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The Ethical Pool Future: Will Fans Cut the Cord to Big Streaming Services if Artists Leave?

November 30, 2018 Comments off

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied…

From Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen

I wrote up my take on “user-centric royalties” a few weeks ago in a post titled “Arithmetic on The Internet: The Ethical Pool Solution to Streaming Royalty Allocation.”  The post has been widely read in the artist community and stimulated conversation about the current model of royalty allocation by streaming services that artists like Sharky Laguana have led the debate on.  I argue that the current model results in the hyper-efficient market share distribution of streaming revenues that effectively bypass the independent artists who fans listen to on the subscription streaming services.

Hyper-efficient marketshare distributions can have unintended pernicious effects due to the impact on the per-stream rate.  If you have a big market share, you don’t care much about per-stream rates because you get minimum guarantees and probably non-recoupable “technology fees” that help protect your downside and defray your accounting costs.  (Particularly important to independent labels whose streaming accounting costs may exceed streaming revenue.)  If you are an independent or “niche” artist, the per-stream rate is everything because you won’t be getting advances or technology payments.

Crucially, that hyper-efficient distribution almost guarantees to a mathematical certainty that per-stream rates will decline over time if service revenue fails to increase at a rate that exceeds the increase in the total number of streamed recordings.  The Trichordist has documented that the per-stream rate has declined by 16% over the 2014-16 period–which happened at the same time as we are told that streaming accounts for over 50% of industry-wide recorded music revenues.  If streaming revenue declines on a per-stream basis while expanding to a larger share of over-all recorded music revenues, the negative effects on the per-stream rate will almost inevitably hurt independent artists, as well as genres like instrumental jazz and classical.

As we found in a recent reader poll, many fans–even many MTP readers–are unaware that an overwhelming share of their streaming service subscription revenue is paid for music they didn’t listen to (and performed by artists they don’t care for in some cases).  Assuming that MTP readers may be more aware of these inequities than the average fan, many if not most consumers may be in the dark about where their money actually goes, which may have an effect their buying decisions and a ripple effect through the market.

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There’s little doubt that the status quo is unsustainable even though the transition from high to low-or-no margin goods may be irreversible.  Recently, Canadian artist and producer Danny Michel wrote a must-read op-ed for the current edition of the Vancouver Weekly that highlights the motivation behind the Ethical Pool.  Titled “The Expiration Date on Music”, Danny describes his own experience, which of course is echoed by a chorus of independent artists and songwriters around the world:

I’ve been a full-time musician for 25 years. It’s been nothing but hard work, but I love hard work. My songs bought my home, my studio, paid the bills and more. Through it all, the conversations backstage with other musicians have always been about music, family, guitars, friends, art, etc… But in 2018 that conversation changed. Everywhere I go musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive. And I’ve never worried about it myself UNTIL 2018. What I can tell you is my album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping by 95% this year due to music streaming services.

And therein lies the rub:  You cannot trade a high margin sale at a wholesale price of $5-$10 for a replacement with a wholesale price of a fraction of a fraction of a penny without an unrealistic corresponding exponential boost in activity.

The math is stacked.

Based on the Trichordist’s Streaming Price Bible, it takes roughly 1,600 streams on Spotify, 950 streams on Apple Music, or over 10,000 on YouTube to replace one physical or digital album that sells at a venue or retailer with $7 of net revenue to the artist.  (This revenue variation across services is one reason the TEA math doesn’t really work.)   Venue sales are incremental revenue–you’re already spending to market the show.  Due to streaming, venue sales have all but evaporated in the last few years at an increasing rate as Danny Michel observes.

The fan at the show is in direct contact with the artist in real time when the fan comes to a show the artist is already promoting.   If the fan leaves the show empty handed, it will probably be difficult to get that fan to remember to stream the new artist when they launch their service player.

Getting fans to stream the record usually requires additional effort if not expense–a key reason why it’s important at the show to get that fan’s email at least or some other way to get in touch with them outside of the music service.  As one astute independent label put it, “if the devil made me choose between selling 25 CDs at a show or getting 25 fans to sign up to an artist’s email list, I’d have to think about it for 5 minutes.”  The email signups are a hope for future revenue to make up a shortfall that will likely never be made up on streaming.

Absent getting that fan’s email, independent artists are largely at the mercy of playlist gatekeepers to the point that many are asking if they really want to continue to participate in the major streaming services.  As long as those services have little interest in allowing subscription rates to increase or pay royalties at a level that allow independent or niche genre artists and songwriters to sustain themselves, there’s less and less reason to participate.  And hyper-efficient market share distributions are already causing some artists to like cutting the cord with big services–the only question is how to get their core fans to follow them.

 

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