How Music Streamers Could Empower Fans On The Road Toward Sustainability

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While Spotify's recent stock market roller coaster has failed to offer much benefit to artists, Chris Castle here looks at how some interesting moves by streamer Tencent could be adopted by other streaming companies to put fans on a path to greater artist sustainability.

Guest post by Chris Castle of Music Tech Solution

After the one-time pop of Spotify’s public stock offering cash-out, the new reality is going to be increasingly obvious–we’re stuck for at least a generation with trading high margin physical for low-to-no margin streaming royalties.  That stock-fueled sugar high created a near-total dependence on big minimum guarantees and non recoupable payments from streamers–if you could get those payments.  But the bad thing about non-recurring income is that it’s non-recurring. Spotify’s stock price is already testing lower lows near the $110 level, $7 above it’s 52 week low, but $80 below its 52 week high.

  Now what?  I’ve heard a lot of discussion about my “Ethical Pool” approach to streaming royalties, but any “user-centric” model isn’t going to fix the low-to-no margin streaming royalty problem by itself.  The streaming hole is dug too deep.      Strange as it may seem, streamer Tencent from the People’s Republic of China may have started a helpful social trend, and Apple is translating that trend into a business practice. Both companies present a teachable moment and an opportunity for the Ethical Pool’s mutual opt-in by fans and the artists they love in the form of micropayments I will call “Ethical Props”.

There’s three obvious things we know about streaming if we know nothing else:  Everyone who works for Spotify got even richer in their stock market cashout while the overwhelming majority of artists and songwriters on the service languish;  per-stream royalties are pitiful which matters if you don’t get minimum guarantees;  plus streamers lose money because they spend too much on overhead, especially salaries and rent.

There’s a less obvious problem we know but that doesn’t come up very often–streamers don’t empower fans to reward the artists they love, much less the songwriters who write the music it all starts with.  Imagine if fans could actually give money directly to their artists (and sign up for direct communications outside of the service).

But–thanks to inspiration from Tencent’s “virtual gift” feature, artists may have renewed negotiation leverage in actually getting streamers to empower fans to make direct contributions to the artists they love in the form of small “Ethical Prop” payments.  Of course, in order to be entitled to be “ethical” handle, the streaming services–including Tencent–will have to make some changes in their current business practice.

Which should be welcomed by all concerned.  As Sony Music as well as Taylor Swift and Universal Music Group recently demonstrated, ethical business is good business.  Both labels have agreed to pass through to artists a share of each label’s Spotify stock windfall on a non-recoupment basis–we’ll come back to that nonrecoupment part.

Simply put, Tencent allows users (all users, subscription or ad-supported service) to make virtual gifts in the form of micropayments directly to artists they love.  (The feature is actually broader than cash and applies to all content creators, but let’s stay with these socially-driven micropayments to artists or songwriters.)

Tencent, of course, makes serious bank on these system-wide micropayments.  As Jim Cramer noted in “Mad Money” last week:

“Tencent Music is a major part of the micropayment ecosystem because they let you give virtual gifts,” Cramer said. “If you want to tip your favorite blogger with a song, you do it through Tencent Music. In the latest quarter we have numbers for, 9.5 million users spent money on virtual gifts, and these purchases accounted for more than 70 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue.”

And that’s real money.  Tencent actually made this into a selling point in their IPO prospectus:

We are pioneering the way people enjoy online music and music-centric social entertainment services. We have demonstrated that users will pay for personalized, engaging and interactive music experiences. Just as we value our users, we also respect those who create music. This is why we champion copyright protection-because unless content creators are rewarded for their creative work, there won’t be a sustainable music entertainment industry in the long run. Our scale, technology and commitment to copyright protection make us a partner of choice for artists and content owners.

That sounds like these guys read the blog!

But–how to make “music-centric social entertainment services” into the Ethical Props? First, the streamer needs to take a smaller cut and they need to do some “Artist Services” work for their share.  If you want to get paid for artist services, then serve the artist for your payment (to get all antimetabole about it).

Spotify and Apple need to create the infrastructure that invests fans with the power to directly support the artists they love.  This empowerment will become increasingly important as more and more fans get woke with the main driver of the Ethical Pool–fans discovering that the very large lion’s share of the subscription fee they pay goes to music they don’t listen to performed by artists they’d never listen to. This ought to apply to both ad-supported and subscription services. In addition to the Ethical Prop button, services need to empower fans to connect directly with the artists they love through an email list if the artist has one.     In the background, the service may facilitate transactions like a “Fulfilled by Amazon” service that generates a 1099K (like Kickstarter) or an Apple in-app purchase.  In fact, the Chinese micropayments reportedly influenced Apple to change its in-app purchase policies, which make a good guideline for putting the “ethical” into an Ethical Prop:

Apps may enable individual users to give a monetary gift to another individual without using in-app purchase, provided that (a) the gift is a completely optional choice by the giver, and (b) 100% of the funds go to the receiver of the gift. However, a gift that is connected to or associated at any point in time with receiving digital content or services must use in-app purchase.

(That’s section 3.2.1(vii) in Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines for those reading along at home.)

Following Apple’s lead, Ethical Props should be given at the option of the fan and 100% of the funds should go to the artist directly (but not in lieu of a royalty).  Because the payment is optional for the fan, micropayments ought not to be taken into account in any rate setting hearing or negotiation.

And here’s where the “nonecoupable” issue returns–these monies should be paid directly each artist who opts-in to the feature.  Sony and Universal learned to leave some on the table–we’ll see how far that goes.  But certainly independent creators should get the benefit of 100% of any Ethical Prop.

On the songwriter side–now that lyrics are so prevalent and even Spotify is adding songwriter credits, it should be pretty simple for the discerning fan to give an Ethical Prop to a credited songwriter if the songwriter opts in to the Ethical Props.

So like the Ethical Pool, the Ethical Prop is bilateral–both fan and artist have to opt into the transaction.  If the streamer wants to provide a service to handle any required income or sales tax reporting (although it’s likely that none of these transactions will be significant enough to trigger a 1099), then that might justify a cut.  Maybe.

Ethical Props present a win-win opportunity for services and all artists that want to break the headlock of hyper-efficient market share distributions on streaming services.  As we all know and Tencent acknowledges, sustainability requires more than a per-stream royalty that starts 2, 3 or even 4 decimal places to the right.

As the Spotify sugar high starts to crash, Ethical Props may provide an important counterpart to the Ethical Pool.

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