Without Majors, SoundCloud Had The Potential To Be A Better, Independent Music Space

Originally published on Crunchbase News on August 21, 2017.


It’s no secret that SoundCloud is troubled. Last month, news broke that the music streaming service slashed 40 percent of its workforce (173 jobs) and closed two of its offices (London and San Francisco). Two weeks ago, it dropped its founding CEO to secure new funding on the back of reports that it could run out of money within 50 days or so.

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The developments weren’t without augur or portent.

SoundCloud’s current situation brings us back to our prior thesis: namely that the company’s shift into the major label paradigm was a tactical error. And due to that mistake, SoundCloud lost its focus on an exploding demographic in the form of independent music, which it initially showed signs of controlling.

Rising Red Ink

Let’s run the numbers quickly. As I noted in my previous piece, Soundcloud’s revenue has grown for years. In 2010, the company recorded $1.8 million in top line; in 2012, $9.6 million; and, in 2014, $19.6 million.

But those gains came with rising losses. Soundcloud lost $2.01 million in 2010; $14.9 million in 2012; and $44.2 million in 2014.

The trend of impressive losses continued into 2015, when SoundCloud’s revenue increased by 10 percent to $22.5 million. Unfortunately, for the company, its losses grew by a larger 23.5 percent to $54.6 million in 2015.

And according to a recent Music Business Worldwide analysis, even post-cuts, Soundcloud won’t cut expenses to fully ameliorate its rising costs and royalty payments.

Major (Label) Gamble

Its cuts in staff are indicative of a larger problem. Namely, SoundCloud’s royalty payments are expensive. If Soundcloud’s payout to the major labels is similar to Spotify, it could reach the 80 percent mark of its subscription-sourced top line; in related topics, SoundCloud has consistently declined to comment on how much the major labels own of the company.

Adding to its financial picture, SoundCloud opened a $70 million credit line to keep its doors open.

While major label deals grant SoundCloud access to the world’s most popular catalogs, the royalty payments accompanying that catalog can be a Sisyphus-like experience.

The accompanying costs are high. For example, growth only accounts for one factor in determining a royalty payment. Other factors can range from the labels’ own fiscal bottom lines (which no streaming service can control) to the labels’ employment of a Most Favored Nation clause in their streaming contracts.

Major label content is also available through an array of streaming options: Spotify, Apple, (now) SoundCloud, Pandora, Tidal, and so forth. Given the number of services offering major label tunes, access to that content doesn’t make a streaming service unique. Rather, it gives the major labels outsized influence on a streaming service’s content offerings.

In Soundcloud’s case, the new major label paradigm likely impacted the now-beleaguered music streaming company in two ways:

  1. Major label deals changed SoundCloud’s value proposition. Due to its major label deal, Soundcloud could sell the same major label content as Spotify and Apple. SoundCloud would no longer be the home only for independent audio,  putting a pin in what arguably made the streaming service unique.
  2. The major label deals now required SoundCloud to pay the same piper as Spotify, Apple, and others.

All of this amplified SoundCloud’s already-noted strategic shift, and potential misstep: moving away from the independent music demographic—a group that it had performed well in previously.

Up until autumn 2015, SoundCloud primarily subsisted on independent music and user-generated content. But in the time it took SoundCloud to switch paradigms from the independent universe to the major labels, the market had changed. Whereas independent material up to 2015 was considered disinteresting to general consumers due to niche appeal, by the end of 2016, independent music streaming revenues made up $5.1 billion of the industry’s total haul of $16.1 billion. In fact, the independent market outsized Universal’s cut by more than $500 million.

Multiple arguments can be made about what has led the independent demographic to become the largest pie of the streaming-revenue pie. What’s clear, though, is that the old trope that’s been widely circulated about independent music—that nobody cares and it doesn’t make any money—is likely false.

From 2003-2012 alone, the independent landscape exploded in terms of participants. And it’s that market that Soundcloud likely ceded ground on due to its deals with major labels.

What Ifs And Takeaways

All this underscores SoundCloud’s decision to start down the major label path.

If it had made the same job cuts and office closures in 2015 that have now been enacted, then Soundcloud might look very different. The company might have been able to close the gap long enough for the numbers to show—as they are now—that independent music is a real area of growth in the music universe.

If that had happened, it might have given financial-credence to its massive independent catalog, independent-enthusiast userbase, and independent reputation. But the major label paradigm is like a lobster-trap; it’s very, very hard to back out of once you’re in.

Of course, all that assumes that Soundcloud would have been able to settle lawsuits and figure out a way to monetize its gigantic repository. Assuming it could, SoundCloud might now be the clear frontrunner in its own arena of music, almost completely removed from the whims and dynamics of the major label world which Spotify and Apple have to contend with.

What’s important to recognize now is that the music universe is multidimensional, and, with the explosive growth of independent content, it’s adding new layers by the day. SoundCloud’s plight should encourage—not dissuade—future would-be music-tech startups or entrepreneurs and investors. Let Spotify and Apple battle it out for the major label world; the independent universe is growing quickly anyway.

Whether it’s too late for Soundcloud to take advantage of that growth will depend on its ability to navigate its choppier, less-funded, waters.

The Streaming Wars Continue, And SoundCloud Is In The Balance

Originally published on Crunchbase News on May 17, 2017.


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It’s been a challenging year for SoundCloud. And its last quarter hasn’t made things any easier on the music-streaming startup.

Amidst a streaming war between Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and others, SoundCloud’s orange cloud is greying. Spotify passed on buying the company in December, it’s seen a patent dispute, a high-level shakeup, and multiple reports (here and here) have explored the possibility that it might run out of money by the year’s end.

The news has not been good for SoundCloud. (When contacted, SoundCloud declined to comment on its financial situation.)

So what comes next for the music company? The answer to that question is anchored on three points:

  1. The economics of streaming for non-label players.
  2. SoundCloud’s efforts to expand past its original, core user base.
  3. Its efforts to stabilize allegedly difficult financials.

We’ll approach each topic respectively to get a handle on how it will impact SoundCloud.

Streaming 101

To understand SoundCloud’s current financial situation, we have to understand streaming economics.

Streaming companies license material from two main sources: major labels and independent artists. In SoundCloud’s context, it’s the first content source which matters. Major labels set the standard royalty rates which services like SoundCloud must pay for access to their critical libraries.

It is notoriously difficult to pin down what a private music streaming company is paying in royalties. For companies like Spotify and Soundcloud, royalty payouts can total in the neighborhood of 70-85 percent of a company’s revenue.

To that point, rates released in reference to Spotify over the last few years have been all over the map. In 2013, Spotify released (via Stereogum) its own accounting of its royalty payout structure, which detailed that ~30 percent of generated stream revenue stays with Spotify while the other roughly 70 percent went to labels, publishers, and others. There was no mention of any additional costs.

In August 2016, however, Music Business Worldwide calculated that ~84 percent of Spotify’s topline went out the door for “royalty distribution and other costs.” Again, those other costs were not defined. Music Business Worldwide then followed up on its first statement and calculation with the note that Spotify’s precise royalty payout is believed to be just under 70 percent.

In 2017 alone, TechCrunch reported that Spotify’s royalty payout was 70-72 percent, except when other factors—like catalog geography and free vs. paid streaming—could bump the royalty payout as high as 84 percent. All this was before Spotify’s new deal that supposedly lowered royalty payouts in exchange for windowing. The aforementioned “extenuating factors” are so important to acknowledge precisely because they affect so much of any music company’s catalog.

So is Spotify’s royalty payout less than 70 percent, 70 percent even, 70-72 percent, greater than 70 percent, or even up to the low 80s? No one really knows except Spotify and the labels. Even using Spotify as a bar for understanding SoundCloud’s royalties leaves us convoluted

Of course, streaming services have an interest in limiting their payout rates, but streaming companies don’t have much leverage due to an imbalance of power. If SoundCloud or Spotify don’t have a major label’s catalog, either one could immediately start to shed subscribers to competing services not locked into the same label fight. In music streaming, platform diversification only flows in one direction.

Shifting Priorities

The streaming cost matter puts SoundCloud’s recent strategies into context.

SoundCloud cut its teeth licensing content in the independent world, a much different paradigm than Spotify or Apple Music. Because it built its success on independent material, SoundCloud wasn’t beholden to the major label oligarchy for material.

Priorities shifted when SoundCloud changed direction and pursued major label content on top of its independent catalog.

It signed deals with every major label, leading to a new direction for the company. When pressed last year, SoundCloud responded with the stark “no comment” on how much equity it may have provided to labels for access to the respective catalogs. Additionally, most of the deals hinged on SoundCloud releasing an on-demand premium service to directly compete with Spotify and Apple.

By summer 2016, SoundCloud had evolved into another major label distribution platform. This effectively posed the conundrum of potentially alienating its initial userbase, which might not have been inclined to see another mainstream music service as necessary in the first place.

Compounding the mainstream content conundrum, SoundCloud’s new catalog was the same mainstream content that its direct competitors were distributing. Further, SoundCloud was now compelled to build a new product to directly compete with Spotify, putting it in a position where it held less power for the content it licensed while burning money at a ridiculous rate.

Challenging Financial Realities

All that sums to the company’s current financial situation.

In order to understand the company’s fiscal situation as it stands today, it behooves us to remind ourselves what we know about its past performance.

As I previously wrote, SoundCloud’s financials in December of last year were as follows:

Revenue tracking upward (source):

  • 2010 – $1.8 million.
  • 2012 – $9.6 million.
  • 2014 – $19.6 million.

With losses ballooning (source):

  • 2010 – $2.01 million.
  • 2012 – $14.9 million.
  • 2014 – $44.2 million.

Based on the new numbers, SoundCloud’s revenue saw a 10 percent increase from $19.6 million in 2014 to $22.5 million in 2015. Its losses, however, increased dramatically by 81 percent, from $44.2 million in 2014 to $54.6 million in 2015.

Debt and Irony

Most recently, SoundCloud raised an additional $70 million in debt funding. With this round of debt funding, it’s likely that SoundCloud is trying to follow Spotify’s example by doubling down on their growth numbers long enough to find an exit. The problem with this strategy is that SoundCloud is nowhere near as big as Spotify, perhaps lowering its M&A potential. While this strategy presents challenges for Spotify as well, the analogy ends right there, since SoundCloud’s debt is barely a pittance of Spotify’s $1 billion debt raise.

Spotify’s delayed IPO casts a shadow of doubt on its smaller rival as well. If the company most obviously in line to acquire it has its own challenges to contend with, it’s clear that its attention will be on its own IPO, rather than a bail-out acquisition of SoundCloud—even at a fire-sale price.

Unfortunately, the reality for SoundCloud is this: the company has extremely unwieldy financials, and its main competitor—the company most likely to acquire them—just delayed its own IPO in order to figure out its own financial situation.

Uncertain Future

The faster that SoundCloud tries to shift to become more like Apple Music and Spotify, the more it runs the risk of highlighting it wasn’t trying to be like the standard streaming services at all.

Whether or not the summer will bring back the orange in our grey cloud remains to be seen.

Unbundled, Part I: Reformatting the Barriers

How unwrapping the previous barriers is changing music.

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This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published piece here:


The first movement in this symphony is the “unbundled” piece. It’s all about “reformatting” the conceptual barriers that initially existed for decades. It’s divided into two parts: Choice and Format.

The former is an exploration of how choice has evolved with the changing technology, and how it’s taken on a power it previously lacked. The latter, however, discusses how new formats have changed music and broken down barriers which artists historically were—most times—unable to scale. Similarly, it’s given light and life to format types which for decades have been ignored by the broad base of music consumers, except perhaps for the most die-hard fans.

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Choice

The first and most obvious form of unbundling in the music industry is the industry itself; no longer is there simply one music industry to partake in.

Now there are multiple, and they exist as completely separate universes; the major label mainstream, the exponentially growing independent industry, and everything in between. Along with this kind of unbundling of different musical arenas comes a freedom for music fans to explore in new ways.

Where non-mainstream fans were once relegated to shoddy mixtapes and bare-bones independent releases (which many times meant lower quality), now they have a plethora of music sources to choose from, as do all music listeners.

This leads to a level of choice the likes of which has never been seen in music. Now, it’s realistically possible to exist as a music fan outside the mainstream in a holistic way. You’re able to not only find the music that you like, and which speaks to you, but are similarly able to take advantage of growing communities of people like yourself. With the free access to all this new material comes access to other like-minded people.

This is community.

Chris Saad pointed to two distinct contributing factors which have lead us in this direction:

  • Reducing the cost of inventory and discovery to, in many cases, zero or near zero
  • Reducing the cost of direct communication and orchestration with more people at once—bypassing the need for manual mediators/editors/orchestrators/curators

Format

Saad’s post also mentioned this within the scope of musical format. What was once a record and CD has now become digital information, thus with more power to disseminate. Even the album format itself is restructuring, as fans looking for a single-song experience are abandoning the long form in favor of something musically shorter.

But this has a swing dynamic as well; while some argue that the album format is dying (or is already dead), many see the opposite.

The unbundling of the album format has actually given it more power than it had before. Now, when an artist chooses to create a full album, a fan knows that there is an artistic meaning behind that, rather than a record label’s fiscal bottom line.

It also lends long-overdue validation to releases that fall in between singles and full albums. EP’s and double-sides have long been ignored by most but the hardcore fans. Now, however, they exist with the same legitimacy as their gaunter and fuller peers.

The Ironic Thing

The ironic thing about these two points—choice and format—is that they’re inherently about one overarching concept: community.

As choice expands and begins to encompass formerly ignored genres and artists, new communities have the ability to coalesce and thrive. Choice isn’t merely about having new material for already established communities to engage in; alternatively, it can lead to a mixing of communities that otherwise might not happen.

Punks and jazz fans may begin to mix over a new punk-jazz fusion genre, and people who otherwise would never have met one another can now suddenly exist alongside each other. This leads to an increased level of creativity and an exponential production of creative material.

And this material is further disseminated throughout communities—splintering them and rebonding them—through new formats of information technology. Communities cease to be rigid and orthodox in their functionality towards music and instead become more elastic—they become living, breathing things which grow and continue to evolve.

This is the unbundling process within music as it should be: an unwrapping of previously rigid dynamics that lends more flexibility and power to the overall process of community cultivation.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part II: Shifting the Paradigm, which will take a look at the BUNDLED dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how bundling — but doing so incorrectly in the new era — impacts music consumption and community cultivation.

Stay tuned!


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

Unbundled: Introduction to the Bundle

Why the unbundling of the music universe matters.

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In recent years, the dynamics of bundling and unbundling have changed everything in media. But they’ve had an especially palpable effect on music.

This is an exploration of the bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in the music universe right now. Because of the massive amount of information discussed herein, it is necessary to cover it in series of parts, each explaining a particular aspect of change and restructuring.

This series will appear as the following:

  • Introduction to the Bundle
  • Part I: Reformatting the Barriers
  • Part II: Shifting the Paradigm
  • Part III: Democratizing the Future

Additionally, all four pieces (including the introduction) will subsequently appear as a single, holistic text, entitled: Unbundled: The Story of Music.

This is the first entry in the story.

A New Emerging Dichotomy of Freedom and Reach

A few months ago, Chris Saad penned an article on the dynamics of bundling, and how they’re affecting a number of fields. In his piece, Saad addressed how concepts of bundling are impacting areas of creativity like art and music, among others. Ironically, it had a similar air to Joshua Topolsky’s earlier article on media companies, which itself prompted my response on music-startup realities.

Such examples were only briefly mentioned, but one can go deeper on them, particularly in the way of music. Things are happening now to the age-old structure of music that arguably haven’t changed for the better part of five or six decades. And even that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Part of what was so intriguing about Saad’s examination of these morphing areas is just how much change is going on which is not being discussed. In many ways, Saad’s piece shines a light not only on the changing bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in music, but how these two different forms—yin and yang—are interacting with one another to shape a new musical landscape. What we see is an emerging dichotomy of freedom and reach that we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Three Trends in a Specific Order

Within the context of music, three trends—unbundling, bundling, and unbundling again—matter. And they matter in that sequence. This is so because each (un)bundling action touches a different area of the music arena, and thus their interaction together forms a new paradigm.

They lay out as follows:

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Covered in Part I, Reformatting the Barriers

  1. Choice
  2. Format

BUNDLED

Covered in Part II, Shifting the Paradigm

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

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Covered in Part III, Democratizing the Future

  1. Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization
  2. Ownership
  3. Money and Community
  4. The Expansive Powers of Identity

The music industry, like all other forms of media, is undergoing such a massive tectonic shift that we’re only beginning to now see how big the fissures are. The most interesting thing will be how these changing power paradigms affect the music coming out, and the communities which are built around the material.

Stay tuned!


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

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?

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.

SoundCloud’s Failed Highwire Balancing Act: The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

Trying (and Failing) to Balance Two Completely Different Paradigms

The SoundCloud-Sony Breakup

The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

It’s been a tough week for Sony between its leaked contract with Spotify and criticism over its moves with SoundCloud. And yet, inasmuch as the former is embarrassing and will certainly come back to bite the two companies, the latter is arguably more problematic because it’s not simply between Sony and SoundCloud; it’s between Sony, SoundCloud and the independent artists and fans. That last little caveat is something that Sony can afford to ignore—but it’s going to become an increasingly difficult reality for SoundCloud.

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

News broke over the last couple of weeks that Sony has started pulling their artists’ music from SoundCloud—regardless of what the artists want. To Sony, SoundCloud isn’t a viable option since it doesn’t presently have a strong monetization plan (as if services like Spotify and Rdio do), and until the label and streaming service can come to terms, it seems that any and all Sony-controlled material will be stripped from SoundCloud.

This has put SoundCloud in quite a precarious position. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to alienate its initial die-hard independent fanbase, but on the other it’s been actively seeking out a deal with Sony, as well as with the other two major labels, Warner and Universal (already having one in place with Warner). SoundCloud is trying to balance two completely different bases and paradigms that are moving in opposite directions: 1) the major label paradigm which is still predicated on an obsolete business model, and 2) the independent paradigm which is increasingly embracing “free” as a big part of the future.

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

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

What I Said a Month Ago

On April 9th, SoundCloud signed a deal with Zefr—that same day, I wrote a post on why independents should very soon kiss SoundCloud goodbye; why the Zefr deal was essentially irrelevant for them. It seems I wasn’t the only one who’d identified SoundCloud’s prospective problems, as a day later on April 10th, PandoDaily writer David Holmes came to the same conclusion and published a piece with a similar premise. Holmes’ post validated many of my points, and cleverly brought up a few others, all to conclude, as I had, that the Zefr deal was a band-aid for a bullet wound. And now the bullet wounds are really beginning to gush blood.

This week, electronic artist Madeon released a heavily critical statement regarding he Sony-SoundCloud breakup, noting: “Thank you SoundCloud for being such a great discovery platform over the past five years. Well done Sony for holding your own artists hostage.”

Ouch. Snap. Burn.

Clearly Madeon (along with droves of other EDM artists who’ve gained significant followings on SoundCloud) isn’t pleased with Sony’s “money first” thought process and strategy. And while Sony has the legal right to pull music which it holds the rights to, in the grand scheme, it’s not exactly a play which will endear it either to the fans it seeks, or the artists it works with. Actually, it has the complete opposite effect.

Who’s the First Priority?

But what lies beneath the surface of this very public breakup is not simply an issue for Sony, but a major issue for SoundCloud. People expect Sony to act like a major label—because that’s what it is. But increasingly, SoundCloud has been chasing the major label content which it thinks could help it become more competitive with Spotify, Rdio and Apple. In the process, it’s spitting in the faces of the people who loved SoundCloud for what it was before: free discovery.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.55.46 PM

Excerpt from my original April 9th article

And as SoundCloud moves closer to the major label paradigm, it becomes increasingly irrelevant for independent artists, regardless of genre. Independents are where SoundCloud cut its teeth, so now, moving away from the free-model will leave them somewhat toothless. Case in point: SoundCloud’s new NMPA deal, which, again, is irrelevant for independent artists.

The thing about the independents is that, unlike major label artists who are tied to the major label business model, they’re not tied to anybody. Their loyalty can and will be to whoever gives them the best service as a first priority, not an afterthought. This means the best service for the independents, not the best they can do after the major labels have had their fill. SoundCloud is trying to perform a balancing act on a razor-thin highwire and it’s 600lbs overweight. It’s trying to straddle two completely different business paradigms, and managing to piss everyone off in the process.

Free Is Here to Stay—Live With It

The free paradigm which the labels are beginning to get fed up with isn’t going away—something which Peter Kafka seized on in his article on Spotify. Free is a way of life now, and as independent artists continue to explore the benefits that free affords them, they will increasingly detach themselves from the obligations of the major label paradigm. Services like SoundCloud will eventually have to choose a side—something that’s going to be exceedingly difficult for SoundCloud now that they already have a deal with Warner and are chasing deals with the other two major labels.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.56.48 PM

Excerpt from my original April 9th article

It seems that they’ve already made their choice, and it won’t be too long before droves of independents notice. They don’t have to and won’t settle for being second-tier priorities, and will look for alternative options. In the meantime, Sony and SoundCloud will duke it out until the former signs the latter to a major label-style contract.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re an independent, kiss SoundCloud goodbye.