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.

What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is?

There is an existential debate going on at the moment, around whether streaming is paying artists enough. It may feel like a rerun of old debates but it is catalysed by COVID-19 decimating artist income. These are some of the key narratives: here, here and here.

In this piece I lay out the underlying economics of the argument. I also focus wholly on artist income as songwriter income is another topic entirely.

COVID-19 has reset the debate

The latest streaming royalty debate is not an isolated event. It is happening because COVID-19 has decimated live income, leaving many artists worrying about how to make ends meet. Last week, just before this whole debate kicked into gear I wrote:

“Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.”

None of this makes the debate any less important, but it explains why it is happening now, and with live revenue potentially set to take years to fully recover, it is a reality that streaming services and labels need to adjust to. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services that artists feel like they are being treated fairly. But it is crucial that this debate is grounded in a firm understanding of streaming economics and that we do not return to the mudslinging of more than half a decade ago. A debate which, by the way, did not result in any fundamental change to how artist royalties are paid and was eventually followed by labels negotiating smaller revenue shares with Spotify and others.

Where streaming has got us to

Firstly, let’s lay some ground markers:

  • Streaming has driven half a decade of recorded music revenue growth, with the market now 42% bigger than it was in 2014
  • The wider streaming economy has globalised fandom and engagement
  • More people are listening to more music now than before

Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.

midia streaming royalty payments

The question is: what levers can actually be pulled and what effect can they have? In the above chart I have used Spotify’s 2019 premium revenues to illustrate how changes in royalty shares can impact what artists earn. I have used a total per stream rate of $0.06 as the base case, which could look on the high side for some artists, but the purpose is to show the relative change. Whatever amount the base rate is, it will increase by the same percentages.

The tl;dr of the chart is the most radical of the options (label rate returns to 55%, podcast dilution is removed from the royalty pot, a 25% increase in retail price and therefore royalties) results in a very meaningful uplift of 42% in royalties for artists from today’s current state. But, the three problems here are:

  1. Such measures could damage the commercial sustainability of streaming
  2. It does not change the underlying annuity model shift that streaming represents
  3. We are about to enter a recession. Music subscriptions are at risk, increasing the prices right now could accelerate subscriber churn. Meaning a bigger slice of a smaller cake for artists.

Let’s take the first two points in turn.

1) Spotify lost $184 million in 2019. With this royalty model it would have lost more than $1 billion. Spotify would have to reduce its operating costs by a fifth just to get back to losing $184 million. Critics would argue this represents trimming the fat. It might, but it would also likely lead to Spotify:

  1. Cutting back on product development
  2. Cutting back on growing its subscriber base
  3. Finding new ways to charge labels and artists for additional services

None of these are reasons not to pursue the strategy but they are prices that labels and artists have to be willing to take. Spotify revenue growth will slow. Furthermore, it will skew the market towards Apple, Amazon and Google who can afford to make music loss leading. In the mid term this may benefit artists, but in the longer term (i.e. when Spotify is sufficiently squeezed) these tech majors are likely to follow their MO of ‘reducing inefficiencies in the supply chain’. So be careful what you wish for.

2) Taking an artist straw person, with 20% of her total income coming from streaming, if live and merch only gets to 25% of its previous level, the 41% increase in streaming income would still see her total annual income fall by 40%.

No streaming lever can be pulled hard enough to offset the decline in live revenue.

So, let’s pull together all the pieces:

  1. Streaming royalties can be increased meaningfully if prices are increased and rates revisited but it may slow the streaming market
  2. Now is probably not the best time to be increasing streaming prices for consumers
  3. Even a big increase is not going to offset the fall in live income

There is not a simple, single answer to fixing the current crisis in artist income. A blended, pragmatic solution would be:

  1. Increase royalties at a middle option rate (do not increase prices until after the recession)
  2. Artists push their fans to buy their music at destinations like Bandcamp
  3. Professionalise and commercialise the livestreaming sector, with a strong focus on charging for events in order to create some live income
  4. Innovate virtual fandom products to drive new, additional income streams

It is not going to be easy for artists for some time yet. The hard truth is that income levels will not return to full strength until live does, and that is a way off yet. Streaming is more important now than ever so any solution must balance maintaining its momentum and scale with sustaining artist careers.

Last Call for Our Artist Survey

This is your last chance to take part in our global artist survey – we are closing the survey this Friday (19th April).

In partnership with independent distribution company Amuse, MIDiA Research is undertaking a detailed study of the music artist landscape. We are fielding a survey to the artist community, exploring issues such as:

  • What success looks like to you
  • Career aspirations
  • The importance of signing to a record label
  • Financial wellbeing
  • Maintaining creative control

If you are a singer, DJ, producer, performer, or in a band, then we’d love to hear your views. Just click the link to take the survey.

All of your responses will be treated as strictly confidential and will only ever be presented in aggregate as part of results for the entire survey – so never attributable to any individual. We will not use any of your responses to contact you again for any purpose, unless you specifically provide your email address to us in order to be interviewed in more detail for the research project.

We will also send you a summary of the findings so that you can see how you fit into the picture amongst your fellow performers, and benchmark yourself against their aggregate responses.

If you have any questions concerning the survey the please email us at info@midiaresearch.com

Calling all Artists!

In partnership with independent distribution company Amuse, MIDiA Research is undertaking a detailed study of the music artist landscape. We are fielding a survey to the artist community, exploring issues such as:

  • What success looks like to you
  • Career aspirations
  • The importance of signing to a record label
  • Financial wellbeing
  • Maintaining creative control

If you are a singer, DJ, producer, performer, or in a band, then we’d love to hear your views. Just click the link to take the survey.

All of your responses will be treated as strictly confidential and will only ever be presented in aggregate as part of results for the entire survey – so never attributable to any individual. We will not use any of your responses to contact you again for any purpose, unless you specifically provide your email address to us in order to be interviewed in more detail for the research project.

We will also send you a summary of the findings so that you can see how you fit into the picture amongst your fellow performers, and benchmark yourself against their aggregate responses.

If you have any questions concerning the survey the please email us at info@midiaresearch.com

Do Not Assume We Have Arrived At Our Destination

Forbes has released its annual Celebrity 100, its list of the top earning media stars. The healthy share of music artists hints at the continued ability to build highly successful music careers. The presence of younger, streaming era artists like Drake and the Weeknd goes further, hinting at how streaming can now be the foundation for superstar commercial success. However, although the superstars are clearly making very good money from streaming in its own right, the dominant school of thought is that streaming is a conduit for success, helping drive artists’ other income streams, live in particular. The ‘don’t worry about sales, make your money from touring’ argument is an old one, but it is as riddled with risk now as when it first surfaced, perhaps more so.

Here are 2 key quotes from Forbes that encapsulate the way in which many artists are now viewing streaming:

“We live in a world where artists don’t really make the money off the music like we did in the Golden Age…It’s not really coming in until you hit the stage.” The Weeknd

“The reason the Weeknds of the world and the Drakes of the world are exploding is a combination of a global audience that’s consuming them freely at a young age [and that] they just keep dropping music…They’re delivering an ongoing, engaged dialogue with their fan base.” Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino

Both quotes imply that live is the place you’re going to make your money. They also argue that streaming can be used intelligently to engage fans because it is not constrained by old world limits such as shelf space and physical distribution considerations. In the old model, artists could go years between album releases, leaving fans hanging, while touring would often be a loss-leading effort to help sell the album. The roles are now reversed.

music industry total revenue midia

The rise of live music revenue in 2000s mirrored the decline of recorded music, replacing each lost dollar and adding another one on top. In 2000, recorded music represented 53% of the global music industry, that share is now just 38% while live went from 33% to 43%, though recorded music revenue is now growing again, winning back market share. On this basis, the ‘stream to gig’ argument makes a lot of sense. But things are never as simple as they first appear: 

  • Not all live music revenue is created equally: On average, around just 29% of live music revenue makes it back to the artist (after agents, costs etc are factored in) while many artists don’t make any money on live until they’ve reached a certain level of scale. And that’s before considering that the top 1% of live artists (many of whom are aging heritage acts) account for 68% of all live revenue.
  • Streaming has fewer middlemen: With streaming there can be relatively few middlemen (e.g. just TuneCore and the streaming service, though in practice many labels use 3rd party distributors etc). Meanwhile in live there is a multitude of middlemen, many of whom are highly protective of their roles. In streaming, artists have a wealth of data and insights such as Spotify’s artist dashboard and Pandora’s Artist Marketing Programme (AMP). All of which means that artists have to share revenue with more parties in live and they also have less transparency than they do with streaming.
  • Resselling is causing friction: All of this is without even considering the corrosive impact on live of ticket resellers such as ViaGoGo and GetMeIn. These business models are incredibly smart from a VC perspective, meeting huge market demand for a comparatively scarce product. But that doesn’t make them good for fans, the live business nor for artists. Most often, though not always, artists do not see a penny of resell revenue. It is money that is taken from music fans and sucked straight out of the industry. Artists lose out, fans lose out. Ticketing companies gain. All that hard work invested in building fan relationships goes out of the window.

The Tide Is Turning

More than all this though, the tide is turning. The 2016 results of Live Nation (parent company of Ticketmaster and one of the largest live companies) point to an industry that, while it is still growing, has cracks appearing. Revenue grew by 15% from $7.3bn to $8.6bn (more than the entire GDP of Haiti) but increased ticket prices drove much of the growth. Ticket prices were up 5% overall and by 10% in stadiums and other big venues. Revenue growth was also driven by in-venue merch spending (up 9%) and sponsorship and advertising (up 13%). Live Nation’s number of ‘fans’ was up 4% in the US but was flat internationally. To be clear, these are strong results for Live Nation but they also reflect a highly mature industry that is squeezing out every last drop of growth through price increases and additional revenue streams. And it is nothing new: Pollstar reports that average ticket prices increased by 22% between 2006 and 2015. Total live revenues grew by 37% over the same period which means that nearly half of all live revenue growth came from ticket price inflation.

Streaming Is Today, Not Tomorrow, Start Treating It That Way

All this comes with streaming revenue growing by $2.5m in 2016 (in retail terms) and overall recorded revenues growing by nearly a billion. The live music business has strong growth left in it, but that revenue is not evenly distributed, will likely slow in the near-ish future and has an underlying core spending trend that is largely flat. Streaming, on the other hand, is booming and will break the $10bn mark this year.

So why are superstar artists still looking to live to pay the bills. Firstly, it’s easier to make really good live money if you’re a superstar, and secondly, streaming still isn’t big enough yet for really strong streaming revenue. The Weekend’s 5.5bn cumulative streams (including YouTube) will have generated the artist around $4 million while if he’d instead sold 5 million copies of Starboy he’d have netted around $10 million.

Streaming simply needs more monetized users in the pot, especially paid subscribers. That will come but rather than just wait, more needs to be done now to help artists get more income from streaming, such as:

  • Better rates for artists (many only earn 15% of the label share, which is around 70% of the $0.008 blended rate for freemium services)
  • More ways for artists to monetize on streaming services (e.g. artist subscriptions, pay per view live streams and gigs)
  • More artist-centric experiences

Add together all the pieces and you start to create an environment in which artists can see a more immediate direct return from streaming. That is how we get to stop artists simply viewing streaming services as a way to market their wares. It is great that streaming can play that marketing role but sooner or later, labels and artists need to focus more on streaming being the destination not just the journey. With so much market momentum, it is tempting to think of streaming as ‘mission accomplished’. In reality we’re just getting going. To move streaming to that next stage, much more work needs to be done and the time to do that is now, not when the market starts to mature (which will happen some time in 2019). It is not in the interest of streaming services to simply be seen as a tool for getting more bums on seats. Nor is it in the interest of labels as they only participate in a small share of live revenue. Is streaming going to become a bigger revenue stream than live for big artists? No, but it can be a much bigger source than it is right now, but only if the model evolves. If streaming cannot break out from its beachhead of being the discovery journey then it will never reach its destination.

 

After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

Later this week we’ll be publish a new report in the MIDiA Research Music report and data service: ‘After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening’.  In it we explore the changing role of streaming playlists and in particular how they are impact albums both as a consumption format and as a revenue model. The full 18 page report includes half a dozen graphics and a couple of sheets of excel, including a detailed revenue model.  I want to share with you here one of the key themes we explore in the report…

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

Streaming hit a host of milestones in 2015, reaching 67.5 million subscribers and driving $2.9 billion of trade revenue, up 31% on 2014. While the competitive marketplace upped the ante, music services wielded curation to drive differentiation. Playlists have always been the core currency of streaming, but now more than ever they are becoming the beating heart, the fuel which drives both discovery and consumption. In doing so they are helping drive hit singles into the ascendancy and albums to the side lines.

The Album Is No Longer The Market

Perhaps the biggest problem with streaming’s dissolution of the album is that the wider industry is still catching up with the concept. Artists still consider the album as their core creative construct, their novel. Similarly, labels still build P&Ls, marketing campaigns and their core business models around albums and album release schedules. There will long remain a market for albums, especially among core fan bases, as TIDAL’s exclusive album campaigns for Kanye West and Beyoncé reveal. But it is just that: a market, not the market anymore.

Income Per Streaming User

The most effective way to measure the value of streaming is to measure the value per user. For record labels at a macro level this equated to $2.80 annual revenue per subscriber and $0.37 per free streamer globally in 2015. But even that measure is too blunt to allow label campaign teams, artists and their managers to understand the value to them because that value is wrapped up with all the music in the world. For these stakeholders a more meaningful measure is the average amount they earn per album per streaming user.

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

Music subscribers in the US and UK streamed an average of 3,447 streams each in 2015, averaging 66 streams a week. But the average number of complete unique albums streamed was just 47 for the whole year. The average across free and paid streaming users was 11. Less than one new album per year. In the old model that average would have been just fine, pulling in more than $100 in retail revenue per user but in the streaming model that equate to a combined total of $0.73 in rights holder revenue.

promo slide

Even that measure though, is only partially useful for an artist, manager, songwriter or label campaign manager. What matters for them is how much they earn per streaming user, not the music industry in general. The average royalty income per album per streaming user is $0.21, with $0.03 flowing to the artist and $0.02 flowing to the songwriter. For subscribers the average income is $0.44 with $0.05 flowing to the artist and $0.04 flowing to the songwriter. While for free users it is $0.13 and $0.01 for artists and $0.01 for songwriters.

What It All Means

Albums are not the currency of streaming.  Everyone needs to rethink what long form, artist led content consumption looks like on streaming. Music fans still want artist led experiences. Drake’s 46 million Spotify listeners is more than double all the Filtr, Digster, Topsify and Todays’ Top Hits followers put together. As I have suggested before, multimedia artist subscription bundles for $1.50 on top of standard streaming fees feel like the right fit and would also help start pushing up streaming ARPU.

The power of music discovery used to lie in the hands of the radio DJ, now it lies in the hands of the playlist curator. And because streaming has melded discovery and consumption into a single whole, that means their power is becoming absolute. Albums are not quite an afterthought in the curated playlist world, but they are certainly an awkward relative that doesn’t quite fit in at the party.

None of this to say that the album is dead, but it can no longer be considered the main way most people listen to music. Of course some would argue that with radio it has ever been thus…

To find out more about the report and how to access MIDiA reports and data either visit our website or email us on info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

The Real Problem With Streaming

Much of the debate around the sustainability of streaming has understandably focused on artist and songwriter income and transparency.  It is a debate that I have contributed to frequently.  But the more fundamental structural issues are whether the business models are commercially sustainable and if they are, what the implications are.  Music consumption is inarguably moving towards access based models so the question is not whether streaming should happen or not, but how to make it work as well as it possibly can for all parties.  As unfair as it might seem, the baseline issues regarding creator income could go unchanged without streaming business models falling apart.  But, as I will explain, if broader commercial sustainability issues are not fixed then many streaming businesses will collapse leaving just a couple of companies standing.  And that scenario would almost certainly be worse for creators than the current one.

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

As I revealed in my book ‘Awakening’, when Steve Jobs struck the original iTunes Music Store deal he walked away a happy man despite having given the major labels the big revenue percentages they wanted.  Why?  Because it meant that it was really hard for anyone without ulterior business aims like Apple had, to make money from selling tracks as a standalone business.  The revenue shares negotiated back then set the reference point for all digital deals since.  The fact that streaming services pay out more than 70% of revenues to rights holders can be traced back to that deal.

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

In the digital era the record labels undisputedly hold the whip hand, and some.  In the analogue era the roles were reversed.  Retailers were the dominant partners and they knew it.  Record labels actually paid retailers for placement to promote new releases.  Compare and contrast that with labels contractually compelling services to provide placement.  Both models are wrong and both engender corrosive behaviour.  Because the major labels account for the majority of music sales it is nigh on impossible for a non-niche music service to operate without all three on board.  This gives each label the effective power of veto.  So even though no major label is a monopoly in its own right each has an effective monopoly power in licensing.  These factors give labels them the strength and confidence to demand terms that would not take place in an openly competitive market.  This, for example, is very different to how digital deals are done in the much more fragmented TV rights landscape.

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

Why all this matters for the sustainability of streaming services is because of how it manifests in commercial terms.  Recent contract leaks have revealed to everyone the details of what insiders long knew, that labels and publishers front-load deals.  Services both have to pay large amounts up front and agree to guaranteed payments to rights owners regardless of how well the service performs.  (Some labels proudly state they don’t charge advances but instead charge a ‘set up fee’ for every track in their catalogue. Call it what you like, making a music service pay money up front is an advance payment.)  Even without considering the entirely intentional complexity of details such as minimas, floors and ceilings, the underlying principle is simple: a record label secures a fixed level of revenue regardless, while a music service assumes a fixed level of cost regardless.

Labels call this covering their risk and argue that it ensures that the services that get licensed are committed to being a success.  Which is a sound and reasonable position in principle, except that in practice it often results in the exact opposite by transferring all of the risk to the music service.  Saddling the service with so much up front debt increases the chance it will fail by ensuring large portions (sometimes the majority) of available working capital is spent on rights, not on building great product or marketing to consumers.

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

None of this matters too much if you are a successful service or a big tech company (both of which have lots of working capital).  Both Google and Apple are rumoured to have paid advances in the region of $1 billion.  While the payments are much smaller for most music services, Apple, with its $183 billion in revenues and $194 billion in cash reserves can afford $1 billion a lot more easily than a pre-revenue start up with $1 million in investment can afford $250,000.  Similarly a pre-revenue, pre-product start up is more likely to launch late and miss its targets but will still be on the hook for the minimum revenue guarantees (MRG).

It is abundantly clear that this model skews the market towards big players and to tech companies that simply want to use music as a tool for helping sell their core products.   Record labels complain that they don’t get enough value out of big companies like Google and Samsung, but unless they make the market more accessible to companies that are only in the business of selling music they can have no room for complaint.  The situation is a direct consequence of major label and major publisher licensing strategy.

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

Matters are compounded by an increasingly short term outlook from label licensing divisions, with the focus on internal quarterly revenue targets, or if you are lucky, annual targets.  The fact that much of label and publisher digital revenue comprises guarantees and advance payments means that their view of the digital market is different from how the market is performing.  If our small start up that pays $250,000 in rights payments doesn’t even get its product to market, the rights holders still see that digital revenue even though the marketplace does not.  (One failed music service that didn’t even launch went into bankruptcy owing two major labels $30 million).

This revenue comfort blanket insulates labels and publishers from much of the marketplace pain.  So if/when things go wrong, they feel it later, delaying their response.  There is also a cynicism in much deal making, with rigid templates applied to deals and a willingness to compromise principles if the price is right. The latter point was illustrated by the leaked negotiations between UMG and industry bête noir Kim Dotcom in which former digital head Rob Wells referred to being able to ‘downgrade’ Dotcom from ‘evil to bad’ and then from ‘bad to good and from good to exceptional partner’.  The message is clear, if there is enough money on the table, anyone can be a business partner whatever the implications might be for the rest of the market.

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

Current licensing strategy biases the market towards those with deep pockets and fatally compromises profitability.  Once all costs are factored in, a music subscription can theoretically have an operating margin of between 3% and 5%. Though only if it doesn’t invest sufficiently on marketing, customer retention and product innovation. But of course the streaming market is in early growth stage so every service has to spend heavily which means that profitability becomes a hostage to fortune. No wonder Daniel Ek is clear that Spotify is a growth business rather than on a profit crusade.

The market dynamics also create an innovation talent drain.  If you were a would-be start up founder the huge up front costs, non-existent margins, and complex time consuming licensing do not exactly make building a music app a welcome experience.  Building a games app however is an entirely different proposition: you own 100% of the rights, you don’t pay a penny to 3rd party rights holders and consumers actually pay for your product.  Music is already a problematic enough sector as it is without burdening it with a punitive licensing framework.

These are the structural challenges that could yet bring down the entire edifice of the streaming music economy.  The irony is that if Spotify has a successful IPO (sans profit of course) it will trigger a wave of copycat services and investment that will perpetuate the status quo a little further.  But it will only be a temporary delay.  Sometime or another the hard questions must be answered.

User Centric Licensing: Making Streaming Work For Everyone

Artist income is one of the most pronounced growing pains of the streaming era.  While there are many contributory factors, such as transparency and non-distributable label payments, the most significant element by far is how much artists get paid.  There are many moving parts to the equation, not least of which is how much labels themselves choose to pay artists, but even if labels doubled their payments to artists (which would be a good starting point for artists on 15% deals) the underlying dynamic would remain unchanged.  Namely that consumers are switching from buying music (which generates large upfront payments) to accessing it (which generates smaller payments spread over a longer period that as things stand look like they could still add up to smaller amounts even in the longer run).  If you’re a big super star artist or a major label this doesn’t affect you much as you get such a large chunk of the headline revenue.  But a new approach is needed for the rest.  Enter stage left the case for user centric licensing.

Under the current licensing model artists get paid on an ‘airplay’ basis i.e. what share of the total plays across the entire service the artist accounts for.  This model can skew the revenue balance to the superstars who will get played by a very large share of the user base of a service.  Under a user centric model an artist would get paid based on the share of an individual’s listening.  So if a user spends half their time listening to an underground techno producer, half of the royalties go to that producer.  In the existing model that producer would only get a tiny fraction of the royalties generated by that user.

user centric licensing

Let’s take a look at how this could work (see figure).  If a subscriber listens to Artist B 55% of the time but that artist only accounts for 0.5% of total listening, only 0.5% of the available royalties for that subscriber make it back to the artist.  Whereas Artist A who the user didn’t listen to at all gets 10% of the royalty income.  But in a user centric licensing model the artist would get 55%.  The revenue changes from a paltry $0.004 to a more meaningful $0.49 (assuming a 15% royalty share from the label).  And Artist A gets a fairer zero income for zero listening from that user.

Make no mistake, this model will be very difficult to license and the vested interests would likely resist it.  But until we get to scale with subscriptions, we need to explore all ways of ensuring revenues are distributed on as equitable a basis as possible.  This approach won’t fix all the artist-income ills of streaming but it will help smooth the transition.

I’m not going to pretend to take credit for this concept, it’s been quietly gaining momentum for some time now and the Trichordist has been building the case too.  But now is the time to really start giving this approach some serious consideration.  And if the incumbent streaming services are unable to implement user centric licensing because they are too close to the superpowers, then this is an opportunity for a new streaming service to seize the initiative and start to make some meaningful change.

I’m attaching the excel of this model so please go and stress test it yourself. Let me know your thoughts below.

MIDiA Research – User Centric Licensing Model

How TIDAL Can Deliver On Its Promises

The continued media feeding frenzy around Jay-Z’s TIDAL demonstrates just how valuable star power is for cutting through the clutter.  What has helped sustain interest is Jay-Z’s vision for delivering better value to artists and better experiences for music fans.  It is a tall order given that TIDAL has to operate under the same basic licensing framework as all other streaming services, the nub of which is paying c. 70% of all revenues to rights holders and having no control over how much of that gets paid back to artists and songwriters.  Working within the constraints of the standard subscription model TIDAL will quite simply not be able to deliver on its aspirations.  But if TIDAL is willing to create a new model to layer on top of it, then it can do something truly transformational.  Here’s how.

The Problem With Streaming

First we need to look at the issue TIDAL has to fix.  The problem with streaming services is that they inadvertently weaken music fans relationships with musical works.  In the pre-streaming, music sales model consumers paid for an album or single and matched their cash investment with an investment of time in listening to it.  The alternative was to listen to their older music collection or the radio.  So even duff albums not only got money spent on them, they got listened to a few times by their buyers.  And even if they didn’t get listened to even once the artist still got paid.   So a portion of music sales revenue had no relationship to the quality of the music.  Streaming changed that, effectively making the music itself more accountable to its audience.

With streaming, music fans don’t need to waste time listening to music they don’t like upon first listen.  They can bypass the duff.  They also tend to listen less to any single piece of music in general because they have so much other music to choose from at no additional cost.  Artists earning a 150th per stream of what they earn from a download is thus only part of the problem.  Most of the time their mainstream fans (and by that I mean not their top 10% of super fans) aren’t listening to them enough.

Scale Will Come, But It Will Take Time

The theory is that this will be fixed by scale, that a massive installed base of users will result in bigger listening volumes.  But it’s not that easy.  To illustrated, let’s assume people listen to albums an average of 5 times each then you need 30 times as many people to listen to generate the same income as a sale.  So until we get much bigger scale from streaming (e.g. 150m+ subscribers globally) we need to look at how to encourage music fans to concentrate their listening more on the artists they really like.  This is where TIDAL can come into play:

  • Artist channels: Earlier this year I laid out a vision for artist subscriptions.  In this model subscribers pay an additional fee (say $1 or $2) to their standard streaming subscription to get access exclusive programming, content and other experiences from an artist. Subscribers choose from a selection of artist channels and subscribe individually or pay for a bundle.  Think of it like adding sports or movies to your Pay TV subscription.
  • Additional content: Because subscriptions already give you access to all the music in the world (well most of it) subscribers will not be paying their extra $1 or $2 to get to the artist’s music. (Taking the music out of the core subscription and locking it into premium channels is a bad idea and doesn’t fix the artist income issue as we’ll see in a moment).  Instead fans will be paying for a mixture of additional content (live streams, interviews, acoustic sessions, photos, videos, games, curated playlists, mobile content, handwritten lyrics etc.) that will be delivered as a curated, programmed whole.  These channels will need to ascribe to the D.I.S.C. principles i.e. they music be Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated.  Sure each of the individual components could probably be found somewhere on the web but the real value is the entirety of the experience.
  • Artist revenue share: Where this model gets really interesting is how artists get paid. If all the additional content that is delivered is outside of the standard label catalogue then TIDAL could, after some basic costs are accounted for, split the entire additional $1 or $2 subscription fee 50/50 with the artist.  Or if TIDAL is that serious about making things better for artists, they could give all of the net profits to the artist. (Label 360 deals might complicate things a bit for some artists but they will not account for large percentages). Just how songwriters would benefit is a bit more complex as many artists have multiple songwriters etc. but TIDAL could set aside a songwriter pot to be distributed based on plays of the artist’s core music.

Right now TIDAL is a music service pretty much like the others but with bold ambitions.  This is one way that TIDAL can turn worthy words into meaningful actions. There aren’t too many other ways it can do so.  And of course any of the other streaming incumbents could do this too.  The difference is that that they have had a lot of time to do it and have not done so, yet at least.

So TIDAL, come show us how it is done.  Over to you Jay-Z.

The Music Industry’s 6:1 Ratio

One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other: 6 to 1

  • Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
  • Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
  • Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.

The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio.  The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.