#BrokenRecord? Using the COVID-19 crisis to re-evaluate streaming shares

For music fans in COVID-19 lockdown the #TimsTwitterListeningParty initiative, started by The Charlatan’s frontman Tim Burgess, has been a godsend.

In the absence of live shows and festivals, every evening an online audience gathers on Twitter to enjoy 2 or 3 classic albums from start to finish. To take part, you simply synchronise watches, and then hit “play” on your vinyl, CD, cassette, download or stream.

Listeners are joined by the artists behind those albums, or others involved in their making, who contribute minute-by-minute commentary and answer questions.

The selections veer towards 80s / 90s classics but they’ve included the likes of Gwenno, Super Furry Animals, New Order, Sleaford Mods, Aztec Camera, Oasis, Blur, The Style Council, The Cult, Haircut 100, The Avalanches, Orange Juice, Teenage Fanclub, Prefab Sprout, The Cocteau Twins, The Pogues, The Chemical Brothers, The Flaming Lips, Pulp, Suede and Heaven 17.

And a heavy dose of The Charlatans, of course. Which feels fair enough. Chef’s prerogative and all that. Plus Tim’s clearly undertaken a lot of hard work for free.

In fact, he should probably receive some kind of industry recognition for the joy he’s created. Twitter have already awarded him an emoji.

The experience of sitting through, say, New Order’s Power Corruption & Lies, with Gillian Gilbert, Stephen Morris and Dave Haslam chipping in, alongside thousands of like minded souls, creates a genuine sense of camaraderie. Memories trigger emotions, but it’s definitely not a nostalgia trip. There’s also a tinge of sadness, that we’re all cooped up, unable to share each other’s company. Though we’re very much together, as the parties’ tagline highlights, we’re very much apart.

The experience is also a stark reminder that, for all the pain and turmoil unfurled by COVID-19, the impact would have been significantly worse had this catastrophe hit us 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. Without technology we’d be utterly disconnected. Without streaming, the recorded business would be facing imminent collapse. Artists would be cut adrift.

Which brings us to another discussion that the parties have instigated – the misfiring economics around recorded music.

Tim himself even addressed this in a much-shared Tweet published on Sunday night.

https://twitter.com/Tim_Burgess/status/1257052288478261251?s=20

Of course, artists have always voiced complaints of bad deals and sharp practices, but at least when you bought a record, a cassette, a CD, a minidisc or a download (aka “a unit”), you did so in the knowledge that a proportion of your money was returned to the artist and songwriter, as well as the record label and music publisher they were signed to.

I suspect most people assume a similar thing happens on streaming services.

That the cost of subscription is divvied up amongst all the artists and songwriters they play in a certain month, minus whatever cut is taken by the platform.

So if I were (am) a massive Super Furry Animals fan, and I only streamed SFA albums – including Mwng at #TimsTwitterListeningParty- then I would assume SFA, via their label and publisher, would get the entire artist and songwriter allocation of my subscription. Just like they would for those listening to Mwng on vinyl or CD.

That would seem fair, correct and comprehensible, and help retain the bond between artist and audience.

However, one of the quirks of streaming, is that it broke the model of “unit-based” retail.

Payments are instead allocated on a “market share” basis. In effect, everyone’s subscription and advertising money is pooled into a central pot, and then divvied up on the basis of popularity.

So although I might be listening to SFA for the entire month, the bulk of my subscription money will likely be paid out to artists I haven’t actually played. Or might not even like.

Because of this, the idea of a “per stream rate” – calculating how much an artist receives “per play” – is a bit of a red herring. It’s not really how the royalties flow.

And that’s before you dig into concepts like “breakage” or “advances” – which is where the real money is, with substantial multi-million dollar upfront payments to major rights holders which may or may not be passed down to their acts.

If this sounds complicated and untransparent, that’s because it is.

The audit trail of streaming revenues is fiendishly difficult to unpick – and has been explored in detail via the MMF’s long-running Dissecting The Digital Dollar initiative. This groundbreaking work, started in 2015, has kickstarted any number of conversations and debates, and helped managers, artists and songwriters better comprehend the licensing ecosystem.

However, with streaming last year accounting for 56% of global recorded revenues – according to MBW, the major labels are now generating over $1m every hour from streaming – and with live music on shutdown for the foreseeable, the drive to reconnect what a subscriber pays for and who receives their subscription fee appears more compelling than ever. Not only economically, but also psychologically and even morally.

Calls to rethink and recalibrate existing licensing models are increasing in volume.

Last year, French streaming service Deezer announced plans to road test the concept of “user-centric licensing” – whereby a user’s subscription fee goes only to the artists and songwriters that they play. The MMF Board has backed such a test. Not only could it provide vital information about the implications of licensing reform, it could also eliminate streaming fraud.

Others argue that, because streaming is difficult to define (not quite a download, not quite radio) at least a portion of revenues should be distributed as “public performance”. Effectively they should be ring fenced for performers and writers, and flow straight to their bank accounts.

Or that the price of a monthly subscription, which has been pegged at £9.99 for well over a decade, should simply be raised.

The counter arguments to reform, and to reevaluate licensing blueprints established in the mid-2000s, are almost laughably obtuse, and it feels there are few incentives for winners under the current system to upset the status quo and commit to a rigorous study of other – and potentially fairer – licensing and payment models.

In the midst of our current crisis, with artists and songwriters increasingly dependent upon charity and one-off emergency funding payments, that resistance feels untimely and self-serving.

The issue is less the amount of money being generated by streaming – $11.4bn in 2019 according to this week’s IFPI report – but how that money is distributed within the industry.

Table IFPI GLOBAL MUSIC REPORT

What we can’t do in this debate is relegate the many positive impacts of technology – which, let’s face it, has lifted the record business from its knees, and propelled it back to growth, as well as opening global opportunities to a whole generation of artists.

To go down that road would, surely, would be the biggest calamity of all. Nobody wants to return to a mythical “golden past”, but right now, in the heart of this nightmare, is a perfect moment to address the economics of streaming, to reevaluate the split of revenues, and plot a fairer and more equitable course to the future.

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All statements in this report attributable to IFPI represent MMF’s interpretation of data, research opinion or viewpoints published as part of the IFPI Global Music Report in May 2020, and have not been reviewed by IFPI. Each IFPI publication speaks as of its original publication date (and not as of the date of this report).

Chief Executive of the Music Managers Forum UK. Representing managers by campaigning for a fairer, more transparent music industry for artists and fans.

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