Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.

Creator Support: A New Take on User Centric Licensing

User-centric licensing (i.e. stream pay-outs based on sharing the royalty income of an individual user split across the music they listen to) has stimulated a lot of debate. I first explored the concept of user-centric licensing back in 2015and stirred up a hornet nest, with a lot of very mixed feedback. The big issue then, as now, was that it is a very complex concept to implement which may well only have modest impact on a macro level but may also have the unintended consequence of worsening income for smaller artists. Fans of smaller artists tend to be more engaged listeners who generate a larger number of streams spread across a larger number of artists. The net result could be lower average income for smaller indie artists, and higher income for mainstream pop acts who have listeners with lower average streams spread across a smaller number of artists. Since then, Deezer has actively explored the concept and it continues to generate industry discussion. It is unlikely there will ever be consensus on how user-centric licensing should work, but the underlying principle of helping artists earn from their fans remains a valid one. So, here is an alternative approach that is both pragmatic and far simpler to implement: creator support. A new way to solve an old problem.

Creator support is gaining traction across the digital content world

In the on-demand world, monthly streaming income for creators can be both modest and unpredictable. Amuse’s Fast Forward,YouTube’s channel memberships and Patreon are illustrations of how the market is developing solutions to give content creators (especially artists, podcast creators, YouTubers and Twitch streamers) an effective way to supplement income. But it is Epic Game’s ‘Support-A-Creator’ model that provides the best example of an alternative to user-centric licensing. Epic Games enables Fortnite players to choose a favourite creator to support (which typically means YouTube and Twitch Fortnite players). Epic Games then contributes the equivalent of around 5% of all in-app purchases that the gamer makes to that creator.

How creator support can work for music streaming

Using Spotify and a selection of artists as an illustration, here is how a creator support approach could work for streaming music:

  • All Spotify subscribers get given the option to ‘support’ up to two of their favourite artists
  • For each artist that a subscriber supports, 1% of the record label royalties derived from that subscriber’s subscription fee goes directly to the artist, regardless of how many streams that user generates
  • The label of each artist then pays 100% of this ‘support’ income

creator support midia streaming model

To illustrate how creator support can work, we created a model using Spotify and a selection of diverse artists. We assumed that 75% of Spotify subscribers support an average of 1.5 artists. In the above chart we took five contemporary frontline artists across major labels and label services, and we assumed that 10% of their monthly Spotify listeners support them. Factoring the different types of deals and royalty rates these artists have, as well as the ratios between average monthly streams and monthly listeners, there is an intriguing range of revenue impact that creator support delivers. For Taylor Swift (on a major deal, but one in which she held the negotiating whip hand), Lauv and Rex Orange Country (both on Kobalt label services deals) the creator support income is between 18% and 22% of their existing streaming royalties from Spotify. For Billie Eilish and Circa Waves, both on their first major label deals, creator support income would represent a much larger 78% and 65% of streaming royalties. The rate is higher for Billie Eilish as she has a higher streams-to-listeners ratio.

Artists get paid more with minimal impact on the wider royalty pot

Putting aside the irony that this approach would help put many major label artists more on par with what label services and independent artists earn from streaming, the clear takeaway is that creator support can be an effective way of fans ensuring that some of their streaming spending directly benefits their favourite artists. Because we have structured the model to be just 1% per artist (rather than Fortnite’s 5%) the net impact on the total label royalty pot is minimal. Applying the above assumptions to Spotify’s 2018 label payments, the royalty pot (and therefore per-stream rates) would reduce by just 1.13%, meaning that non-supported artists would feel negligible impact.

We think the creator-approach model enables labels and streaming services to deliver on the ambition of user-centric licensing without the complexities and unintended inequities. But perhaps most importantly, it helps put artists and fans closer together, bringing the pledging model to the mainstream.

Let us know what you think. Also, we’ve added the excel model to this post for you to download and test your own assumptions against it.

MIDiA Research Streaming Creator Support Model 4 – 19

Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.