Exclusive: Deezer Is Exploring User Centric Licensing

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One of the great, though less heralded, successes of streaming in 2016 was keeping the lid on artist angst. Previous years had been defined by seemingly endless complaints from worried and angry artists and songwriters. Now that torrent has dwindled to a relative trickle. This is largely due to a) a combination of artist outreach efforts from the services, b) so many artists now seeing meaningful streaming income and c) a general increased confidence in the model. Despite this though, the issues that gave creators concern (eg transparency, accountability) remain largely in place. The temptation might be to simply leave things as they are but it is exactly at this sort of time, when stakeholders are seeing eye to eye (relatively speaking at least), that bold change should be made rather than wait for crisis to re-emerge. It is no easy task fixing a plane mid flight. So it is encouraging to hear that Deezer is looking to change one the key anomalies in the streaming model: service centric licensing.

Service Centric Licensing

Currently streaming services license by taking the total pot of revenue generated, dividing that by the total number of tracks streamed and then multiplying that per stream rate by the number of streams per track per artist. Artists effectively get paid on a share of ‘airplay’ basis. This is service centric licensing. It all sounds eminently logical, and it indeed it the logic has been sound enough to enable the streaming market to get to where it is today. But is far from flawless. Imagine a metal fan who only streams metal bands. With the airplay model if Katy Perry accounted for 10% of all streams in a month, the 10% of that metal fan’s subscription fee effectively goes towards Katy Perry and her label and publisher. Other than aggrieved metal fans, this matters because those metal bands are effectively seeing a portion of their listening time contributing to a super star pop artist. To make it clearer still, what if that metal fan only listened to Metallica, yet still 10% of that subscriber’s revenue went to Katy Perry?

User Centric Licensing

The alternative is user centric licensing, where royalties are paid out as a percentage of the subscription fee of the listener. So if a subscriber listens 100% to Metallica, Metallica gets 100% of the royalty revenue generated by that subscriber. It is an intrinsically fairer model that creates a more direct relationship between what a subscriber listens to and who gets paid. This is the model that I can exclusively reveal that Deezer is now exploring with the record labels. It is a bold move from Deezer, which though still the 3rd ranking subscription service globally has seen Spotify and Apple get ever more of the limelight. While Deezer will undoubtedly be hoping to see the PR benefit of driving some thought leadership in the market, the fact it must find new ways to challenge the top 2 means that it can start thinking with more freedom than the leading incumbents. And a good idea done for mixed reasons is still a good idea.

Honing The Model

Deezer has had encouraging if not wildly enthusiastic feedback from labels, not least because this could be an operationally difficult process to implement. The general consensus among labels I have spoken to is cautious optimism and a willingness to run the models and see how things look. When I first wrote about user centric licensing back in July 2015 I got a large volume of back channel feedback. One of the key concerns was that the model could penalize some indie labels as fans of their acts could be more likely be music aficionados and thus listen more diversely and more heavily. This could result in the effective per stream rate for those fans being relatively low. By contrast, a super star pop act might have a large number of light listeners and therefore higher effective per stream rates.

The truth is that there is not a single answer for how user centric licensing will affect artists and labels. Because there are so many variables (especially the distribution of fans and the distribution of plays among them) it is simply not possible to say that a left field noise artist will do worse while a bubble gum pop star will do better. But in some respects, that shouldn’t be the determining factor. This is an intrinsically more transparent way of paying royalties, that is based upon a much more direct relationship between the artist and their fan’s listening. There may well be some unintended consequences but ultimately if you want fairness and equality then you don’t pick and choose which fairness and equality you want.

If Deezer is able to persuade the labels to put user centric licensing in place, it will be another sign of increasingly maturity for the streaming market. Streaming drove $1bn of revenue growth for the recorded music business in 2016, without it the market would have declined by $1bn (due to revenue decline elsewhere). Streaming is now a monumentally important market segment and there is no better time to hone the model than now. User centric licensing could, and should, be just one part of getting streaming ready for another 5 years of growth. Deezer might just have made the first move.

Just What Is BandLab Up To With Rolling Stone?

News emerged yesterday that Singapore music creator community and collaboration platform BandLab bought a 49% stake in Rolling Stone. For those unfamiliar with BandLab this might have prompted a ‘What? Who? Why?’ moment. BandLab is the creation of Kuok Meng Ru, the son of one of Singapore’s most wealthy and successful businessmen Kuok Khoon Hong who founded and built the world’s largest Palm Oil business. Unsurprisingly the father has backed the son in his venture and so, yes, Rolling Stone has been bought, albeit indirectly, with Palm Oil money. But the question remains, why?

Kuok Meng Ru has a bold vision and ambition for Bandlab, he sees this as an opportunity to create a full stack music company from the ground up, built around the next generation of creators rather than trying to carve a slice out of the incumbent industry. There is no doubt that the music industries are a complex web of inefficiencies and that if they were being redesigned tomorrow that they would be a far more streamlined, effective and transparent proposition. This on the surface makes the music business ripe for disruption. But unlike fully open markets like the smartphone business, the music industries are interwoven with complications such as de facto monopolies, statutory licensing frameworks and global networks of reciprocal agreements. All of which shelter the business from the full impact of disruption. Change happens slowly in the music business.

BandLab Is Built By Music Super Fans For Music Super Fans

None of this means that change is not happening and that the rate of change will not continue to happen. But the odds are heavily stacked against a single entity aiming to unseat the marketplace with an end-to-end creation-to-marketing-to-distribution solution such as BandLab. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of BandLab. As a life long musician and as a music super fan, it is exactly the sort of platform I would probably build i.e. a musician’s platform for musicians. But the harsh reality is that the majority of consumers (67%) are casual fans and less than 5% create music and upload it to the web. BandLab is a platform full of cool creator tools and community features. It nurtures a creative feedback loop between fans and artists. In fact, it adheres neatly to the principles of Agile Music that I laid out in 2011 and it fits in with the zeitgeist of the death of the creative full stop. But a mainstream proposition it is not. At least not in its current guise.

Kuok Meng Ru wants BandLab to do to music what Flickr did to photo sharing and creativity. But there are many, many more people that create and share photos than create and share music. Soundcloud is arguably the single biggest cloud creator platform, yet the vast majority of its growth happened when it cowed to investor pressure and pursued the listener rather than the creator. As I said last month in a Bloomberg article about BandLab, There’s always going to be far bigger audience of listeners than there is of creators. And unfortunately the vast majority of aspiring creators are not good enough, nor ever will be, to amass sizeable audiences. If BandLab decide to start licensing in established repertoire, or acquiring it unofficially (Soundcloud style), then it can build audience at scale.

Where Next For Rolling Stone?

So, back to the title of this post, just what is BandLab up to with Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone and BandLab plan to open a Singapore subsidiary focused on live events and marketing. For Rolling Stone this means diversifying revenue and growing its South East Asia footprint. For BandLab this means leveraging Rolling Stone’s brand as a short cut to credibility and extending the promotional capabilities of its creator platform. Who will do best out of this deal is hard to say. It’s a tough time to be a news publisher and so when big money comes calling it is hard to say no. But whether this is the right deal for Rolling Stone is another question entirely. My money is on Rolling Stone being sold on in reduced circumstances some time within the next 3 years (5 at the outside) when BandLab either gets bought or refocuses its ambitions.

Kanye West, Leonard Cohen And Death Of The Creative Full Stop

When Kanye West started tinkering with ‘The Life Of Pablo’ he triggered a minor maelstrom of chatter among the music business and his fans alike. From a month after the album had been made available exclusively on Tidal, Kanye started changing track names here, adding lines there, re-mastering here, giving guest vocalists more space there. Cynics might argue that the changes started to happen just after the Tidal free trial period ended for fans who’d signed up to access the album. But the changes carried on months after and doubtlessly will continue to do so. As intriguing as Kanye’s tampering may be though, the really surprising thing is its exceptionality – why in these digital days, where shelves of physical products are a dying breed, do 99.99% of artists and labels still allow themselves to be constrained by the straight jacket of the album, turning everything into a creative full stop?

The Long And Windy Road Of Hallelujah

imgres-5In his excellent podcast series ‘Revisionist History’, Malcolm Gladwell – he of ‘The Tipping Point’ – focuses one episode on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Nowadays ‘Hallelujah’ is widely recognized as a masterpiece but it went on an epic journey to acquire that status. ‘Hallelujah’ starts out as a mediocre track on a 1984 album ‘Various Positions’ that Cohen’s label CBS refused to release and is instead put out by indie Passport Records. The release, as Gladwell puts it, “barely makes a ripple”. The magic in the song was all but invisible at this stage. But Cohen doesn’t see that 1984 recording as the end of the story, in fact it is just the start. Over the following years playing live he tinkers, tampers and reworks ‘Hallelujah’, slowing it down, making it twice as long, changing verses and making it even darker.

Finally, John Cale sees Cohen playing a reworked version at a gig and there is enough magic in it to compel him to ask Cohen to send him the lyrics so he can record his own version. Cohen then faxed Cale fifteen pages of lyrics (reflecting just how much tinkering he had done) and Cale “went through and just picked out the cheeky verses.” His recording of ‘Hallelujah’ is the first of the song as the world knows it – in part because it ended up on Shrek. The magic is finally released, or as Gladwell puts it Cale “cracks the code of ‘Hallelujah’”.

imgres-6Cale’s version appears on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album put together by a French Music magazine ‘I’m Your Fan’ which by pure serendipity ends up in the CD collection of a woman who a certain Jeff Buckley is house sitting for. He hears Cale’s version, is blown away, and performs his take on Cale’s take. A Colombia A&R exec hears Buckley performing it, is equally blown away, signs him up and records it in what would prove to be Buckley’s only – but highly influential – 1994 studio album ‘Grace’. Buckley’s version becomes the defining version of ‘Hallelujah’ and connects it with the world.

The Pseudo-Permanence Of Mass Media Was A Historical Anomaly

‘Hallelujah’s tale may be an exceptional one yet it also applies to all songs. Singers and bands reworking old songs into their live performances is no new thing, they like to update the songs to make them match where they are now as people, performers and songwriters. But only rarely does that then translate into a new recorded version. And this is the problem with record media. It creates an entirely arbitrary creative full stop. This though, isn’t the natural state of things.

The pseudo-permanence of mass media is an artefact of the distribution era, of the time when people were conditioned to believe that everyone could own their favourite music, movies and TV shows for ever. But of course nothing last for ever, especially not recorded media. Vinyl scratches and warps, cassette tapes degrade, DVDs and CDs lose their reflective quality and crack. And then to compound matters, these physical formats die out as products. So the ‘permanence’ was only ever transient. Nonetheless it ossified the creative output.

imgres-7Until Edison invented the Phonograph in 1887, music, with the exception of the highly regimented genre classical music which was ossified in musical score – though reinterpreted by conductors, was an ever evolving thing. Folk songs morphed out of all recognition as they passed down the generations, jazz musicians would tear apart songs with their own interpretations, blues numbers would ebb and flow like the Mississippi delta with each subsequent interpretation. No one ‘owned’ the music in the moment and no one ‘knew’ the correct performance of it because there was no ‘correct’ official performance. Radio and the phonograph changed all that. But now, with streaming there is no need for this arbitrary ossification of music. Music can return to its living breathing roots rather than imitating a museum piece in a glass case.

Conceptual Innovation Versus Experimental Innovation

There is a very important cultural reason why the creative full stop needs consigning to the waste bin of history: it curtails creativity. In his podcast Gladwell outlines two key types of innovators:

  • Conceptual innovators: they’re the ones who create in an instant, and often burn bright and short. They’re the ones we most often think of as geniuses.
  • Experimental innovators: these are the ones who continually iterate, changing, tinkering, for ever looking to perfect their work.

Both groups have creative geniuses within them. Pablo Picasso was a conceptual innovator, bursting onto the scene and transforming the art world in an instant. Paul Cézanne though, an equally important artist from the same era, was entirely different, he would create endless different versions of paintings, often not finishing or even destroying them. He was on a continual journey of creative discovery, he was an experimental innovator.

Recorded media forces experimental innovators into the confines of conceptual innovators. Which means that so much great music was never allowed to find its true greatness, instead being bound to a recording long before it was ready to be. During his updates to ‘Life Of Pablo’ Kanye wrote “Fixing Wolves 2day… Worked on it for 3 weeks.”  He’s an experimental innovator, a perfectionist. The irony is that the album he continually hones is called ‘The Life Of Pablo’, which quite probably refers to that archetype of the conceptual innovator Picasso (Kanye even said once “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater.”). So a more appropriate name for the album would have been called ‘The Life Of Paul [Cézanne]’

Agile Music

images-1Back in 2011 I wrote a report entitled ‘Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Media Mass Customization’ – you can still download it for free here and you can watch my Midem keynote here. In it I made a case for bringing audiences into the creative process and for the death of the creative full stop; for music to become a living, breathing entity that artists can continually edit and evolve. Almost exactly 5 years on and virtually no one, Kanye obviously excepted, is doing this. Why? Because artists and labels still have static audio files as their reference points. Yet there is simply no need for this to be the case anymore. Sure, there has to be caution – if every single track changes all the time audiences would oscillate between apoplexy and utter confusion. But with moderation and clear context, Agile Music can reclaim music from the orthodoxy of the physical format that somehow still dictates the streaming environment. As more artists and labels embrace the approach, brace yourself for ‘Hallelujah’s becoming the norm not the exception.

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.

YouTube And The Attention Economy

This is the third in the series of posts exploring how the music industry can better leverage the potential of the YouTube economy.  You can see the first post here and the second here.

Short form video is accelerating at a rapid pace, racking up 4.2 trillion views in the first half 2015.  While challengers Facebook, Snapchat and others now account for just over half of that total, few platforms of scale yet provide content creators and owners comparable ability to build engaged audiences and income.  For music the situation is even more pronounced – no other platform is even on the same lap of the race (and I include Vevo as an extension of YouTube). YouTube is the most popular online music destination by far (46% of consumers use it regularly) and its role for Digital Natives cannot be exaggerated – 65% of US under 25’s use YouTube for music regularly.  But the share that regularly watch YouTube as a whole is even higher: 76%.  The added complexity is that most artists and labels do not feel that YouTube is pulling its weight in revenue terms.  Free music streamers – of which YouTube is the largest single component – comprise 92.5% of all music streaming users and just 32% of all streaming revenue.  Yet a whole generation of non-music creators like PewDiePie, Smosh and the Janoskians have via YouTube built audiences and income that most artists could only dream of.  So what’s the secret?

Talk Don’t Shout

One of the key factors is the way in which YouTubers use the platform, releasing 2, 3 or more videos every week.  Contrast this with an artist releasing a music video maybe once every couple of months.  YouTubers treat the platform as place to build relationships with their audiences and to engage them in regular interaction.  The prevailing approach among artists, their managers and labels is to simply view YouTube as a place to promote.  YouTubers use YouTube as an interactive digital platform for engaging in conversations.  The music industry uses it as a broadcast channel, a soap box from which it can shout about its wares.

While clearly it doesn’t make sense for most artists to be creating 3 videos a week there has to be a compelling middle ground between that and one promo video every quarter.  Nearly half of music’s super fans say that music for them is more than just the song, that they want to know the artist’s story.  Music videos, the highly stylized form that they are, are hardly a vehicle for telling the artist’s story.  In fact there are few mediums less suited for the task.  But there is so much around the video that can be harnessed.  Imagine how much extra content could be created by adding half a day to the video shoot to film extras such as goofy outtakes, the band talking about the song, a making of, behind the scene reportage etc.

Think Of It Like DVD Extras That People Actually Want To Watch

And the costs should be modest.  YouTube is DIY.  Part of the authenticity most YouTubers deliver is by not being over produced.  So only a fraction of the crew used for the music video shoot would be needed.  The resulting video extras could then be planned into a release schedule on the artists’ YouTube channel, building up weekly to the main music video and then maintaining interest thereafter.  This is just one illustration of how it is entirely feasible to create lots of added value content with relatively little additional burden on the artist.  Yes, this might feel like creating the extras for the bonus disc on a DVD, and in some ways it is.  But there is a crucial difference.  DVD bonus discs are a means of charging more for a release and usually go unwatched.  Among young YouTube viewers this sort of content is often of comparable – though different – value to the song itself.

Prospering In The Attention Economy

In the sales era fans invested in their favourite artists by buying an album.  That cash investment usually meant a fan would spend time listening to the album again and again.  And that familiarity became the foundations of a long term relationship that would result in buying concert tickets and future albums.  But now as sales dwindle (down by 29% in the last 5 years) music fans are investing in their favourite artists in time and attention rather than money.  We now operate in an attention economy.  YouTubers totally get this, artists and labels less so.

This is all so important to artists because YouTube is not suddenly going to start delivering dramatically better music stream rates, largely because labels and publishers haven’t had the courage to demand the requisite fair share it should pay.  Rights owners’ fears are understandable: one senior label executive recounted a YouTube negotiator saying ‘Don’t push us.  Right now you don’t like us much and we’re your friend.  Imagine what we’d be like if we weren’t your friend.’  Sooner or later bullying tactics need standing up to.  But that will not be a quick process, regardless of the steps currently being taken behind the scenes.

So in the meantime artists and labels need to figure out how to get more out of YouTube in a way that complements the other ways they make money digitally.  Put simply that means making more non-music video content to generate more viewing hours and thus more ad revenue from YouTube. Heck, they might even generate some YouTube subscription revenue some time.  But do it they must, else they’ll forever be leaving chunks of YouTube money on the table.

The irony of it all though is that the biggest reason of all for doing it isn’t even about the money.  Treating YouTube as a fan engagement platform rather than a marketing tool is currently the most sure fire way artists have of creating engaged fan bases at scale in the digital marketplace.

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.

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.

What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.

Note To Struggling Bands And Singers: Sorry But Most Of Your Fans Don’t Care

The plight of artists and songwriters grappling with download dollars transforming into streaming cents is well documented and a series of long term, sustainable solutions are needed (I wrote about some here). The debate occurs alongside an assumption that there is widespread concern for the creators’ and their livelihood. Unfortunately the general sympathy that is apparent within the echo chamber of the online press and social media does not translate to the broader population

In a recent MIDiA Research survey we asked consumers the following question:

“Some singers and bands are concerned that streaming music services like YouTube, Spotify and Deezer pay too little money back to them compared to selling music. Using a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 equals ‘do not agree at all’ and 5 equals ‘agree entirely’ indicate how much you agree with this statement: This issue concerns me enough to reconsider my music buying habits.’

Just 15% of respondents said they agreed and only four per cent strongly agree. And this is against a backdrop of 60% of consumers stating that they consider music to be worth paying for.  So willingness to pay is not the overriding issue here.

ARTIST FAN AMBIVELANCE

Things don’t look quite so bad when you start diving into specific segments. For example among Music Aficionados – those who spend and listen above average – the rate is 30% and among subscribers it is 34%. But even those rates are remarkably low when you consider that these are some of the very most engaged music fans and that more than 80% of them think music is worth paying for.

So what is going on? Artists and fans are closer than ever before and artists are undoubtedly finding the transition to consumption models a difficult process. To some degree there has always been some fan ambivalence. Mainstream consumers tend to think of artists as megastars who drive around in sports cars and sip champagne for breakfast. So getting the mass market to feel sympathy is not an easy sell. Even though the music world has changed from its 80’s and 90’s excess, many consumers just haven’t paid enough attention to the plight of artists to join the dots. Others conveniently turn a blind eye and use their old-world stereotypes to justify piracy to themselves.

Artists and fans have an unprecedented array of tools and services to connect them and to help build genuine engagement. But outside of their core followings, artists should not expect their wider fan bases to have any particularly strong feelings about their struggles. Even less should they expect those fans to do anything about it: 54% of consumers specifically would not change their buying behaviour.

Streaming is ramping up fast, that much is clear, but even among those consumers just 24% care enough about the plight of artists to consider changing their behaviour. As bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, artists have to accept the fact that beyond their super fans, most consumers (and three quarters of streamers) simply don’t care whether streaming is making it harder for them to build and maintain a career.

Streaming, Change, And The Right State Of Mind

Disruptive technology and the change it brings can be overwhelming, particularly when it threatens to change forever all that we have known. Streaming clearly fits this bill. But the impact of change is as much in the eye of the beholder as the disruption itself. While it would be bland and disingenuous to say that change is merely a state of mind, a positive outlook that is focused on the opportunities can make the world of difference.

To illustrate the point, here are three examples from the last century of how vested interests have viewed revolutionary new media technology.

1-ebwhiteThis first quote is from the American author and essayist EB White writing in 1933 on the impact of radio. Here new technology is eloquently portrayed with an almost magical profundity.

2-sarnoffThis quote is from David Sarnoff, the Belorussian-American radio and TV pioneer who oversaw the birth of RCA and NBC. Here he is in 1939 talking about the advent of a TV broadcast network against the backdrop of the globe teetering on the brink of world war.

And then fast forward 70 odd years to the emergence of streaming music, and we get this….3-yorkeSomething certainly appears to have happened to the eloquence of observation over the decades. While I’m perhaps being a little unfair to our esteemed Mr Yorke his quote illustrates the stark contrast in how one can view impending change.

There is an inevitability about the shift in consumer behaviour of which streaming is merely a manifestation. We are moving from the distribution era when everything was about linearly programmed channels and selling units of stuff to the consumption era when consumers value access over ownership. Resisting fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour is a futile task. It’s what happened when the labels fought Napster tooth and nail and it took the best part of a decade for the music industry to recover from that mistake.

None of this is to say that the shift to streaming is going to be easy, but it is going to happen anyway. Artists, labels, managers, publishers all need to decide whether to work with streaming now, and have some control over the process, or wait until they have no choice at all.