Tale of Two Trophies: While the Grammys Endorse Fair Pay for Artists On Streaming CMA Research Division Headed in Other Direction

Much of the post Grammy talk today concerned the surprise announcement from Grammy chief Neil Portnow that NARAS had formed a new advocacy group to press for better royalties from digital services.   As Billboard reports: 

“Music has tremendous value in our lives,” Portnow added. “While ways of listening to music evolve, we must remember that music matters in our lives, and that new technology must pay artists fairly.”

Holy shit! A plea for fair pay for artists on primetime tv in the middle of the 57th Grammy Awards?  I’ve seen it all now.

None of my artist colleagues had any idea anything like this was coming. We were just as surprised as the rest of you!

Now compare and contrast this to the Country Music Association.   Sadly this institution appears headed in the other direction.   Well at least their “research” department appears to be headed in the wrong direction.

Under the research director Karen Stump  the CMA “released” a study that as billboard reports “Streaming Drives Sales New Study Shows”  I say “released” because the study was presented in a closed door session and CMA refused to provide any details to anyone not in the room.

Okay that’s weird enough… but what was that headline again?

Streaming increases sales? What? Music sales are down streaming is up that’s pretty much what everyone is talking about.   I thought everyone had agreed on this?  I mean most people take it as a given that streaming is a replacement for owning music. Ask any college kid.  They don’t buy music anymore they stream it.  The mainstream and seemingly sensible debate has been about just how much streaming decreases sales and if streaming revenues will be enough to offset the decline in revenue from sales. But well we could all be wrong.  As Billboard reports on the study:

“YouTube might be “the devil” to Garth Brooks, but in another’s eyes, it’s a great source of music discovery. In fact, a new study being released by the Country Music Association suggests that adults 18-plus are far more likely to buy music after being exposed to it on YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services than listeners who hear a song for the first time on AM/FM radio.”

Well okay. I sort of see what they are doing here. Maybe their headline is overselling it. The actual body of the article hedges the claim a bit.  Still I didn’t see any statement from the CMA correcting the Billboard headline.

More troubling are the obvious flaws in this study.   As a part time academic researcher  I immediately saw four possible fatal biases/covariance problems with this study.  Let me simplify it for those whose eyes glaze over at the mention of statistics.

1) If you are streaming you have a device in your hand or in front of you that allows you to immediately buy the song.   Compare that to radio.  Most radio listening is done passively, say in the car or while working. Generally you don’t have a smartphone, tablet or computer at the ready. You are more likely to buy the song when you’re streaming because  you have buying device in hand! If you are listening to the radio especially while driving, it could be hours before you have a chance to buy the song. That likely accounts for the difference right there!

2) If you are using YouTube or Spotify, you already know the name of the song or the artist.  YouTube or Spotify generally don’t randomly play an unknown song for you!  So you are already engaged with the artist or song on some level if you are streaming it.  You are more likely to buy the song NOT because you are using YouTube or Spotify but because you are already engaged with the song or artist.

3) Users of YouTube and Spotify are much younger and are likely in the prime music buying age demo.

4)  Those who only listen to radio and don’t stream are likely to be older and poorer.   They are less likely to buy music because of their age and socioeconomic variables.  Not because they only listen to the radio.

It’s also likely that the “study” is making the most rookie of all moves: equating correlation with causation!

Now you can still adjust for these biases using a complex  but common statistical methodology and make the kind of claims that the CMA research department has claimed. You can also sometimes tease out causality using pseudo-experimental techniques.  So I wanted to see if they had controlled for these biases by using this statistical methodology.  Simple enough right?

I wrote to Ms. Stump and asked if the survey had adjusted for these biases.  And if she could share the report and data with me.  (The final report was not available at the time and the raw data and detailed methodology is still not available.)  First I wanted a copy of the report. Second I wanted to see if  those who conducted the survey adjusted for the biases above.

Her response indicated that they were not willing to share the report and the data with me since it had been conducted on their behalf by a third party vendor.


This makes no sense. It’s their report. It’s their data. They hired the vendor. I followed up several times over the next few weeks with Ms. Stump and others at the CMA but I have been effectively stonewalled.  Not a single response.  I couldn’t even get them to send me a copy of the report.

So what is the CMA hiding?  There are no “unfriendly” facts. Data is  data. I don’t understand why the CMA would want to deny their members a second opinion by an experienced researcher? If they did the study correctly then my “peer review” will just bolster their claims.  So what are the other possibilities here?

One possibility is that the CMA misled people in the first place and are now trying to cover it up.

In this tale of two music trophies #IRespectNARAS  #NotSoMuchCMA










About Dr. David C Lowery

Platinum selling singer songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; platinum selling producer; founder of pitch-a-tent records; founder Sound of Music Studios; platinum selling music publisher; angel investor; digital skeptic; college lecturer and founder of the University of Georgia Terry College Artists' Rights Symposium.