MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
With heavy inevitability, a lot of debate has followed the announcement that Universal Music and Deezer are going to push forward with their “artist-centric” royalty payment plans, beginning in France later this year.
If the other majors (and the indies) or the other DSPs follow suit, or offer up an improved model, remains to be seen; but this is at least a start in looking afresh at how billions of micropayments are apportioned out.
The point about “double boosting” music the listener actively seeks out, as opposed to what they are shepherded towards by the algorithms, feels the most pertinent and important move here. Not all listening is the same and ergo not all payments should be the same. Most people across the industry seem agreed on this.
There are, however, concerns that the model could create a new streaming class system that penalises the really small acts who have yet to cross the threshold set by Universal and Deezer of having over 1,000 listens a month from 500 unique listeners.
Mark Mulligan of Midia termed this “a reverse-Robin Hood”. While supporting parts of the plan, Believe also ran with Mulligan’s metaphor. “As a company working with artists and labels at all levels, Believe considers that all artists shall be compensated equally by streaming services regardless of their stage of development,” it said in a statement. There is the counter-argument that this is really no different to what YouTube and social media platforms already do.
(It is always worth remembering that Universal is not being proactive and progressive here for entirely altruistic reasons. Universal has run the numbers very carefully in a way that will not, let’s say, disadvantage Universal in particular.)
The other key, and widely applauded, point in the Universal/Deezer manifesto is the plan to “replace non-artist noise content” with “functional music” that Deezer will create but not apportion any royalties to.
What this appears to be is, in all but name, a declaration of war on white noise: that means things like storms, wind and static that appear on playlists that run for hours.
“It is the digital cuckoo in the nest. Listening to white noise is tantamount to larceny. It is immoral. How could you?”
It is being painted as industrialised thievery, unjustly siphoning from the royalty pool that could otherwise go to “real” artists. Artists like, one presumes, Drake and Taylor Swift and The Weeknd and Olivia Rodrigo. And some other acts on the other majors. And maybe even some on indie labels.
White noise is now framed – like its vampiric cousin, generative AI music – as a turbo-charged version of the payroll scam in Superman III where Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor) skims off a half-cent from everyone in Webscoe Industries.
It is the digital cuckoo in the nest. Listening to white noise is tantamount to larceny. It is immoral. How could you?
DSPs stopped being just music services a long time ago. Music shares virtual shelf space with podcasts and other spoken word content as well as, yes, white noise. Listeners want audio in all its flavours: music is a big part of that audio offering, but it is not the only part.
As someone who had a Damascene moment when I discovered the White Noise 10 Hours playlist in Spotify a while ago, I feel the need to come to the defence of white noise playlists to stop them being divorced of context and flatly and resolutely demonised… as they become demonetised.
White Noise 10 Hours has just over 1 million likes on Spotify. That means that it has been liked by 0.18% of Spotify’s total of 551 million users. It is, in the grand scheme of things, tiny. But it is important.
If, like me, you experience misophonia, white noise playlists are a godsend, not folk devils. The mounting attacks on white noise playlists therefore feels personal.
The etymology of misophonia is a combination of the Greek words μισός (“hatred”) and φωνή (“voice” or “sound”). It is sometimes known as “sound rage” and refers to particular sounds that often cause a “fight or flight” response in certain people.
There are no common or shared misophonic sounds. Things that I hear and can be perfectly fine with might send someone else into a fury. An extreme example would be fingernails dragged down a chalkboard or the squeaking from polystyrene. These are noises that many people find intolerable and can cause extreme responses – like high agitation or having to get as far away from the noise as you can as quickly as you can.
“White Noise 10 Hours has just over 1 million likes on Spotify. That means that it has been liked by 0.18% of Spotify’s total of 551 million users. It is, in the grand scheme of things, tiny. But it is important.”
Misophonic sounds can circumvent reason and logic: they are only sounds, often everyday sounds, but can really upset some people. But, trust me, they are real.
For me personally, the very worst sound in the world is people cracking their knuckles (it makes me physically gag). That is closely followed by people talking with food in their mouth (it also makes me gag, just not as much as knuckle cracking), then cutlery squeaking on plates which I place on a par with people who scrape their cutlery along their teeth (dining with me is an absolute joy).
Next comes the singing and speaking voice of Bono. And then probably people playing music on their phones on public transport or talking to people while on speakerphone (it’s the tinny nature and frequency of the sound that cuts through me).
White noise playlists do not help me at dinner time, but they have saved me over and over again on public transport. I immediately put a white noise playlist on when I get on a bus or a train and sink into a beautiful cocoon which means I can happily read a book and be utterly oblivious to the raging sea of misophonic crimes that are happening around me.
It is far from uncommon. Dr Jane Gregory, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, co-authored a recent academic paper that looks into the issue and which claims misophonia affects just under a fifth (18%) of people in the UK.
She says it is rarely talked about because it makes people feel awkward or embarrassed to raise it as an issue, ironically leaving them to stew in silence. “You are essentially telling someone: ‘The sound of you eating and breathing – the sounds of you keeping yourself alive – are repulsing me,’” she told The Guardian. “It’s really hard to find a polite way to say that.”
Having white noise playlists singled out feels like a deliberate campaign to have them rebranded as a kind of crime scene. They are only seen as epicentres of embezzlement and the focus is on how they are depriving the needy and the deserving of their royalties. But that should not become the narrow legacy that is pinned on them.
“White noise is not merely the sound of artists having their royalties stolen from their hungry mouths. White noise is also the sound that covers over the sounds that can ruin someone’s day.”
They have a very precise use case. But the negatives are being allowed to dampen down the positives.
Pay artists better for their streaming – absolutely; but don’t present a defunding of white noise playlists as the major part of the great panacea.
There is plenty more wrong with the economics of streaming that music be fixed too – and the Universal/Deezer manifesto misses more wrinkles than it irons out. Deroyaltyising (I just made that word up) white noise playlists might have all the sheen of an “easy win”, but it is not mission accomplished.
White noise is not merely the sound of artists having their royalties stolen from their hungry mouths. White noise is also the sound that covers over the sounds that can ruin someone’s day.
It is important to make this distinction in the midst of the brewing propaganda war against it.Music Business Worldwide