Assuming the contract’s authenticity, there’s not a lot in there that’s particularly revelatory for those of us who’ve been closely following the ongoing debates over on-demand streaming services. However, it does offer confirmation of certain controversial practices, and a snapshot of some of the dynamics associated with service design. Here are some key points to keep in mind.
It’s no secret that debates over the role and structure of on-demand streaming services continue to be a source of ongoing controversy. Unfortunately, too often, these debates are framed in terms of the impacts on the largest commercial players or net industry revenues. This can be valuable as an entry point, but it can also be flattening; streaming critics and supporters alike may have a diverse range of reasons for the opinions they hold. Part of what we try to do at FMC is encourage a deeper understanding of the full breadth of independent perspectives, and to that end, we’ll be hosting a series of guest posts exploring the streaming issue from multiple angles. To kick it off, here’s some thoughts from Joe Steinhardt, owner of independent label Don Giovanni Records and a PhD Candidate in Communication at Cornell.
I’ve talked a lot about Taylor Swift these past couple of weeks. She’s a bona fide superstar, and people wanna know what’s up with her decision to pull catalog from Spotify. But all the hullaboo has also created opportunities to discuss how the current marketplace works for artists who aren’t among music’s one percent. The musicians and songwriters I know are hardly lazy or entitled; they want to pursue artistic excellence and have that excellence rewarded. Everyone at FMC is delighted that artists are speaking up and helping to refocus the debate from the tired “content versus tech” binary. Because that leaves an awful lot of important stuff out.
Streaming music is getting a lot of attention lately. Some of this is because country/pop superstar Taylor Swift removed her catalog from Spotify, and majormediaoutlets like to ask folks like us what it means. But Spotify isn’t the only streaming game in town: there’s also Internet radio, which is an entirely different animal when it comes to how royalty rates are calculated and how musicians are paid.
By guest blogger Taylor Lambert and Kevin Erickson
In the age of on-demand streaming, it’s common to hear people talk about music as “limitless”— something that flows forth endlessly like water. Indeed, musicians around the world release a huge volume of new music every day. But in practice, most consumers’ exposure to the world of new music is extremely limited. It’s one of the thorniest problems—if there’s so much music out there, why do consumers end up being exposed to so little of it? Why should the music marketplace be a winner-take-all system?
Of course, whether or not you view this as a problem to be solved could depend on whether you’re fortunate enough to be one of the “winners.” Still, media critics have long pointed to the role of gatekeepers who exercise considerable control what music reaches audiences. From radio programmers to retail managers to talent buyers to music reviewers and beyond, the most powerful labels do their best to keep their offerings front and center—often at the expense of independents. Radio is the still the number one source of “music discovery,” but commercial AM/FM radio broadcasters in this era of ownership consolidation tend to be highly risk-averse in their programming choices. Playlists are narrow and repetitive, as our research has documented. It has been the strong hope of the independent sector that online music services would be more democratic, allowing more artists to find audiences than was possible in the old-school media world.
Musicians are a very adaptable bunch, particularly independents. We’re the ones who turned the original MySpace into a powerhouse of music discovery; we’ve made Twitter an important platform for conversations about music; we continue to drive eyeballs to YouTube. Unfortunately musicians have also experienced the hassles of having a once-dependable platform disappear or transform into something that isn’t so useful, like when MySpace went Murdoch or the recent changes to Facebook.
Musicians’ needs in the digital realm might not be simple, per se, but they should be recognized. Although artists are generally enthusiastic about digital tools to reach fans, raise capital and sell stuff, we’re less thrilled when an online service goes away or is modified to the extent that its less useful. When news broke recently that streaming on-demand site Beats Music had acquired Topspin—a well-liked, direct-to-fan commerce solution for musicians—many wondered what this would mean for artists who had come to depend on its suite of services.
I’d love to tell you that I’ve explored every single feature on the newly-launched Beats Music streaming service, but I’ve pretty much been stuck on the Mojo Magazine-curated “New Psych Revolution” and “BritFolk Treasures” playlists. read more
Yesterday, on-demand music streaming service Spotifydid something pretty big by explaining in detail how it calculates and pays out royalties to rightsholders. With so many music industry pundits and practitioners in a tizzy about the economics of streaming, this move can be generally seen as positive. But as always, the devil is in the details.
It is certainly significant that Spotify took this step—probably long overdue—and we hope that it serves to increase the standard of transparency across the digital music sector. When a market leader like Spotify makes this kind of move, it can be a spur to other players to follow suit. However, it doesn’t really change much in terms of artist leverage on streaming on-demand services, nor does it impact most musicians and songwriters’ bottom lines. We spend a great deal of time considering this stuff—in fact, our own Kristin Thomson recently wrote a post for Music Think Tank about ways to make streaming music more viable for artists. (And if you need a primer on how the money flows on a variety of music platforms, check out these handy charts.)