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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.