Dance Like Nobody’s Playing: Another call for user-centric royalties

I used to laugh off Spotify’s never ending stream of public messaging disasters–if screwups were Easter eggs, Daniel Ek would be the Easter Bunny hopping from one to another to make sure he scooped them all into his basket.  But the stark double entendre of Spotify’s latest campaign is the end of funny.  Hopefully it’s one more step on the road to user-centric royalties.

As reported in Hypebot, Spotify’s latest attempt to commoditize the value of music got artists and fans up in arms.

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This message is obviously offensive (but the underlying business practice is no doubt permitted under Spotify’s major label licenses–which raises a whole other question of how much longer does a publicly traded venture-backed money-losing company with a $25 billion market cap deserve to get special royalty free deals).

So Spotify is insulting, what else is new.  Underneath that message is another subtext, though:  Dance like nobody’s paying because nobody’s playing.  Or said another way, the machines are playing.  As Laura Kobylecky noted in a prescient post on MusicTechPolicy, the Spotify “fake artist” controversy has some ominous ancestry.

The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.”

From1984 by George Orwell

In the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984, there is a machine called a “versificator.” The versificator makes what might be called “fake” music—songs that are “composed without any human intervention whatever.” In April of 2016, “A New Rembrandt” was revealed (1). The painting, like the songs of a versificator, was made by machines. In August of 2016, Music Business Worldwide (2) accused Spotify of “creating fake artists.” What is a fake artist? Can music be fake?

The world of 1984 is a grim place. Members of the “Party” have access to resources based on their rank. The rest of society are called “Proles.” The term is short for the “proletarian” and refers to the working class. The Proles make up the majority of society, and so the Party provides them with various sources of entertainment to keep them from getting too restless.

The versificator is one of the entertaining distractions made by the Party. A versificator generates songs that are “composed without any human intervention whatever.” The results range from insipid love songs like “Hopeless Fancy,” to the “savage, barking rhythm” of the “Hate Song”—designed to stir rage against political enemies.   The novel’s protagonist describes one of these songs as “dreadful rubbish.”

But the Proles like it fine. The song “Hopeless Fancy,” takes hold among them and “haunts” London for weeks. In this case, the art of the machine seems adequate for consumption.

So if you dance like nobody’s paying, realize that it’s entirely possible that nobody is paying because nobody’s playing, either.  Spotify can use either the free trial or the fake artist to drive down the royalties the company pays out to flesh-and-blood artists, particularly the ones that lack the leverage to get one of the goodie packed deals with minimum guarantees, greater of formulas, per-subscriber minima and non recoupable technology payments or breakage.  And then there’s the stock.

What would fix this is switching to user-centric royalties or what MTS readers will recall as the “ethical pool”.  No freebies, every artist is paid for every stream and fans are not deceived into believing that their monthly subscription goes to the artists they listen to rather than the ones they don’t ever stream.  If people could manage to look beyond this quarter’s results, the future is waiting.

How about “Dance like creators are paid fairly”?  Now there’s a message–it has a nice beat and you can dance to it.

 

@musically: Spotify CEO says Libra currency could help listeners ‘pay artists directly’ — Artist Rights Watch

Earlier this week, Facebook announced a new blockchain-powered currency called Libra, and a digital wallet for it called Calibra. Spotify was among the companies backing the plans by becoming a founder member of the independent Libra Association.

Now Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has been talking about his hopes for Libra, including the suggestion that it could one day facilitate direct payments to musicians from fans.

“I think like cryptocurrencies and blockchain are obviously two of the biggest buzzwords you can have today. And for me, I don’t think technology in itself is that interesting· What I do think is interesting is what we can do with that technology,” said Ek, in an interview for Spotify’s own Culture: Now Streaming podcast.

“What everyone who’s a part of Libra is trying to accomplish is: it’s interesting that we have all these different currencies, all of these different ways of doing things. But the reality is, there’s several billion people around the world that don’t even have access to a bank account,” he continued….(Whatever you think of Libra, the fact that Spotify is, right up to CEO level, even thinking about direct payments from fans to artists is a significant talking point for anyone mulling how the streaming service will evolve in the coming years.)

Read the post on MusicAlly

The Elusive Obelus: Streaming’s Problem With Denominators

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

No matter how much people would like to deflect it, the unvarnished per stream rate is an ever diminishing income stream.  Given the number of calculations involved for both sound recording and song, it is likely that the total end-to-end cost of rendering the accountings for the streams costs more than the royalty earned on that stream by any one royalty participant.  Solving this problem is the difference between a short-term stock-fueled sugar high and a long-term return of shareholder value for all concerned.  So now what?

If you’re someone who receives or calculates streaming royalties, you’re already familiar with the  problem of the ever-decreasing per-stream rate.  The Trichordist’s definitive “Streaming Price Bible” for 2018 confirms this trend yet again, but simple math explains the problem of the revenue share allocation.

Remember that the way streaming royalties are calculated in voluntary agreements (aka “direct deals”) revolves around a simple formula (Formula A):

(Payable Revenue ÷ Total Service Streams) x Your Streams = Per Stream Rate

Which may also be expressed as Formula B:

Payable Revenue x (Your Streams ÷ Total Service Streams) = Your share of revenue

(Formula A and B are also known as “the big pool” in the user-centric or Ethical Pool models.)

Here’s the trick–it’s in the correlation of the rate of increase over time of the numerator and the denominator.  If you focus on any single calculation you won’t see the problem.  You have to calculate the rate of change over time.  Simply put, if the numerator in either Formula A or Formula B increases at a lower rate than the denominator, then the quotient, or the result of the division, will always decline as long as those conditions are met.  That’s why the Streaming Price Bible shows a declining per-stream rate–a contrarian fact among the hoorah from streaming boosters that sticks in the craw.

Services make these accounting calculations monthly for the most part, and they are calculated a bit differently depending on the service.  This is why the Streaming Price Bible has different rates for different services, rates that vary depending on the terms of the contract and also the amount of “Payable Revenue” that the service attributes to the particular sound recordings.

The quotient will also vary depending on the copyright owner’s deal.  If you add downside protection elements such as contractual per stream or per subscriber minimums, then you can cushion the decline.

This is also true of non-recoupable payments (such as direct payments that are deemed to be recoupable but not returnable, or “breakage”).  Nonrecoupable payments are just another form of nominal royalty payable to the copyright owner, and increase the overall payout.  And of course, the biggest nonrecoupable payment is stock which sometimes pays off as we saw with Spotify.  These payments may or may not be shared with the artist.  (See the WIN Fair Digital Deals Pledge.)

So each of the elements of both Formula A and Formula B are a function of other calculations. We’re not going to dive into those other elements too deeply in this post–but we will note that there are some different elements to the formulas depending on the bargaining power of the rights owner, in this case the owner of sound recordings.

So how is it that the per-stream rate declines over time in the Streaming Price Bible?

Putting the Demon in the Denominator

Back to Formula B, you’ll note that the function “Your Streams ÷ Total Service Streams” looks a lot like a market share allocation.  In fact, if the relevant market is limited to the service calculating the revenue share allocation, it is a market share allocation of service revenue by another name.  When you consider that the customary method of calculating streaming royalties across all services is a similar version of Formula B, it may as well be an allocation of the total market on a market share basis.

Note that this is very different from setting a wholesale price for your goods that implies a retail price.  A wholesale price is a function of what you think a consumer would or should pay.  When a service agrees to a minimum per stream or per subscriber rate, they are essentially accepting a price term that behaves like a wholesale price.

For most artists and indie labels, the price is set by your market share of the subscription fees or ad rates that the service thinks the market will bear based on the service’s business goalsnot based on your pricing decision.

Why is this important?  A cynic might say it’s because Internet companies are in the free lunch crowd–they would give everything away for free since their inflated salaries and sky-high rents are paid by venture capitalists who don’t understand a thing about breaking artists and investing in talent.  You know, the kind of people who would give Daniel Ek a million dollar bonus when he hadn’t met his performance targets, stiffed songwriters for years and gotten the company embroiled in multimillion dollar lawsuits.  But had met the only performance target that mattered which was to put some cosmetics on that porker and push it out the door into a public stock offering.  (SPOT F-1 at p. 133: “In February 2018, our board of directors determined to pay Mr. Ek the full $1,000,000 bonus based on the Company’s 2017 performance though certain performance goals were not achieved…”)

But long-term, it’s important because one way that royalties will rise is if the service can only acquire its only product at a higher price.  Or not.  The other way that royalties will rise is if services are required to pay a per-stream rate that is higher than the revenue share rate.  How that increase is passed to the consumer is up to them.  Maybe a move from World Trade Center to Poughkeepsie would help.

The Streaming Price Bible is based on revenue for an indie label that did not have the massive hits we see on Spotify.  In this sense, it is the unvarnished reality of streaming without the negotiated downside protection goodies, unrecoupable or nonreturnable payments, and of course shares of stock.  While some may say the Bible lacks hits, that’s kind of the point–hits mask a thousand sins.  Ask any label accountant.

Will Consumption Eat Your Free Lunch?

Let’s say again: The simple explanation for the longitudinal decline of streaming royalties measured by the Streaming Price Bible is that the rate of change across accounting periods in the “Payable Revenue” must be greater than the rate of change in the total number of streams in order for the per-stream rate to increase–otherwise the per-stream rate will always decrease.  Another way to think of it is that revenue has to increase faster than consumption, or consumption will eat your lunch.

What if you left the formula the same and just increased the revenue being allocated?  Services will probably resist that move.  After all, when artists complain about their per-stream rate, the services often answer that the problem is not with them, it is with the artist’s labels because the services pay hundreds of millions to the labels.

We don’t really have much meaningful control over what goes in the monthly payable revenue number (i.e., the mathematical “dividend” or numerator).  What kinds of revenue should be included?  Here are a few:

–all advertising revenue from all sources
–e-commerce transactions
–bounties or referral fees, including  recoupable or non-refundable guarantees
–sponsorships
–subscription income
–traffic or tariff charges paid by telcos
–revenue from the sale of data

Services will typically deduct “small off the tops” which would include
–VAT or sales tax
–ad commissions paid to unaffiliated third parties (usually subject to a cap)

Indie labels and independent artists may not have the leverage to negotiate some of these revenue elements such as revenue from the sale of data for starters.  Other elements of the revenue calculation for indie labels and artists will also likely not include the downside protections, subscriber target top up fees and the like.

And of course the biggest difference is that indie labels (at least not in the Merlin group who may) typically do not get nonreturnable advances,  nonrecoupable payments, or stock.

Is That All There Is?

Why should we care about all this?  There is a story that is told of negotiations to settle a lawsuit against a well-known pirate site.  One of the venture capitalists backing the pirates told one of the label negotiators that he could make them all richer through an IPO than any settlement they’d ever be able to negotiate.

The label executive asked, lets’ say we did that, but then what happens?  You say we should adapt, but you’re still destroying the industry ecosystem so that there’s nothing left to adapt to.  The most we could make from an IPO would cover our turnover for a year at best.  And we would be dependent on your success, not our artists’ success.

Then what?

 

 

 

 

 

Ethical Props–How Streamers Can Empower Fans on the Path to Sustainability 

[This post first appeared in the MusicTechPolicy Monthly Newsletter, if you’d like future issues, subscribe to email updates for MusicTech.Solutions]

After the one-time pop of Spotify’s public stock offering cash-out, the new reality is going to be increasingly obvious–we’re stuck for at least a generation with trading high margin physical for low-to-no margin streaming royalties.  That stock-fueled sugar high created a near-total dependence on big minimum guarantees and non recoupable payments from streamers–if you could get those payments.  But the bad thing about non-recurring income is that it’s non-recurring. Spotify’s stock price is already testing lower lows near the $110 level, $7 above it’s 52 week low, but $80 below its 52 week high.

Now what?  I’ve heard a lot of discussion about my “Ethical Pool” approach to streaming royalties, but any “user-centric” model isn’t going to fix the low-to-no margin streaming royalty problem by itself.  The streaming hole is dug too deep.   
Strange as it may seem, streamer Tencent from the People’s Republic of China may have started a helpful social trend, and Apple is translating that trend into a business practice. Both companies present a teachable moment and an opportunity for the Ethical Pool’s mutual opt-in by fans and the artists they love in the form of micropayments I will call “Ethical Props”.

There’s three obvious things we know about streaming if we know nothing else:  Everyone who works for Spotify got even richer in their stock market cashout while the overwhelming majority of artists and songwriters on the service languish;  per-stream royalties are pitiful which matters if you don’t get minimum guarantees;  plus streamers lose money because they spend too much on overhead, especially salaries and rent.

There’s a less obvious problem we know but that doesn’t come up very often–streamers don’t empower fans to reward the artists they love, much less the songwriters who write the music it all starts with.  Imagine if fans could actually give money directly to their artists (and sign up for direct communications outside of the service).

But–thanks to inspiration from Tencent’s “virtual gift” feature, artists may have renewed negotiation leverage in actually getting streamers to empower fans to make direct contributions to the artists they love in the form of small “Ethical Prop” payments.  Of course, in order to be entitled to be “ethical” handle, the streaming services–including Tencent–will have to make some changes in their current business practice.

Which should be welcomed by all concerned.  As Sony Music as well as Taylor Swift and Universal Music Group recently demonstrated, ethical business is good business.  Both labels have agreed to pass through to artists a share of each label’s Spotify stock windfall on a non-recoupment basis–we’ll come back to that nonrecoupment part.

Simply put, Tencent allows users (all users, subscription or ad-supported service) to make virtual gifts in the form of micropayments directly to artists they love.  (The feature is actually broader than cash and applies to all content creators, but let’s stay with these socially-driven micropayments to artists or songwriters.)

Tencent, of course, makes serious bank on these system-wide micropayments.  As Jim Cramer noted in “Mad Money” last week:
“Tencent Music is a major part of the micropayment ecosystem because they let you give virtual gifts,” Cramer said. “If you want to tip your favorite blogger with a song, you do it through Tencent Music. In the latest quarter we have numbers for, 9.5 million users spent money on virtual gifts, and these purchases accounted for more than 70 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue.”
And that’s real money.  Tencent actually made this into a selling point in their IPO prospectus:
We are pioneering the way people enjoy online music and music-centric social entertainment services. We have demonstrated that users will pay for personalized, engaging and interactive music experiences. Just as we value our users, we also respect those who create music. This is why we champion copyright protection-because unless content creators are rewarded for their creative work, there won’t be a sustainable music entertainment industry in the long run. Our scale, technology and commitment to copyright protection make us a partner of choice for artists and content owners.
That sounds like these guys read the blog!

But–how to make “music-centric social entertainment services” into the Ethical Props? First, the streamer needs to take a smaller cut and they need to do some “Artist Services” work for their share.  If you want to get paid for artist services, then serve the artist for your payment (to get all antimetabole about it).

Spotify and Apple need to create the infrastructure that invests fans with the power to directly support the artists they love.  This empowerment will become increasingly important as more and more fans get woke with the main driver of the Ethical Pool–fans discovering that the very large lion’s share of the subscription fee they pay goes to music they don’t listen to performed by artists they’d never listen to. This ought to apply to both ad-supported and subscription services.

In addition to the Ethical Prop button, services need to empower fans to connect directly with the artists they love through an email list if the artist has one.  
In the background, the service may facilitate transactions like a “Fulfilled by Amazon” service that generates a 1099K (like Kickstarter) or an Apple in-app purchase.  In fact, the Chinese micropayments reportedly influenced Apple to change its in-app purchase policies, which make a good guideline for putting the “ethical” into an Ethical Prop:
Apps may enable individual users to give a monetary gift to another individual without using in-app purchase, provided that (a) the gift is a completely optional choice by the giver, and (b) 100% of the funds go to the receiver of the gift. However, a gift that is connected to or associated at any point in time with receiving digital content or services must use in-app purchase.

(That’s section 3.2.1(vii) in Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines for those reading along at home.)

Following Apple’s lead, Ethical Props should be given at the option of the fan and 100% of the funds should go to the artist directly (but not in lieu of a royalty).  Because the payment is optional for the fan, micropayments ought not to be taken into account in any rate setting hearing or negotiation.

And here’s where the “nonecoupable” issue returns–these monies should be paid directly each artist who opts-in to the feature.  Sony and Universal learned to leave some on the table–we’ll see how far that goes.  But certainly independent creators should get the benefit of 100% of any Ethical Prop.

On the songwriter side–now that lyrics are so prevalent and even Spotify is adding songwriter credits, it should be pretty simple for the discerning fan to give an Ethical Prop to a credited songwriter if the songwriter opts in to the Ethical Props.

So like the Ethical Pool, the Ethical Prop is bilateral–both fan and artist have to opt into the transaction.  If the streamer wants to provide a service to handle any required income or sales tax reporting (although it’s likely that none of these transactions will be significant enough to trigger a 1099), then that might justify a cut.  Maybe.


Ethical Props present a win-win opportunity for services and all artists that want to break the headlock of hyper-efficient market share distributions on streaming services.  As we all know and Tencent acknowledges, sustainability requires more than a per-stream royalty that starts 2, 3 or even 4 decimal places to the right.

As the Spotify sugar high starts to crash, Ethical Props may provide an important counterpart to the Ethical Pool.

Ethical Pool: More for few or fewer for more – The Results of a Comparative Study on Pro Rata and User Centric Distribution Models from Finland

I call my version of “user centric” royalties the “ethical pool”.  Since I posted my short paper on the ethical pool, I’ve been hearing from people who were interested in the method.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive on the topic, our friends at the Finnish Musicians Union sent a link to a study they commissioned comparing the differences between the user centric model and what we call the “Big Pool” or the prorata distribution model.

In the alternative user centric model, the right holder’s compensation is based on the number of listening times of an individual user: how many different tracks the user is listening and how many times. If the user concerned would listen to only one track, would his/her whole monthly fee be paid to the track’s right holders. Therefore, the difference compared to the pro rata model is that it would, in principle, increase the compensation of the right holders of less listened tracks, and, on the other hand, reduce the compensation of the most listened music….

The study was carried out during April–October 2017 by Dr. Pradeep Durgam of Aalto University. The writing of the report and some further analysis was done by Consultant, Dr. Jari Muikku of Digital Media Finland.

Spotify provided the research material, which consisted of premium users’ listening times in March 2016. The user data was completely anonymous and was only given to the researcher Pradeep Durgam. The study concerned only the so-called premium user service, and the researcher did not have information about the compensation paid by the advertisers.

One difference between the Ethical Pool and the Big Pool approach is that while the Big Pool would be the default if a fan did nothing, subscriber revenue for fans electing the Ethical Pool would be removed entirely from the Big Pool at the election of the subscriber and the music available in the Ethical Pool would be selected by the artist.

There is no reason why the artist could not be in both, but with different recordings.  That “extended windowing” could be offered to artists who want to stay in the Big Pool with some tracks but also want to be in the Ethical Pool with other tracks.

So even though the “More for Few” study doesn’t take these wrinkles into account, it is extremely valuable research and statistical analysis on the user-centric model.

You can read the study itself at this link.   A big thank you to Lottaliina Pokkinen who is the Head of Legal Affairs for the Finnish Musicians Union whom I met at the recent AFM/FIM Streaming Economy conference in Los Angeles.  That conference was one of the best I’ve participated in.   It was also the only one I’ve been to that focused on the effect of streaming on performers.  Kudos to Ray Hair of the American Federation of Musicians and John Smith of the International Federation of Musicians for having the over-the-horizon vision to host the two-day event.

Arithmetic on the Internet: The Ethical Pool Solution to Streaming Royalty Allocation

“Sick of my money funding crap.”
A Fan’s Tweet

Subscription services are one of the few secular trends in the current economy that is not yet reactive to trade wars or interest rates.  Subscription services are found in many areas of the economy, but music drives some of the big ones like Spotify, Amazon and especially the razor-and-razorblades plays like Apple.  But per-stream royalties do not come close to making up for the CD and download royalties they cannibalize.   Not only do subscription retail rates need to increase, but it’s also time for a major change in the way artist’s streaming royalties are calculated from what is essentially a market share approach to one that is more fair.   (Listen to the Break the Business podcast discussion about the Ethical Pool that I had with Ryan Kairalla.)

Artists’ dismal streaming royalties on music subscription services are largely based on a simple calculation:  A per-stream payment derived from a share of the service’s revenue prorated by number of streams.  Artists get a portion of a service’s monthly revenue (at least the revenue the service discloses) based on a ratio of your plays to all the plays.  Your plays will always be a lot smaller than the total plays.  (This is essentially what Sharky Laguana referred to as the “Big Pool.”)

Sounds simple, but mixed with the near-payola of Spotify’s playlist culture and Pandora’s “steering” deals, it’s really not.  Negotiating leverage allows big stakeholders to tweak the basic calculation with floors, advances (aka breakage), nonrecoupable payments that help cover accounting costs, and other twists and turns to avoid a pure revenue share.

It also must be said that stock analysts and venture investors always—always—blame “high” royalties for loss-making in music services.  This misapprehension ignores high overhead such as Spotify’s 10 floors of 4 World Trade Center or high bonus payments such as Daniel Ek’s $1,000,000 bonus paid for failing to accomplish half of his incentive goals stated in the Spotify SEC documents (p. 133 “Executive Compensation Program Requirements”).

Of course all these machinations happen behind the scenes.  Fans are not aware that their subscription pays for music they don’t listen to and artists they never heard of or don’t care for.   Plus, it’s virtually impossible for any label or publisher to tell an artist or songwriter what their per-stream rate is or is going to be.

Fans Don’t Like It:  A New Wave of Cord Cutters?

So neither fans nor artists are happy with the current revenue share model. Given that the success of the subscription business model is keeping subscribers subscribing, the last thing the fledgling services need are cord cutters.

Many artists will tell you that the playlist culture and revenue share model are destructive.  Dedicated fans often don’t like it  either (after they understand it) because it gives the lie to supporting your favorite artist by streaming their music.  Artists don’t like it because unless you have a massive pop or hip hop hit, all you can aspire to is a royalty rate that starts in the third decimal place from the right if not the fourth.  This is compounded for songwriters.   (See Universal Music Publishing’s Jody Gerson on streaming royalties for songwriters.)

Simply put, if a fan pays their subscription and listens to 20 artists in a month, that fan likely believes that their subscription is shared by those 20 artists and not by 200,000 artists, 99.99% of whom that fan never listened to and probably never will, similar to Sharky’s “Subscriber Pool.”  (You can take a survey here.)

This is why some artists like Sharky Laguana (and their managers) have begun arguing for replacing the status quo with “user-centric” royalties that more directly correlate fan listening to artist payments.  I have a version of this idea I call the “Ethical Pool.”  

How Did We Get Here?

How in the world did we get to the status quo?  The revenue share concept started in the earliest days of commercial music platforms.  These services didn’t want to pay the customary “penny rate” (as is typical for compilation records, for example), because a fixed penny rate might result in the service owing more than they made–particularly if they wanted to give the music away for free to compete with massive advertising supported pirate sites.

Paying more than you make doesn’t fit very well with a pitch for a Web 2.0, advertising driven model:  All you can eat of all the world’s music for free or very little, or “Own Nothing, Have Everything,” for example.  It also works poorly if you think that artists should be grateful to make any money at all rather than be pirated.

Revenue share deals for big stakeholders have some bells and whistles that leverage can get you, like per-subscriber minimums, conversion goals, top up fees, limits on free trials, cutbacks on “off the top” revenue reductions, and the percentage of revenue in the pool (50%—60%-ish).  Even so,  the basic royalty calculation in a revenue share model is essentially this equation calculated on a monthly basis:

(Net Revenue * [Your Streams/All Streams])

Or ([Net Revenue/All Streams] * Your Streams)

In other words all the money is shared by all the artists.

Sounds fair, right?

Wrong.  First, all artists may be equal, but on streaming services, some are more equal than others.  Regardless of the downside protection like per-subscriber or per-stream minima, the revenue share model has an inherent bias for the most popular getting the most money out of the “Big Pool.”  (This is true without taking into account the unmatched.)

And of course it must be said that the more of those artists are signed to any one label, the bigger that label’s take is of the Big Pool.  So the bigger the label, the more they like streaming.

Conversely, the smaller the label the lower the take.  This is destructive for small labels or independent artists.  That’s why you see some artists complaining bitterly about a royalty rate that doesn’t have a positive integer until you get three or four decimal places to the right.  Why drive fans away from higher margin CDs, vinyl or permanent downloads to a revenue share disaster on streaming?  

Yet it increasingly seems that we are all stuck with the nonsensical streaming revenue share model.

Do Fans Think It’s Wrong?

There’s nothing particularly nefarious about this—them’s the rules and rev share deals have been in place for many years, mostly because the idea got started when the main business of the recorded music business was selling high margin goods like CDs or even downloads.  Low margin streaming didn’t matter much until the last couple years.

It was only a question of time until that high margin business died due to the industry’s willingness to accept fluctuating micropennies as compensation for the low-to-no margin streaming business.  (I say “no margin business” because the costs of accounting for streaming royalties may well exceed the margin—or even the payable royalty—on a per-stream basis when all transaction costs are considered as Professor Coase might observe.) 

So understand—the revenue share model is essentially a market share distribution.  Which is fine, except that in many cases, and I would argue a growing number of cases, when the fans find about about it, the fans don’t like it.  They pay their monthly subscription fee and they think their money goes to the artists they actually listen to during the month.  Which is not untrue, but it is not paid in the ratio that the fan might believe.  Fans could easily get confused about this and the Spotifys of this world are not rushing to correct that confusion.  

Here’s the other fact about that rev share equation: over time, the quotient is almost certain to produce an ever-declining per-stream royalty.  Why? 

Simple.  

If the month-over-month rate of change in revenue (the numerator) is less than the month-over-month rate of change in the total number of streams or sound recordings streamed on the service (the denominator), the per-stream rate will decline over those months.  This is because there will be more recordings in later months sharing a pot of money that hasn’t increased as rapidly as the number of streams.

As the number of recordings released will always increase over time for a service that licenses the total output of all major and indie labels (and independent artists), it is likely that the total number of recordings streamed will increase at a rate that exceeds the rate of change of the net revenue to be allocated.  If there are more recordings, it is also likely that there will be more streams.

So streaming royalties in the Big Pool model will likely (and some might say necessarily will) decline over time.  That’s demonstrated by declining royalties documented in The Trichordist’s “Streaming Price Bible” among other evidence.

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Thus the fan’s dissatisfaction with the use of their money is already rising and is likely to continue to rise further over time.

User-Centric Royalties and the Ethical Pool

How to fix this?  One idea would be to give fans what they want.  A first step would be to let fans tell the platform that they want their subscription fee to go to the artists that the fan listens to and no one else.  This is sometimes called “user-centric” royalties, but I call this the “Ethical Pool”. 

When the fan signs up for a service, let the fan check a box that says “Ethical Pool.”  That would inform the service that the fan wants their subscription fee to go solely to the artists they listen to.  This is a key point—allowing the fan to make the choice addresses how to comply with contracts that require “Big Pool” accountings or count Ethical Pool plays for allocation of the Big Pool.   Remember–the Ethical Pool exists along side the Big Pool, not to the exclusion of the Big Pool.  If the fan did not opt in to the Ethical Pool, the default would be the Big Pool.  Don’t miss this point, lots of people do.

Artists also would be able to opt into this method by checking a corresponding box indicating that they only want their recordings made available to fans electing the Ethical Pool.  The artist gets to make that decision.   Of course, the artist would then have to give up any claim to a share of the “Big Pool.”

Existing subscribers could be informed in track metadata that an artist they wanted to listen to had elected the Ethical Pool.  A fan who is already a subscriber could have to switch to the Ethical Pool method in order to listen to the track.  That election could be postponed for a few free listens which is much less of an issue for artists who are making less than a half cent per stream.

The basic revenue share calculation still gets made in the background, but the only streams that are included in the calculation are those that the fan actually listened to.  If the fan doesn’t check the box, then their subscription payment goes into the market share distribution as is the current practice, but their musical selection is limited to “Other than Ethical Pool” artists.

That’s really all there is to it.  The Ethical Pool lives side by side with the current Big Pool market share model.  If an Ethical Pool artist is signed, the label’s royalty payments would be made in the normal course.  The main difference is that when a subscriber checks the box for the Ethical Pool, that subscriber’s monthly fee would not go into the market share calculation and would only be paid to the artists who had also checked the box on their end.

One other thing—the subscription service could also offer a “pay what you feel” element that would allow a fan to pay more than the service subscription price as, for example, an in-app purchase, or—clasping pearls—allow artists to put a Patreon-type link to their tracks that would allow fans to communicate directly with the artist since the artist drove the fan to the service in the first place.  I’ve suggested this idea to senior executives at Apple and Spotify but got no interest in trying.

The Ethical Pool is real truth in advertising to fans and at least a hope of artists reaping the benefit of the fans they drive to a service.  There are potentially some significant legal hurdles in separating the royalty payouts, but there are ways around them.

I think the Ethical Pool is an idea worth trying.

UPDATE:  I want to emphasize a couple points that seem to keep coming up in discussions about Ethical Pool.

Ethical Pool exists as an option to the Big Pool. If a fan doesn’t select the Ethical Pool, the default is the Big Pool. The Ethical Pool is a different pot of money that the Big Pool and is divided among fewer artists.  Both exist at the same time.

If artists who are not rewarded by the Big Pool can offer their music at a higher margin somewhere other than the big platforms, they may just skip the Ethical Pool altogether and simply drive fans to the higher margin sites in more of a direct to fan relationship.

The two essential points of the Ethical Pool are (1) the Big Pool is a hyperefficient concentration of revenue to a small number of artists that trends toward a market share allocation and will always fail to reward niche and developing artists, and (2) that if the artist wants to be on the big platform, they may have a better shot at getting a higher royalty with the Ethical Pool than the Big Pool.