Everyone hurts – the problem with ‘fixing’ streaming
Photo: Steve Harvey
Everyone hurts – the problem with ‘fixing’ streaming
Apple’s Q4 2022 revenue fall was further illustration that the global economic environment is affecting everyone. During such times, companies look for ways to avoid the worst of the impacts, partially through ‘efficiencies’ but also through growth, by exploring new income streams and improving deal terms. The music industry is no exception. With global streaming revenues slowing – despite a strong performance from Spotify– there is growing pressure on music rightsholders to identify new growth drivers. This is especially the case for major labels, who have new institutional investors who have become acclimatised to rapid growth. All of which leads to streaming royalties taking centre stage. But the problem is that everyone in the streaming ecosystem has problems with the model. So, can any fix make everyone happy? [TL;DR, no]
To heavily oversimplify, streaming has three main constituents:
- Creators (songwriters, artists, etc.)
- Rightsholders (labels, publishers, distributors, CMOs, etc.)
- Streaming services
At the start of 2023, all three have issues with streaming:
- Songwriters continue to push for higher royalties while long and mid-tail artists cannot make streaming economics add up
- Publishers continue to lobby for higher rates while UMG is now advocating for a new royalty system
- Spotify just reported a net loss of nearly half a billion dollars for 2022
Then add in all the perennials: too much music being released; no artist longevity; the commodification of music; listening fragmentation; the decline of superstars etc.
We have a streaming market in which none of the stakeholder groups feel entirely content with the current market and all would like a larger share of the revenues to flow to them. Because they all extract value from the same revenue pot, the arithmetic is simple: one stakeholder’s gain is another’s loss.
None of this is an argument for, or against, the relative merits of the case of any of the three main interest groups. But it does mean that any change to the system will leave someone unhappy. This is the impossible equation that must be balanced.
What further complicates matters is that market benefits to different stakeholders can be perceived as negatives to others. For example:
- Streaming helped democratise the means of production and distribution. Long-tail and mid-tail artists benefit, and superstars lose their share
- Streaming helped make music the soundtrack of daily routines. Suppliers of mood music benefit, traditional artists, and labels lose listening share
- Streaming helped level the playing field, making it easier for smaller labels to compete. Larger labels faced stronger competition
The debate around new royalty regimes has been around for some time, but momentum is picking up. When the CEO of the world’s biggest record label weighs in, then you know that change is going to come. But as the above illustrates, what might make a major label happy, has the potential be detrimental to other stakeholders. There is no ‘make everyone happy’ fix.
Here are two pragmatic alternatives:
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Lean forward premium
One of the cleanest fixes would be to create a two-tier royalty system based on the nature of the plays:
1. Lean forward plays (higher royalty): when a consumer plays from their own collection or seeks out a song to play it
2. Lean back plays (lower royalty): when a consumer listens to music in an algorithmic ‘radio' channel or listens to curated playlists
As with all streaming ‘fixes’, the approach would not be without problems. Mood-based music would certainly find itself generally collecting a smaller share of royalties, but also, many of streaming’s hits (including those from majors) rely on driving larger numbers of streams in curated playlists and ‘stations’ – which in turn help fire up the algorithms and power songs to further success.
Penny per stream
Another approach would be a fixed stream rate, which would effectively mean metered streaming. For example, if every stream generated $0.01, a subscriber would be able to listen until their subscription fee was used up, with the ability to top up to listen further or upgrade to a higher capacity tier. This would certainly help drive increased ARPU (something all parties want) but could deter some subscribers as it would mean an end to the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) proposition. But maybe it is time for that. Music is not a scalable resource in the way that, say, mobile data is. Everyone’s song is someone’s creation. Also, there would need to be a solution for free streams.
Don’t forget the listener, ever
Of course, there is a massive missing detail in all of this, the missing stakeholder in the streaming economy: the listener. Crucially though, for all the problems creators and rightsholders face, consumers are not complaining en masse. They are content with a proposition that not only represents exceptional value for money but that also evolves to meet their tastes and behaviours.
Streaming’s problems are supply side issues, not demand-side. All industry stakeholders should be careful about pushing solutions that could favour the supply side without proper consideration of the demand side. The history of business is littered with the corpses of companies that did not properly consider the needs of their customers.
Streaming was built for yesterday’s music business
The saying goes that in a good compromise, no one is truly happy. So, there is an argument that streaming is already the balance of compromise. Against this though, streaming was built for an industry that is very different than today, so it is only logical that the model needs honing to catch up, and many of streaming’s second-order consequences cannot be undone. On the demand side, music consumption has become commodified, transformed from a largely artist-centric fan experience (radio excepted) into an audio soundtrack to everyday life. On the supply side, there are simply more people than seats at the table.
Any significant ‘fix’ is going to come at one, or more, stakeholder’s expense. And even then, increased royalties will only go so far. For example, an independent label artist might expect to earn around $2,000 from a million streams (after distribution and label deductions). Members of a four-piece band would thus take home $250 each. Even doubling the standard royalty rate (which could not happen without breaking the entire model) would still only mean $500 each, which is not going to turn streaming into a living wage for most mid-tail artists, let alone the long-tail. So, ‘fixes’ will only go so far. Perhaps it is time to double down on building new things on top of and around streaming, and nurture those that already exist (Bandcamp, etc.).
Absolutely continue to focus on improving streaming economics but do so alongside building a new industry infrastructure that is built to meet the needs of today’s creators and business rather than those of the noughties. In short, grow the pie rather than simply look at how to re-slice it.