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  • Mark A. Skoda

Striking a New Chord: Reimagining the Music Industry for Fairer Artist Compensation


In the face of an ever-evolving digital landscape, few industries have undergone as dramatic a transformation as the music business. From vinyl records to cassette tapes, from CDs to digital downloads, and now, the pervasive streaming services, the music industry's journey has been a rollercoaster ride. The advent of streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal has fundamentally changed how we consume music. However, these new systems come with their own unique set of challenges, chief among them being their inability to satisfy the financial needs of the musicians. In this post, I delve into the economics of streaming and why the music industry needs a rethink to ensure a more equitable future for all musicians.


Understanding the Streaming Business Model

Streaming platforms operate under a unique business model that is both revolutionary and controversial. They generate revenue through a combination of subscription fees, ad revenues for free tier users, and other miscellaneous sources. This revenue is then distributed to rights holders – labels, distributors, and directly to artists, based on the proportion of total streams their music represents. This 'pro-rata' system often benefits popular artists who garner millions of streams, while less-known artists receive just fractions of a penny per play.


Take, for instance, the reported payout rate on Spotify, which ranges from $0.003 to $0.005 per stream. If you are an emerging artist managing to get 1,000 streams a month, you are looking at a payment of $3 to $5. Compare that to superstars with millions of streams, and the disparity becomes glaring.


The Transparency Issue

Adding to the complexity is the lack of transparency within the streaming ecosystem. Musicians often have no clear understanding of how their earnings are calculated or distributed, making it difficult to plan for a sustainable income.


An oft-cited example is that of American singer-songwriter, Perrin Lamb, who found one of his songs gaining unexpected popularity on Spotify. His song accrued over 10 million plays, but to his surprise, he received only about $40,000 - far less than what he had anticipated. This lack of transparency exacerbates the financial uncertainties faced by musicians today.


Live Performances and Merchandising as Financial Lifelines

Given the inequities in streaming revenues, many musicians are forced to rely on income from live performances, merchandising, and fan interactions to keep themselves financially afloat. Concert tickets, T-shirts, and VIP experiences often form the bulk of a musician's income.

This model, however, presents its own set of challenges, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic when live events were canceled worldwide. This left artists scrambling for alternate sources of income, further underscoring the inadequacy of the current system.


Innovative Solutions and Alternate Models

The good news is that there are innovative solutions on the horizon, promising to reshape the financial structure of the music business. Direct-to-fan platforms such as Bandcamp, Patreon, and Kickstarter are allowing musicians to bypass traditional industry structures, selling music and merchandise directly to their audience. These platforms provide artists with a higher proportion of revenues, allowing them to maintain financial stability.


An alternate model that's gaining traction is the 'user-centric' approach to royalty distribution. In this model, the royalties are distributed based on individual listeners' habits. If a user's only listen for a month is a lesser-known indie band, their subscription fee goes directly to that band, rather than being pooled into the overall 'pro-rata' system. This approach would ensure that artists are paid proportionately to their fanbase, rather than their overall popularity. Companies like Deezer are already experimenting with this system.


Conclusion and Call to Action

The current dynamics of the music industry, particularly the dominant streaming business model, pose significant financial challenges for musicians. While the advent of streaming platforms has revolutionized how consumers access music, it has simultaneously led to a scenario where many artists are not being adequately compensated for their creativity and hard work. It is essential to highlight that music is more than just an industry - it's an ecosystem of creativity that deserves to be nurtured and rewarded fairly.


As we look ahead, the crux of the issue lies not only in recognizing these challenges but also in the urgency of finding innovative solutions. As seen with the direct-to-fan platforms and the 'user-centric' payment models, there is a potential for change. Such alternative avenues are essential not just for the equitable distribution of financial resources, but also to preserve the diversity and richness of music.


A seismic shift in the industry's ethos is required - one that values not just the topmost echelons of artists but also those who are on their way up. The bigger players, including labels and streaming platforms, must reassess their current models, ensuring they are built around equitable principles. This shift doesn't only fall on industry executives, however. Policymakers too have an important role to play in protecting the interests of musicians. Regulations that uphold transparency, ensure fair pay, and protect copyright can drastically improve the conditions for artists.


For musicians, it's essential to stay informed and adaptable. Understanding the complexities of the streaming business model, learning to maximize the benefits of alternative platforms, and rallying for change can help navigate these challenging waters. Musicians need to band together and lobby for change. Advocacy groups can be powerful in applying pressure on streaming services and lawmakers to ensure a more equitable future for all artists.


Finally, consumers – the music lovers and fans – hold significant power in this landscape. By consciously choosing to support artists through direct-to-fan platforms, attending live performances, and buying merchandise, fans can contribute to their favorite artists' livelihood. Platforms that offer fairer compensations can be given preference over others. It is also crucial to participate in conversations about fair pay for artists, using social media and other platforms to amplify the message.


As a music business executive, it's my belief that the music industry has always been resilient, adapting and evolving with each new technological advancement. This current financial crisis faced by musicians is a pressing issue, but it is not insurmountable. By combining innovation, advocacy, and consumer power, we can push for change, moving towards a future where all artists are fairly compensated for their work.


To that end, we must collectively take a stand, foster awareness, and use our influence to ensure the sustainable evolution of this industry we love so much. If music matters to us - as executives, artists, fans, or policymakers - then we must make its creators' welfare a priority, championing an industry that is not only prosperous but also fair and sustainable. It's a journey that requires our shared commitment and concerted efforts - but one that will ultimately ensure the vibrancy and survival of the music we hold dear.

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