Pandora’s Rate Ruling Reveals The Cracks In Streaming Economics

The much anticipated outcome of yesterday’s Copyright Tribunal decision was a 20% increase of Pandora’s ad supported stream rate from $0.0014 per non-interactive stream to $0.0017. The result was roughly equidistant between the two parties’ preferred rate: Pandora wanted $0.0011, SoundExchange (the body that collects the royalties on behalf of the labels) wanted $0.0025. As with any good compromise neither party will be truly happy, though on balance Pandora probably came out slightly better. Both the rate and the whole rate setting process shine a bright light on the economics of streaming, especially when contrasted against on-demand services.

pandora dec 15 - 1

Pandora’s semi-interactive radio service operates under statutory rates in the US that are set by the Copyright Royalty Board for a few years at a time, with inflation baked in. This means a continual rise in rates (see figure). It also gives Pandora a degree of certainty over its mid term future but prevents record labels from negotiating for better rates (publishers however are able to strike direct deals with Pandora). Spotify, and other on-demand streaming services, negotiates deals directly with multiple record labels, publishers and rights bodies. Deals typically come up for renewal every couple of years, involve large upfront payments and Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs). They also run the risk of core product features being threatened in renegotiations – as we saw with the labels’ dalliance with killing off freemium this time last year.

The most significant difference between the models is how the per stream rate works. For on-demand services a royalty pot as a % of revenue is determined. This is then divided between rights holders based on plays in a given period and allocated on a per stream rate basis. Thus royalty payments remain a comparatively constant share of revenue, assuming of course that the service hits the MRG targets – if it doesn’t the share increases, often above 100% of revenue. This model also implies a clear ceiling to the potential profit an on-demand service can earn. By contrast Pandora pays out on a (largely) pure per stream basis. The direct consequence of this is that Pandora is able to increase it revenue per play faster than its rights cost per play which in turn creates the potential to grow margin (see next figure).

pandora dec 15 - 2

Between 2009 and 2014 Pandora’s content acquisition costs per listener hour increased by 27% from $17.52 to $22.29. This reflects both the CRB set rate as well as deals with rights bodies and publishers. But over the same period Pandora’s revenue per listener hour increased by 114% from $21.48 to $45.97. Now clearly, an increase in revenue per hour does not inherently mean increased profitability, or even profitability at all. Indeed, Pandora’s continued losses have been a perennial bugbear for investors. But Pandora has chosen to invest its increased revenue to grow its business, building out regional ad sales teams and making acquisitions such as Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio. In short, Pandora could have been profitable for some time now if it had so chosen. Instead it is chasing a bigger prize, namely to become the single biggest revenue driver in US radio. To get big it needs to spend big.

Pandora’s Core Strength Is Being Able Increase Profitability Per User

The underlying principle is clear: while on-demand services have little meaningful way of increasing revenue per user with the current model, Pandora has more than doubled revenue per user in 6 years while rights costs have declined in relative terms. Content acquisition costs fell from a high of 82% of revenue in 2009 to 48% in 2014. That rate will increase in 2015 due to direct deals struck with publishers and the $90 million pay out for the pre-1972 works ruling. But it still remains well south of Spotify’s 70%+.

On Demand Services Have Similar Fixed Costs But Tighter Margins Because Of Royalties

While there is a clear case for semi-interactive radio rates being markedly lower than on-demand rates many of the fixed costs of both types of streaming business are the same.  Both have to commit similar amounts to product development and tech, bandwidth, data analysis, reporting marketing, customer care, management. This puts on-demand services at an operational disadvantage compared to webradio services.

If paid-for streaming services are going to become commercially sustainable there is going to need to be pricing and product innovation to both reach more mainstream users (cheaper tiers) and to drive more revenue from high value users (more expensive tiers and bolt ons). Right now there is relatively little commercial incentive for on-demand services to innovate upwards as profitability will remain largely the same. There is an opportunity for labels to offer Spotify and co a Pandora-style pure per-play license structure for all products launched above and beyond the standard 9.99 tier. This would give the services the ability to follow Pandora’s path of growing revenue per user faster than rights costs per user, thus improving commercial sustainability and allowing them to invest more in product innovation.

Rights Frameworks Need To Engender Commercial Sustainability

Pandora is one of the few stand out, independent success stories of the entire history of digital music. It has become one of the world’s biggest music services despite being largely constrained to the US, it has built a commercially viable model and it has delivered a big return for investors via its IPO. Only Last.FM, Beatport and Beats Music can genuinely lay claim to having delivered big returns for their investors. There are many mitigating factors, but the unique licensing structure Pandora operates under is the single most important one. Do songwriters and labels feel that they’re getting short changed? Absolutely. But it is in the interest of every music industry stakeholder that the economics of digital music are structured in a way that enables standalone companies like Pandora, Spotify and Deezer to thrive. Otherwise there can be no complaints when the only options left on the table are companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google whose interest in music all stems from trying to sell something else. That’s when artists and songwriters are really at risk.

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.