Music Streaming Math, Can It All Add Up?

Music streaming is clearly a challenge for the recording industry and even more so for the new generation of artists hoping to build professional careers in music like Zoë Keating. This new report from the New York Times, “As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle” is the latest to reignite controversies about music streaming royalties.

We’ve leveled our own criticism of streaming sites in the past perhaps focusing unfairly on Spotify. But as we reported in the, Music Streaming Price Index : Pay Rates as of 12/31/11 our complaint is more with the revenue models and royalty payments than with the services themselves.

To be clear, we like Spotify and the people we’ve met that work there. We’d just like to see better royalty rates and the kind of transparency requested by Zoë Keating, and/or the kind we get from Apple’s Itunes.

We also like that Spotify and other music streaming services are legal and licensed. Spotify (Rhapsody, Zune and Napster) are far more ethical businesses than YouTube and Grooveshark. There are no unauthorized copies of an artists material on Spotify and no massive DMCA issues. We’d love to see more brands spending their money with legitimate services than the shady ad networks that feed advertising to pirate sites.

It’s now clear that the brands themselves are a big part of the problem by supporting piracy when they could be supporting the legally licensed sites. Brands, advertising networks and payment processors are driving the race to the bottom in the “optional payment” and “Illegally free” world of exploiting musicians through online piracy.

In a recent interview for Hypebot, music and technology veteran Ted Cohen sums it up well,

Do you still favor subscription over advertising-based music services?

Yes, I do. I don’t think that the advertising model so far has proved to be sustainable. I think that we have undervalued subscription. I am paying $150 a month for cable. I watch 20 or 30 hours of TV a week. I probably listen to 50 to 60 hours of music a week. I’d argue with you that music is worth more than $10 a month subscription service.

The labels were so concerned about (piracy)—and I was there at the time—that we had to come up with a price that was just a little bit more than free to convince people that they should pay. So far, we have not been able to raise the price. I think that music is worth at least $20 or $25 a month.

In the chart below calculations are created in tables to illustrate the simple math required to determine the revenue opportunities in different streaming models. For example, lines 5, 6, and 7 detail how much revenue Spotify can generate to artists, songwriters and rights holders paying out 70% of their gross at 1m, 30m and 90m paid subscribers.

If Spotify can capture what most believe is an optimistic amount of paid subscribers in the USA (30m) that would only generate $2.5b in revenue for rights holders. Line 2 represents the revenues of the record industry in the USA between 1999 when it was $14.6b through 2009 when it had plummeted to $6.3b leaving a loss of $8.3b annually since that time.

Maybe we’re missing something. If streaming is the future how does $2.5b in revenue from a massively successful Spotify replace the loss of $8.3b in annual earnings?


So in 2012 when Spotify has claimed 1 million paid subscribers in the US, that’s a payout to artists and rights holders of only about $84m. In simple math, this is about 12m albums at $7 wholesale each (what iTunes pays on a $9.99 album).

Additional food for thought is that Spotify is currently valued at 3 billion dollars. That’s just a little less then half of the entire earnings of the entire US record industry in 2012 at an estimated 7 billion dollars. This means that if the same valuation method is used for both Spotify as a single company, and the domestic record industry as a whole, than either Spotify is overvalued or the record industry is undervalued.

But there are larger problems here than Spotify. As you can see in the chart above YouTube also represents a challenge for artists and rights holders. The site was born of infringement as a business model, and despite policy changes at Google (YouTube’s parent company) the situation is still completely unacceptable for artists as East Bay Ray of The Dead Kennedy’s explains to NPR.

YouTube really deserves it’s own post, and there will be several forthcoming.  In the new “exploitation economy” artists seem to be willing to trip over transactional dollars attempting to pick up streaming pennies. Again, one of the most important distinctions between Spotify and YouTube is that Spotify does not have a massive DMCA and rights management issues that cheats artists of their due. Additionally, YouTube is paying a fraction of what Spotify is, so if this is the future, everyone is really in trouble.

One thought on “Music Streaming Math, Can It All Add Up?

  1. While the argument can be made that inexpensive/free cloud based streaming services like Spotify can have an impact on piracy by attracting free file sharers to legitimate sites, which we think is a good thing, can it be profitable for the service providers and/or healthy for musicians, songwriters and the music industry?

    Can we, with the help of the Trichordist, Chris Castle and Jonathan Taplin, severely impact ad revenue flowing to pirate sites and redirect that revenue to legitimate services and support their bottom line and increase payouts to artists?

    Is it too late to step back and regulate the internet so that creative content doesn’t fall by the wayside and become a lost art?

    Has anyone taken into consideration the investment required to insure that we have professionals dedicating their life to their craft and producing awesome, inspirational, world changing work?

    Has anyone taken into consideration what the world will be like without it?

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