‘I love streaming, I just hate the remuneration system sitting inside it.’

The following MBW op/ed comes from Tom Gray, a UK-based professional musician and the founder of #BrokenRecord. A social media-driven campaign, #BrokenRecord calls for more of the streaming revenue ‘pie’ to make its way to artists and songwriters – whether that revenue comes from services like Spotify themselves, or from record labels. #BrokenRecord has been a key agitator in the launch of an ongoing UK Parliamentary inquiry into streaming economics. Gray is a founding member and songwriter of Mercury Prize-winning band Gomez, whose first two albums – Bring It On (1998) and Liquid Skin (1999) – both went Platinum in the UK. In addition, he is a composer for movies, advertisements and TV shows, including British comedy In My Skin.

I hope you’re aware of the #BrokenRecord Campaign. It was instrumental in gaining a UK Parliamentary inquiry into the economics of streaming. (Today, Spotify, Apple and Amazon were questioned by MPs.)

If #BrokenRecord has crossed your path, you’re likely to know we want to reform the music streaming market, but you’re also likely to have heard or read some misrepresentation along the way.

The #BrokenRecord hashtag seeks to be a rallying call for anyone who wants change for artists, performers and songwriters. I cannot hope to speak for everyone – nor would I dare. But, if I may, I’d like to at least clarify my position as the campaign’s founder and, for want of a better term, spokesperson.

Let me pragmatically set out what I think might be achievable and practical through compromise, but also place our industry on more sustainable and ethical ground.

I love streaming, I just hate the remuneration system sitting inside it. It’s a gorgeous house with lovely furniture, but with dangerously bad wiring and the estate agent seems to have set the price a bit low in search of a quick sale.

My campaigning position is not solely about what is fair, although I can’t deny a sense of injustice drives me. It’s about solving a basically un-useful system. It’s about what we want music and the recorded music industry to be.

“Streaming is a gorgeous house with lovely furniture, but with dangerously bad wiring.”

It’s about reconnecting artists with the audiences they build and, in turn, rebuilding an industry as interested in artist development as market-share.

It’s about having a model that doesn’t require the discrete touring business to underwrite it.

The pandemic music industry: a bar owner knows he can poorly pay his bartender because she also holds down a job as a barista. Then, suddenly, the coffee shop closes. The bar owner is like, “Hey bartender, you’re only angry ‘cos the coffee shop is closed!” The unemployed barista looks at all the beers she must serve and howls.

The existing system financially disincentivises a broader scope of music and music taste. It is leading us towards a cultural vanishing point and, for individual artists faced with the haywire economics of a revenue pool divided by total streams, towards a financial vanishing point too.

According to The Trichordist, the calculable average per-stream rate paid by Spotify has more or less halved in a decade before inflation (although Spotify is an extreme case because of their free offering). The descent of the global Average Rate Per User (ARPU) has accelerated this effect.

Each new user ought to add real value to the artists they listen to instead of playing a significant part in the dilution of all revenue.

Too often I’ve seen the argument that the problem is ‘we simply have too many artists now’. However, even though listeners might be listening to a wider range of artists, the number of artists each user can listen to will ultimately always be limited by the time they have.

The blame for descending payments cannot singularly lie in the growth in the number of artists out there, but in a revenue pool that isn’t growing at the same rate as the number of users.

I don’t believe that every single (no doubt talented) individual who has figured out a synthesiser, configured Garageband and opened an account with DistroKid should necessarily be entitled to pay their rent from recorded music. Though I’m no survival-of-the-fittest capitalist, a meritocracy in music seems to be its natural state – there will always be concert pianists and those of us who will only buy popcorn at Carnegie Hall.

“What I want is the restoration of a larger, secure, professional class of artist, songwriter and performer.”

What I want is the restoration of a larger, secure, professional class of artist, songwriter and performer. I want kids to be able to aspire to make a living from original music, not simply huge fame or bust. I want them to be able to make music with their peers and there be enough money to go around.

For this to be possible we need a remuneration graph that doesn’t flatline until it leaps sharply up for a rarefied few. Over the past decade or so, a huge infrastructure of music-based education has grown in the UK. Many thousands of British young adults in higher education pay £9k per annum to learn how to be artists, songwriters and performers.

This machine is powered by kids believing they can have a career in our industry. Not to be at the top of the charts, but to have a career: longevity and reasonable earnings from their commitment to the creation of music: a decent living.

No one denies that there are some out there who are making close to a decent living from streaming. I know a few and I applaud them, but I don’t believe I’ve met a band yet whose income is largely derived from streaming. I haven’t met a solo artist who isn’t on less than a 50/50 split with their label who has close to that decent living.

These people exist, but any argument that they do seems to be like one for UFOs, the Sasquatch or, at best, a rare bird that draws the world’s eyes when spotted in the wild.

So, what does exist? A few extraordinarily successful artists and then a small class of solo independent artists who have thankfully cracked the code of streaming success.

However, even those doing well report to me that the cheques are getting smaller. If you have an audience of a fixed size and the value of streams is descending, you’ve got a problem.

A National Endowment for the Arts 2019 report showed that, of all people working in the arts, musicians are the most likely to have a second job. More than actors. More than twice as likely as photographers. But we now have a generation of artists who think of recorded music income as purely additive, and highly unlikely to form the better part of their income.

“We learnt from Spotify yesterday that only the work of 7,500 artists is earning over $100k (£70k) per year. How many of them are unrecouped, and how many are legacy artists with work in Standard Deals earning significantly below 15%?”

So, hearing anyone is ‘doing well’ from streaming always comes with a pinch of salt. What is ‘doing well’?

Yesterday (February 22) we learnt from Spotify that the work of 57k artists globally earn 90% of that platform’s revenues. But this is a messy and misleading statistic.

Mark Mulligan estimates that 98% of this top tier are in label deals and will earn around 30% of whatever Spotify states is coming their way. However, most major deals, which ought to account for a high percentage of higher-earning works, are closer to 20% (we’ve seen weeks where close to 90% of the global top 50 is major label tracks).

We also learnt from Spotify yesterday that only the work of 7,500 artists is earning over $100k (£70k) per year. How many of them are unrecouped, and how many are legacy artists with work in Standard Deals earning significantly below 15%?

How many are in 50/50 deals earning £35k before management charges and tax? If Mark’s 98% is anything like correct, that gives us the remarkable figure of 150 artists globally who are fully independent and earning close to £70k per annum (although distributors and management need their cuts).

How many are completely non-existent (aka ‘fake’) artists invented by the likes of Epidemic Sound to landfill the playlist system?

Perhaps worse, this figure tells us nothing about the costs facing artists. You’d think from the way these earnings are discussed that making music is free. The need for ready money is what drives most artists into inequitable label deals. Also – no surprise here – it’s why the type of artist who can succeed in streaming tends to be independent, solo and, most probably records in a home studio.

So, when people say those complaining about streaming are a ‘type of artist’ I believe they have the whole problem inverted. It seems to me there is pretty much only one type of artist who is ‘doing well’.

Of course, some artists will fail, and some will succeed, but – guess what – so do labels. Sometimes an artist can deliver something amazing, but their label might be going through a management shake-up, a budgetary issue, a scandal or some other calamity and they miss the boat. Sometimes they’re lazy or God awful at their jobs.

So, if you’re sitting there comforting yourself that failing artists are simply victims of the meritocracy, please think again. An artist will rarely have their rights returned on such an occasion. The labels don’t admit their failure and hand back the masters with a mea culpa.

In a Standard Record Deal, that failed label typically gets to exploit those rights unchallenged for seventy years… an awful punishment for not being great at your job. We know there will be winners and losers in the music business, but maybe there should be more winners.

Since I first coined it, I can state categorically that the #BrokenRecord hashtag has been used by every kind of artist you can imagine.

A very real unhappiness is found amongst electronic producers and DJs; the difficulty weighs heavy on singer-songwriters; it is discussed by MCs and pop writers; it lurks in every single corner of our industry. All because a combination of inequitable record deals and the ‘revenue share’ streaming model is snatching failure from the jaws of success.

We have actively defunded the majority of musical taste and, without it, a much broader swathe of artistry struggles to succeed. There may be a few reasons for this but there’s one I keep coming back to: somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 listeners (different DSPs have different data regarding this) are distributing the vast majority of total streaming revenues through ‘hyper-listening’ habits.

“It’s dampening wider culture for no sensible reason beyond our inability to change streaming payments.”

Imagine for a second that you, at random, let one person in every five you meet choose what TV you watch, what books you read or who you spend your time with. That tyranny is what we’re doing to music.

There’s every reason to suspect this ‘1 in 5’ individual might be a bot, but setting that aside, let’s imagine them… They get out of bed, turn on algorithmic playlisting and let it run all day long. They hear 18 hours of music every day and extract over £40 of streams from £5 of their subscription. With your subscription, you essentially pay for this person’s music listening. Whatever is in their listening gets paid the most, receives the most marketing spend and the wheel turns.

It’s dampening wider culture for no sensible reason beyond our inability to change streaming payments.

As you might have guessed, I’m an advocate for user-centric payment. Seeking a way to remunerate artists and genres that have managed to build smaller but committed audiences is not an act of charity, it is better for our whole ecosystem. This is the talent pool from which stars are born and those jobbing artists I hope we can help to thrive. Do you think that having fewer break-through global stars and festival headliners in the streaming era is a mere coincidence?

The successful, professional tier of artists needs to be promoted and funded. Even if the gains are marginal from user-centric, with its associated cultural diversification and reconnection of artist and fan, it’s a – and I hate this word – no-brainer from my perspective. The truth is the system should almost certainly have been user-centric all along.

It’s rarely noted that in a user-centric system, each and every new listener can only add value with their subscription, they can’t dilute the pool (as a new hyper-listener might if they live in a lower paying region and are on a family plan). And, as a result of making a direct financial connection between listeners and the artists they like, we can identify real fans and market to them. We can sell t-shirts, vinyl or tickets to those fans.

“User-centric makes a direct financial connection between listeners and the artists they like. As a result, we can identify real fans and market to them. We can sell t-shirts, vinyl or tickets to those fans.”

The current revenue-share model largely prevents this: it spits out wild, vast data about total streams with a bit of geography attached and, with its accompanying NDA-culture; even if the DSPs know who our fans are, we’re prevented from expanding the offering. User-centric is a huge commercial opportunity waiting to happen – not just a rebalancing of remuneration and culture. Amazon Music could theoretically rival Ticketmaster.

It also means if any of those 1 of 5 hyper-listeners are bots, any fraud is near eliminated. That at least some hyper-listening might also be business premises cheekily using personal streaming accounts seems to be rarely, if ever, discussed.

But shouldn’t we still have one-hit-wonders? What about pop music having its glorious transient moments? To preserve that, it would make sense to have a hybrid system.

I believe a percentage of our subscription should be distributed through CMOs via good old revenue-share. For those critics of user-centric who decry the way it might slightly redistribute to catalogue artists, here is your simple solution. This allows for more break-through music and will still give us our pop sensations. Streaming can still be about singles but also, for the first time, equate to the album era too. And, if streaming is going to cannibalise radio listening – and the listening habits of the young suggests it will – we need to have dealt with how artists and songwriters enjoy the same rights and remuneration they’ve had.

Songwriters, in particular, are starting to breathe very thin air indeed. The song is deeply undervalued and the present determination of streaming as sales is, in many ways, the root cause. But the UK distribution of publishing, if not its size, does show us an interesting path: half performing right, half-mechanical. We could come to a similar ‘half-way house’ for the whole thing. Some believe streaming is communication and/or rental, some insist it is sales. Okay, let’s split it in two.

In UK publishing, it can be observed that the negotiating issues of a blanket license (typically troubled by competition law) can be partly corrected by its value following the more unfettered publishers’ mechanical rights. If we did the same for recordings, the associated exclusive rights could be distributed via user-centric accounting for 50% of remuneration.

A blanket license for public performance would mirror and follow those exclusive rights but be distributed via ‘Equitable Remuneration’. In the UK this would mean an even split between performers and labels, and, for the first time, artists earning something from their streams irrespective of label debt. Backing musicians would sigh with relief on receiving a royalty for the first time too.

Under this hybrid ‘half-way house’ system 75% would be paid to rights-holders and 25% to performers: a true rebalancing still reflecting the risk taken by labels – even if I personally find the terms of most recoupment deals dismal and regressive.

You see, the major music groups have been unreliable narrators in this tale. Those who work for them are not bad people – far from it. Just a bit… self-deceiving.

Streaming is not simply a ‘sales system’ no matter how much you stubbornly stay on message. A child can see it is part-rental, part-communication and maybe someone can convince me it is part-sales too. Labels may have to lose some share of the streaming pie, but in recognition of what streaming is, not what we’ve tried to force it to be.

If streaming is going to grow to nearly three times its present value over the next decade, why wouldn’t we rebalance? Isn’t having slightly less of a much bigger pie an acceptable trade-off especially when these new opportunities appear?

“there is more than enough money to go around and a broader, economically secure, professional class of creator is easily achievable were there a willingness to change.”

The major rights-holders are making extraordinary profits while the platforms appear not to be.

Warner Music’s stock bonus following its IPO – paid to just 6 executives – could have paid all 50,000 musicians in the UK around £12k each. Imagine if Warner had used such a windfall to settle their roster’s unrecouped debts. The executive pay is eye-watering, ill-judged and out of touch with reality. Something deeply wrong is happening and it’s been easily employed to get the attention of UK legislators.

The majors should immediately sign up to the Fair Digital Deals initiative that was laudably adopted by much of the independent sector a few years ago. So clear a child can see it: there is more than enough money to go around and a broader, economically secure, professional class of creator is easily achievable were there a willingness to change.

Finally, there’s the issue of price. Streaming is a bit cheap. The family packs and other bundle deals are too generous with the number of accounts they discount – driving down that ARPU again.

User-centric does some of the work of stopping the downward spiral in the value of each stream, and thereby the returns to each individual artist, but we can’t get stuck on a pricing which means music is deflating year-on-year.

I’m sorry Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Deezer etc but you have a responsibility to music as well as your commercial expansion. The few £ you’ll lose from going to £10.99 (from £9.99) will likely be covered by the price hike. The relationship of the modern human and their direct banking is more complex than the consumer making a choice at a counter. Have a little faith in your offering, the algorithms you love so much, the value we all put on music and that economic truth you’ve been ignoring like an angry email: price elasticity.

The question I’m asked most often is “do you expect anything to change?” to which I usually reply, “I don’t have reason to be hopeful, but I’m a happy soldier.”

The reason I say this is because what I, and so many others are asking for, though painfully reasonable, seems wildly optimistic. I’m sad to say we have learnt to hold low expectations in many parts of our industry. But this is why I turned my campaign to regulation and legislation. I, like many of my peers, are tired of being listened to but ignored. We’re tired of testing the vagaries of contract law in the courts. Regulation is what we’ve been left with and I suspect it is what the industry fears the most.

If I was in charge of one of the major music groups, a big indie, a distributor or a streaming platform, I’d look at what #BrokenRecord has managed to achieve in less than a year and wonder if I can navigate what happens when creators successfully seize the political space and inform industrial policy. I would not wait for a national government to decide to reclassify the whole of streaming – that’s where my employer would stand to lose the most. Instead, I’d start making calls… my phone is on.Music Business Worldwide

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