording and the hard graft of touring, the obsessive element to being a musician makes work-life balance impossible. When bands achieve ‘fame’ (the ‘stratospheric rise to the top’ phase of Brett Andersen’s longevity curve) balance goes out the window altogether. Everything is work hard, play hard and burn out. Some band’s take to it and others don’t but for a while, everything looks amazing – records in the charts, video shoots, press interviews, international travel and a different hotel every night. The rock & roll lifestyle still exists, but expect it to last and you will be heading straight for the crash.

    As Ed Robertson told me: “The best part of the roller-coaster is the ride back down”. Jonas Bjerre of Mew makes videos, film scores and many other types of visual art. KT Tunstall took time out to make film scores (attending Stephen Spielberg’s school to learn the art) and musicals. In this day and age, you need more than just your album-touring cycle to engage your fan base anyhow, so you can invite them in on your other creative projects too. What matters is that you make the time to regenerate, make the art you need to make and that you keep in touch with your fans. Everything comes back around.
  7. GET EVEN BETTER LIVE (AND STREAM IT)
    Yes, it comes back to live once again. Without exception all of the artists so far I’ve spoken with for The Art of Longevity have honed the craft of performance. But the emergence of live streaming has meant a new way to connect with your audience and practice the art of performing music that way, without having to submit fully to a life on the road. Live streaming presents a new way to be creative and to connect with your most loyal fans. It’s a different experience to the visceral contact of a real life show, but the format is here to stay so invent another aspect to your ‘brand’.

    The first seven secrets to longevity are on the Song Sommelier blog. The Season 1&2 archive for the Art of Longevity is on the podcast page

Audiomack and the coming monetization / remuneration tipping point

The music business is approaching a monetization / remuneration tipping point. Long- and mid-tail creators are fast realising that, even with the most revolutionary of changes to royalty structures, streaming is never going to deliver enough income. Streaming is a highly effective monetization tool for larger rights holders and creators but has a remuneration problem for the long- and mid-tail. Such is always the case of platform businesses (which harvest micro activity to deliver macro platform-level revenue). What is different in music is that creators are sold the dream that a) they can ‘make it’ (however they may interpret that), and b) the platforms are designed to democratise the means of distribution, and thus level the playing field. With the number of releasing artists growing by a third in 2020 alone, the remuneration problem is getting worse, not better, due to the simple arithmetic of the royalty pot growing more slowly than artists. The solution? Models that let artists build fanbases and remuneration, not audiences and monetization. Audiomack just took a step down this road. Here’s how, and why it is a smart move.

An elegantly simple, yet multi-faceted strategy

The simplicity of what Audiomack announced (‘support buttons’) belies its cleverness. The basics are, as Music Business Worldwide explained:

Fans fund artists directly by purchasing ‘support badges’ for individual song and album releases. Once a fan buys a badge, Audiomack says that their contribution “is forever memorialised” on their Audiomack profile and the artist’s individual song or album page.

This does three things simultaneously:

  1. Drives artist remuneration
  2. Monetizes fandom
  3. Empowers fan identity

Audiomack is small, but when small can also be beautiful 

With 3% US weekly active user (WAU) penetration compared to Spotify’s 27%, Audiomack is a small but important player in the streaming world. Yet scale is beginning to look less important to many creators. Streaming services are fantastic at building audiences, but they are far less able to build fanbases, and even worse at letting artists engage with those fanbases (YouTube and Soundcloud notably excepted). Big streaming numbers might look good, but risk being little more than vanity metrics unless they are huge – especially when they do not give enough value directly back to the creator.

In many respects this is just like the old radio days. An artist might feel good about getting radio spins and that exposure may in turn have led to other things, but the actual spins themselves delivered little or nothing in terms of actual income. So, creators are compelled by inference to think of streaming as cool marketing that drives everything else. Yet, if it is just marketing, then a) what if there are other less stressful marketing alternatives, and b) should they not be putting more effort into feeding the places that drive meaningful income? If streaming drives audiences and marketing, long- and mid-tail creators need to focus their efforts on places that drive fanbases and remuneration instead. As we have previously argued, ‘middle class’ creators need niche, not scale.

Audiomack hits the middle ground by combining the benefit of streaming’s scale with a focused and super-engaged user base (Audiomack usage spikes among many important music segments, such as playlist curators, karaoke users and hip hop fans). The likely conversion rate for fans rather than just listeners will likely be higher for Audiomack WAUs than, for example, Spotify WAUs. 

You do not need NFTs to do digital collectibles

But remuneration is just half of what Audiomack is doing here. It is the fandom and fan identity play that is particularly interesting. By allowing fans to collect badges on their profiles, they become a way for those consumers to demonstrate their fandom and express their identity. This also comes at the time when the digital sphere is electrified by NFT buzz. Support badges are an illustration of how NFTs do not even need to be NFTs. Even though Audiomack WAUs are far more likely to know what NFTs and Blockchain actually are, crucially they are much more likely than average consumers to want to buy digital collectibles from their favourite artists, regardless of what the tech might be.

It is always useful to remember not to get too carried away with specific tech but instead focus on the underlying user needs. The value of collectibles of any kind is context: where you have them and who can see them. Yet, currently NFTs lack a universal home and thus their cultural impact is not maximised. Audiomack’s support badges show that digital collectibles do not need to live on the blockchain. For further proof, just take a look at the multi-billion dollar business Tencent Music Entertainment has built selling ‘social entertainment services’ (VIP gifts, badges etc.) to the users of its music apps.

Audiomack’s support buttons are not about to fix the entirety of music creator remuneration, but they do represent an important step on the journey and set a standard others should follow.