The Return of the Ethical Pool: @marchogan on User Centric Royalties

Marc Hogan has an interesting post on Pitchfork about “user centric” royalties.  (“Is There a Fairer Way for Streaming Services to Pay Artists?”)

He echoes the common arguments about user centric.  These theories are mostly about  comparisons to the current model of the “big pool” and its hyper-efficient market share distribution of streaming service revenues.  Or as Mr. Hogan puts it, a direct democracy vs. electoral college approach.  (Let’s remember what happened when the Greeks tried direct democracy.)

It’s not just that user centric is fair.  Life ain’t fair.  It’s that the big pool model is wildly inaccurate and deceives fans.  The problem with user centric isn’t that it’s too complex, it’s that by comparison the “big pool” method isn’t complex enough.

And let’s also realize that when you pay artists’ at a royalty rate that starts several decimal places to the right, there is no measurable downside in “not playing”–or withdrawing from the service altogether.  So the alternatives are not direct democracy or electoral college, it’s the much simpler choice of in or out.  If you don’t give me a good reason to be in, and if by being in I cannibalize higher margin sales, then maybe I just sit this one out.  (Hundreds of Quebec artists made this point recently.)

Of course, I’m willing to be educated otherwise, but it seems that the really simple thing would be to have a fixed per-play rate.  That’s definitely not true now, which makes this statement a bit bizarre:

Spotify’s chief economist, Will Page, has raised a couple of points in defense of the existing model. Under the current system, every time you stream a song, it has the same value….

If by “value” they mean “same pennies”, that is definitely not true in the big pool model.  Some labels have complex greater-of formulas (not to mention breakage and minimum guarantees) so while the streams may be counted the same (no bonus plays), the per play rates are definitely not identical.  That’s a big reason it takes so long to close Spotify’s label deals.  (There are two ways to juice royalties–play with the units (the plays for streaming) or play with the royalties (the micro pennies for streaming).  Streamers play with the royalties.  So far.)

I don’t underestimate the complexity in running the big pool and the true user centric models side by side under the same roof.  That is what makes it complex.  I have a solution to this challenge I call the ethical pool that is an intermediate step between the two that allows both to co-exist if the fans and the artists elect it to be so.  The problem the ethical pool seeks to solve is best summarized by a fan:  “Sick of my money funding crap”.

Mr. Hogan also makes another interesting point courtesy of ex-Spotify economist Will Page:

The biggest argument against the user-centric model is that it could be too complex. Calculating payouts based on every individual user’s listening is, inevitably, more complicated than just adding up the total and divvying up the pot. The extra administrative cost—say, figuring out what each person’s streams are worth each quarter and then distilling that into a semi-coherent pay statement—could actually leave artists with less money to go around, Page has maintained in a paper co-authored with an executive from music-licensing giant ASCAP. Changing systems wouldn’t be the right decision if it ends up hurting the people it’s supposed to help.

So it appears that Will is making a fundamental error here (presumably on behalf of Spotify).  The question is not whether Spotify will pass through its administrative costs to the artists.   Those costs come out of Spotify’s share.  I simply cannot imagine Apple or Amazon trying to pass along their costs of accurate accountings to the artists.  Google would certainly, but not the real competition for Spotify.

The question is which floor of the World Trade Center is Spotify going to sacrifice to cover these costs?

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