Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

Welcome To The Post-DIY Era

I recently took part in the True Music Forum in Madrid, an event organized by Boiler Room. I was on a panel that explored whether DIY is now coming of age with a host of high profile artists, most of them urban artists, bypassing or twisting the traditional label model and still achieving stand-out success. On the surface, these look like golden years for DIY, and in many ways they are, but much of what is happening at the top end of the scale has little to do with DIY. Streaming is transforming how artists view recorded music income and is making it possible for artists to pick and choose what label capabilities they want. But more often than not, it is a variation of the label model that succeeds rather than a replacement of it. This is the start of the post-DIY movement.

Madrid True Music Forum, March 8th-28

The First Wave Of DIY

Firstly, to be clear, DIY is alive and well, better than it has ever been in fact. With labels increasingly only signing artists once they have seen them build up following and ‘a story’, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to spend the formative stages of their careers ‘DIY’, releasing their own music, managing their social campaigns, making their own videos, booking their own tours etc. Added to that, the combination of streaming, direct-to-fan platforms and social apps have combined to make it possible to build niche audiences on a global scale. So it is now possible for a new tier of artists to exist, a tier of artists that may never dent the charts (for whatever they may be worth these days) but that can build solid, sustainable careers by engaging their fans directly. Stalwarts like Bandcamp and CD Baby have never had it so good, while a whole crop of new entrants, such as the much hyped BandLab is emerging to drive the market forward. And of course, Soundcloud, for all its financial challenges, provides artists with a platform to engage massive audiences globally without need for any middleman whatsoever.

DIY Versus Empowered Superstars

That is the DIY movement that will go down in history as one of the most culturally significant legacies of the Napster market shock. An organic, grass roots musicians’ revolution. Now though, we are seeing the emergence of a more commercially minded take on DIY, one that draws on the practices of its predecessor but that combines them with the big label model to take full advantage of the best of both worlds. This new breed of superstar DIY artist enjoys the benefit of fiercely held independence with world class distribution and marketing. They are taking the tools of DIY but not all of the ethos. The superstar DIY artist typically builds a strong brand and buzz (and often, but not always, a big live following) and then uses that as a platform to strike a deal with a major label (or a major label subsidiary company) to get the benefits of major label scale without giving up control (nor masters). This can take various forms, such as:

In each scenario the artist retains large amounts of control (or at least more than in a traditional label deal) but gets the support of world class, global infrastructure and marketing. The artists picks the services s/he wants, like an advertiser does with a full- service ad agency. The label services and standalone distributor models have been around for some time, but now they are being used by business savvy, super ambitious superstars in-the-making. And the artist gets to retain an aura of authenticity and independence.

For those artists that want to push the needle even further, streaming services are emerging as an additional weapon in the armoury. Chance the Rapper revealed that Apple paid him $500,000 to become the exclusive streaming partner for ‘Coloring Book’, following hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s Apple Music exclusive for ‘Blonde’. Apple is setting itself up as a modern day equivalent of the Medici – the medieval Italian family that was a driving force in the Renaissance through its patronage of artists such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some time or another, Spotify will follow Apple’s lead. The superstar artist fits this streaming-service-as-label model best because an artist with big potential is going to deliver much better ROI for streaming services that are eager to drive market share and differentiation via original content.

Hip Hop Is Setting The Innovation Bar

Urban music, and hip hop in particular, has become a hotbed of artist-led business innovation. Although hip hop has always had stronger commercial sensibilities than other genres, streaming has brought the business innovation to the fore, ranging from the original hip hop superstar businessman Jay Z and his Tidal service, through Frank Ocean’s Apple Music released ‘Blonde’ to Stormzy’s streaming record breaking streaming success.  And the innovation is happening at the grass roots of hip hop too. As the brilliant Kieran Yates noted on the Boiler Room DIY panel, many UK Grime artists are now signing publishing deals before label deals as a) this can often mean bigger advances in today’s indie music market, and b) there is a perception that this means giving up less control, which in turn empowers the artist to strike a better deal with a label, or label-owned company. This also opens up a world of opportunity for independent music marketing agencies etc who can become part of new, agile teams.

Streaming has been continually rewriting the rule book for many years now, but we are entering a period of even faster change, with many of the more fundamental effects being the indirect consequences, such as the rise of post-DIY. It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a ‘death of the label’ narrative. Because the labels (majors and indies) are being smart enough to be as flexible and agile as artists need them to be. Artists are changing and labels are changing just as fast to meet their new needs and terms of reference. Perhaps, the best way to capture the approach of the new era of post-DIY artist is to go back to Jay Z’s classic ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ lyric: I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!