Playlists Will Not Save Your Music Business

My media business will not be saved by video, bots, newsletters, or Slack integration. That’s what Joshua Topolsky told me yesterday. And he’s right.

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty will I think

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty well I think

The New Thing that so often arrives just in time as the savior of the whole machine is many times bullshit. It’s a desired escape from an already challenging (dire?) situation that is causing headaches upon ulcers upon headaches. That’s why it seems so magical in the first place; it seems to appear out of nowhere like some miracle from a higher power. You prayed to the media gods for deliverance, and so they delivered unto you newsletters, bots, and Slack.

But Topolsky is right about the misleading nature of these new things: they have the potential to help, but none has the power to deliver us, to part the seas of stubbornness and ego.

While it appears to me that he sought to write about media in general, Topolsky could easily have been talking about any of the media industries in particular. Music, for example, fits right into his sardonic diatribe in a way that must chafe for the megalithic powers who used to control the industry. In music, it goes: yay for playlists, analytics, offline access, curation, and exclusives—build those in, and then we’ll be saved. No, these won’t save your (music) media business. And that’s painful for a lot of people.

More and more, the posts on changing media dynamics which garner shit-tons of feedback are the ones that are the truest. They are radically brilliant—radically poetic in a way—because of their sheer shunning of “conventional wisdom.” Such is more or less an oxymoron nowadays anyway.

I saw an earlier example of this back in November with Chris Dixon’s post on independent gaming, and was similarly moved to write my response on independent music, something he was also referring to (knowingly or not). Now with Topolsky doubling down on a similar idea, it’s becoming an even starker point.

“Because that [former media] system was built on the concept of scarcity and locality—the limits of what was physically possible—it was very easy to keep the gates and fill the coffers.”

And here we come to the prickly point that so many music businesses have trouble with now: scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins. I underscored this in my Dixon-response piece, but now it seems all the more palpable. What used to serve as a power play by music companies—the scarcity squeeze by the major label—has lost most of its bite, if not its bark as well. Maybe it’ll work if we call it “windowing” and stagger the release on multiple services! Nope, we all know that you simply changed the name of what you were doing instead of trying to actually change the action. And it’ll end up free somewhere anyway. Live with reality.

Wait, I’ve got it! We’ll tell people that we have the best playlist-making feature around! Great, so does everyone else. And, by the way, the people who really matter for your music business don’t care. The general consumer/listener might care (and I stress might), but the artists who actually produce the content you rely on for your lifeblood won’t give a shit. Why? Because it ultimately does little for them.

Ah, then we will give them the deepest, best set of analytics they can have! Awesome, so will everyone else. You can join the swaths of sites telling them they have a couple thousand streams, have made essentially no money, and then tell them they owe you $4.99/month for that wonderful data. The reality that you don’t want to hear is that the vastly growing demographic of artists—independents—are smart enough to know this already, and all you’re really doing is giving them numbers with no context. You’re giving them the numbers, the locations, the graphs— but with no real way to actually affect change in those numbers.

Offline access and exclusives then! Right! Except not, because exclusivity doesn’t help these artists long-term, it only helps you in the short term. It’s why artists immediately understand the opportunities before them now while other people struggle to see the big picture. Because they have long-term vision, and patience. Because exclusives are not where the long-term strategy is, either for the artists, or the music business.

It’s in the community cultivation and the relationship bridging. Social and messaging then! No, stop, that won’t be an easy save either. The reality that so few people want to hear is that community cultivation is a long-term process. It’s about knowing things about your content producers—in this case the artists you work with—that your competition doesn’t bother taking time to find out. Don’t ask me how many registered users I had yesterday. Ask me how many conversations I had yesterday with ten artists in seven different countries with fanbases numbering in the tens of thousands. Ask me what comes out of that. And then remember that was only ten artists.

Over the last few years, we were asked who we thought would win the streaming wars, because streaming is obviously the future of music. Except that’s too simple a magic potion because it’s going to take a lot more than that to reach the new horizon. It’s not about fixing the faulty component in the engine. They’re all faulty, and have been for near 40 years.

You have to rebuild the engine completely. Bottom up. You need to construct a music company that does everything that will change the reality for a new artist; after all, there are so many more of them than anything else. And they never stop creating and producing. You need to take your time to do all the sexy things—the playlist functionality, the radio, the streaming, downloading, profiles, social, live—and all the un-sexy things you never thought about—the legal stuff, the business stuff (more than just analytics!), the financial, and the marketing. Fixing the broken paradigm is a losing proposition; building a whole new one is (ironically) cheaper, better, and much, much more powerful long-term. That’s the strategy I’m committed to.

Topolsky was dead-on:

We’ll have to learn a thousand hard lessons, most of them centered around the idea that if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making is great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone. A lot of people, but not every person.

And that’s what’s missing from the music-business discussion right now. The “everyone” that most streaming services are targeting is already saturated with competition, high prices, and a lot of bad press (from artists and artist agencies like ASCAP and BMI). The “someone” that Topolsky refers to, though, is the independent demographic, clear as day. They’re underserved, undervalued, dismissed, marginalized, pissed off, and not tied to any major label contracts—just right to woo and capture with something as easy as a conversation and explanation of a better future.

I’m as shamelessly self-promotional as Topolsky admits he is because these are the people I love. I know they see what I see, and they’ll wait around as long as it takes to make it work. Because they’re not jaded or angry—they’re just waiting.

Waiting for something better to come along for them.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Why Ignoring the Independents Means Thunderstorms for SoundCloud

SoundCloud logo

TechCrunch published a post recently, the premise of which was SoundCloud’s recent tapdance with major labels. The post discussed SoundCloud’s $35M in debt funding, and newly signed deal with Universal Music Group. The fact that the aforementioned funding was actually finalized last May notwithstanding, the piece concluded that the upshot of the whole situation is that SC would end up being worth more than rival Spotify. Here’s why that’s not exactly the case.

The Background: Courting the Mainstream Players

While the TC piece makes some astute points, its most important argument—that SoundCloud has the opportunity to become the YouTube of audio—doesn’t exactly stand on its own. SoundCloud has a major issue in that it’s caught in between two completely different paradigms—that of the independent and that of the major label—and doesn’t seem to know how to resolve those differences. Up until now, the ill-fated balancing act it’s been trying has been somewhat workable, but going forward it will be tenuous at best. As such, the real story here is how SoundCloud is evolving, and not in a way that is wonderful for the independent artists who have historically been its core constituency.

As SoundCloud moves further into the major label fold, it simultaneously does two things:

1) It resolves (at least for the moment) the issues which the music service is having with some of the labels over licensing and royalties. The new deal with Universal clearly comes with it an agreement that the label will drop any pending legal action against the service, as music will now be licensed directly to SC. (It does, however, do nothing for the mass of pending litigation  between Sony and SoundCloud, as the former is that last major label holdout to strike a deal with the service).

2) It effectively continues the alienation of the independents upon which the service has historically built its core and more loyal following.

Leaving the Core Content Base

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with serving the mainstream. However, most every one of the major music companies already does that, leading to an already crowded crawlspace of competitors vying for mainstream supremacy. While the major music companies set their collective focus on mainstream material, the independent demographic is left languishing in the wind time after time. Initially, SoundCloud was an exception in this respect, cutting its teeth in the independent arena long before it signed deals with any of the major labels (starting with Warner Music Group last year). Since then, however, SC has been moving further and further away from the paradigm from whence it rose and closer towards the crowded party at the mainstream table.     

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The music pipeline

While SC battled other services for mainstream consumers, it had for a while been the favorite among independents and underground artists looking to cultivate their fanbases from the ground up. Even Alex Moazed in his guest TC piece acknowledged that this is what makes SC win: the fact that this is where the content stream starts for a lot of new artists (a rapidly growing demographic) and where they begin to build their initial fanbases and cultivate their followings. That SoundCloud is not only moving away from that, but seemingly shunning it in the long run, is a palpable kick in the face for a lot of independents.    

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Growth of independent music between 2003-2012; image courtesy of Techdirt

What Moazed doesn’t address in his piece is exactly what I discussed last spring: why independent artists should essentially kiss SoundCloud goodbye, why their subsequent deal with the NMPA was irrelevant for independents, and ultimately why the precarious high-wire balancing act was leading them down a difficult path. Independent artists, unlike major label performers, are not locked into any required loyalty as a result of record label contracts. They can come and go as they please on any variety of services, and thus are free to explore any new ( and better) opportunities that might arise.

SoundCloud’s error in judgement here is assuming that the independent demographic (arguably its only real unique demographic of content producers) will stick around when the winds change, and the focus of the platform shifts to mainstream desires. Already there were grumblings in the independent underground when SC premiered its new layout early last year. The simple reality is that SoundCloud fundamentally cannot serve two masters (the independents and the major labels) because each is moving in an opposite direction, with desires and mentalities divergent of one another. Now, with the Universal deal, I see only one way SC can continue to struggle towards profitability, and that is in the major label direction.

That, however, presents another can of worms.

Money and Equity

As some have already pointed out (or could simply guess), the Universal deal could not have been cheap by any means, particularly as it meant Universal dropping its legal action against the music service. Furthermore, as Warner gained around a 5% stake of the company when it licensed its own catalogue, one can calculate that Universal settled for nothing less than a similar deal (likely pushing for more equity in order to drop the legal suit).

That’s a huge premium to pay for Universal’s recording and publishing catalogues, and doesn’t yet take into account all the royalties SC will now have to cough up on the backend. The real hard hitting numbers come when one imagines what Sony, the last major holdout, will demand for its material. Seeing as it currently has legal qualms with SoundCloud, it’s conceivable that Sony could demand even more cash upfront and equity in order for access to its musical coffers. At a minimum, one could calculate the collective equity of the major labels to total somewhere around 15%—at a minimum.

Though not listed specifically, the chart below gives one a good idea of where SoundCloud will inevitably fit within the royalty paradigm, and just how much friction it will cause between both the service and artists, and the service and the labels. Two different (divergent) interests make for a massive headache in the long term for SoundCloud.

1276-music-streaming-services-compared_Sep152

Royalty rates, minimum wage, and reality; image courtesy of informationisbeautiful.net

This may seem like a paltry price of doing business until one considers the fact that the relationship dynamic is not an equal one: the major labels hold the keys to the material which SoundCloud wants (and desperately needs, in order to win the mainstream game), but are not equally in need of SoundCloud itself. They similarly license the same material to a variety of competing music services, and essentially can dole it out to the highest bidder, through contracts which then become renegotiable every few years. Thus, SoundCloud (and others) are beholden to the major labels for their lifeblood, but the opposite is not true. SoundCloud has entered into a paradigm that’s nearly impossible to backtrack from. They’re tying their own concrete shoes.

Operating in the Red

All of this firmly underscores the uncomfortable news recently that SoundCloud took a $44M hit in 2014, making their raise of the above-mentioned $35M almost irrelevant. That the raise of the $35M in debt financing will essentially have to go to cover SC’s 2014 losses must be a bitter pill for investors to swallow, particularly as much of their customer base uses the service for free. The simple truth, as it appears to be, is that SoundCloud is hemorrhaging money with no clear path to take to fix things, either quickly, or in the long term. That being the case, it’s fairly probable that SoundCloud will need to start raising another round of money somewhat soon, even if it’s just to weather its current storm.

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SoundCloud losses (in Euros); image courtesy of Music Business Worldwide

And then there’s this, the Reddit thread that must be the most painful thing for SC right now. Titled “SoundCloud could close after $44m losses,” the thread spent a few nights recently blowing up, and had an upvote-percentage of 96%. What does this mean in reality? It means a lot of people were reading this conversation, and the commenters are not wrong. In fact, many of them are quite astute and know exactly what’s going to happen:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 2.36.30 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 2.38.39 PM

These comments highlight the discussion going on regarding SoundCloud not only among its general consumers, but among the artists who create the content on which the service was built. It’s important to remember that before SC had any major label deals in place, it was doing quite well because of the huge influx of independent material coming in from independent artists and DJ’s. In moving further and further away from this core demographic, SoundCloud is quite aggressively biting the hand that feeds it. SoundCloud’s response to the Reddit thread was equally underwhelming and unpersuasive.

The loyalty of such independent artists is a complex thing; on the one hand, they aren’t tied to any one particular party, and thus their loyalty to any one service may be thought of as ephemeral. On the other hand, however, their loyalty has the potential to be ferocious and dogged if and when they find a service which works for them, in their favor. SoundCloud used to be that service, but it isn’t any longer. They’ve traded the long term loyalty of these smaller—but much more numerous—independent artists for the short term benefit of being able to peddle major label mainstream material. The same exact mainstream material which all their major competitors are already selling. They’ve traded the long term benefit of being unique for the short term “benefit” of being just like everyone else.

Short Term Gain, Long Term Loss

The big kicker though, is that SoundCloud didn’t start as Spotify of Apple Music did, with deals with the major labels. It doesn’t come from that part of town. It comes from the less expensive, more experimental street of independent artists, covers, and remixes. It blew up among independents long before mainstream listeners got wind of it, and now it’s moving away from those early adopters towards a more corporate clientele.

As far as I can see it, this is incredibly ironic: the independent music universe is just now starting to mature and expand rapidly, while the major label world is getting cramped and hideously expensive. Over the last decade, independent music has grown immensely while major label-signed content has actually decreased. Put simply, the number of expensive, mainstream artists which big music companies are fighting over is shrinking while the number of free and/or inexpensive independent artists is actually growing at an almost exponential rate. Insofar as the independent universe might not be as lucrative as the mainstream arena in the short term, it nonetheless is where the most growth is happening.

So where does all of this leave SoundCloud? In the short term, the Universal deal is a great breakthrough, and certainly will help them more aptly compete with Spotify and Apple. However, it’s clearly been overshadowed over the last few weeks by their financial woes and discussions of possible paths forward.

In the long term, though, they will end up dismissing the demographic and core base that made them special to begin with. Someone else will pick up that gauntlet and run with it, and that’s where the growing independent base will go.  

The Undeniable Hypocrisy of the Apple-Swift Saga

Image courtesy of Mirror

Image courtesy of Mirror

The Background

With Taylor Swift’s cleanup at the Grammys this year and attention over her misleading “victory” over Apple—and her subsequent partnership with the company—having waned (if not faded) over the last half year, it seems to be the appropriate time now to dissect what the fuck really happened back in July of last summer. Prior to the past few months when things seemed to have boiled down to a low simmer (focused mostly on SoundCloud and Spotify), the music news arena was blowing up over Taylor Swift’s push-back against Apple. Her open letter criticizing Apple, and subsequent statement that she would be boycotting the new music service—as she had done with Spotify—made it easy for the media to paint her as a martyr for “artists’ rights.” But that’s not the whole story. Not nearly.

When Apple announced early in June of 2015 that its new music service, aptly titled Apple Music, would not be compensating artists with royalties during the first three months of a user’s free trial period, there was significant push-back before Swift even got her letter out the door. The announcement was panned by the general music community, as well as by both artists within the mainstream paradigm, and the broad base of independents. When Apple retracted the statement and replaced it with a “fine, we’ll pay artists for the three-month trial period,” artists felt that they had won a major victory against the tech giant. Many even felt that Swift spoke up for them and that they benefited from her desire to help the general music community. Here’s why that’s wrong.

A Misleading “Victory”

Numerous sources reported on Apple’s recanting and Swift’s “victory,” from TechCrunch to Forbes to Mashable. But it wasn’t that at all. The retraction by Apple was telling of a much larger trend at play (and frankly, a much larger problem for independent artists which they should be focusing on). Swift made the same stink that she did when she “broke up” with Spotify, drawing on arguments like “artists shouldn’t give anything away for free” and her favorite “art needs to be rare to be valuable.” Soon after, Apple caved and said artists would be paid, and everything ended happily ever after.

Not.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Swift that artists shouldn’t have to give away their music for free if they don’t want to (as opposed to Swift’s catch-all “no free music ever/free music devalues your art” blah blah blah), I don’t think her motives are as angelic and altruistic as they might initially appear. People should be asking why exactly Swift made such a big fuss over this. Why? Because it really cuts into her bottom line. A bottom line that many of the independents she somewhat claims to “speak for” don’t have. Their economics are a very different reality from hers. Swift lives in a completely different universe, and no, as Matt Atkins wrote in a great Medium post , she is not an “independent artist.” Her signing to Big Machine Records makes her seem more independent than she really is; make sure you remember that she owns a huge stake in Big Machine, and that it’s distributed by Universal Music Group. So no, Swift doesn’t see it from the same perspective as that of an indie band in the garage in Ohio just trying to scrape by.

If an Independent Tried to Strong-arm Apple…

This doesn’t make Swift a bad person; it simply makes her human in looking out for her own best interests. At the time, that aligned with the best interests of the general music community. But people should not confuse happenstance with correlation.

Swift was able to strong-arm Apple into changing its position on paying royalties for the free trial period, and I commend her for that. But I can pretty much offer a dead guarantee that if it had been an independent artist who took to Twitter to complain (and many did, mind you) or write to Apple, nothing would happen. I’m not even sure they would receive a response email addressing their grievances. The fact that their position changed as a result of Swift’s vocal stance was a sheer coincidental benefit for the independent music community.

Artists who are not on Swift’s level (that is to say, most artists in the world) should be asking what could and would happen if and when their best interests don’t line up with hers. (Never mind the fact that Apple completely screwed up an independent artist’s entire catalogue upon Apple Music’s release). The moniker of Swift as “the Apple-Slayer” was nice and poetic, but all the more misleading. It painted Swift as the David to Apple’s Goliath, but that’s on a whole incorrect. Swift is just as much a Goliath as Apple is, and that’s precisely the reason that Apple caved to her in the first place. Had she been the David-level artist she parades around as (and which most independents actually are), she most likely would have been roundly ignored, as most independents usually are. When Apple caved, it was a good week for all artists. But what happens when Swift decides that what’s best for her is to choke the radio market and keep out other artists who might be stepping on her musical toes? I can’t imagine that she wants to give up any of her power.

It’s All About the Power

And that’s exactly what it’s about: the power. Swift has the power to turn heads and make things happen the way she wants. But that could be very bad for other up-and-coming artists. Swift, ironically, has become yet another gatekeeper, akin to the ones she so readily criticizes. She’s signed to an “independent” label which is distributed by one of the Big Three labels (Universal), and she has the clout to mobilize legions of fans (when she’s not suing them, I suppose).

But what about her whole “anti-free” mentality? That’s directly at odds with a lot of the thinking within the independent music community, where artists increasingly see their music as a means of marketing, rather than an end commodity for sale. What happens when push comes to shove and she’s on the other side of the fence from the much broader—but much more unknown—independent music community? She will still have the power to push her agenda, and they will simply be more obstacles in her way.

The reality is that no artist, of any caliber or genre, should have the power to dictate changes like that. At the time, it worked out for the better, but next time will be another story.

Subsequent Partnership

All of this made the announcement of Swift’s subsequent partnership with Apple more confusing, and in some ways, harder to swallow. After all the stones that were thrown, and all the press that was garnered (a calculated effort, I’m sure), the end result was somewhat anticlimactic. We were all ready for a super showdown of a major mainstream artist (yes, that’s what she is, live with reality) bucking the system and sending a message for musicians everywhere. What we got was…well…predictable.

As soon as Apple caved, so did Swift. She caved to using the service when it turned out that her open letter would get her exactly what she wanted. That sounds logical, except for the fact that she pretty much abandoned the “Apple-Slayer” independent gauntlet when she stopped focusing on how the new service would be for non-mainstream artists, and just said “ok.” In so few words, it seems that Swift was content to “take the money and run,” so to speak. Her victory really wasn’t a victory for anyone who wasn’t seeing massive streaming or airplay already anyway, so let’s not treat it as one.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Perhaps the most glaring result of Swift’s flirtatious battle with Apple, though, was the fallout over her own contracts. In the wake of her open letter, other types of creatives called her on her own hypocrisy, though this time, they weren’t musical artists: they were photographers. In an open letter of his own, professional photographer Jason Sheldon shined a light on Swift’s own hypocrisy in her company’s contracts with photographers at her shows. According to the Washington Post:

Swift’s management company, Firefly Entertainment, demands that photographers who shoot Swift’s concerts to do so on a “one-time-use” only basis and relinquish any rights to republish or sell their photos. Additionally, the contract states that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” the very same photographs in just about any way it sees fit, without compensating the photographer for their usage.

Wow, let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. Swift—the great “Apple-Slayer” and champion for artists’ rights and fair compensation—didn’t (doesn’t?) even feel that those same dynamics should apply when she’s the one who has to pay royalties. That’s pretty staggering.

As she wrote in her own Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Considering just how much Swift seems to think that “valuable art should not be free,” it’s fairly amazing that she doesn’t go out of her way to create the best working opportunities for other creatives. In fact, the only thing it does is make her an undeniable hypocrite. If she wants to sit on top of the mainstream and act in a holier-than-thou way, that’s fine, but she should at least be honest about it. She shouldn’t be parading around as some “champion for the independent artist” when clearly her actions say otherwise. It essentially negates everything she’s done to “bring attention to artists’ rights.”

Perhaps the most upsetting thing of all is that many were lulled into thinking that Swift is something that she’s not, including other artists, and independents in particular. This was akin to telling someone that they now had a spokesperson they could trust and count on to speak up louder than they could for their general rights, only to find out that person wasn’t nearly as altruistic as they initially appeared. Most frustratingly, though, it has the power to negate arguments made by others who really are looking to campaign for artists’ rights. Swift’s hypocrisy has the power to undermine other voices (ones who might not be as loud as hers), and to take the focus off the matters that need to be addressed.

(Legal) Iceberg Ahead

Even as the fallout from the Apple-Swift roiling seems to have unfolded months ago, so too was there something else on the horizon for Apple which spelled a different kind of trouble: monopoly. As the FTC subsequently sent out subpoenas to competing music services following its initial probe of Apple Music, attention began to focus again on the tech giant in a way that is less than flattering. The “war” which Spotify started last July with Apple seemed to spread to other areas of the collective music business conscience. Apple Music may not have been “doomed” as Tidal was (or seemed to be) upon its initial release, but it does have new things to take care of that other services don’t need to account for.

Perhaps the irony of the whole situation is that Apple’s legal issues regarding Apple Music really only surfaced after the service was announced and released. Inasmuch as Apple would like to pretend that it has enough money to push its way through to any opinion and finding that would benefit it, it still must contend with U.S. legal code, not to mention its own Terms of Service. Power and money notwithstanding, the outcome of the said legal issues won’t resolve super quickly.

In the End

In the end, the whole Apple-Swift saga that encompassed the end of last summer really wasn’t what people reported it to be. It won’t (and hasn’t) really resulted in a super-massive victory for independents beyond some news attention, and it actually served to highlight some dirty little secrets in Swift’s own business affairs. I don’t know if the saga is concluding or just in a lull itself, but I don’t think this “picture-royalty” thing is going to go away anytime soon. Now that the dam has broken, I bet we’re going to see many more creatives (photographers for sure) speaking up over the next year or so about their business experiences with Swift, and I don’t think they will all be positive.

As for Apple, it continues to chug ahead after the release of Apple Music, albeit in the shadow of the new FTC probes. Though the service boasts a few interesting features, few of them can really be described as “new” or “earthshaking.” While ex-BBC host and DJ  Zane Lowe likely made U.K. listeners happy on the new Beats 1 radio program, for us in the States he was a somewhat irrelevant “exclusive” for Apple to tout (simply because most Americans didn’t know who he was). If Apple really wants to set itself apart in the long term (10+ years), it’s really going to need to do better than a few exclusive names. I suppose we’ll see, but for the time being, the Apple-Swift saga has left a sour taste in my mouth that won’t be going away any time soon.

Independent Music Is Big. Really, Really Big.

PC Gaming Is Just Like Independent Music

Chris Dixon’s article yesterday discussed the trends that media is experiencing in the digital age. While his article focuses mostly on the gaming industry, it also heavily references the music industry, drawing numerous parallels and comparisons throughout the piece. Since I’m not much of a gamer, the music-related aspects of the post fascinate me because:

  1. They so closely mirror those in the gaming industry, which I find intriguing and even somewhat surprising, and
  2. Because Dixon is exactly on-point in his dissection of them.

Regarding the first point, it’s almost eerie how broad Dixon’s thesis could have been, were one to read the piece out of context. Of particular note are subtitles like “PC games are way bigger than you think[,]” which could easily say “independent music” instead of “PC games.” And it is way bigger. Way, way bigger.

Independent Music Is Way, Way Bigger Than You Think

Independent music, like PC gaming (it seems), is substantially bigger than many people initially realize, particularly if they’re only considering one part of “the music industry.” The “music industry” is a misnomer itself since it lends credence to the thought that there is a singular music industry in which to exist and do business. This is incorrect because there are in fact multiple paradigms that exist within the music universe, all of which operate according to very different rules. Independent music is a whole different world than major label music, and thus the opportunities that lie there do not necessarily mirror the opportunities that lie in the latter.

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Growth of independent music between 2003-2012; image courtesy of Techdirt

The stark reality is that independent music cannot be measured according to the traditional metrics. Unlike major label material, independent music cannot be measured and calculated metrically based on chart success, album copies sold (physical or digital), or video hits. Independent music extends to places major label music never touches: to the garage of the punk band in Chicago, the coffee house performance of the singer in London, the bedroom demo of the multi-instrumentalist in Melbourne, and the piano jazz bar in Amsterdam. As a result, the sheer number of artists that exist (and are popping up every day) is staggering.

The Problem with the “Walled-Garden”

As Dixon pointed out, where gaming wins is in providing endless choices for users, and relying on the dynamic of attention instead of scarcity. This is directly at odds with the current approach in most of the traditional music industry (in streaming especially) where the “walled-garden” approach is used as a means of obtaining exclusive rights to material on one service, and thus making it scarce or unavailable on all the other services. The notion here is that if you can garner enough scarce material, you’ll have something your competitors simply can’t lay their hands on.

The problem with this line of thinking is twofold:

  1. It doesn’t actually work, since material (major label or independent) inevitably finds it way off of solely one system and onto multiple systems; and
  2. It’s against the nature of music. Music is art, and the nature of art is to be seen, shared, engaged with, and shared again.

Music is freedom and expression, and to try and stifle that on one system is simultaneously useless and misguided. It’s misguided precisely because music is inherently social. Unlike movies or books, music has a unique live element which can be leveraged to the benefit of both the artists and their fans (both current and prospective). One of the fastest growing trends in independent music is for artists to alter their perspective of their own music: rather than looking at it solely as an end commodity for sale, now it’s becoming a mechanism for free marketing and advertising. It’s a means to an end, a way to get people to come out to shows, connect on a personal level in the live paradigm, and walk away feeling a direct identification with that artist.

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

Unfortunately, major labels have been less enthusiastic about this approach. As Dixon notes, they rely heavily on litigation and have effectively stayed focused on protecting their back catalog, looking backwards at the past with forlorn eyes rather than tasting the future.

Royalties Are the Emperor’s Clothes

The royalty system is a whole other monster, which I’ve tackled a number of times, and which I think is simply a chain to the past and nothing more. It doesn’t help artists the way they need to be helped, doesn’t make fans feel good about how artists are compensated, and just remains a massive headache for any music company, streaming or otherwise.

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Royalty Rates, Minimum Wage, and Reality; image courtesy of informationisbeautiful.net

Simply put, the royalty system is arguably the best example in media of the Emperor’s clothes: everyone keeps saying that we just need to find a way to make it work in the new age, when in reality there is no way to make it work in the new age. Arguably, it didn’t even work in previous decades; but it was the only real, scalable revenue system around, and thus became the industry standard.

In the post, Dixon quoted the post-mortem statement of Turntable.fm, which states that the Turntable team spent tons of cash on lawyers, tons of time trying to secure label deals, and ultimately that they didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. I’ll go so far as to argue that one of these mistakes (which founders continue to make) is buying into the old royalty-based system, and thus undercutting their own feet before even beginning the race.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 1.26.18 PM

The music pipeline

The diagram above paints this picture, and if you look closely, you see that there are really only two entities who hold any significant amount of consistent power: the major labels and independent artists.

  • The former group essentially controls the lifeblood of dependent streaming services (like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and more recently SoundCloud), the payment to artists from the royalties collected, and the gatekeeping authority over the music to which the mainstream is exposed.
Major Label Percentage Ownerships of (some) Streaming Services

Major Label Percentage Ownerships of (some) Streaming Services; *(Beats has since been purchased and rolled into Apple Music)

  • Independent artists, however, control their own distribution, exposure, and revenues models. Because they’re not beholden to any one paradigm or other entity, they are free to explore a wide range of possibilities, and mix-and-match those that work best for them. In many cases, this is highly individualized; what works well for one artist doesn’t work at all for another, and vice versa.

Community. It’s All About Community.

Dixon nails it home in the latter paragraph on books, when he states:

From a legal perspective, some fanfiction could be seen as copyright or trademark infringement. From a business perspective, the book industry would be smart to learn from the PC gaming business. Instead of fighting over pieces of a shrinking pie, try to grow the pie by getting more people to read and write books.

This is exactly true for the music business too. Instead of looking to block remixes and free distribution models, music companies would be better off learning how to leverage those models for improved community building and engagement, particularly as music is so heavily impacted by live continuous interaction. Build the community around the artists, and fans will follow. From those core fans, new and more flexible revenue models arise. The future of music is democratization and community.

If you look at many of the companies that are winning in media/tech right now—companies like Medium, Twitch, Product Hunt (with Games, Books, and Podcasts), and BuzzFeed—you see that they have invested a substantial amount of time and energy in creating communities around their products and/or services. The Medium community writes about anything and everything, and communities on Product Hunt and Twitch are super sticky. And all of this is to say nothing of the Dixon’s crowdfunding point, which certainly has massive and positive implications for the music business moving forward.

Scarcity Is Obsolete, Democratization Wins

Dixon’s closing statement gives me chills:

The internet renders business models focused on scarcity and litigation obsolete. But as the PC gaming market shows, it also unlocks lucrative new business models, and lets creators connect with consumers in new and exciting ways.

It gives me chills because it’s so on-point with what’s happening in music. Dixon set out to write a post on gaming, but in the process he laid out precisely the dynamic that’s bubbling to the surface in the music universe. I can’t believe this is a coincidence. Art is art, its essence is sharing and engagement. Music and games are forms of art, and draw their life-force from the communal engagement that occurs between the creators and the consumers. It all comes back to community. Every time.

The Continuing Money Troubles of SoundCloud

Back in July, it was reported that German music streaming company SoundCloud was “running dangerously low on cash.” While this made barely a ripple in the mainstream news cycle, those in the tech and music industries were certainly paying attention, postulating how it was going to turn out. With ~$125M in cumulative funding, SoundCloud, which would be on its Series E for its next round, seriously can’t afford to be running low on cash; not now.

SoundCloud logo

SoundCloud logo

While ~$125M in funding is nothing to scoff at, one needs to examine the dynamics of where that funding is arguably going given SoundCloud’s precarious position at the moment. In the best of situations, the funding would be going towards furthering Soundcloud’s standing amongst its competitors, which now include Apple Music and Tidal in addition to Rdio and Spotify. And yet, the money is more likely getting sucked up by legal fees as the service braces for a round of massive copyright infringement lawsuits from major labels Universal and Sony. Anyone who knows anything about litigation knows that these cases will most likely take years to resolve, all the while drawing larger attorneys’ fees (not to mention time and effort) from the music service.

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

Warner is conspicuously absent from the intended lawsuits, no doubt because it’s the only one of the Big Three major labels to have struck a licensing deal with SoundCloud already (never mind the fact that Warner also owns 5% of SoundCloud..). While this may sound good for the streaming service on the front end, it actually complicates things even further, as it throws SoundCloud into the middle of two completely different paradigms with completely different dynamics. The reality of the situation is that SoundCloud has found itself alienating the very independent artists who were its biggest supporters since it signed the deal with Warner and began moving towards a more major label-style content service, akin to Spotify and Rdio. While this doesn’t mean that it’s dead in the water by any means, it does point to a larger issue which SoundCloud needs to figure out for itself moving forward.

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All of this puts in perspective the fact that SoundCloud can’t afford to be “running low on cash” right now. Now that they’ve entered the major label universe, they need a ton of cash just to continue playing the game, as they need to pay for licensing from Warner (and the other labels eventually), pay out royalties, and keep innovating ahead of their competition. That, in conjunction with their impending legal problems, makes this arguably the worst time to be running low on capital (as if there’s ever a good time!). The lawsuits by Universal and Sony aren’t going to go away overnight, and all those legal hours add up; that’s money that could be spent obtaining licensing rights and paying royalties that is now essentially being sucked out of SoundCloud’s system just so it can survive.

I don’t know what SoundCloud’s next step is going to be, but it needs to figure out a way to take the cumulative ~$125M it has in the bank (or whatever’s left) and figure out its legal quagmire before it does anything else. Otherwise, the legalities are just going to suck the life out of it while its competitors move ahead. That may be easier said than done, though, as it needs deals with the very people suing it in order to survive and be competitive. Could anything be more ironic?

The Hit List: 20 Demos, Albums and EP’s You Need to Hear Right Now — July 13, 2015

Another week, another 20 demos, albums and EP’s from the international underground you need to hear this minute. Check these artists out. In no particular order:

1. The Lost [EP]The Beautiful Monument – 2015

The Lost [EP]

2. Save Me EPForever Still – 2015

Save Me EP

3. DreamersMonster Eats Manhattan – 2015

Dreamers

4. Penny The DreadfulThose Mockingbirds – 2014

Penny The Dreadful 2

5. Mad Dog EPTen Dead Crows – 2015

Mad Dog - EP

6. DetoursDamn Mondays – 2015

Detours

7. Stranger Just the SameHeel – 2014

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8. Uncontrollable – SingleThe Nixon Rodeo – 2014

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9. Passengers EPThe Fallen Prodigy – 2015

Passengers - EP

10. Dais EPDais – 2015

Dais EP

11. EgressorThe Body Politic – 2014

Egressor

12. NocturnalIsobel Trigger – 2014

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13. AnchorsThe Wonderlife – 2015

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14. Time and PlaceThe Playbook – 2013

Time and Place

15. Do It Yourself!Count Me Out – 2015

Do It Yourself

16. Change EPBranded Bandits – 2014

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17. LungeLunge – 2013

Lunge

18. Give It Away EPFelice LaZae – 2014

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19. ContendersContenders – 2015

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20. The Drake Equation EPHelion Prime – 2015

The Drake Equation EP

The Resurrection of The Hit List — July 6, 2015

When I was running my radio show Underground Takeover, one of the best things I did was run a feature called The Hit List: 10 Demos, Albums, and EP’s You Need to Hear Right Now. Every couple of months I would compile a list of the albums, EP’s and singles that I found myself listening to ad infinitum, and that I figured everyone needed to be aware of and listening to.

When my show ended (it was a college show, after all), The Hit List ended with it. Lately though, so much amazing material has been coming out, these artists really need to be highlighted. So, we’ll resurrect The Hit List for a little while and see how it goes!

Some new details though, to reflect a new incarnation of The Hit List:

  1. Lists will be lengthened from 10 entries to 20.
  2. List items (demos, albums, EP’s, single) appear in no specific order; i.e.: there is no “top” or “bottom” of the list.
  3. I will do my best to attach relevant details to each item, including title, artist, artwork, and year.
  4. I will do my best to keep the list running, and publish a new list as often as possible.
  5. These albums and singles are spread across a variety of platforms, and thus making a straight playlist is currently too time-consuming. However, I’ll reexamine this point over the next few months.
  6. To help distinguish: demo, Single, Album, and EP titles occur in italics, artist names in bold, and years of release in regular font.
  7. Artist names will be linked to either their Facebook, Twitter, home site, or other pages.
  8. This is all for fun, so let’s keep it that way.

So with that, let’s get to it. Here’s my Hit List for July 6, 2015:

  1. Take Me – Single — Pneumatic — 2015

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  2. Ephemeral   Remedy X — 2013Ephemeral
  3. The Devil Never Comes — Molly Rhythm — 2015The Devil Never Comes
  4. Passengers EP — The Fallen Prodigy — 2015Passengers - EP
  5. The Steppin Stones — The Steppin Stones — 20154pan1t-1
  6. Fourstory EPA Black Eye Affair — 2015Fourstory EP
  7. Prophet — Florence & Normandie — 2015Prophet
  8. Triangulum Mechanism — Sunshine & Bullets — 2014Triangulum Mechanism 1
  9. Half Blue — Half Blue — 2015a4155327433_16
  10. Sweet Disillusion – Single — Elie & the Engine — 2015Sweet Disillusion - Single
  11. Just the Tip — Big Red Dog — 2015Just the Tip
  12. Girls of the Yukon — The Head — 2013Girls of the Yukon
  13. Demo — Third Season — 2015Demo
  14. Faces of the Sea — Party Asylum — 2014Faces of the Sea
  15. Blur of Our Souls — Heavy Gloom — 2015cover
  16. Distance Between Us — Eat Your Heart Out — 2015Distance Between Us
  17. Miles Away — My Monthly Date — 2015Miles Away
  18. The Drake Equation EP — Helion Prime — 2015The Drake Equation EP
  19. Dais EP — Dais — 2015Dais EP
  20. Unable to Function EP — Vanilla Function — 2015Unable to Function EP

YouTube Plays Out of Key

Originally published on Marx Rand on June 11, 2015.

Since being embarrassed after some of the more litigious contracts it makes with independent artists using its platform were made public recently, YouTube is in damage-control mode. The media platform provider has  understandably taken a lot of heat as a result. Right now especially the video streaming service, which was purchased by Google nearly a decade ago for $1.65 billion, is in the process of trying to make nice with the artist community as it braces itself for the onslaught of Apple’s new music service release, Apple Music.

YouTube Has Music, But Isn’t About Music

It’s easy to see why YouTube is concerned about Apple Music. After all, the very same (music) community that in significant measure helped YouTube top $1 billion in revenue last year is just as likely, if not more so, to gravitate towards Apple’s serving of the pie as it is to hang out lapping up mainstream internet TV dinners.

For artists– and especially independent artists – YouTube could be quite a useful tool. At least, what the service is capable of offering should be something that sets YouTube apart from its competitors in the music arena, certainly.

But YouTube is still going to struggle to win in the artist arena for one reason: while YouTube has music, it isn’t about music. For YouTube, despite its cool analytics and humongous user base, is still not a music-centered service. This matters because, at the end of the day, artists are a focus, but not the focus.

With the online music landscape heating up, the services that are able to pay more attention to artists as a principle priority will be able to carve out a significant niche for themselves. In the face of such competition, no one else stands a chance. It’s that simple.

The Percentage Points

A big part of YouTube’s problem when it comes to appealing to independent artists is that it’s a victim of its own success. At the end of the day, YouTube has an overwhelming user-base of consumers (and not just of music, but of all sorts of media) that it needs to keep on satisfying – at last count, there were 23 million subscribers to all the various channels on the service. And that’s only the regular users.

Naturally, it makes sense for YouTube to see that its existing customers are well-catered for, but the reality is that such an approach falls far short of what’s acceptable when it comes to satisfying independent music makers and promoters. They can increasingly afford to be much more selective about what they desire and require from the digital distribution channels that they work with.

To compound YouTube’s difficulties with attracting the independents, YouTube still has in place the same tenuous clauses in the contract that upset the artists just recently. The fact that there are a large portion of artists who are currently unaware of this fact only makes the problem worse over the long run too, for the risk that another public embarrassment for YouTube looms large over the shiny brand image that parent Google has cultivated over the years.

There’s a more fundamental problem than any of this, however, and that’s the following: unlike the teenage makeup artists and tween clothing models that have made gazillions from leading their fans to new cosmetics brands eager to pay top dollar for all the eyeballs, the realistic revenue generated from YouTube for music artists is pretty much zilch when you do the math.

Information Is Beautiful, an analytics service based in the United Kingdom, recently published a breakdown of online revenues obtained by artists across a series of music platforms, namely Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, and—you guessed it—YouTube. The analytics provider concluded that the percentage of independents able to eek out a minimum wage living on YouTube revenue streams was just 0.07%. Here are the screenshots of the YouTube portion:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Here are the pathetic revenue stream earnings for the signed major label artists:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

And now, the revenue stream earnings for the independent artists:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

That’s amazing – it’s a seventh of a basis point! In other words, it’s even lower than the cheapest commission charged on an online stock trading platform.

And remember, this is not 0.07% of all one billion dollars of YouTube users, or even 0.07% of all 20-something million YouTube subscribers we are talking about here; it is 0.07% of just all the unsigned artists who receive revenue from YouTube streams! It’s likely you can count that number on the fingers of your left hand while clicking over to the next song with your right.

The Discovery Dynamic

The overriding concern here is that the audience consuming the music of these independent artists is incredibly small. But before you leap to your feet and splutter out the old argument that this is because the music created by independents artists simply “isn’t good enough” or “needs to be curated,” step back and think about the fact that these independents are trying to compete on a platform which is essentially not constructed for them.

Though the dynamic of discovery is big on YouTube, it’s not specified to discovery of new independent artists at all (though it’s great for makeup and clothing brands, which adopts an entirely different sort of discovery process through media). As a result, artists end up competing with an amalgamation of other media – most of which is not music-related – and the poor comparative result they are left with ultimately diminishes any chance that there might have been left over of being properly appreciated or even recognized.

All of this adds up to one very simple reality: inasmuch as YouTube is trying to repair its relationships with artists (and independents among them), it is, at the end of the day, very far from being the be-all, end-all for independent artists that the platform is for other genres of media and entertainment. The fact that less than a tenth of a basis point of artists can eek out a minimum wage using the damn thing – while many other professionals in different walks of life make a lot more than that from five minutes of video stream – attests to this fact.

Thus, for all the potential scale and analytical sophistication that YouTube’s platform offers artists, it is still an ecosystem that is fundamentally unsuitable for them and for displaying what they create. And many of them know it now, too.

Independent Music Is Still  Wild West

The independent music market is very much a wild west, and the introduction of a new tool or a new feature isn’t going to win anyone over. To do that, you need to win the trust and confidence of the independent artists, the way Etsy did with hand-crafters, or even the way that Amazon has managed to do with its dominant share of literary readers and authors alike.

This process is not one in which you can achieve ubiquity by striking a deal with a major corporation which fundamentally only offers enhanced distribution such as a major record label. It’s one in which you need to go straight to the product source – in this case, the artists and their fans – and persuade each of them that what you are providing is somewhere they can interact on a creative level and where the music uncompromisingly always comes first. It should not and cannot be a place where their product looks and feels like an afterthought in the ravenous race to profitability.

The upshot – and the sad irony – of all this is that it’s yet another example of a situation in which one of the very same companies that is so adept at spinning creative mainstream entertainment out into the marketplace proves hopeless in creating a fresh and appealing approach to the rising independent music scene.

As Queen so eloquently put it, “another one gone, and another one gone … and another one bites the dust.”

Spotify’s Sony Contract: What It Means for Everyone

With the leak of Spotify’s contract with Sony last week, there’s a lot of attention on the streaming service right now. I’ll be taking a closer look at that contract over the next week, but for now I’ll focus on the fallout over the last week. In particular there seems to be a lot of renewed interest on the music space, more so than I’ve seen in a while. I think, though, that this has to do with a lot more than simply one contract between two companies; for the first time perhaps, the general public (including music producers, artists, and general music listeners) is aware of the kind of deals being struck behind the scenes.

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Even as Spotify soars in newer valuations that have the company somewhere in the $8B range, yesterday’s leak shows that such a valuation may in fact be misleading—Spotify has to cough up around $43M just for licensing from Sony alone. How much do you think they need to cough up for the other two majors, Warner and Universal? Even if we snip off the extra $3-4M, and assume an upfront licensing fee of $40M from Sony—and then simply assume similar prices for Warner and Universal—then Spotify has already spent $120M of investor money. And that’s just for the privilege of having access to the major labels’ stable of artists.

Also, don’t forget that’s before royalties and any other metrics that Spotify has to hit. Therefore it’s more like $43M upfront for the privilege to pay more later on; it’s not a one-and-done purchase. And most unfortunate for Spotify, this latter number is also predicated on how an artist performs in popularity, something they have essentially no control over.

I’m not going to rewrite Micah Singleton‘s article, but I will draw on a number of points he highlighted and what they mean in reality. There are numerous points of importance, but these are the ones I think the general public really needs to be apprised of. Though the contract has since been removed, we got the basic gist:

  1. Written by Sony—First let’s just take a moment to note that the contract was written by Sony. Of course this is their prerogative, but when considering the fact that Sony holds the rights to much of the content that Spotify wants to license, it clearly illustrates who is subject to whom. Frankly, since Sony holds the content rights, they (and the other major labels) essentially hold Spotify’s lifeblood in their hands—that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Realistically Spotify is not built around an independent and free model, so they need to play ball with Sony and the other labels, or they won’t play at all. Period.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.23 AM
  2. Advances—Spotify paid Sony $42.5M just for the right to license the music. That’s an upfront fee just to get in the door. This means that anyone looking to compete head to head with Spotify or Rdio needs to magically have about $130M lying around or in funding before they even get their feet wet (projecting the combined upfront licensing fees of the Big Three major labels). One of the reasons that Spotify has to raise such massive funding rounds is because these advances are somewhat annual, and thus need to be renegotiated all the time. And as the major labels continue to get squeezed in their wallets, these numbers are only going to rise for services looking to use major label content.
  3. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.33 PMDivided How and Among Whom?—As Singleton points out, Sony can essentially do whatever they want with that money; there’s no stipulation that it has to be divided in any particular way, or that any of it has to go to artists or songwriters. According to multiple sources, that money usually stays with the label and is generally not shared with artists. This particular point has raised such criticism that its prompted both a response from the EU, which is now looking into Spotify’s contracts, and virtually obliged Sony to come out with a public statement on the matter. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.56 PM
  4. Most Favored Nation Clause—Essentially a clause that guarantees that Spotify’s balls remain in Sony’s vicegrip. The clause guarantees Sony the right to amend  any portion of the contract if it perceives that any other label has a better deal than it does. This means that Sony is essentially never bound to Spotify in any way; it can decide—based on its own perception—that another label has a better deal (which it may or may not) and rework the entire deal for its own benefit. And Spotify has to swallow everything.
    Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.41.24 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.42.20 PMWhere this really kills Spotify is when used in conjunction with the clause dictating payment based on market share. Thus, if another label has a better deal in that regard—perhaps double what Sony is getting monetarily—then Spotify has to cough up and pay Sony the difference.
  5. Spotify’s 15%—Basically exactly what it sounds like. Spotify takes 15% of the revenues from third-party advertising right off the top. What they do with this money is unknown, though it’s quite plausible that they’re not redistributing it to the artists, and are probably giving third-party advertisers a raw-ish deal. Next time Spotify releases a statement saying that they don’t have the funds to pay the artists more money, let’s all remember this little financial tidbit.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.47.16 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.48.28 PM
  6. Sony’s Ad Spots—This one’s pretty easy to understand: essentially Spotify is obligated to give Sony a certain amount of free ad space on its service. The ad space—which is clearly worth a fair amount of money—is given to Sony at a massive discount.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.53.33 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.09 PMBut that’s not all; Sony retains the right to sell the credited ad space to whomever they want, whenever they want. Again, Spotify gets squeezed.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.41 PM
  7. User Metrics—Spotify essentially has goals it needs to hit in terms of its user metrics (on both payment tiers), and if it misses those, it could be penalized. Conversely, if it exceeds expectations in either of the tier metrics, it recalculates that number so that Sony gets paid more. In English, what this means is that the better Spotify does, the more money Sony is entitled to, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it all works out for the streaming service.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.51 PMIt’s important to remember that Sony isn’t in the business of making sure that it backs up Spotify. It—like the other major labels—is licensing its music to numerous services, so its only real loyalty is to its bottom line. How that affects Spotify is essentially irrelevant to the major label.
  8. The Royalty Distribution (Forget About the Artists)—Without going too deeply into it (Singleton’s initial analysis and infographics are worth consulting), it basically boils down to this: the royalties per stream are so miniscule that you need to be getting millions of streams in order to make any real money (and by real, I mean anything more than $10.00). We all know that independent artists are never going to get to that level trying to compete on an unfair playing field, so let’s just put that point to bed right now. One thing that is worth noting now, though, is that not even every artist has a contract entitling them to royalties. So for all the bluster about royalty payments, many of the artists signed to major labels aren’t even entitled to fair cuts from the streaming.Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.33.02 PMBut even more so, the way in which streaming royalties are calculated is so incredibly convoluted you almost need a degree in economics just to understand it. That’s not how it should be. For independent artists—and even mainstream artists who simply want to understand the financial dynamics—this is yet another way of keeping them in the dark. No one in any other industry would accept some sort of voodoo economics principle when it came to calculating their earnings, so why should music artists—mainstream or independent—have to settle for that? That’s the point, they shouldn’t.

There are numerous other points worth discussing, but these are some of the major ones that discussions of the music industry revolve around. Though arguably a major embarrassment for Sony and Spotify, the leaking of the contract between the two really shines a bright light on what goes on behind the scenes. It clarifies that what happens behind the curtain affects every type of artist, and underscores why more transparency and reform is needed in the music industry. And it highlights something else: the music industry is not dead and foregone. We’re now right on the precipice of a whole new type of music industry that’s taking shape every day. Those who accept and embrace the new dynamics will be the ones who benefit most from them when they inevitably come.

 

Thanks to Shelley Marx for reading early drafts of this.

Tidal Is Losing More Lifeboats by the Day

Yesterday, TechCrunch ran a piece from Kelli Richards postulating the viability of Tidal as a service, and its likely outcome in the streaming wars. The article was essentially an overview of what’s been going on with Tidal lately, with Richards doing a good job of zeroing in on a couple of things I’ve discussed and underscored in my own mind as the real deal-breakers.

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Before getting into the two main things of her article, I think it’s important to note a very shortbut important—sentence in Richards’ piece: “…the prospects of Tidal upending Spotify in the near future are slim…” This falls right in line with something that I wrote earlier concerning SoundCloud, namely that trying to out-Spotify Spotify is a losing battle and a very poor battle-plan. Going head-to-head with Spotify and playing their game their way (that is, general popular music streaming) is such a poor decision because it means you’re starting way behind the starting line. And in Tidal’s case, this goes double for any sort of exclusive content which might be your main attraction.

Now, Richards’ two main points, and my takeaway from each:

1. Premium/Exclusive Content—Firstly, I’ll be the one to say it: “exclusive content” as one’s main gameplay is a very tough sell. It’s a tough sell because it’s a drastically diminished niche of a larger market, which is basically popular music. That means you’re trying to play on two different levels with two completely different mindsets.

The “exclusive content” play is difficult because it requires your customer base to desire those exclusives almost as much as (or more than) the original content. This isn’t anywhere near the same thing as looking at an independent market, since those content producers are increasingly giving away their material for free (including “exclusives” like remixes, acoustic sets, etc.), and making money elsewhere. For a service like Tidal though, they need to first out-Spotify Spotify to gain the market share of the original popular music demographic, then they need to persuade those people to convert to “exclusive” consumers and pay a whole lot more for something they could just as easily get on YouTube if they wait a couple weeks or a month. This is one of the major flaws in Tidal’s plan in my eyes.

Also under the first point is a small comment included by Richards made by Tidal’s CEO Peter Tonstad, which basically asserts that the industry is moving away from the freemium model, and that “it’s going to be the content richness” which listeners begin to look and pay for. This is bold, but false.

First, the sorts of audiences which Tidal is looking to court—general consumers of popular music—are not about to leave the freemium paradigm anytime soon. Secondly—and funnily enough in my opinion—the rabid, content-rich focus which Tonstad identifies as Tidal’s silver bullet doesn’t really apply to popular consumer audiences on a general level anyway. Ask anyone listening to Spotify if they’d pay double (or anything) for higher quality which they can’t even discern anyway, and I’d be surprised if large numbers converted over. Ironically enough, the rabid thought process which Tonstad is alluding to is alive and well—in the independent music industry—where free plays a much bigger part than it clearly does with Tidal.

2. Celebrity Backers—This point made by Richards is a lot easy to wrap one’s head around; people simply don’t feel so bad when Jay-Z and Kanye West start lecturing about needing more money because, well, they’re rich. And not like “we perceive them as rich but they’re really not;” they actually are rich. Being lectured about money from people like that, then, is not only not welcomed, but it’s really irritating. There’s really no way you can look at that celebrity-backed list of Tidal promoters and take them seriously.

Even more so, though, it really alienates artists who are not rich—you know, like everyone else. For the singer-songwriter playing in dingy clubs, or the band on the road and sleeping in their van, Jay-Z might as well be speaking an alien language. Their thought process is almost indignant (and why shouldn’t it be?); they’re thinking “dude, you have all this money and influence, why the hell do you need any more?” And frankly, if I was still an artist, I’d be thinking the exact same thing. Celebrity-backed things like this are rarely ever a good idea, especially when it alienates others within the same industry.

Richards notes that Tidal has someone who Spotify doesn’t—Taylor Swift—but as I explained here months ago, here’s why Taylor Swift is on the same level as Jay-Z in terms of “not getting it.” She’s so engrossed in the major label paradigm and its trappings that she doesn’t see what life is like for normal artists anymore. And, just like Jay-Z, her disparaging remarks about artists “devaluing their music” strikes a sour and indignant chord in a lot of musicians who think she takes her good fortune for granted.

But if one needs any more convincing of why it’s going to be a very tough road ahead for Tidal, you can read about:

  1. Jay-Z’s hissy-fit onstage
  2. Their firing of their previous CEO, Andy Chen
  3. Criticism from producer Steve Albini
  4. Criticism from other mainstream artists
  5. Their highly criticized and misleading relaunch

The storm isn’t about to end anytime soon, and it seems the lifeboats have left the ship.