Downtown’s Ben Patterson: ‘Ultimately, the access to music afforded by the internet has cracked the gatekeepers of popular culture…’

In April this year Downtown Music Holdings (DMH)-owned Downtown Music formed a new Artist & Label Services division and announced that it would be headed up by Ben Patterson.

The word ‘new’ is, of course, slightly misleading for both Downtown and Patterson, as it is very far from ‘first rodeo’ territory for either when it comes to the ultra-competitive services arena.

An announcement was warranted, however: for one thing, Downtown Artist & Label Services (DA&LS) merged the capabilities and rosters of the (previously separately run) DashGo and Downtown Music Services.

Prior to becoming President of the ‘new’ division, Patterson had been COO of Downtown Music Services. He initially joined Downtown in 2019, when DashGo – founded by Patterson in 2004 – was acquired by Downtown as part of a $200 million deal.

At the time of the DA&LS launch, Patterson commented: ”Artist independence has been the central driver of my career, and empowering artists is at the core of everything we do at Downtown. With a global team focused on artists’ success during the lifetime of their projects, the Artist and Label Services division enables artists to succeed on every platform and build a listening fanbase to sustain careers.”

In the below interview, he discusses Downtown’s difference in the competitive indie services space, as well as topics including ‘artist-centric’ royalty models, the ‘attention wars’, and – why the hell not – what is art, anyway?

You’re currently using the tagline ‘One Size Doesn’t Fit All’ to promote Downtown Artist & Label services division. What do you mean by that phrase when you look at your place in such a competitive field?

This is a tagline we’ve had on our website for years. It came from a time when the number of distribution options was fairly limited between DIY offerings and major label-type deals.

In the late 2000s, there weren’t as many hands-on options for artists and I found a lot of our clients had distinct needs, whether it was a new act like Sick Puppies or a label like Delicious Vinyl.  Getting music into platforms was just table stakes – adding marketing and promotion and supporting demand was distinct.

Downtown Artist and Label Services’ lean-in, holistic services approach is an area where we get to work with the most dynamic artists and label teams and complement each other’s strengths.

The long-argued vision of a ‘full stack’ distribution company – like Downtown Artist & Label Services – is that an indie artist can join with not-many-fans and not-many-streams and work their way up over time to compete with artists signed to major labels. Does that actually happen in reality?

You can look at the Spotify Top 20 to see that happening across the industry, not just at Downtown.

Ultimately each client decides the scope of what they need and who is the best partner to provide that. We’ve been blessed to serve a great number of those artists over the years from Sadie Jean to Los Tucanes de Tijuana to TV Girl (pictured) to Kartel Music’s artists Luis R Conriquez and Tony Aguirre.

For those artists who build a significant fanbase and streaming income, what would you argue are the main advantages of an independent distribution system like Downtown’s vs. the major label system?

Two major answers: the first appears within your question! ‘Significant streaming income’ deserves to be kept by the artist. Downtown strives to both ensure that the artist captures and controls that revenue themselves and to give them a support structure that grows it in the way a major label historically may have done versus a complete DIY offering.

The second is creative control. Even in 2023, I hear stories of artists being unable to release the music they want when they want to. Downtown has thrived by championing our clients’ creative vision – not by dictating one to them.

Do you have any case studies that demonstrate significant growth for an artist who left the major label system for whatever reason and chose to go down the independent/services route?

I’m very proud of our work on behalf of Los Tucanes de Tijuana – who regained their catalog from UMG several years ago and subsequently tripled their streaming volume and audience.

They continue to find new fans and reached an all-time high on Spotify this year with over 12 million monthly listeners.

Los Tucanes de Tijuana

Data shows that the ‘middle class’ of artists releasing artists today is growing their market share vs. the ‘superstars’ at the top of the market. What do you expect to happen to this trend in the future? Could we be looking at a superstar-less future?!

Historically the superstar era encompasses a limited scope of human history – primarily the mainstream broadcast period post-WW2 of about 75 years, when narrow entertainment options gave many access to a limited few. Today’s access to entertainment is highly personalized and self-curated.

“there will always be artists that reach a wide audience, but thankfully for fans and artists alike, it won’t only be superstar or bust.”

People love participating in group events so there will always be artists that reach a wide audience, but thankfully for fans and artists alike, it won’t only be ‘superstar or bust’.

What from your perspective are the most valuable tools and services needed to accelerate an independent artist’s career – and how do you expect technology to impact on these in the future?

The biggest historic expenses for independent artists – distribution and messaging fans – have been heavily democratized.

Once an artist has identified the distribution option that works for them – or even before that, when they are sharing demos and gathering feedback – making sure that the artist knows where their fans spend their time online and how to communicate with them is key.

“The biggest historic expenses for independent artists – distribution and messaging fans – have been heavily democratized.”

Multiple audience tracking tools exist from Downtown’s own to platform-offered tools like YouTube Studio and Spotify for Artists. This can be bolstered by capturing [fan] email addresses and phone numbers for direct communications – because, eventually, social media will ask artists to pay to reach larger blocks of their followers – but even those advertising costs are much lower than in the past.

I’m distinguishing here between a career independent artist and a hobbyist. While all of these tools are available to everyone, investing in paid versions and advertising [spend] is likely not appropriate for all.

What are the biggest challenges from your Point of view that even established artists are starting to face in the current music economy – and what would you like to see done about them?

One of the biggest challenges is also a huge opportunity for artists – the competition for attention and time from entertainment offerings, be it streaming video, short-form video, video games, music, etc.

The upside for artists is that music plays a part in nearly every form of entertainment and the plethora of it gives artists a lot of chances to reach existing and potential fans.

“One of the biggest challenges is also a huge opportunity: competition for attention and time from entertainment offerings, be it streaming video; short-form video, video games, music, etc.”

On a related note… the continued explosive growth of user-generated content (UGC), plus creative remix tools that are ever-evolving with AI and other elements, can mean that credit for original works can get lost.

This is where having strong metadata and digital fingerprinting – and a competent administrative partner to protect and promote music so that it is not misattributed or lost in translation – is key.

There’s been a whirlwind of conversation whipped up by the ‘artist-centric’ royalty model adopted by Deezer in France – with input from Universal Music Group – and similar policies being adopted by Spotify in Q1 2024. This will especially impact artists with micro-audiences / tracks with 1,000 plays or less.  What’s your view?

I think the most important fan currency is time – how they spend it. To that end, I’m sympathetic to the artist-centric dialogues. But they lose me when I hear [the claim] that certain music is worth more than other uses of people’s time.

“ultimately it’s how much time fans spend with music that should be rewarded.”

It’s an argument as old as art: what is worthy art? What is pulp?

Ultimately it’s about how much time fans spend with music that should be rewarded. That was an original distinguishing factor of streaming – artists had to be streamed to get paid.

[That evolution] creates new challenges – bot streaming farms / click fraud etc. – but the move away from $20 for a CD with one popular radio single on it is a huge win for fans and artists.

What steps would you put in place – if any – to improve economic fairness across streaming economics across platforms?

I think platforms should be transparent about music and content that they hold a stake in, whether it is excluded from the royalty pool or if it’s being promoted to consumers to reduce exposure to higher-cost content.

“Platforms should be transparent about music and content that they hold a stake in.”

Also, music should be more fairly valued as to its contribution to short-form video and other offerings. Try muting TikTok music and see how successful the app would be…

Downtown (and yourself) were early to spot the global potential of independent music from LatAm, particularly in Mexico. Do you think that Latin music can continue to grow its market share in the US? And what does the rise and rise of Latin music tell us about where the industry will go in future?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with superstars in Musica Mexicana for over a decade. Throughout that time, I’ve seen and said that the fans are in the US and Mexico; it’s not ‘regional’ and increasingly it’s truly global.

Ultimately the access to music afforded by the internet has cracked the gatekeepers of popular culture; the streaming consumption [data] is impossible to ignore.

There is no doubt that [music from] other parts of the world with large local audiences will continue to cross over, be it Brazil, Indonesia, or India. All have large global communities that can still discover and share the music of their native countries because of the global reach of streaming platforms.

The question we ask of everyone – with different answers depending on the day! If we could give you a magic wand to change one thing about the modern music industry right here and now, what would it be and why?

Today, it’s fraud. That isn’t only music’s problem but is particularly acute in the industry today.

Bad actors erode the opportunities and income for all artists, big and small, and fraud has more flavors than Baskin Robbins – depending on the platform and perpetrator.

Industry efforts and expense focused on preventing [streaming fraud] so that artists can receive fair compensation means additional costs and time that aren’t being spent making or marketing great music.Music Business Worldwide