It doesn’t take a huge dose of self-awareness to realise that, running the BPI, I work at the nerdier end of the music business.
So it may not be a huge surprise to learn that in my free time I sometimes like to geek out about space. I have a great time reading about the first NASA helicopter on Mars, or Elon Musk’s Starship blowing up, then I flick to an article about the size of a galaxy or the number of stars in the universe, and …. my brain seizes up.
I think that’s because it’s tricky, for most of us non-scientists, to take in really big numbers that are largely outside our human experience.
There’s been a similar problem in the DCMS Select Committee’s Economics of Music Streaming Inquiry. It’s easier to relate to the personal experience of an individual artist than it is to comprehend how the whole streaming business works, when that means grappling with data about a business with trillions of streams per year, streamed by billions of people, listening to millions of different artists.
Our focus in the Inquiry has been to try to encourage the Committee to look beyond the experience of a group of artists, emotive though they are, and to put them into context, considering the impact on the music business and artist community as a whole.
Not just looking at the moon through the lens of one person’s telescope, but looking wider and deeper (let’s say through the Hubble Space Telescope!) to appreciate the whole expanse that is the universe of streaming.
When you do that, there are some fundamental observations you can make.
The first and most important point is that popularity is by far the biggest determinant of success in streaming, just as it has been for every recorded format before it.
While most people assume that achieving millions of streams means an artist is successful and should be making a good living, the data tells us that, in fact, a million UK streams a year puts you at around 8,000th place in the UK streaming rankings. That’s the financial and chart equivalent of only selling 1,000 CDs, which at no time would have generated enough on its own for an artist to live on.
To make waves in streaming, you really need to be hitting tens or hundreds of millions of streams a year. And the exciting news is that thousands of artists are already doing just that, in the UK alone – with more artists than ever reaching those heights compared with the pre-streaming era. Over 1,700 artists achieved 10 million streams in the UK last year, 70% more than achieved the equivalent 10,000 record sales in the physical and downloads business of 2007.
What’s more, streaming – just like the universe – is expanding fast. It’s developing into a global marketplace, with UK artists on average generating four times as many streams outside the UK as they do at home. There are already 300 British artists who achieve 100 million+ streams globally, and they may not even be artists who you would instinctively count as global superstars (yet!). This list includes a whole new wave of diverse talent such as Rina Sawayama, Beabadoobee, Mura Masa, Freya Ridings, KSI, AJ Tracey, Yungblud and Ella Mai, to name just a few. Some, like Rex Orange County and Alan Walker, are achieving more than a billion streams a year. Remarkable stuff.
Data published recently by Spotify shows that over 13,000 artists are generating more than US$50k a year from their service alone – almost double the number in 2017. Overwhelmingly, it is not contract terms or remuneration systems that are the biggest factor in what artists earn – it’s how many people choose to listen to them.
The second fundamental observation about streaming is that the business is now more democratic and competitive than it ever was before. The barriers to entry have largely disappeared, anyone can upload their music on Spotify (it’s reportedly adding 60,000 tracks per day) and, as a result, the number of artists available has gone supernova.
We calculate that in the UK 300,000 artists are getting more than 100,000 streams a year, six times as many as achieved the equivalent CD sales in 2007. And, according to Spotify, 1.2 million artists have over 1,000 monthly listeners.
A consequence of this is that it is becoming harder than ever to reach the top of the business. As we have seen, there are more artists now who succeed but, because there are so many more artists in total, there are also more artists who cannot rely on streaming alone and so need additional income from other sources.
Of course, that’s not new: musicians have always earned from multiple sources. Thankfully, physical music sales have been remarkably resilient during the pandemic, with sales of LPs growing by more than a tenth in 2020 to nearly five million units. Broadcasting has also outperformed all expectations over the last few years, and performer income from radio/TV and public performance is up 18% since 2015.
In normal times, many artists make a lot of their income from touring and performing live, and we are fully behind industry efforts to get live music back at scale as soon as possible. We are also working with Government to address new touring challenges arising from Brexit. We need to fix the problems with live by fixing the problems with live, not by upending streaming.
The third fundamental observation about streaming is that, as gatekeepers have been reduced, artist power has increased. All the witnesses before the Inquiry have recognised that artists now have greater choice in terms of the type of deal they sign and how much control (and revenue) they wish to retain.
Royalty rates have gone up significantly, and there is fierce competition to sign talent. That competition helps to spur the investment and innovation that is the rocket fuel powering artist careers: UK labels are pumping £250 million a year into new music (A&R) and another £150 million a year into global marketing – vital investment that helps artists cut through in a hyper-competitive global market.
Label investment is nurturing more new talent too, with major label rosters growing: 153 new UK signings in 2019, a further rise in 2020, and overall roster sizes up 68% since 2010. Our dynamic independent members also report increasing signings and investment.
So, if streaming is allowing more artists of all backgrounds to reach their fans, and more artists to earn a living from recorded music than before, taking a bigger slice of overall recorded music revenues, and with rising competition and investment by labels, it begs the question: is there anything that actually needs to be fixed? Of course there is. We’re not pretending this is a perfect universe.
More artists should be able to earn a living or earn more from streaming; because each stream should be worth more to everyone. A lot more.
The value of a stream is currently suppressed by two interrelated factors. The first is the safe harbours that allow services which permit user uploads to pay much lower rates for those streams than other platforms.
A user-uploaded stream on YouTube’s free service currently pays about a tenth as much as a premium audio stream and, as BPI has pointed out before, all video streaming generates only half as much for labels and artists as selling vinyl. (Here’s hoping that YouTube’s subscription service will accelerate further and quickly increase their pay out rates.)
The second factor is the continuing problem of illegal apps and sites, including sites that rip from streaming services – estimated to cost our artists and their labels around £200 million a year.
Not only do such sites and apps allow people to get music without paying for it, they also hold down the pricing of legitimate services, which has not increased in ten years.
Robust action to tackle these problems would add hundreds of millions of pounds to the streaming economy, benefitting all artists and songwriters. In addition, as the business continues to globalise, support from Government to boost British music overseas can add another half a billion pounds per year to UK industry revenues by 2030. These are policies that will increase the number and value of streams of British music and benefit the entire UK music community, including artists.
Few of the other proposals being put forward to the Inquiry are about growth – they’re about redistributing a pie that already generates too little value for every stream. We have listened to the arguments for User Centric payments and, if the artist community feel that it is fairer, then it’s certainly worth further exploration.
The first stage would be to study more carefully its impact on different genres and artists, and to make sure that the complex administration required under such a system does not outweigh its benefits.
However, one solution proposed by artists groups, equitable remuneration (ER) would, quite frankly, be a recipe for disaster – a black hole that would suck value away from music sector and towards the platforms. Everywhere around the world that we see ER systems, they deliver tiny shares of revenue to labels and artists, because they take away the ability to say ‘no’ to users of music.
That’s why all UK broadcasting generates only £85 million per year for labels and artists combined, compared to more than £600 million a year from streaming. (There’s a separate point here that, because of ER, commercial radio has for years been underpaying for the music that drives its business. But that’s a different op-ed!).
ER would dramatically shrink the total pool of royalties available to labels and artists, meaning that UK artists would receive less money in total, even if their share was (in some cases) higher than under their recording contract. Moreover, it would relegate the UK to becoming one of the least competitive streaming markets in the world, at a time when global competition to our labels and artists has never been fiercer.
And since ER royalties would still be allocated by popularity, and spread across an even wider cohort of artists, it wouldn’t help those at the lower end of the streaming scale.
Most damaging of all, even if applied to only part of the streaming market, it would still undermine the opportunities of the stars of tomorrow, by reducing the ability of British labels to maintain their exceptionally high levels of investment into new talent.
Recently we announced the wonderful Griff as this year’s new BRITs Rising Star.
It’s not always obvious to the naked eye, but streaming is allowing more and more brightly burning stars like Griff to shine, and to illuminate our daily lives. After such dark times, that’s something to celebrate.