Thinking Outside the Pie: @legrandnetwork Study for GESAC Highlights Streaming Impact on Choking Diversity and Songwriter Royalties

Emmanuel Legrand prepared an excellent and important study for the European Grouping of Societies of Authors and Composers (GESAC) that identifies crucial effects of streaming on culture, creatives and especially songwriters. The study highlights the cultural effects of streaming on the European markets, but it would be easy to extend these harms globally as Emmanuel observes.

For example, consider the core pitch of streaming services that started long ago with the commercial Napster 2.0 pitch of “Own Nothing, Have Everything”. This call-to-serfdom slogan may sound good but having infinite shelf space with no cutouts or localized offering creates its own cultural imperative. And that’s even if you accept the premise the algorithmically programed enterprise playlists on streaming services should not be subject to the same cultural protections for performers and songwriters as broadcast radio–its main competitor.

[This] massive availability of content on [streaming] platforms is overshadowed by the fact that these services are under no positive obligations to ensure visibility and discoverability of more diverse repertoires, particularly European works….[plus]  the initial individual subscription fee of 9.99 (in Euros, US dollars, or British pound) set in 2006, has never increased, despite the exponential growth in the quality, amount of songs, and user-friendliness of music streaming services.

Artists working new recordings, especially in a language other than English, are forced to fight for “shelf space” and “mindshare”–that is, recognition–against every recording ever released. While this was always true theoretically; you never had that same fight the same way at Tower Records.

This is not theoretically true on streaming platforms–it is actually true because these tens of millions of historical recordings are the competition on streaming services. When you look at the global 100 charts for streaming services, almost all of the titles are in English and are largely Anglo-American releases. Yes, we know–Bad Bunny. But this year’s exception proves the rule.

And then Emmanuel notes that it is the back room algorithms–the terribly modern version of the $50 handshake–that support various payola schemes:

The use of algorithms, as well as bottleneck represented by the most popular playlists, exacerbates this. Furthermore, long-standing flaws in the operations of music streaming platforms, such as “streaming fraud”, “ghost/fake artists”, “payola schemes”, “royalty free content” and other coercive practices [not to mention YouTube withholding access to Content ID] worsen the impact on many professional creators….

This report suggests solutions to bring greater transparency in the use of algorithms and invites stakeholders to undertake a review of the economic models of streaming services and evaluate how they currently affect cultural diversity which should be promoted in its various forms — music genres, languages, origin of performers and songwriters, in particular through policy actions.

MTS readers will recall my extensive dives into the hyperefficient market share distribution of streaming royalties known as the “big pool” compared to my “ethical pool” proposal and the “user centric” alternative. As Emmanuel points out, the big pool royalty model belies a cultural imperative–if you are counting streams on a market share basis that results in the rich getting richer based on “stream share” that same stream share almost guarantees that Anglo American repertoire will dominate in every market the big streamers operate.

Emmanuel uses French-Canadian repertoire as an example (a subject I know a fair amount about since I performed and recorded with many vedettes before Quebecoise was cool).

A lot of research has been made in Canada with regards to discoverability, in particular in the context of French-Canadian music, which is subject to quotas for over the air broadcasters which however do not apply to music streaming services. The research shows that while the lists of new releases from Québec studied are present in a large proportion on streaming platforms, they are “not very visible and very little recommended.” 

It further shows that the situation is even worse when it is not about new releases, including hit music, when the presence of titles “drops radically.” It is not very difficult to imagine that if we were to swap Québec in the above sentence with the name of any country from the European Union [or any non-Anglo American country], and even with music from the European Union as a whole, we could find similar results.

In other words, there may be aggregators with repertoire in languages other than English that deliver tracks to streamers in their countries, but–absent localized airplay rules–a Spotify user might never know the tracks were there unless the user already knew about the recording, artist or songwriter. (Speaking of Canada, check the MAPL system.)

This is a prime example of why Professor Feijoo and I proposed streaming remuneration in our WIPO study to allow performers to capture the uncompensated capital markets value to the enterprise driven by these performers. Because of the market share royalty system, revenues and royalties do not compensate all performers, particularly regional or non-featured performers (i.e., session players and singers) who essentially get zero compensation for streaming.

Emmanuel also comments on the imbalance in song royalty payments and invites a re-look at how the streaming system biases against songwriters. I would encourage everyone to stop thinking of a pie to be shared or that Johnny has more apples–when the services refuse to raise prices in order to tell a growth story to Wall Street or The City, measuring royalties by a share of some mythical royalty pie is not ever going to get it done. It will just perpetuate a discriminatory system that fails to value the very people on whose backs it was built be they songwriters or session players.

We must think outside the pie.