Artists are Learning How it Feels to be a Songwriter

The ‘broken record’ streaming debate that continues to rage on is a natural consequence of the instantaneous collapse of live music revenue following lockdown. As soon as it was clear that live was going to be gone for some time, MIDiA predicted that the artist backlash against streaming royalties would be a natural, unintended consequence.

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.

In the absence of live, all eyes are on streaming. As I’ve written previously, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to what is a complex, multi-layered problem. But there is a really important issue that artists’ lockdown plight shines a light on: the long-term plight of songwriters. Here’s why.

Streaming did not grow in a vacuum

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.

How TIDAL Can Deliver On Its Promises

The continued media feeding frenzy around Jay-Z’s TIDAL demonstrates just how valuable star power is for cutting through the clutter.  What has helped sustain interest is Jay-Z’s vision for delivering better value to artists and better experiences for music fans.  It is a tall order given that TIDAL has to operate under the same basic licensing framework as all other streaming services, the nub of which is paying c. 70% of all revenues to rights holders and having no control over how much of that gets paid back to artists and songwriters.  Working within the constraints of the standard subscription model TIDAL will quite simply not be able to deliver on its aspirations.  But if TIDAL is willing to create a new model to layer on top of it, then it can do something truly transformational.  Here’s how.

The Problem With Streaming

First we need to look at the issue TIDAL has to fix.  The problem with streaming services is that they inadvertently weaken music fans relationships with musical works.  In the pre-streaming, music sales model consumers paid for an album or single and matched their cash investment with an investment of time in listening to it.  The alternative was to listen to their older music collection or the radio.  So even duff albums not only got money spent on them, they got listened to a few times by their buyers.  And even if they didn’t get listened to even once the artist still got paid.   So a portion of music sales revenue had no relationship to the quality of the music.  Streaming changed that, effectively making the music itself more accountable to its audience.

With streaming, music fans don’t need to waste time listening to music they don’t like upon first listen.  They can bypass the duff.  They also tend to listen less to any single piece of music in general because they have so much other music to choose from at no additional cost.  Artists earning a 150th per stream of what they earn from a download is thus only part of the problem.  Most of the time their mainstream fans (and by that I mean not their top 10% of super fans) aren’t listening to them enough.

Scale Will Come, But It Will Take Time

The theory is that this will be fixed by scale, that a massive installed base of users will result in bigger listening volumes.  But it’s not that easy.  To illustrated, let’s assume people listen to albums an average of 5 times each then you need 30 times as many people to listen to generate the same income as a sale.  So until we get much bigger scale from streaming (e.g. 150m+ subscribers globally) we need to look at how to encourage music fans to concentrate their listening more on the artists they really like.  This is where TIDAL can come into play:

  • Artist channels: Earlier this year I laid out a vision for artist subscriptions.  In this model subscribers pay an additional fee (say $1 or $2) to their standard streaming subscription to get access exclusive programming, content and other experiences from an artist. Subscribers choose from a selection of artist channels and subscribe individually or pay for a bundle.  Think of it like adding sports or movies to your Pay TV subscription.
  • Additional content: Because subscriptions already give you access to all the music in the world (well most of it) subscribers will not be paying their extra $1 or $2 to get to the artist’s music. (Taking the music out of the core subscription and locking it into premium channels is a bad idea and doesn’t fix the artist income issue as we’ll see in a moment).  Instead fans will be paying for a mixture of additional content (live streams, interviews, acoustic sessions, photos, videos, games, curated playlists, mobile content, handwritten lyrics etc.) that will be delivered as a curated, programmed whole.  These channels will need to ascribe to the D.I.S.C. principles i.e. they music be Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated.  Sure each of the individual components could probably be found somewhere on the web but the real value is the entirety of the experience.
  • Artist revenue share: Where this model gets really interesting is how artists get paid. If all the additional content that is delivered is outside of the standard label catalogue then TIDAL could, after some basic costs are accounted for, split the entire additional $1 or $2 subscription fee 50/50 with the artist.  Or if TIDAL is that serious about making things better for artists, they could give all of the net profits to the artist. (Label 360 deals might complicate things a bit for some artists but they will not account for large percentages). Just how songwriters would benefit is a bit more complex as many artists have multiple songwriters etc. but TIDAL could set aside a songwriter pot to be distributed based on plays of the artist’s core music.

Right now TIDAL is a music service pretty much like the others but with bold ambitions.  This is one way that TIDAL can turn worthy words into meaningful actions. There aren’t too many other ways it can do so.  And of course any of the other streaming incumbents could do this too.  The difference is that that they have had a lot of time to do it and have not done so, yet at least.

So TIDAL, come show us how it is done.  Over to you Jay-Z.