Spotify’s Censorship Crisis is About Social Responsibility

Spotify has been forced into something of a rethink regarding its hate speech policy. Spotify announced it was removing music from playlists of artists that do not meet its new policy regarding hate speech and hateful behaviour. R.Kelly, who faces allegations of sexual abuseand XXXTentacion, who is charged with battering a pregnant woman, were two artists that found their music removed. Now Spotify is softening its stance following push back externally and internally, including from Troy Carter who made it known that he was willing to walk away from the company if the policy remained unchanged. Spotify had good intentions but did not execute well. However, this forms part of a much bigger issue of the changing of the guard of media’s gatekeepers.

Facebook has been here before

Back in late 2016, Facebook faced widespread criticism for censoring a historic photograph of the Vietnam warin which a traumatised child is shown running, naked, away from a US napalm attack. Facebook soon backed downbut it got to the heart of why the “we’re just a platform” argument from the world’s new media gatekeepers was no longer fit for purpose. Indeed by the end of the year, Zuckerberg had all but admitted that Facebook was now a media company.The gatekeepers might be changing from newspaper editors, radio DJs, music, film and TV critics and TV presenters, but they are still gatekeepers. And gatekeepers have a responsibility.

Social responsibility didn’t disappear with the internet

Part of the founding mythology of the internet was that the old rules don’t apply anymore. Some don’t, but many do. Responsibilities to society still exist. Platforms are never neutral. The code upon which they are built have the ideological and corporate DNA of their founders built into them – even if they are unconscious biases, though, normally, they are anything but unconscious. The new gatekeepers may rely on algorithms more than they do human editors, but they still fundamentally have an editorial role to play, as the whole Russian election meddling debacle highlighted. Whether they do so of their own volition or because of legislative intervention, tech companies with media influence have an editorial responsibility. Spotify’s censorship crisis is just one part of this emerging narrative.

Editorial, not censorship

As with all such debates, language can distort the debate. Indeed, the term ‘censorship’ conjures up images of Goebbels,but swap the term for ‘editorial decisions’ and the issue instantly assumes a different complexion. Spotify was trying to get ahead of the issue, showing it could police itself before there were calls for it to do so. Unfortunately, by making editorial decisions based upon accusations, Spotify made itself vulnerable to being accused of playing the role of judge and jury for artists who live in countries where innocence is presumed in legal process, not guilt. Also, by implementing on a piecemeal rather than exhaustive basis, it gave itself the appearance of selecting which artists’ misdemeanours were considered serious enough to take action upon. Spotify had the additional, highly sensitive, risk of appearing to be a largely white company deselecting largely black artists on playlists. Even if neither semblance was reflective of intent, the appearance of intent was incendiary.

Lyrics can be the decider

Now Spotify is having to rethink its approach. It would be as wrong for Spotify to opt for the ‘neutral platform’ approach as it would be ‘arbitrary censorship’. An editorial role is necessary. In just the same way radio broadcasters are expected to filter out hate speech, tech companies have a proactive role to play. A safer route for Spotify to follow, at least in the near term, would be to work with its Echo Nest division and a lyrics provider like LyricFind to build technology, moderated by humans, that can identify hate speech within lyrics and song titles. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but it would certainly be an invaluable one, and one that would give Spotify a clear moral leadership role. In today’s world of media industry misogyny and mass shootings, there is no place for songs that incite hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia or that glorify gun violence. Spotify can take the lead in ensuring that such songs do not get pushed to listeners, and thus start to break the cycle of hatred.

After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

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

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

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

The Album Is No Longer The Market

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

Income Per Streaming User

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

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

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

promo slide

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

What It All Means

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

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

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

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

Spotify And (Fixing) The Tyranny Of Choice

Tyranny of choice

Regular readers will be familiar with my concept of the ‘Tyranny of Choice’ namely that there is so much music choice now as to be counter productive. 30 million tracks (and counting) is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.

A host of music discovery services and apps tried to fix the problem a few years ago but most of them failed and went out of business. A new generation of music services such as Songza, Beats Music, MusicQubed and blinkbox Music are now all trying again with heavily curated approaches, delivering music fans the tracks that matter.

It looks like the Tyranny of Choice isn’t just an issue for the mainstream fan. Look at this quote from the Spotify Insights blog that discusses the rise of Mr Probz in the US:

“What’s clear is that the ‘lean back’ mechanism of curated playlists (as opposed to the ‘lean forward’ method of search which drove European streams) led to the early success of Mr Probz in the US”

Even in Spotify, the global home of the engaged music aficionado, curated lean-back experiences are coming to the fore. The access services are stealing some of the clothes of listen services. This is no bad thing but it does highlight the importance of this 4th phase of the digital music market, the ‘Curation Era’. Spotify gave consumers access to all the music in the world, now it – and others – is trying to help make sense of it all.

Google’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?

Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.

Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.

First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found

And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.

Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).

Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.