With 2022 coming to a close, and Spotify’s Wrapped just around the corner, artists are beginning to look back across the year at how they performed and what they have achieved, and whether it lines up with their hopes for the coming year. If you are one of these artists, we would love to hear from you. MIDiA has launched a new artist survey, designed to take the pulse of artists and their careers. You can complete the survey by following this link.
In the survey, you will be asked about topics such as:
How streaming is working out for you
What sort of career you are pursuing
What tools you use, such as distributor platforms
How you feel about navigating today’s streaming-centred music business
All respondents to the survey will get a free copy of our report, Music creator survey, Redefining success, which presents the findings of our most recent major global survey of artists. This will give you a benchmark to monitor how your career is shaping up against other artists, and allow you to compare your aspirations and approaches with theirs.
Even taking into account the impact of the pandemic, it has never been a better time for independent creators in the music business. The various 2020 lockdowns may have prevented artists from earning vital touring income and disrupted release and promotion cycles, but for many it also pushed new creativity, with nearly 70% of independent artists choosing to use the time to write or make new music.
Yet, with access to the industry easier than ever, a glaring discrepancy remains: why are there still so few women, and so many men? What is stopping female creators – artists, songwriters, producers and DJs from picking up an instrument or learning the software, and releasing music into the market? Despite women occupying leadership positions and topping the charts, women overall remain starkly in the minority and remain massively unrepresented in the music industry. Why?
2020 has been a year of change, some of it very much positive, including months of protests within the Black Live Matter movement, driving global conversations and pushing for diversity, equity, and ‘minority’ recognition. The demand to recognise that more is needed from governments, businesses, and institutions, for a universal recognition of discrepancy in opportunity and lived experience, has forced changes in practise and behaviours – and hopefully attitudes too. While many want to forget 2020, it was the year that moved the global mindset forward unilaterally.
The challenges women and others face in the music industry (and beyond) are deep, varied and unrelenting – some obvious and now exposed (in part through #metoo), but many either subtle or deniable enough to have escaped accountability for decades, if not centuries. #metoo shone the spotlight on harassment and assault, often by men in positions of power. Yet discrimination and bias can also be as simple as girls experiencing discouragement from participating in “male” activities in schools, like technology, or from playing ‘male’ instruments likes drums and guitar.
It’s well known that women creators in the music industry (and other sectors too) must work harder to achieve the same approval or reward as their male counterparts. They are sometimes treated with an air of dismissal, or are not as initially respected, or suffer expectations of childcare/parenthood as a burden or skill proclivity based on gender.
Much has been done over the past few years to address a myriad of these issues in music by the likes of Women In Live Music (WILM), Women In CTRL, Pass the Aux and more. The F-List female creator database has removed the excuse that there simply “aren’t enough women in music to hire”. Female-centric projects like Rhythm Sister, She Is the Music and SheShreds are working to develop, provide resources for and spotlight female artists that both inspire and empower the journeys of more women and other minorities into music. The Annenberg Study highlighted shocking statistics, finding that only one-in-five of artists are female, but worse: only 12.3% of songwriters and 2.1% of producers are(2012-2018). While men and women of colour have climbed ladders, and female representation in the ‘big leagues’ is rising, behind the scenes it remains to be seen how much has really changed.
No in-depth work has recently consulted the global community of female creators. This, too, is changing. MIDiA has long focused on the path of the independent artist, and in conjunction with Tunecore and Believe Digital we are now conducting a comprehensive global study asking creators themselves about their challenges, inspirations and experiences.
Through this we can discover the main issues they face, what is helping them along their journeys – or holding them back. We can point to solutions that can bring the industry forward. Let’s find out what we need from those working in the weeds of the industry today and those looking to carve out a living from music – whether independent, signed, solo or part of a band.
Due to the very issue of representation, we welcome people of all genders to take part, but it is imperative to hear as many female/femme experiences as possible. The more respondents, the better a picture we can uncover. These findings will be published in full, in a free report in March – International Women’s month.
The UK parliament is currently running an inquiry into the streaming music economy, having called for evidence from across the music business. Earlier this week were the first verbal submissions, from a number of UK artists including Tom Gray (Gomez), Guy Garvey (Elbow), Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and Nadine Shah.MPs heard impassioned but balanced submissions that shone a light on the reality of what it means to be an artist in the streaming era. Mercury Prize-nominated Shah explained that she makes so little money from streaming that she is struggling to pay her rent. Clearly, the demise of live during the pandemic has created a uniquely difficult period for artists, but it has spotlighted that streaming on its own is not working for artists. The fact that policy makers are hearing this viewpoint (albeit later rather than sooner) suggests that change will be coming. But, while the focus is understandably on how to ‘fix’ streaming, it might be that efforts would be better placed building a complementary alternative.
In Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove, there is a intense scene in which Darcus Howe implores café owner and community leader Frank Crichlow that after Frank’s fruitless attempts to fix the problem via the system that direct action is the only way to change things: “self-movement – external forces acting on the organism”.
The equivalent of direct action in the commercial world is innovation – it comes from the ground up. In 2008 Spotify came up with an innovation that made the problem of the time –piracy – effectively redundant. What’s required now are new innovations that make the current streaming model look like an alternative, not the only choice – to enjoy music.
Now is the time
Now is the right time to be assessing the long-term impact of streaming. It is a mature business model and is the largest revenue driver in most of the world’s leading music markets. Whatever streaming is now, is pretty much how it is going to be. The future of what streaming can be is already here, today. Assessments must be on what the model delivers now, not some future potential.
Streaming’s current performance can be assessed as follows:
Record labels and publishers have experienced strong revenue growth and improving margins. Their businesses have been improved
Artists and songwriters have more people listening to their music than ever before and more creators are able to earn income than ever before
However, beyond the superstars, most do not earn a sustainable income from streaming alone and cannot see a pathway to this ever changing. This is Guy Garvey’s reference to the lack of any new (financially viable) music artists in the future.
A model for rights holders more than creators
Streaming benefits rights holders more than it does creators. It is far easier to enjoy the benefits of scale if you have scale. Here is a simple illustration: if a label has 100,000 tracks played 10 times each in a month (i.e., a million streams) it will earn around £/$5,000. But a self-released artist with just 100 tracks with 10 plays each (i.e., 1,000 streams) will only earn £/$5. Though this is the product of simple arithmetic, the first amount is the foundation of a small business, the other buys you a cup of coffee.
Record labels and publishers with large catalogues benefit from scale in a way that artists and songwriters do not, unless they have a megahit – and although streaming is great for megahits, they are few and far between. Changes to licensing (and there are many ways to do that) may make things better – but they will not change the underlying dynamic; it is simply how the model is.
We have a model that works for rights holders that is fuelled by artists and songwriters. Now we need an additional, parallel, model that works for artists.
Streaming music services are incentivised to drive consumption. What we need are additional models, incentivised to drive fandom. Streaming is a song economy, and we now need a parallel fan economy.
Music used to be all about fandom. It was the way in which people identified and expressed themselves – a badge of honour and a symbol of personality. Streaming has industrialised music, turning it into a convenient utility that acts as a soundtrack to our everyday life. That may be fine, but it has simultaneously supressed those ways to express fandom. It’s not easy to express your fandom on a streaming platform, while on a social platform money must change hands.
Music fandom hasn’t died, but it just has fewer places to live.
The fan economy
So, what is a fan economy? A fan economy is one in which the value resides in the artist-fan relationship. Currently this model is pursued actively in Asia (e.g., Tencent Music in China, K-Pop in Korea) but far less so in the West. The fan economy will be defined by diversity but what its constituents will have in common is being built around micro-communities of fans.
Micro-communities that are built around an artist’s 1,000 true fans (or even fewer) allow the artist’s most loyal and dedicated fans to drive revenue that is small to the industry but large to the artist. For example, an artist with 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month would generate the same $5,000 a month that a million streams would deliver a record label.
There are a number of platforms that are making a start, but now is the time for this to become a central music industry focus. Music rightsholders have a model that works well for them, so now they need to ensure that their artists and songwriters have models that work for them too. There is thus an onus on rights holders helping drive the fan economy, but to drive creator income rather than simply be another rights holder income.
A multi-pronged approach
This is the three-pronged approach we propose:
Governments, support new, innovative companies building fan economy models and ensure that they provide equitable remuneration for creators
Record labels, build teams geared at helping their artists find fan economy income streams (and take a service fee or revenue share)
Streaming services, allow artists more real estate to showcase where fans can find other content and experiences
None of this is to say that efforts to make streaming more equitable should not be pursued; they absolutely should. However, it should be done with a clear understanding of the ‘art of the possible’. Even if rates were doubled, the self-released artist with 1,000 streams would still only earn £/$10. For an artist with a million streams a month on a big label it would change monthly income from £/$1,250 a month to £/$2,000, i.e., £/$24,000 a year. Not a sustainable annual income.
Our case is that streaming should indeed be made more equitable, but alongside proactive investment in a new generation of innovative fan economy apps. This is an opportunity to make UK Plc the innovation driver for the global music business. A unique opportunity that is there for the taking with the right strategy and support, from all vested interests.
The opportunity for the UK streaming inquiry
With the streaming inquiry, the UK government has an unprecedented opportunity to set a global standard for building a vibrant and viable future for music creators, but it is an opportunity that needs seizing now. In partnership with music creators and rightsholders, it can create a structure that supports the innovation and change the industry needs. Now that streaming has come of age, we can see both its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s use the weaknesses as a foundation for building something new, exciting and equitable. It is time to bring ways to allow music fans to express themselves and their support to artists more directly. That will keep music the uniquely valuable product it is, and not just the grease in the wheels.
Firstly, for sake of clarity, MIDiA firmly believes that copyrighted work should be used correctly and remunerated. We are not, in any way, suggesting that a platform should be able to use music without permission. However, the current licensing structures are:
YouTube and Twitch represent an opportunity to create new growth drivers, especially for artists, that can help fix the ‘broken record’
A lack of sync in sync
Let’s address the first point, well, first. Platform-native creators on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok create content so frequently they make the music industry’s volume and velocity problem look like child’s play. Usually, creators who want music in their videos have a choice: 1) get sync licenses, 2) get library music, 3) use music without permission and get taken down or demonetised.
The problem with option one is that sync clearance is a lengthy process that can take weeks and cost a lot. Not a great fit for creators who create and upload videos the same day. Companies like Lickd are trying to fix this with catalogues of pre-cleared music, but the industry as a whole is moving too slowly. For the record, MIDiA’s preferred solution is for platforms securing large ‘sandboxes’ of pre-cleared tracks for creators and developers to work with. An early example of this is the NFL making all of its soundtracks available for creators on a Synchtank powered site.Unless music rights holders want to cede the growth in the music UGC space (which will be worth $5.9 billion by end 2022) to library music companies, they need to put alternative approaches at the core of their licensing strategy, not simply pursue them as interesting ‘edge’ experiments.
Going beyond the stream
However, the biggest music industry opportunity is not licensing music. It is monetising fandom. The #brokenrecord debate has shone a light on how streaming’s scale benefits do not trickle down at a sufficient rate to creators. Artists compete for tiny bits of highly valuable ‘real estate’ – playlists, artist profiles etc – but most often do not get enough to earn a living. While efforts like user-centric licensing and better songwriter rates will help, they will not change the underlying fundamentals of streaming economics. The counter argument is that scale will change everything, but:
Average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Spotify’s premium ARPU fell 34% between Q1 2016 and Q3 2020, a 34% decline
Streaming growth is slowing in developed markets
Consumption is slowing – last quarter Spotify reported an increase in consumption hours to pre-COVID levels but as there were 49 million new monthly active users (MAUs) compared to pre-COVID this implies a reduction in hours per user
Emerging markets are growing but a) ARPU is lower and b) domestic repertoire will drive most of the long-term consumption – so this means only a small uplift for Western creators
Before live stopped, streaming existed in a mutually beneficial ecosystem, giving artists more fans for concerts and merch. Now that live is out of the equation, streaming isn’t enough.
This is where platforms like YouTube and Twitch can come in. They enable creators to build loyal fanbases of which they can monetise the loyal core to build sustainable careers. The idea of ‘1,000 True Fans’ was first put forward years ago by Kevin Kelly but now the dynamics of social platforms have made this a realistic possibility for any creator. Nevertheless, music artists are still way off the pace.
Twitch and YouTube enable creators to build (often small) loyal fanbases that can generate them income that far exceeds what artists get from streaming. MIDiA terms this dynamic ‘micro-communities’ and we think it will be one of the trends that will shape the music business in 2021 and beyond. As part of our creator tools research we will be exploring how platforms like Splice and Landr will be able to build their own artist-fan communities that can be as valuable to artists as Bandcamp is to many already.
Streaming created a superstar economy where even within the non-superstars, superstars exist. For example, Tunecore states it has ‘thousands’ of artists that make more than $100,000 a year. A simple bit of arithmetic shows that this means the remainder make less than $100.
Micro-communities represent an opportunity for artists to fill the income gap that streaming leaves without live in the mix. This probably does not reflect a direct revenue opportunity for rights holders – indeed, that would be missing the point. Instead, they can ensure those platforms are supported to empower artist monetisation without speed bumps. Why? Quite simply, rights holders have a model that works for them (streaming), so now they need to support a model that works for their creators so that they can in turn continue to support the streaming model that works for rights holders.
If the industry does not support this new virtuous circle ecosystem, then it could bring the streaming model crashing down due to creator discontent.
The principle makes sense from an economic perspective, but it is just that – an economist’s solution to a cultural problem. A guitarist becoming an Amazon van driver or a Just Eat courier will certainly have the desired economic output (i.e. more economic productivity), but the cultural damage is potentially irreparable. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is throwing in the towel after the first round of the fight.
A quick lesson from history
Culture is one of the most important outputs of society and the more developed a society is, the more it normally invests in that culture. A brief overview of history illustrates the point. The Roman Empire, one of the first great civilisations, was focused on warfare and expansion. It spawned some famous philosophers and orators, as well as great art (sculpture and mosaics especially). Yet warfare was the defining trait of the empire, and so the majority of the great figures we remember are the military generals and emperors. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in the same Italian peninsula and we had the Renaissance, ironically rediscovering the lost art techniques of the ancients. Although Italy in this period was dominated by warfare, and although there are no shortage of generals and petty princes to fill the history books, it is the art and culture that the period is best known for. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are the great names of this era. There was no structured art marketplace, however; instead, rich benefactors (bankers, princes, generals) patronised them, subsidising their art. They did so often in the hope of immortalising their own names, but instead immortalised the artists. Art does not always pay for itself. Sometimes it needs a helping hand.
Small venues create national economic output; virtual ones may not
Now to be clear, I am not advocating that music should become state subsidised. Nor am I comparing the musical output of a bedroom musician with that of a renaissance master (though Kanye does think that he is ‘unquestionably’ an even better artist than even those Italian greats). The lesson to learn from history here is that in tough times, society benefits from supporting culture. If small music venues continue to fall like flies,smaller and emerging artists will be bereft of real-world places to perform and to build audiences. The music market will stagnate with new talent having one more hurdle to success put in its way. Live streaming will pick up some of the slack and may even become a valuable alternative for many artists. For the UK government, however, that will mean swapping the economic output of UK venues for that of predominately American technology platforms. That economic output will leave the UK economy – and at a time of trade uncertainty leading up to Brexit, to lose music, arguably the UK’s most culturally renowned global export over the last century, would be a weighty hit.
Artists need to experiment and innovate now more than ever before
This is bigger than national economic protectionism, and it is certainly bigger than the UK. To use that horrible management consultant phrase: change is difficult. We are cursed and blessed to live in interesting times. Technology has changed the recorded music business beyond recognition; now, because of the pandemic, technology is going to accelerate change in the live business as well. This process may be difficult, and it may be long, but it will result in a differently shaped music business in the mid-term future. Artists have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to innovate and experiment. Before COVID-19, live, merch, recording and publishing were – in varying degrees – the majority of the revenue mix for most artists. Live is unlikely to return to anything resembling normality until 2022. From this moment on, then, artists need to experiment with new models, new ways to engage with audiences and to generate income – whether that be writing for other artists on Soundbetter, making sound packs on Splice or Landr or selling digital collectibles via Fanaply. Artist income is more varied and sophisticated now than it was 10 years ago. The reality is that this trend is going to accentuate both in the lockdown economy and post-pandemic.
However, new models take time to become viable. In this interim stage, if there is a role for state support, it is to provide artists and songwriters with the financial support and technical and business training to enable them to be winners in this new creative paradigm. Rishi Sunak was wrong to suggest that artists should retrain out of music. But he was right that they should retrain. They should retrain from being artists of the 2010s to artists of the 2020s, and that is where he should be providing support.
It’s complicated. The short version is that we have a superstar economy in streaming quite unlike the old music business, one in which artists on smaller independent labels have just as much chance of breaking into that exclusive club as those on bigger record labels. Given that AWAL states its cohort of $100k+ artists grew by 40% (assuming they mean annually) while global label streaming revenues grew by 23%, the implication is that AWAL is getting better at doing this than the wider market. And it is the implied growth of the rest of the market where things get really interesting.
(A model with more than 50 lines of calculations was required to build this analysis so I am going to walk through some of the key steps so you can see how we get there. Bear with me, it will be worth it I promise you!)
Finding the third data point
To do this analysis I am going to share one of MIDiA’s secrets with you: finding the third data point. Companies, understandably, like to share the numbers that make them look good and hold back those that do not help their story. Often though, you can get at what that third number is by triangulating the numbers they do report. A really simple example is if a company reports its revenues and subscribers but not its average revenue per user (ARPU), you can get to an idea of what the ARPU is by dividing revenue by subscribers (and if you have a churn number to work with, even better).
Spotify generated 73 billion hours of streams in 2019, which equates to around 1.3 trillion streams. Interestingly, taking its roughly $7.6 billion of revenue, this implies that its global per-stream royalty rate (masters and publishing, across free and paid) stood at $0.00425 – which is a long way from a penny per stream. This highlights how promotions, multi-user plans, free tiers and emerging markets are driving royalty deflation. But that’s a discussion for another day…
For the purposes of this work let’s assume that the average artist royalty rate (across standard major, indie and distribution deals) is 35%. Spotify’s 90% of streaming label royalties in 2019 was $3.9 billion, which translates to an average artist royalty income of $29,221 for each of those 43,000 artists. That is obviously south of AWAL’s $100k cohort, which illustrates that those AWAL artists are not just superstars but an upper tier of superstars.
$66,796 is good, as long as you don’t have to split it
But how does this look outside of Spotify? Firstly, the top 90% of global streaming label revenues was $10.8 billion in 2019. We then scale up Spotify’s 43,000 top-tier artists to the global market and deduplicate overlaps across services and we end up with a global base of around 56,000 top-tier artists earning an average of $66,796 per year from streaming (audio and video).
$66,796 is a decent amount of annual income but it looks a lot better if you are a solo artist than, say, a four-piece band splitting that revenue into $16,699 slices. Interestingly, AWAL seems to skew towards solo artists (94% of AWAL’s featured artists are solo acts) so the $66,796 goes a lot further for them than an average indie label rock band.
And then there’s the remaining 99% of artists…
But of course, this is how things look for the most successful artists. What about the remainder that have to share the remaining 10% of streaming revenue? That remaining label revenue is $1.2 billion of which $0.7 billion (i.e. 57%) is Artists Direct. That means the entire global base of label-signed artists that are not in the top tier have to share 4% of global streaming revenues. This translates to an average annual streaming income of $425. Artists Direct meanwhile earn an average of $176 (only 59% less than those non-superstar label artists).
The 90/1 rule
The key takeaway then is that streaming is levelling the playing field for success. Consistently breaking into the top bracket is now achievable for artists on major and indie labels alike and, if anything, independents are enjoying progressively more success. But this is a very different thing from all artists doing well. Music has always been a hits business. Streaming is widening the distribution but with less than 1% of artists generating 90% of income, the spoils are far from evenly shared. Music streaming has taken Pareto’s 80/20 principle and turned it into a 90/1 rule.
The #brokenrecord debate continues to build momentum and new models such as user-centric are getting increased attention, including at governmental level in the UK. But as Mat Dryhurst correctly observes, there is a risk of the market falling into streaming fatalism; that the obsession with trying to fix a model that might not be fixable distracts us from focusing on trying to build alternative futures.
I have previously explored what those new growth drivers might be, but now I want to explain the unfixable problems with the current streaming system for creators and smaller labels. Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’, but that is mainly because of its inherent structure. Tweaking the model will bring improvements but not the change artist and songwriters need. Instead of exploring sustaining innovations for streaming, it is time to explore new disruptive market innovations
Product remuneration versus project remuneration
Smaller independent artists and labels are outgrowing the majors and bigger indies on streaming, so why are we having the #brokenrecord debate? Why isn’t it adding up? The answer lies in how artists and songwriters are remunerated. In all other media industries other than music and books, creators are primarily remunerated on a project basis. An actor will be paid an appearance fee for a film or TV show; a games developer will be paid for their time on a project; a sports star paid a salary; a journalist paid for a story. In many of those cases the creator will sometimes have the opportunity to negotiate a share of profit too, an ability to benefit in the upside of success. But, crucially, the media company has assumed all of the risk. Also, of course, the media company owns the copyright.
Artists and songwriters might get an advance, but that is a loan against future earnings, not a project fee. Artists and songwriters, like authors, are remunerated via product performance. They shoulder the risk, and most of the time they do not even own the copyright. Actors and sports stars do not have to worry about slicing up a royalty pot; they have been paid for their creativity whatever the outcome of the project. Any royalty splits are an upside, an ability to benefit from success rather than a dependency for income.
The consumption hierarchy has become compressed
Music used to be split into a neat hierarchy, with radio and social being about passive enjoyment and generating usually small royalties, while albums were about active fandom that generated large income. Streaming fused those two together into one place and created a royalty structure that, in artist income terms, resembles radio more than it does album sales. The problem does not lie with how much streaming services pay (c.70% of income is a hefty share to pay out), but instead:
how those royalties are divided up
the way they monetise consumption
the fact royalty rates are determined by how much streaming services charge
Streaming rates are going down because users are listening to more music and streaming services are charging less per user due to promotions, trials, multiple-user plans, telco bundles, student plans etc. Even before you start thinking about how the royalty pie is sliced, it is getting ever smaller in relation to consumption – and there is no onus on streaming services to protect against rates deflation because they pay as a share of income rather than a fixed per-stream rate (for subscriptions).
Music fans care about artists and songwriters, and given the opportunity and the right context many fans will support them. But that context is often artificial and happens outside of the normal consumption experience; for example, a music fan listening to a band on Spotify then going to Bandcamp to buy an album. It requires a conscious decision for the fan to say ‘I want to support this artist’. No such decision is necessary for a sports fan or movie fan because the remuneration system already ensures the talent has been adequately remunerated. On top of this, most music consumers are not passionate fans of most artists, so most will not make that step.
There are two natural paths that follow:
Build fandom monetisation into the streaming platforms, e.g. virtual artist fan packs, virtual gifting, premium performances, creator support etc. I have written at length about how Chinese streaming services do well at monetising fandom, but there it is the platform that benefits most, not the artists. Western streaming services have an opportunity to monetise fandom for the creators, not for the platforms.
Create new models where consumers pay for artist-centric experiences. These will always be more niche and have the challenge of building new audiences rather than tapping into existing streaming audiences, but the decision does not need to be ‘either/or’.
The third way
There is additionally a less obvious third path, that would reframe the entire basis of artist/label/publisher/songwriter/streaming service relationships: direct licensing for creators. No streaming service is going to want to do this (they already prefer to negotiate with aggregators rather than small labels) and labels and publishers are unlikely to want to cede such power. But a pragmatic compromise could be a new generation of artist and songwriter contracts that provide for the creators to set stipulations for royalty floors to ensure that they do not pay for streaming services cutting their prices via promotions and multi-user plans. This would also require rightsholders to ensure that streaming services set a royalty floor which in turn would compel streaming services to start pushing up the average revenue per user and perhaps even introduce metered access for users.
Options 1 and 3 are not exactly easy to do and they would require seismic industry change with wide-reaching impact. But if the industry wants a significant change in creator remuneration, then it needs to embrace truly disruptive innovation rather than spend its time tweaking a model that simply cannot change in the way many want it to.
We all know that streaming has transformed consumption and business models alike, but this is not a ‘now-completed’ process. Instead it is one that continues to evolve at pace, and the dynamic of pace is the pivotal variable. Consumer adoption continues to accelerate in terms of both time spent and take up. The streaming services – which are entirely geared to driving and responding to this behaviour – rapidly hone their systems accordingly. Labels, artists, publishers and songwriters are stuck playing catch up, running after the streaming train before it disappears over the horizon. The marketing strategies and royalty systems that worked yesterday struggle to cope today. But this ‘upstream’ side of the music business is inadvertently making it harder for themselves to ever actually catch up. By trying to play by the new rules they are in fact feeding the machine, ceding further control of their own destinies. It is time for a reset.
Streaming’s ‘upstream’ fault lines
There are three major fault lines for the upstream music business:
Volume and velocity: releasing more music than ever before to meet the accelerating turnover of content
The demotion of the artist: once the centrepiece of music consumption the artist is becoming a production facility for playlists
Royalties: royalty payments built for the much more monolithic streaming model of the late 2000s do not reflect the complexities and nuances of streaming consumption in the 2010s
Each of these are inherent attributes of the current model and favour the ‘downstream’ end of the equation (i.e. streaming services) far more than they do the upstream. Each problem needs fixing.
Volume and velocity
This is the most important and insidious factor, yet it is deceptively innocuous. Labels are releasing an unprecedented volume and velocity of music to try to keep up with streaming – especially the majors. But it is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many times you roll that boulder up the hill, the next one needs rolling up all over again and the hill gets steeper every time. Spotify is adding around 1.4 million tracks a month so, for example, if UMG wanted to release tracks on a market share basis it would have to release 420,000 every month.
Now that the data era has arrived in music, the risk of signing a new artists has been significantly reduced, but at the same time, an artist whose numbers are already trending does not come cheap to sign nor does she come with a guarantee of longevity. Many artists can do enough to have a successful song, but far fewer can make a habit of it. Labels have to decide how willing they are to bet on an artist one song at a time.
It feels impossibly hard not to play the game because everyone else is playing it and the system is geared that way. Feeding the velocity game habit is like feeding a crack cocaine habit. And yet, labels know better than most businesses that by breaking the rules, creative businesses can have more, not less, success.
The demotion of the artist
Western streaming services, unlike many Eastern ones, are built around tracks not artists and consequently consumption is too. Inadvertently, labels are feeding this dynamic because they are so focused on making tracks work that an artist is much less likely to be given the benefit of a long term strategy if her songs do not stream. The problem with chasing streams is that the process for one song might not apply to another. Failing at streams will often be a reason for pulling the plug on an artist, simply because ‘Plan B’ does not have a boiler plate. The more they push tracks the more they help the de-prioritisation of artists.
Fandom should come first, streaming second. A longer-term view is needed, one that puts building the artist’s fanbase first and streaming second. If an artist has a large, engaged fanbase then streams will usually follow. But if an artist gets a lot of streams on a playlist a fanbase does not necessarily follow. Marketing campaigns need to shift emphasis to a longer-term, audience-centric focus. It may be harder to measure the near-term ROI with this approach, but it will deliver better long-term returns.
The #brokenrecord debate is not about to go away, especially as it will likely be 2022 before live music is operating at full capacity again and thus delivering artists the income they are currently missing. As I have previously discussed this is a complex problem for which there is no single solution but instead will require coordinated efforts from multiple stakeholders. A reassessment of the entire royalty streaming structure is needed from upstream to downstream.
Downstream, we need to stop thinking that every song is equal. They are not. Listening to 30 minutes of 35-second storm sound ‘songs’ in a mindfulness playlist should not be paying the same royalties as an album listened to its entirety. Also, some form of user-centred licensing solution is needed that rewards fandom, whether that is a user opt in model (‘support favourite artists’) or an actual re-work of the royalty mechanism, or a combination of the two.
Labels also need to work out how they can pay more to artists. Lowering their A&R risk exposure could free up some income. Of course, this is something that many have tried and failed at, but what if labels were to allocate 10% of their marketing budgets to top-of-funnel activity so that they can do even more work than they currently do around identifying talent early. This needs a commercial model that protects their funnel (e.g. first refusal terms for artists) and also needs to play in the creator tools space: the tools creators user to make music is the real ‘top of funnel’ – this is where the first relationships are established.
The holy grail for improving label profits would be for the label to improve the overall success rate for the artists in the portfolio. However, in the history of music, it is safe to say that no label has quite cracked it. Instead they live with it as a reality and a cost of doing business.
Labels do though, have some margin slack to play with. WMG improved its OIBDA from 11.9% in 2018 to 14.0% in 2019 while UMG improved its EBITDA from 16.7% in 2017 to 20.0% in 2019. Clearly, improved profitability is important in its own right and for investors, but the way to see this is a near-term expense to secure long-term profitability. A label without artists is not a label.
Breaking the habit
It takes a brave – some might say foolish – label to stop playing by streaming’s rules of engagement, to risk losing share in those crucial playlists. But label business models are not structured for the economics of single tracks – dance labels excepted. Their P&Ls are built around artists. When streaming behaviour started killing off the album, labels complained but then got used to building campaigns around tracks. However, this is not the destination, it is a stopover on the long-term journey towards a post-artist world. Playing streaming’s velocity game perpetuates an increasingly dysfunctional model. It feeds shortening attention spans, degrades the role of the artist and downgrades music to fodder for playlists. It is time to jump off the merry-go-round.
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.
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.
MIDiA is fielding its third biannual Artist Survey. Our two surveys last year were very successful and got hundreds of artist responses. MIDiA’s artist surveys takes the pulse of the artist community and provides this information back to the artist community. We do this in two ways: a) we post a blog outlining the top level findings and b) we provide the complete results to all artists that take part.
It is a great way for artists to get heard and to benchmark how they are doing, as well as their hopes and concerns with the rest of the artist community. Or surveys are truly global – our last one had respondents from as far afield as Algeria, Australia, Chile, Madagascar, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
This year, in addition to tracking topics such as which online tools artists are using, where they are making their money and where they want their careers to go, we are also deep diving into how Coronavirus has affected artist careers and what they are doing in response.
As with all MIDiA surveys, the results are 100% confidential and we NEVER share any details of respondent-level responses. We only ever show the aggregate, survey-level data. Hopefully the success of or last two surveys stand as testament to our dedication to respondent confidentiality.