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.

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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).

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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.

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User Centric Licensing: Making Streaming Work For Everyone

Artist income is one of the most pronounced growing pains of the streaming era.  While there are many contributory factors, such as transparency and non-distributable label payments, the most significant element by far is how much artists get paid.  There are many moving parts to the equation, not least of which is how much labels themselves choose to pay artists, but even if labels doubled their payments to artists (which would be a good starting point for artists on 15% deals) the underlying dynamic would remain unchanged.  Namely that consumers are switching from buying music (which generates large upfront payments) to accessing it (which generates smaller payments spread over a longer period that as things stand look like they could still add up to smaller amounts even in the longer run).  If you’re a big super star artist or a major label this doesn’t affect you much as you get such a large chunk of the headline revenue.  But a new approach is needed for the rest.  Enter stage left the case for user centric licensing.

Under the current licensing model artists get paid on an ‘airplay’ basis i.e. what share of the total plays across the entire service the artist accounts for.  This model can skew the revenue balance to the superstars who will get played by a very large share of the user base of a service.  Under a user centric model an artist would get paid based on the share of an individual’s listening.  So if a user spends half their time listening to an underground techno producer, half of the royalties go to that producer.  In the existing model that producer would only get a tiny fraction of the royalties generated by that user.

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Let’s take a look at how this could work (see figure).  If a subscriber listens to Artist B 55% of the time but that artist only accounts for 0.5% of total listening, only 0.5% of the available royalties for that subscriber make it back to the artist.  Whereas Artist A who the user didn’t listen to at all gets 10% of the royalty income.  But in a user centric licensing model the artist would get 55%.  The revenue changes from a paltry $0.004 to a more meaningful $0.49 (assuming a 15% royalty share from the label).  And Artist A gets a fairer zero income for zero listening from that user.

Make no mistake, this model will be very difficult to license and the vested interests would likely resist it.  But until we get to scale with subscriptions, we need to explore all ways of ensuring revenues are distributed on as equitable a basis as possible.  This approach won’t fix all the artist-income ills of streaming but it will help smooth the transition.

I’m not going to pretend to take credit for this concept, it’s been quietly gaining momentum for some time now and the Trichordist has been building the case too.  But now is the time to really start giving this approach some serious consideration.  And if the incumbent streaming services are unable to implement user centric licensing because they are too close to the superpowers, then this is an opportunity for a new streaming service to seize the initiative and start to make some meaningful change.

I’m attaching the excel of this model so please go and stress test it yourself. Let me know your thoughts below.

MIDiA Research – User Centric Licensing Model

Spotify Passes the Transparency Baton to Artists

Transparency of reporting to artists, or lack thereof, has contributed to a poor signal-to-noise ratio in the streaming debate.  Instead of a clear picture of what streaming brings to artists and songwriters we have been left with a dizzying array of conflicting statistics that in turn has resulted in a bewilderingly diverse set of artist opinions.  Spotify today announced the first move towards remedying this situation with artist self-serve analytics, as well as stating its exact range of payments per stream (which for the record are between $0.006 and $0.0084).  The impact of these moves may be slow to be felt but they will be of truly seismic proportions, and here’s why.

In the digital era, with such an increase in both the volume and granularity of data from digital services, the issue of transparency should have lessened but has paradoxically become more intense than ever.  This is because the greater the depth of data that artists get from other sources (web site and Facebook analytics, CD Baby reports etc) often contrasts strongly with how much detail artists get from record label accounting.  Assumptions and allegations about accounting procedures and commercial agreements that affect how much artists and songwriters get paid have always been just that, assumptions and allegations.  In addition to contractual and accounting issues that blight some artist relationship, many labels – and not just majors – can pay as little as 15% royalties to some artists for streaming.  But without clear and transparent accounting, no one quite knows exactly what goes where nor at what rate.

Now that Spotify has introduced self-serve analytics, artists will be able to start to create a robust understanding of just how many plays they have received and to then compare this with what is reported back to them by rights owners.  And if it doesn’t match up with what the labels pay them then artists will be able to use discrepancies as a basis for requesting sales audits from their labels.  Expect a building wave of account audits with the onus on the labels to use this as the catalyst for striking a new generation of improved, more transparent streaming deals for artists.  Normally the ‘anomalies’ that come out of audits are swept under the carpet with artists securing pay outs in return for signing NDAs.  That cycle needs to be broken for streaming related audits.  Hopefully labels will choose to change the systems rather than expend non-scalable audit effort on a surge of streaming-driven audit activity. Ultimately it is in the interests of labels to have artists on board with streaming.  It is much easier to persuade artists to become part of the solution if their earnings are not hidden behind obscure accounting.

Spotify was getting tired of being painted as the bad guy in the transparency debate with its hands tied by confidentiality deals with the labels.  Now Spotify are extricating themselves from the debate, giving artists the tools with which they can engage in direct conversations with labels.  If artists genuinely feel that they are part of a community, then there is as much onus on them as there is on the labels, to sacrifice individually beneficial audit settlements that commit them to omertà in favour of pouring data into an open debate.  Otherwise all that will happen is that artists will perpetuate the lack of transparency, banking a nice cheque to buy their silence once they discover the skeletons in the closet.  Over to you artists…