How Music Publishers Are Driving a Full Stack Revolution

Music publishing catalogues are gaining momentum fast as an asset class for institutional investments, with transactions ranging from large catalogue mergers and acquisitions (M&A) through to investment vehicles for songwriters’ shares such as the Hipgnosis Fund and Royalty Exchange. Since 2010 the number of publicly announced music catalogue transactions – across recordings and publishing – totalled $6.5 billion, with a large volume of additional non-disclosed transactions. This growing influx of capital has implications far beyond publishing, however, as ambitious publishers are using the access to debt and investment to reverse into the recordings business.

Streaming the change catalyst

As with so many music market shifts, streaming is the catalyst for these changes. Streaming represented 27% of publisher revenues in 2018 and is set to near 50% by 2026. However, songwriter-related royalties – incorporating publisher and CMO payments – from streaming are less than a third of what labels get. Small-but-important increments such as the US disputed mechanical royalties rate increaseare a) difficult to push through, and b) will not get publishing royalties to parity with label royalties. This means that publishers will underperform compared to labels in the fastest-growing revenue stream. The alternative is a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ strategy.

BMG Music Rights and Kobalt set the precedent with label services divisions alongside their publishing businesses, enabling them to play on both sides of the streaming equation. Now a wide range of publishers, both traditional and next generation, are expanding their non-publishing businesses. – from ole/Anthem buying production music companies Jingle Punks and 5 Alarm Music, through Reservoir Music buying Chrysalis Recordsto Downtown buying CDBaby parent AVL. All have the common theme of publishers diversifying away from their core businesses to ensure they compete across a wider strand of the music business value chain.

2019.10.14_Music Publishing Blog graphic

In the traditional music business, it made sense for artists to sign their recordings to one company and their publishing to another. The next phase is the emergence of full-stack music companies that not only combine publishing and recordings but also include other assets to create agile businesses that are primed for the streaming era. Many of these are publishing companies expanding into the recordings business by leveraging the inflow of capital into publishing catalogues to fund diversification. The potential strategic benefits presented by the full-stack approach are well understood by incumbents.

Downtown, Round Hill, Kobalt, ole/Anthem, Primary Wave and Create Group are examples that reflect just how diverse this strategy is, with each business building very different strategic stacks. However, the unifying factor is the access to capital for music publishing companies gives them the ability to build war chests that most record labels could only dream of.

One of the most interesting permutations is the breadth of capabilities that some of these companies are building, as illustrated by the structural maps of Kobalt and Downtown. These are companies that are both built to thrive in the streaming era and to ensure that their creators can monetise across a diverse mix of otherwise fragmented income streams.

Music publishers of all kinds are expanding their reach across the music industry value chain, from artist distribution to library music and in doing so are starting a rebalancing of the music industry value chain. These are exciting times indeed.

This analysis is taken from MIDiA’s new report Music Publishing|AFull-Stack Revolution. Clients can click on the link to view the report and its dataset. The 3,000 word report contains details of 45 M&A transactions, annual M&A trends and analysis of the strategies of music publishers. 

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to become one and how to access this report then email stephen@midiaresearch.com.

Songwriters Aren’t Getting Paid Enough and Here’s Why

Music Business Worldwide recently ran a story on how Apple has proposed a standard streaming rate for songwriters, with Google and Spotify apparently resistant. Of course, Apple can afford to run Apple Music at a loss and has a strategic imperative for making it more difficult for Spotify to be profitable, so do not assume that Apple’s intentions here are wholly altruistic. Nonetheless, it shines a light on what is becoming an open wound for streaming: songwriter discontent. In the earlier days of streaming artists were widely sceptical, but over the years have become much more positive towards the distributive medium. The same has not happened for songwriters for one fundamental reason: they still are not paid enough. This is not simply a case of making streaming services pay out more; rather, this is a complex problem with many moving parts.

Songwriters don’t sell t-shirts

Streaming fundamentally changes how creators earn royalties, shifting from larger, front-loaded payments to something more closely resembling an annuity. In theory, creators should earn just as much money, but over a longer period of time. If you are a larger rightsholder then this is often wholly manageable. If you are a smaller songwriter or artist, then the resulting cash flow shortage can hit hard. Many artists, especially newer ones, have made it work because a) streaming typically only represents a minority of their total income, and b) the increased exposure streaming brings usually boosts their other income streams such as live performances and merchandise. Professional songwriters however – i.e. those that are not also performers – do not sell t-shirts. Royalty income is pretty much it. There is a greater need to fix songwriter streaming income than there was for artists.

The four factors shaping songwriter income

There are four key factors impacting how much songwriters earn from streaming, and most of them can be fixed. To be clear, though, just fixing any single one of them will not move the dial in a meaningful-enough way:

  1. Streaming service royalties: Songwriter-related royalties are typically around 15% of streaming revenues, which represent around 21% of all royalties paid by streaming services – around 3.6 times less than master recordings-related royalties. This is better than it used to be, when the ratio was 4.8. However, there is clearly still a large gap between the two sets of rights. Labels argue that they are the ones who take the risk on artists, invest in them and market them. Therefore, they should have the lion’s share of income. Publishers, on the other hand, argue that they are increasingly taking risks with songwriters too (paying advances) and working hard to make their music a success, e.g. with sync streams. They also argue that everything is about the song itself. Both arguments have credence, but the fact that streaming services have historically negotiated with labels first helps explain why there isn’t much left of the royalty pot when they get to publishers. There is clearly scope for some increase for songwriters, but if there is not an accompanying reduction in label rates – not exactly a strong possibility – then the net result will be reduced margins for streaming services. Given that Spotify has only just started generating a net profit, the likely outcome would be to weaken Spotify’s position and skew the market towards those companies who do not need to see streaming pay – i.e. the tech majors. If the market becomes wholly dependent on companies that thrive on squeezing suppliers… well, good luck with that.
  2. CMOs: Many songwriter royalties are collected by collective management organizations (CMOs). These (normally) not-for-profit organisations administer rights, take their deductions and then either pay to songwriters directly or to publishers who then pay songwriters (after taking their own deductions). It gets more complicated than that, however. If a songwriter is played overseas, the local CMO collects, deducts and then sends the remainder to the CMO where the songwriter is based (however there are a good number of exceptions to this with a number of CMOs not deducting for overseas collections). That CMO takes its deduction and then distributes. It gets more complicated still – some CMOs apply an additional ‘cultural deduction’ on top of their main fee before distributing. So, if a US hip-hop artist gets played in Europe, the local CMO will take its cut, and an administration fee. Then it goes to his local CMO which takes its fee before sending it to the publisher which then takes its own cut (typically just 25%) which however is much better than label shares.
  3. The industrialisation of song writing: With more music being released than ever, songs have to immediately grab the listener. To help ensure every part of the song is a hook and to try to de-risk their artists, bigger labels commission songwriter teams and hold song writing camps, where many song writers get together and write the tracks for albums. This means that the royalties for every song are thus split into small shares across multiple songwriters. Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ has 20 songwriters credited. That means the already small royalties are split 20 ways.
  4. The unbundling of the album: When music was all about selling physical albums, songwriters used to get paid the same mechanical royalty for every song on the album, regardless of whether it was the hit single or filler. Now that listeners and playlists dissect albums, skipping filler for killer, a weak song simply pays less. Tough luck if you only wrote the filler songs on the album. On the one hand, this is free market competition. If you didn’t write a song well, then don’t expect it to pay well. Some songwriters argue that it should go the other way too, though – if they wrote the song that made the artist a hit, then shouldn’t they be paid a larger share? 

Here’s another way of looking at it. With the above analysis, this is how many streams the songwriter needs to earn income based assuming the songwriter is equally sharing income four ways with three additional songwriters:

songwriter streaam income

It is incumbent on all of the stakeholders in the streaming music business to collectively work towards making earning truly meaningful income from streaming a realistic objective for songwriters. No single tactic will move the dial. Increasing the streaming service pay-out from 15% to 20%, for example, would still see the above-illustrated songwriter only earn 25% of that. All levers need pulling. Until they are, songwriters will feel short-changed and will remain the open wound that prevents streaming from fulfilling its creator potential. Ball in your court, music industry.

Note – since originally publishing this post I have had useful feedback from a number of rights associations and publishers. My assumptions actually translated (unintentionally) into a worst case scenario that was not representative of usual practise. The post has been updated to show a more typical revenue flow. The underlying arguments of the piece remain unchanged.

Medianet, SOCAN, YouTube And The Kobalt Effect

Since the demise of the long-running-but-never-launched Global Repertoire Database (GRD) there has been a lot of debate over what comes next for digital rights reporting. The songwriter class action suits in the US against Spotify are the natural outcome of more than one and a half decades of failing to deal with the forsaken mess that is compositional rights in the digital era. The music industry needs a solution and now just like busses that never come, two arrive at once: Google’s Open Source Validation Tool for DDEX Standard (doesn’t sound too sexy I know, but bear with me on this one) and Canadian PRO (Performing Rights Organization) SOCAN has acquired Medianet essentially as a digital rights reporting play. So just what is going on in the world of digital rights reporting?

Transparency, Transparency, Transparency

Artist concerns about transparency in streaming services are well founded but it is an eminently fixable problem because virtually all of the necessary data is in place. When a record label or distributor licenses music to a service it literally provides a data file of its music which is then ingested (uploaded) by the service. But when service licenses from a music publisher or PRO there is no such data file, because the recorded works are owned by the labels. Publishers do not even provide a comprehensive list of what works their license covers. So music services instead do a ‘best efforts’ licensing effort, licensing all the key publishers and PROs. This model is though far, far from perfect, because:

  • Songs often have multiple writers, some of whom may be signed to bigger publishers, others not. So a single song could be covered by licenses acquired from three or four publishers and still not be fully licensed
  • Songwriters change publishers and most often publishers do not notify services, so a licensed song can suddenly become an unlicensed song without the service knowing it
  • Many songwriters are only small publishers not licensed to music services

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of a single database of compositional works against which music services can cross reference their catalogues, even better would be one that matches all compositional works against recorded works. Without them we end up with large swathes of songwriter royalties not being matched against and paid to the songwriter. Depending on who you talk to this can range between 20% and 40% of digital royalty income. Little wonder then that we end up with class action suits from disgruntled songwriters.

The problem is that until there is a market level solution that sort of action won’t go away. This means any music service operating in the US, where there is a statutory damages system, cannot operate with certainty that it will not face another legal suit with potentially vast damages awarded. The nightmare scenario is that streaming services start pulling out of the US, or restricting their catalogue to identified works (which largely means major publishers only) rather than face potentially fatal legal challenges.

SOCAN Wants To Be The Leader In Rights Reporting And Administration

And this is the world into which today’s two announcements are born. Medianet is almost one of the founding fathers of digital music, tracing its origins back to the very early 2000’s when, as MusicNet, it was set up by half of the major labels (the other other half formed press play) as a D2C music service. Both efforts failed miserably but Medianet emerged out the ashes as a white label music services company. It spent the years since quietly building a solid business powering a host of interesting music services including Beats Music and Cur. While powering and licensing services such as these Medianet developed a unique set of technology and rights assets and handled everything from ingestion, through rights reporting and administration and even payments. In short it was an end to end rights tech company. Which is what makes Medianet such an important asset for SOCAN. PROs have become increasingly marginalized in recent years with publishers withdrawing rights and a whole host of disruptive new competitors ranging from Kobalt’s acquisition of AMRA, through Irvin Azoff’s Global Media Rights, to existing alternatives such as Music Reports Inc and Fintage House pivoting into digital rights reporting and administration. These are challenging times as a PRO and the likelihood is that it will result in a fair degree of consolidation with smaller PROs outsourcing more of their work to larger ones. SOCAN has seized the initiative with the Medianet acquisition, setting out its stall as a rights society that puts tech innovation, effective reporting and accountability at the centre of what it does for its members. It has also positioned itself as a contender for global successor the the GRD. Consider this the first major repercussion of the innovation and transparency agenda that Kobalt set in motion.

YouTube Is Building Something Much Bigger

Alongside this, with what one assumes is coincidental timing, comes YouTube’s implementation of Digital Sales Report Flat File Standard (DSRF). Digital supply chain innovation is not always the most dynamic of sectors and this announcement could be mistaken for appearing to be the poor relation of the two today. The opposite is probably true. The digital supply chain is going to become ever more important and companies like Consolidated Independent continue to move the space forward in order to help ensure rights holders get distributed, reported and paid as effectively as possible. YouTube’s DSRF implementation is built upon the DDEX framework of standards and enables reporting of both audio and audio-visual content. DSRF aims to deliver faster, more accurate royalty reporting and distribution. You see now the link with the Medianet acquisition. Both are part of a broader movement across the music industry to bring rights reporting and administration into a state that is fit for streaming’s purpose.

The reason why YouTube’s move could have the bigger long term implications is that this is part of a much bolder and far reaching strategy by Google, one that has the music industry’s analogue inefficiencies firmly in its sights. But more on that next week….

The Kobalt Effect

Walk into any publisher or PRO right now and the odds are Kobalt will feature in the conversation sooner or late, whether in fulsome praise or through gritted teeth. Kobalt has done what all good disruptors do, it has set the agenda and in doing so is having market impact far beyond its actual, and still relatively small, revenue base. Today’s two announcements are part of the wave of digital rights disruption and innovation that Kobalt has helped accelerate. But the story doesn’t stop here, in fact, this is just the start.