Spotify has an ESG problem, and a closer look may offer insights into a wider problem in the tech industry as a whole. If a decade of destroying artist and songwriter revenues isn’t enough to get your attention, maybe the Neil Young and Joe Rogan imbroglio will. But a minute’s analysis shows you that Spotify was already an ESG fail well before Neil Young’s ultimatum.
Streaming is an Environmental Fail
I first began posting about streaming as an environmental fail years ago in the YouTube and Google world. Like so many other ways that the BIg Tech PR machine glosses over their dependence on cheap energy right through their supply chain from electric cars to cat videos, YouTube did not want to discuss the company as a climate disaster zone. To hear them tell it, YouTube, and indeed the entire Google megalopolis right down to the Google Street View surveillance team was powered by magic elves running on appropriate golden flywheels with suitable work rules. Or other culturally appropriate spin from Google’s ham handed PR teams.
In 2011, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive, Rob Bernard, asked the company’s risk-assessment team to evaluate the firm’s exposure. It soon concluded that evolving carbon regulations and fluctuating energy costs and availability were significant sources of risk. In response, Microsoft formed a centralized senior energy team to address this newly elevated strategic issue and develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate risk. The team, comprising 14 experts in electricity markets, renewable energy, battery storage, and local generation (or “distributed energy”), was charged by corporate senior leadership with developing and executing the firm’s energy strategy. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Bernard says. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”
If environment is a C-suite issue at Spotify, there’s no real evidence of it in Spotify’s annual report (but then there isn’t at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, either). “Environment” word search reveals that at Spotify, the environment is “economic”, “credit”, and above all “rapidly changing.” Not “dirty”–or “clean” for that matter.
The fact appears to be that Spotify isn’t doing anything special and nobody seems to want to talk about it. But wait, you say–what about the sainted Music Climate Pact? Guess who hasn’t signed up to the MCP? Any streaming service. There is a “Standard Commitment Letter” that participants are supposed to sign up to but I wasn’t able to read it. Want to guess why?
That’s right. You know who wants to know what you’re up to.
Next: Spotify’s “Social” Fail: Rogan, Royalties and The Uyghurs
We hear from an increasing number of songwriters who are learning about what is going on in the current rate fixing movements at the Copyright Royalty Board, some for the first time. In a nutshell, the Copyright Royalty Board rate fixing is a hugely expensive process that puts generations of children through university among the participating lawyers and lobbyists. By the time the money gets through the snake, so to speak, that process results in what are, frankly, scraps delivered to the kitchen tables of songwriters at the end of the day.
The rate fixing proceeding sets the statutory rate for certain times of song uses that are mandated by the federal government. There are two main categories of statutory rates under that compulsory mechanical license: physical (sometimes called “Subpart B” rates) typically paid by record companies, and interactive streaming (sometimes called “Subpart C” rates) typically paid by services like Spotify. (At least theoretically paid–often not judging by the size of the $424 million black box that is still just sitting under the collective’s five year plan.)
We all know that songwriters have been crushed by the failure of streaming mechanical rates to keep pace with streaming’s cannibalization of physical carriers. What many songwriters do not know is that one reason why their mechanical royalty income has dropped is due to an agreement among the major players to freeze the physical mechanical rates at the 2006 level of a minimum rate of $0.091 (currently worth approximately $0.06), and then to extend that freeze several more times for a total of 15 years so far. (The freeze essentially codified the controlled compositions rate but applied to all songwriters in the world.) There is a current proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board in which the major players have reached an agreement to extend that 2006 freeze for another five years starting in 2023 and running to 2027. Shocking, I know.
In fact, the majors have now got themselves boxed into a corner on the interactive streaming rates that they are trying to increase. Why boxed? Obviously because the services are not stupid and if they see physical mechanical rates frozen when the record companies are paying, they ask why should the streaming rates increase when the services are paying? (And before you ask, this bid rigging is “legal” because everyone gets an antitrust exemption (17 USC §115(c)(1)(D). Cute.)
There is, of course, an unholy connection between statutory rates, controlled compositions clauses in record deals and mechanical royalties–see this post for the history. Let’s just say for this post that a page of history is worth a volume of logic.
The point I want to make to you in this post is that time is going by and no progress is being made in the current proceeding (styled “Phonorecords IV“) just like there’s no progress being made in the last proceeding (styled “Phonorecords III“); some people ask why these rates and appeals were not resolved in the giveaway that was part of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (aka the Harry Fox Preservation Act) which created the Mechanical Licensing Collective. If you’re going to make a major change to collectivize songwriters and vastly expand the scope of the compulsory mechanical license, shouldn’t you have gotten something for it? I’d count myself in the group that’s asking those questions so you know my bias. In a recent comment, I called the Copyright Royalty Board the “cornucopia of chaos,” which it is at least on the mismanaged mechanical royalty rates.
Inflation and Mechanicals
One thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that inflation is a major factor in determining any statutory royalty rate. This is certainly standard with the webcasting rates negotiated by SoundExchange with the same Copyright Royalty Board. It seems that if someone just asked for “indexing” the rates to inflation, the CRB just might give it. But no one is pushing on that open door except the songwriters and publishers who commented on the majors proposed settlement but who cannot afford to be part of the Phonorecords IV proceeding itself.
So leaving aside an increase in all of the actual rates that would reflect the value of songs, it does seem that we must accept the thinking of many economists that inflation is here to stay for a while and will surely extend into the 2023-27 rate period of Phonorecords IV. I’ve posted about these indicators before, but here’s some additional information. A cost of living adjustment seems like it should be a pro forma request–it only increases the rates if there is an actual increase in the cost of living as measured by an objective standard, typically the CPI-U (Consumer Price Index-Urban) measured by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since we are projecting at least two years into the future, let’s consider a few metrics that measure two years into the past. What is the trend line for inflation? Up and to the right, as they say.
US Inflation Rate
We normally don’t spill much ink on the stock market because markets go up and down, can’t pick a top and can’t pick a bottom. But–stock markets are often a leading indicator of the direction of growth in the broader economy so let’s look at what’s been happening in a few different measures. Remember–the conventional wisdom is that a 20% correction to the downside is the definition of a bear market.
I have been beating the stagflation war tocsin for quite some time now (since May 2021), and unfortunately I think the markets are waking up to the true-1970s style stagflationary environment we may be entering. This means lower growth combined with surging prices for consumers and producers. And that is truely bad news bears. (If you don’t know about 1970s stagflation, take a few minutes and read up on it. And even if you don’t, the negotiators of the statutory mechanical rates really should know. Some of them may have lived through it the first time around.)
The tech-heavy NASDAQ index has dropped about 14% since November, returning to February 2021 levels with no end in sight.
The broader Russell 2000 is more revealing with a 19% decline over a few weeks as more inflation/stagflation confirmation data comes in:
This broader decline is confirmed by the S&P 500:
And if you were looking for confirmation of declining retail sales as a measure of growth, consider Amazon’s stock performance:
A little closer to home, consider Spotify’s recent stock performance which shows its pandemic-fueled riches coming back to reality (although not so good for any employees who got a stock option grant in the last 18 months or so):
Remember, the bond market is exponentially larger than the stock market. We’ll come back to this, but consider what is happening in the bond market and think about this question: what could cause both the stock market and the bond market to decline?
US Savings Rate
The savings rate shows a couple of anomalies where the savings rate spiked to unnatural highs of 34% in a lockdown era and again to 27% after government stimulus, but–the savings rate has sharply declined to pre-pandemic 2018-ish levels Why? I would speculate that this is partly due to rising prices of goods to consumers, particularly energy, rent and food and the decline of “real” wages (nominal wages less inflation).
Consider a couple of inputs–there are many–but note for our purposes that these commodity prices are at or near recent highs, or are retracing recent highs. The trend line is up and to the right, which suggests that these prices are likely to continue upward into at least the first year of the Phonorecords IV rate period (2023) and potentially beyond.
However you feel about fossil fuels, the reality for singer/songwriters or bands is that the way they try to supplement their declining songwriting income is by touring and for almost everyone, touring means gasoline. I don’t have to tell you what gasoline prices are doing–you know whenever you fill up the van. This chart is a measure of gasoline futures, which is the bet that the commodity traders are making on the future price of gasoline (not the price at the pump where you live). Again, the trend line is up and to the right.
And of course if you’re going to make it to the gig or the writer room you’ll need to avoid that freezing to death thing and you’ll care about heating oil prices, up 70% year over year:
To take it a step back, crude oil is closing in on $100 a barrel due in part to exogenous supply side shocks and contractions. If crude goes over $100, we are in a whole new world that we have not seen since 2014.
So you get the idea, right? This is all evidence supporting a cost of living adjustment for mechanical royalties. When the stock market declines, particularly declines sharply as it is currently performing, that is largely to do an expectation of slower growth in the economy as a whole. They’ve been wrong before, but the market is actually a pretty good leading indicator of the direction of growth.
Declining stock prices foreshadow declining earnings which foreshadows declining economic growth. What happens when growth decreases? Inventories may drop, and supply declines (which is already happening and you know that if you’ve been to the grocery store lately). GDP may also decline.
Remember the stagflation three point play? In this chart, Y1 GDP declines in Y2.
Lower growth or economic stagnation is the “stag” part of stagflation.
When bond prices go down, typically interest rates are trending up, which signals an inflationary outlook. If current bond prices decline because interest rates are increasing (or are anticipated to increase), that is most likely anticipating the Federal Reserve’s announced rate increases in 2022. The number of rate increases is anticipated to be somewhere between three and five (some say even six) in 2022. The Fed increases interest rates to tamp down inflation, so you can say that lower bond prices (which vary inversely to interest rates) is anticipating the “inflation” part of 1970s-style stagflation. Just to be clear, this is all readily available public information.
It’s becoming more obvious that we are watching a slow moving train wreck (cynics like me might say we’re beginning to get hit with the balloon payment for 2008 after 15 years of quantitative easing, but that’s a story for another day). The slower the train wreck, the more likely the wreck will occur during the Phonorecords IV rate period. Since the Federal Reserve is still busily printing money, these metrics are all leading indicators of how much blood will be left on the floor starting around March 2022 or so. And we haven’t even talked about what the announced Federal Reserve rate hikes will do to the housing market even if each one is a relatively small increase.
You don’t need an expert economist to produce any original research on this for the CRB–the question for songwriters is why don’t we already have a government rate indexed to inflation? The indexed rate is only paid if you actually get an increase in the CPI, which even then only preserves the value of whatever nominal rate you do have–it’s not a “real” rate increase. So why not at least try to get a cost of living adjustment? There’s no reason not to at least try to get indexing on every statutory rate which was the standard approach on mechanicals for many years after 1978 until the 2006 freeze. Unless your bonus is tied to a big percentage increase in the headline rate rather than the less obvious indexing that would actually protect the value of songs.
Which all seems to be to be so obvious that if you don’t have it you’d have to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? The odds are all on the house.
On June 24 of last year, a group of legislators and musicians gathered on Capitol Hill to introduce the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA). The AFM and the MusicFIRST Coalition worked closely with members of Congress to help craft the AMFA. If adopted, the bipartisan bill will establish a performance right for sound recordings, ensuring that all of the performers, musicians, and others involved in the creation of a recording will receive fair compensation for its broadcast on AM/FM radio. Among the supporters was bassist Ken Casey, member of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) and longtime frontman of the Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys. It was hardly the first time Casey has lent his voice to a cause.
Together for more than 25 years, the Dropkick Murphys originated in 1996 when Casey, then a bartender at Symphony Hall in Boston, accepted a bet from a co-worker. He’d never played an instrument before, but he vowed he could win the bet by starting a band, and soon they were rehearsing in the basement of a nearby barbershop.
Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars large media corporations like iHeartRadio make from advertisers, they never share a penny of that with the musicians who create the music. Musicians deserve compensation for work—just like everyone else. Sign the American Music Fairness Act petition, visit https://bit.ly/AMFA-fairpay
All of the economic indicators are telling us that inflation is going to be around for a while–so songwriters should expect some cost of living adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index when the Copyright Royalty Board sets mechanical royalty rates, especially for the frozen mechanical rate on physical phonorecords. Why do I say that?
The Producer Price Index for 2021 was measured at 9.7% by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest calendar year increase since 2010. The PPI is a leading indicator of inflation as measured by the CPI because it measures a large basket of raw inputs and future price increases that will affect the CPI in weeks or months.
The University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment fell to 68.8%, its second lowest level in a decade (the lowest being in November 2021). The survey also measured “confidence in government economic policies is at its lowest level since 2014.” The consumer sentiment survey indicates that consumers expect bad times ahead, or at least expensive times. This can have a pronounced effect on consumer inflation expectations.
Consumer inflation expectations remained unchanged after rising strongly over the last year, particularly the one-year outlook. Inflation expectations can be a self-fulfilling driver of inflation for a number of reasons such as FOMO pricing on homes and cars as well as wages–if you expect inflation to rise x% in the next 12 months, today you will seek wage increases of at least x% (if not more).
All of this tells us that the entire idea of extending the freeze on statutory mechanical royalties gets more absurd by the day. It’s entirely reasonable to “index” statutory mechanical royalties during the current rate setting period of 2023-2027 as we’ll all be very lucky to get through that period without suffering crippling inflation that will further erode the 2006 rates the CRB has used for the past 15 years.