There is a lot of debate concerning the amounts paid to artists by streaming services. It’s often very confusing because what an artist sees in royalties on their statements is highly dependent on a number of factors including whether they have a record deal, publishing deal or whether they are a solo performer or a band. From an artists perspective royalties may accumulate from multiple sources. The other problem is that in general royalties are based on a percentage of the streaming services revenue. So the amount may vary month to month and year to year.
Still one good way to compare services is to look at statements for a moderately sized catalogue and calculate the revenue per stream they pay to “the rightsholders” (label/publisher/performer/songwriter) over a period of months. This would also be the same amount that a completely independent artist that owns 100% if their own recordings and songwriting receives.
But this is not the only way to look at these streaming services from an “artist friendly” viewpoint. We also need to look at whether these services respect artists rights. That is, whether these services respect the Artists right to choose how to monetize their music. When you look at it in those terms the picture is a little different. Here I’ve ranked the 7 most common services.
1. Rhapsody (Napster/Zune). These three “on demand” services allow you access to virtually any song at any time. From an artist’s perspective they are identical. These all work on a paid subscription model. Like Spotify these services pay a percentage of revenue to rights holders. But because they do not offer an ad based free service they have more revenue and pay more per stream to each artist than Spotify. All these services (like Spotify) operate under a private license. They do not rely on a government imposed compulsory licenses or rates. This also means rightsholders can theoretically “opt out” of this service if they think it doesn’t pay well enough. Or better yet negotiate a better deal.
I’m not opposed to compulsory licenses and rates in certain situations. But as an artist I have to note that these rates are set by political appointees. Broadcasters generally have a lot more money than artists and are thus better positioned to influence the political process. This is not some sort of tin foil hat paranoia. If you were paying attention this fall you will note that this is exactly what happened with the Orwellian-named Internet Radio Fairness Act. Pandora fronting for Clear Channel, Sirius XM and various Silicon Valley firms tried to use their lobbying money and influence to force the government to reduce those compulsory license rates! Artists could have got an 85% pay cut! So in general private blanket licensing is better for the artist. Compulsory federal government imposed rates benefit the politically connected.
As previously noted have access to the streaming royalty payments for a moderately sized catalogue. Here are the average per stream rates paid by these three services Jul-Dec 2011.
Zune 2.8 cents
Napster 1.6 cents
Rhapsody 1.3 cents
These are close to being a sustainable* rate for artists. (See footnote at end for an explanation.)
As a consumer I enjoy Rhapsody’s 256k mp3s. As a consumer I prefer Spotify’s interface. I’ve never tried Zune or Napster.
2. Spotify. #2 ?!! This surprises many of you. Right? Let me explain.
Currently Spotify appears to be paying rightsholders about .5 -.7 cents a stream. Considerably lower than the three services above. While my colleagues here believe this is not a sustainable rate and that it may never become a sustainable rate we can’t know for sure. It is unclear how much streaming services “cannibalize” or displace traditional sales. If streaming services displace 20% of sales Spotify’s per stream rate could be sustainable. If they displaces 80% of sales? Probably not.
Spotify relies heavily on it’s free streaming service that is ad supported. Spotify pays 70% of revenue to rightsholders. If Spotify manages to convert more users to it’s premium subscription services revenues will rise. As a result rightsholder’s revenues rise. If the ratio of paying subscribers to free subscribers rises substantially the per stream rate rises to something sustainable.
What we like about Spotify: It operates (mostly?**) under private licenses which means that rightsholders can withdraw from the service if they wish. More importantly Spotify has quietly allowed individual artists to “window” their releases and limit which singles or albums are available in the free service. This is very important. For instance my band Cracker which has had four top ten rock tracks might find it’s revenues from Spotify acceptable. But a niche artist like Zoe Keating might find she is losing sales to streaming services. She might chose to have only some or none of her catalogue available. Choice is the foundation of free markets. Allowing artists to experiment with how to use streaming services, and how to monetize their songs is good for everyone. It will eventually be clear the best way to balance revenue and access.
I also should note that Spotify is being unfairly blamed for the knock on effects of disintermediation. Disintermediation creates winner-take-all markets, and in an industry that was already winner take almost all, the small and middle class artists have gotten clobbered. On a positive note, in these kind of markets there are usually countervailing market forces at work that nudge us towards risk and revenue sharing. Or in Layman’s terms: It usually gets better. The explanation is kind of complex so I’ll skip it for now. Suffice it to say that right now it’s not so much Spotify taking artists’ royalties but the superstars taking everyone else’s royalties.
Finally Spotify has gone out of it’s way to engage artists, even critics like myself. The fact that they were willing to sit down with me and discuss my issues with their service is encouraging.
#3 Pandora. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Once they were our favorite. Look at early Trichordist blogs and note our enthusiastic tone whenever we speak of Pandora!
For those of you that don’t know Pandora is NOT an on-demand streaming service. I call it a “virtually on demand streaming service.” If I type in a song title and artist name, I dont’ get that song. But I usually get a song by that artist. Pandora is a music discovery service. It’s not a replacement for owning an album. As a result Pandora gets and should get a lower rate than on demand services.
What we don’t like about Pandora:
They operate under a compulsory license so artists can not opt out of the service if they do not like the rates!! But what is worse is they have adopted the tactics of Silicon Valley’s hardball monopolists. Proudly on display are lobbyists, fake bloggers, planted stories, paid mouthpieces and all the usual Kabuki Theatre bullshit we’ve come to expect from the “innovators” of Wall Street- er I mean Silicon Valley. As I mentioned previously Pandora fronted for the Internet Radio Fairness Coalition and pushed the Orwellian-named Internet Radio Fairness Act. The bill had nothing to do with Internet radio or fairness and everything to do with screwing artists out of 85% of their royalties.
Curiously the Internet Radio Fairness Coalition which supports the bill has a lot of traditional broadcasters like Clear Channel and Sirius XM. Kind of odd for an organization with the publicized purpose of leveling the playing field between Internet broadcasters and traditional broadcasters. The CCIA and CEA are also inexplicably members of the IRFC. Well maybe not inexplicably. Just as the Four Horsemen herald the Apocalypse, The CCIA and CEA seem to always herald La Chingada of someone, somewhere by Google.
So for participating in this rapacious anti-artist skullduggery we move Pandora from the top of the list to #3. We would put it at the bottom of the list but the other two lower ranking services in my humble opinion are not even completely legal.
#4. YouTube/Google. YouTube is the biggest on demand streaming service. I know people think of it as a video service but it turns out that it’s the most popular music streaming service. The main problem is that a lot of the music is uploaded and monetized by people that have no right to the music in the first place. For example here is one of my recordings: All Her Favorite Fruit. The problem is I didn’t authorize this person to upload this song, nor did I authorize YouTube to sell advertising or sponsored videos against this song. It’s possible that the record label did but as I am also the songwriter and legally I should have been consulted. Worse, the person who uploaded the static image can receive advertising revenues since they “own” the video. This is no different than Kim Dotcomm/MegaUpload paying people to upload the most popular movies and songs. Further I have no idea where the money goes since you can’t audit YouTube without signing an agreement with them that basically says you can’t audit them! YouTube is like the exploitative 1950′s music business but even worse, as the artist does not receive the occasional Cadillac in lieu of royalties.
Now consider this: This track is competing with legitimate authorized streams of my track on other services. These services generate some revenue for me. So say I find it in my financial interests to take this down? I have to file what’s called a DMCA notice. When I do this Google can place my DMCA notice on this website to try to publicly shame me into not doing this anymore. I don’t file DMCA notices with YouTube/Google because I don’t want some deranged Freehadists showing up at my home or office. This is not a far fetched idea, many of us in the vanguard arguing for artists rights and the preservation of copyright receive constant threats from seriously deranged free culture nutbags. So the result is I don’t file a notice and I let YouTube/Google get away with this. This website is a tool of intimidation. It is my belief that this is exactly what Google intended when it launched this site.
If Google and UC Berkeley (which hosts the site and lends it intellectual legitimacy) had any common decency they would stop this practice cause someone is gonna get hurt one day. Now while I don’t hold out hope for Google developing any common sense anytime soon (they are still allowing advertising for no prescription Oxycontin despite a half a billion dollar fine and threat of jail time) maybe the Chancellor of UC Berkeley will recognize how screwed up this is. You should ask Chancellor Birgeneau yourself: “Why is UC Berkeley supporting Googles intimidation scheme?” chancellor AT berkeley.edu.
My friend East Bay Ray of The Dead Kennedys told me he recently got an “offer” from YouTube/Google to let him claim his own songs and start receiving royalties.(“Really you’re letting me have control over my own songs? Gee thanks how nice!”). All he had to do was sign away most of his rights and in return the band would get about .1 cents a view. Considering your typical banner ad on a shitty pirate website gets 1.5 cents an impression, this is not even a joke. It’s an insult. Honestly I can’t understand how artists can complain about Spotify when YouTube/Google is so much worse and certifiably evil. As I’ve said before “Don’t be Evil” is not their corporate slogan, It’s their widely ignored corporate reminder.
#5 Grooveshark. Many young people I run across seem to think this is a legitimate streaming service. It’s not. My entire catalogue is on this service. No license, no permission and not a dime ever from these guys. The sooner these guys go to jail the better. I’m tempted to have a conversation with Ted Nugent. You think he’s mad about Obama raising his taxes and restricting his gun rights? Wait till he finds out that Grooveshark is not paying him royalties.
* “Sustainable Rate” is my attempt to figure out a streaming rate that compensates artists well enough to continue to write (and especially) record albums. I’ve examined a lot of iTunes libraries and “most played” lists. A typical 20 year old college student seems to play a track they have purchased around 25-30 times before they seem to tire of the track. So if on demand streaming replaces all album sales a stream should pay about 2.3-2.8 cents to be the equivalent of the 69 cents net received from iTunes on a 99cent download. But if on-demand streaming only replaces 50% of album sales it could be half that rate. You see?
But a word of caution. First this assumes that 99 cents a track is the right price for all songs. Not necessarily true. This is a price that iTunes essentially imposed on the record business, against a backdrop of mass piracy. You can make an argument that this artificially lowered the price of music.
Second the music business has always worked on a revenue sharing model that assumes the “winners” subsidize the “losers” through record companies, publishing companies and their advances. If you have total disintermediation in the streaming market even with high per stream rates niche artists like Zoe Keating and Camper Van Beethoven would never generate enough revenue to record albums. Music sales exhibit a “wild” variation and with total disintermediation almost all the revenue goes to the winners. So this “sustainable rate” is not necessarily sustainable at all. It is only one piece in the puzzle. Eventually the revenue and risk sharing roles once assumed by record labels will need to be assumed by the record labels again, or other mechanisms need to be developed.
Other’s have suggested non market based mechanisms which include “crowd funding” government subsidies and corporate patronage. I am uncomfortable with all of these. Government and Corporate funding allow powerful elites to decide what music is made. Crowd funding works for the most extroverted and popular personalities. While crowdfunding comes closest to market based incentivizing I don’t believe crowd funding would have ever given us important artists like Jimmy Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, NWA, Black Flag or Nirvana. Can you imagine Kurt Cobain or Jimmy Hendrix offering a premium support package that includes the artist coming to your house and cooking dinner for you and 4 of your friends? No crowdfunding works for people like me who already have a career or extremely extroverted self promoting personalities like Amanda Palmer (no offense intended).
One day I hope that all my musician and digital utopists friends wake up and see that the West’s private market based system for creating culture has produced some extraordinarily profound and non-mainstream work. No other system can match it. Why are some so hell bent on throwing it away?
** My understanding is that there is a compulsory on demand rate for songwriters (song in abstract) not performers. It’s not clear to me whether Spotify uses this rate. And I can’t two experts that agree. But certainly the bulk (if not all) the revenues Spotify pays our are under the private license not compulsory license.