Fool Me Twice: How Spotify Could Become the New iTunes Store

Back in 2003, as the music industry was reeling from widespread, Napster-fueled piracy, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made the record labels an offer they couldn’t resist: Give me a license to sell individual tracks but let me sell them cheap enough to be a viable alternative to free, and I’ll wrap them in DRM for you in a way that consumers will accept, so they can’t be copied.

The labels leapt at the deal and the $1.00 download became the new atomic unit of the business.

Though thrilled at first to have an answer to piracy the record companies eventually came to rue the arrangement once they figured out that Apple was using those inexpensive downloads to supercharge the market for its high-margin iPods and later iPhone hardware, and was reaping far more of the value being created by their music than they were. By then, however, they had become captive to Apple’s ecosystem: Thanks to Apple’s proprietary DRM, the only way to sell music to iPod users — at the time the largest segment of the portable music-player install base — was through iTunes, under terms effectively dictated by Apple. Read More »

Music For The Masses

Music streaming has brought a lot of personalization to the experience of listening to music. Faced with the challenge of differentiating their service from competitors featuring substantially the same catalog of music, at a de facto standard price point, streaming services have focused on developing ever-more precise tools for personalizing the listening experience in the hope of keeping users engaged. So, Spotify has its playlists, Apple has its curators, Pandora has its music DNA project.

His_Master's_VoiceMusic rights owners too, in their approach to the streaming business, have also encouraged personalization. Burned badly by free music “sharing” sites, the record labels have been more than happy to reinforce the streaming services’ efforts to turn listening into a personal — and solitary — experience, such as by curating their own Spotify and Apple playlists.

Digital technology itself has also contributed to the bias toward personalization. Use of streaming services is heavily weighted toward mobile devices, particularly phones, which by design are personal, and in general highly personalized devices. Digital distribution also generates the sort of highly granular usage data on which personalization tools rely.

All that personalization has come at a price, however. With everyone cocooned inside their own playlists and cut off from the outside world by earbuds, the communal experience of listening to recorded music with friends or family has become a rarity. Read More »

Music In the Antitrust Crosshairs

File this one under “be careful what you wish for.” Two years ago, a group of major music publishers, along with ASCAP and BMI, which collect performance royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers, asked the Department of Justice to consider changing how it enforces the antitrust consent decrees that have governed the two leading PROs, to allow publishers to withdraw digital rights to their repertoire from the PRO blanket licenses.

DOJ took it under advisement and this week gave its answer, according to a report by Billboard, and it was not at all what the publishers were hoping for.

elizabeth_warrenUnder the decrees, ASCAP and BMI are not allowed to pick and choose which songs in their catalogs to license. They must either grant a blanket license to the entire catalog or not at all. Thus, if a song is in their catalog for one use it’s in it for all uses.

The publishers raised the issue because they were unhappy with the royalty rate that internet radio services (cough — Pandora — cough) were paying under the compulsory performance license available to broadcasters, including internet broadcasters. Those rates are set by the rate courts that oversee the consent decrees and get collected by ASCAP and BMI. Having failed to persuade the courts to raise them, the publishers wanted to be able to withdraw digital rights to their songs in the PROs’ catalogs and negotiate directly with internet broadcasters.

This week, according to the Billboard report, DOJ said no. Read More »

Bridging The Streaming Music ‘Value Gap’

The global music business offered up two cheers this week for the first signs of life in the recorded music business in nearly a decade. According to International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) latest global sales report, total recorded music revenue grew 3.2 percent in 2015, to $15.0 billion, the biggest jump since 1998 and the only growth since 2012, when sales ticked up 0.3 percent.

The overall growth IFPI_YouTubecomparisoncame entirely from digital sources, particularly streaming revenue, which jumped 45 percent over 2014, to $2.9 billion, or 19 percent of total revenues. Physical sales continued their decade-long slide, falling another 4.5 percent, buoyed somewhat by the continued renaissance of vinyl.

The strong streaming numbers were not evenly distributed, however. Subscription streaming revenue accounted for $2 billion of the $2.9 billion total, as the total number of paying subscribers reached 68 million, while industry revenue from ad-supported streaming amounted to a mere $634 million, despite more than 900 million listeners worldwide.

The report referred to the mismatch between consumption and revenue to artists and labels as a “market-distorting value gap,” that must be closed, echoing comments last month by RIAA CEO Cary Sherman. Read More »

How The CRB Has Done The Music Industry A Favor (Updated)

With the possible exception of Taylor Swift, Janet Yellen may now be the most powerful person in the music business. As chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen controls the levers that control the rate of consumer inflation in the U.S., a number on which potentially millions of dollars in music royalty revenues will now turn in the wake of Wednesday’s ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) setting the royalty rates that internet radio services like Pandora and iHeartMedia must pay to record labels and artists for the next five years.

Under the new rate card, internet radio services will pay 17 cents per 100 streams in 2016 ($0.0017 per stream), up nearly 20 percent from the 14 yellencents per 100 streams they pay today but well below the 25 cents per 100 that SoundExchange, which collects digital royalties for artists, had sought. After that, the rate will be indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the main gauge the government users to track inflation, for the next four years, which means the rate could go up or down with the price of bread.

It was an unexpected and deeply peculiar move that looked like nothing so much as an effort by the CRB, an arm of the Library of Congress, to get out of the rate-setting business, which itself would be mighty peculiar insofar as its role in setting royalty rates for webcasters is mandated by Congress and not really optional on CRB’s part. Read More »