Without Majors, SoundCloud Had The Potential To Be A Better, Independent Music Space

Originally published on Crunchbase News on August 21, 2017.


It’s no secret that SoundCloud is troubled. Last month, news broke that the music streaming service slashed 40 percent of its workforce (173 jobs) and closed two of its offices (London and San Francisco). Two weeks ago, it dropped its founding CEO to secure new funding on the back of reports that it could run out of money within 50 days or so.

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The developments weren’t without augur or portent.

SoundCloud’s current situation brings us back to our prior thesis: namely that the company’s shift into the major label paradigm was a tactical error. And due to that mistake, SoundCloud lost its focus on an exploding demographic in the form of independent music, which it initially showed signs of controlling.

Rising Red Ink

Let’s run the numbers quickly. As I noted in my previous piece, Soundcloud’s revenue has grown for years. In 2010, the company recorded $1.8 million in top line; in 2012, $9.6 million; and, in 2014, $19.6 million.

But those gains came with rising losses. Soundcloud lost $2.01 million in 2010; $14.9 million in 2012; and $44.2 million in 2014.

The trend of impressive losses continued into 2015, when SoundCloud’s revenue increased by 10 percent to $22.5 million. Unfortunately, for the company, its losses grew by a larger 23.5 percent to $54.6 million in 2015.

And according to a recent Music Business Worldwide analysis, even post-cuts, Soundcloud won’t cut expenses to fully ameliorate its rising costs and royalty payments.

Major (Label) Gamble

Its cuts in staff are indicative of a larger problem. Namely, SoundCloud’s royalty payments are expensive. If Soundcloud’s payout to the major labels is similar to Spotify, it could reach the 80 percent mark of its subscription-sourced top line; in related topics, SoundCloud has consistently declined to comment on how much the major labels own of the company.

Adding to its financial picture, SoundCloud opened a $70 million credit line to keep its doors open.

While major label deals grant SoundCloud access to the world’s most popular catalogs, the royalty payments accompanying that catalog can be a Sisyphus-like experience.

The accompanying costs are high. For example, growth only accounts for one factor in determining a royalty payment. Other factors can range from the labels’ own fiscal bottom lines (which no streaming service can control) to the labels’ employment of a Most Favored Nation clause in their streaming contracts.

Major label content is also available through an array of streaming options: Spotify, Apple, (now) SoundCloud, Pandora, Tidal, and so forth. Given the number of services offering major label tunes, access to that content doesn’t make a streaming service unique. Rather, it gives the major labels outsized influence on a streaming service’s content offerings.

In Soundcloud’s case, the new major label paradigm likely impacted the now-beleaguered music streaming company in two ways:

  1. Major label deals changed SoundCloud’s value proposition. Due to its major label deal, Soundcloud could sell the same major label content as Spotify and Apple. SoundCloud would no longer be the home only for independent audio,  putting a pin in what arguably made the streaming service unique.
  2. The major label deals now required SoundCloud to pay the same piper as Spotify, Apple, and others.

All of this amplified SoundCloud’s already-noted strategic shift, and potential misstep: moving away from the independent music demographic—a group that it had performed well in previously.

Up until autumn 2015, SoundCloud primarily subsisted on independent music and user-generated content. But in the time it took SoundCloud to switch paradigms from the independent universe to the major labels, the market had changed. Whereas independent material up to 2015 was considered disinteresting to general consumers due to niche appeal, by the end of 2016, independent music streaming revenues made up $5.1 billion of the industry’s total haul of $16.1 billion. In fact, the independent market outsized Universal’s cut by more than $500 million.

Multiple arguments can be made about what has led the independent demographic to become the largest pie of the streaming-revenue pie. What’s clear, though, is that the old trope that’s been widely circulated about independent music—that nobody cares and it doesn’t make any money—is likely false.

From 2003-2012 alone, the independent landscape exploded in terms of participants. And it’s that market that Soundcloud likely ceded ground on due to its deals with major labels.

What Ifs And Takeaways

All this underscores SoundCloud’s decision to start down the major label path.

If it had made the same job cuts and office closures in 2015 that have now been enacted, then Soundcloud might look very different. The company might have been able to close the gap long enough for the numbers to show—as they are now—that independent music is a real area of growth in the music universe.

If that had happened, it might have given financial-credence to its massive independent catalog, independent-enthusiast userbase, and independent reputation. But the major label paradigm is like a lobster-trap; it’s very, very hard to back out of once you’re in.

Of course, all that assumes that Soundcloud would have been able to settle lawsuits and figure out a way to monetize its gigantic repository. Assuming it could, SoundCloud might now be the clear frontrunner in its own arena of music, almost completely removed from the whims and dynamics of the major label world which Spotify and Apple have to contend with.

What’s important to recognize now is that the music universe is multidimensional, and, with the explosive growth of independent content, it’s adding new layers by the day. SoundCloud’s plight should encourage—not dissuade—future would-be music-tech startups or entrepreneurs and investors. Let Spotify and Apple battle it out for the major label world; the independent universe is growing quickly anyway.

Whether it’s too late for Soundcloud to take advantage of that growth will depend on its ability to navigate its choppier, less-funded, waters.

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The Streaming Wars Continue, And SoundCloud Is In The Balance

Originally published on Crunchbase News on May 17, 2017.


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It’s been a challenging year for SoundCloud. And its last quarter hasn’t made things any easier on the music-streaming startup.

Amidst a streaming war between Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and others, SoundCloud’s orange cloud is greying. Spotify passed on buying the company in December, it’s seen a patent dispute, a high-level shakeup, and multiple reports (here and here) have explored the possibility that it might run out of money by the year’s end.

The news has not been good for SoundCloud. (When contacted, SoundCloud declined to comment on its financial situation.)

So what comes next for the music company? The answer to that question is anchored on three points:

  1. The economics of streaming for non-label players.
  2. SoundCloud’s efforts to expand past its original, core user base.
  3. Its efforts to stabilize allegedly difficult financials.

We’ll approach each topic respectively to get a handle on how it will impact SoundCloud.

Streaming 101

To understand SoundCloud’s current financial situation, we have to understand streaming economics.

Streaming companies license material from two main sources: major labels and independent artists. In SoundCloud’s context, it’s the first content source which matters. Major labels set the standard royalty rates which services like SoundCloud must pay for access to their critical libraries.

It is notoriously difficult to pin down what a private music streaming company is paying in royalties. For companies like Spotify and Soundcloud, royalty payouts can total in the neighborhood of 70-85 percent of a company’s revenue.

To that point, rates released in reference to Spotify over the last few years have been all over the map. In 2013, Spotify released (via Stereogum) its own accounting of its royalty payout structure, which detailed that ~30 percent of generated stream revenue stays with Spotify while the other roughly 70 percent went to labels, publishers, and others. There was no mention of any additional costs.

In August 2016, however, Music Business Worldwide calculated that ~84 percent of Spotify’s topline went out the door for “royalty distribution and other costs.” Again, those other costs were not defined. Music Business Worldwide then followed up on its first statement and calculation with the note that Spotify’s precise royalty payout is believed to be just under 70 percent.

In 2017 alone, TechCrunch reported that Spotify’s royalty payout was 70-72 percent, except when other factors—like catalog geography and free vs. paid streaming—could bump the royalty payout as high as 84 percent. All this was before Spotify’s new deal that supposedly lowered royalty payouts in exchange for windowing. The aforementioned “extenuating factors” are so important to acknowledge precisely because they affect so much of any music company’s catalog.

So is Spotify’s royalty payout less than 70 percent, 70 percent even, 70-72 percent, greater than 70 percent, or even up to the low 80s? No one really knows except Spotify and the labels. Even using Spotify as a bar for understanding SoundCloud’s royalties leaves us convoluted

Of course, streaming services have an interest in limiting their payout rates, but streaming companies don’t have much leverage due to an imbalance of power. If SoundCloud or Spotify don’t have a major label’s catalog, either one could immediately start to shed subscribers to competing services not locked into the same label fight. In music streaming, platform diversification only flows in one direction.

Shifting Priorities

The streaming cost matter puts SoundCloud’s recent strategies into context.

SoundCloud cut its teeth licensing content in the independent world, a much different paradigm than Spotify or Apple Music. Because it built its success on independent material, SoundCloud wasn’t beholden to the major label oligarchy for material.

Priorities shifted when SoundCloud changed direction and pursued major label content on top of its independent catalog.

It signed deals with every major label, leading to a new direction for the company. When pressed last year, SoundCloud responded with the stark “no comment” on how much equity it may have provided to labels for access to the respective catalogs. Additionally, most of the deals hinged on SoundCloud releasing an on-demand premium service to directly compete with Spotify and Apple.

By summer 2016, SoundCloud had evolved into another major label distribution platform. This effectively posed the conundrum of potentially alienating its initial userbase, which might not have been inclined to see another mainstream music service as necessary in the first place.

Compounding the mainstream content conundrum, SoundCloud’s new catalog was the same mainstream content that its direct competitors were distributing. Further, SoundCloud was now compelled to build a new product to directly compete with Spotify, putting it in a position where it held less power for the content it licensed while burning money at a ridiculous rate.

Challenging Financial Realities

All that sums to the company’s current financial situation.

In order to understand the company’s fiscal situation as it stands today, it behooves us to remind ourselves what we know about its past performance.

As I previously wrote, SoundCloud’s financials in December of last year were as follows:

Revenue tracking upward (source):

  • 2010 – $1.8 million.
  • 2012 – $9.6 million.
  • 2014 – $19.6 million.

With losses ballooning (source):

  • 2010 – $2.01 million.
  • 2012 – $14.9 million.
  • 2014 – $44.2 million.

Based on the new numbers, SoundCloud’s revenue saw a 10 percent increase from $19.6 million in 2014 to $22.5 million in 2015. Its losses, however, increased dramatically by 81 percent, from $44.2 million in 2014 to $54.6 million in 2015.

Debt and Irony

Most recently, SoundCloud raised an additional $70 million in debt funding. With this round of debt funding, it’s likely that SoundCloud is trying to follow Spotify’s example by doubling down on their growth numbers long enough to find an exit. The problem with this strategy is that SoundCloud is nowhere near as big as Spotify, perhaps lowering its M&A potential. While this strategy presents challenges for Spotify as well, the analogy ends right there, since SoundCloud’s debt is barely a pittance of Spotify’s $1 billion debt raise.

Spotify’s delayed IPO casts a shadow of doubt on its smaller rival as well. If the company most obviously in line to acquire it has its own challenges to contend with, it’s clear that its attention will be on its own IPO, rather than a bail-out acquisition of SoundCloud—even at a fire-sale price.

Unfortunately, the reality for SoundCloud is this: the company has extremely unwieldy financials, and its main competitor—the company most likely to acquire them—just delayed its own IPO in order to figure out its own financial situation.

Uncertain Future

The faster that SoundCloud tries to shift to become more like Apple Music and Spotify, the more it runs the risk of highlighting it wasn’t trying to be like the standard streaming services at all.

Whether or not the summer will bring back the orange in our grey cloud remains to be seen.

Unbundled, Part III: Democratizing the Future

Why democratization and identity are the future of music.

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This is the final entry in the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


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Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization

Which brings us back to the last step in the cycle: unbundled once again. Only this time, the unbundled dynamic refers to power and ownership. The new unbundled form of power—referenced above—removes the focus of power from the major labels and fractures it, splintering it to varying degrees among the plethora of new artists and startups now emerging.

This is the best thing that could happen because it leads to a more stabilized version of meritocracy in music. The top-heavy, unbalanced paradigm of major label control over everything that a fan is exposed to is ending, and being replaced with a much murkier—but more expansive—reality. This in turn affects scarcity and gatekeeping on a massive level.

Scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

Ownership

Perhaps the most prickly point here is the concept of ownership in the new age. This is a contentious topic even among friends, and no one really knows what the landscape is going to look like in the next few years. What can be surmised, however, is that concepts of ownership of musical material are evolving. Sampling and other trends in electronic and DJ music, along with self-recording and independent releases, have muddied the waters of who owns what and to what extent.

Now the action of covering or remixing someone else’s song and posting it online bristles feathers. But (most) artists who do this also attribute the proper credits to the original artist(s)—many times in the cover or remix’s title—simply because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps them to disseminate their new version.

Asserting that cover songs and remixes hurt the original artist is a cloudy and jaded argument at best.

Yet, the argument can be made that with this new overhaul in ownership orthodoxy, perhaps the right people are now able to own the things they should have been able to all along. Let us not forget the reality of master tapes (where a record label owns the rights to an artist’s original recordings) which so many artists have regretted. Controlling one’s own material, and deciding what to do with it, are the ultimate power plays an artist can make. Appealing to this new sense of power is the best avenue for emerging music startups to make.

Such a concept is fairly reminiscent of a point Daniel Mark Harrison makes in a piece regarding bitcoin, wherein he illustrated that controlling access to material is the ultimate power: “…any major purchaser goes direct to a Bitcoin ‘miner’…and negotiates steep discounts for their volume purchase action.”

In this scenario, the music fan is the purchaser, the artist is the bitcoin miner, and the service that serves as a conduit between the two is better off appealing to and providing value to the artist rather than only the fan. Both are important, but the latter controls the material which the former wants to consume.

Money and Community

One of the loudest major factors that floats around is the argument over money, from streaming, downloading, merch sales, ticket sales, etc. Let’s be clear though: streaming and downloading—the purchase of musical material—is not where the real money is for artists. It never has been. The money has always been in the merchandise and live ticket sales. What does this mean nowadays? Community.

While it is certainly arguable and many times probable that new unbundling dynamics have struck at artists’ ability to make money from the sale of their music, it is equally arguable that it has enabled them to make money from other, more lucrative, avenues.

An artist can only sell a $10 album so many times (unless you’re a major label darling). Their real bread and butter is in their community cultivation: growing their base, getting people to come out, getting people to spread their music and message, and capitalizing on those efforts. Streaming and downloading revenue is at best a holdover until a better stream is tapped.

The dynamics that exist now in this new unbundled world provide new opportunities for artists. Now, they don’t need to make their money off music sales or streams. Enough access to fans and communication/funding tools exist that they can actually give their music away for free and turn a profit somewhere else.

And this is exactly what a growing number of artists are choosing to do.

The dissemination of their material onto a global stage is much more important than a few album sales here or there, and leads to better things on the other side. A more expansive universe brings more shows, more exposure, more true fans, and more branding opportunities. These are the real things that grant artists staying power.

The Expansive Powers of Identity

Lastly, there is identity. I examined in a previous piece how we’re seeing the rise of “identity platforms” in media. Music is no exception to this. In fact, it might be the shining example of it.

Identity gives music—and by extension all art—certain powers that contribute staying power. Identity is so powerful precisely because it exists independently of genre, mainstream recognition, money, or history; it’s unique in it’s own ability to build bridges where previously there were none. Regarding music, identity brings together people on a core level that can almost supersede differences they might otherwise have.

The power identity—especially in relation to art and music—in its potential to create ever-expanding identities—to create communities. Money is certainly a factor in this, but if a shared identity which draws people towards one another, and can shield them—for better or worse—from outside forces seeking to compromise that unique, collective identity. As music is given the ability to disseminate more and more, more communities will arise around newly-minted identities, and art as a whole will become more lush and layered.

In the wake of these trends in art, music, and media, the power will lay with companies and platforms to not only cultivate these newly emerging identities, but to provide fertile ground for even more embryonic ones. Music becomes a vessel for the expansion of art and identity.

The Upswing

Where does this leave us? In unchartered territory to start with. Artists will continue to grow their power as new technologies make the opportunities possible. The companies which see this trend and capitalize on it will be the ones to stick around and do well. The others, however, who are resistant to this new set of events, will find it challenging to court artists and acquire material if they are determined to hold fast to a paradigm that was beneficial mostly to the major record labels.

Independents artists, and consumers of all strata (not merely the mainstream), will not be ignored or marginalized anymore. They will continue to experiment with the bundling/unbundling process until they find the right fit for themselves, and for their careers. There will be less of a set standard that all need to conform to, and more of a flexible set of possibilities and avenues for people to mix and match to reflect their changing personal experiences.

The future of music is three things: freedom, community, and democratization.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled, Part II: Shifting the Paradigm

How a new music paradigm is rising out of the wreckage.

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This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


The second act in the “bundled/unbundled” production is the “bundled” piece. It’s about exploring the bundling process as it pertains to music, and really trying to determine the proper scope of examination. Said scope, when broadened enough, shows a shifting paradigm of power and perception rising out of the wreckage of the previous music landscape. It’s similarly divided into three parts:

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

The first of these is an exploration of what types of bundling already exist, and how it might not be the right kind of bundling to pursue. The nature of peoples’ interaction with music has changed, so it follows that the things bundled in music should change as well. This is a particularly difficult thing to accept because it requires a reworking of thought regarding something already perceived as “done.”

The second part is a discussion of how power naturally shifts during these seismic events, and how the new power should be held by a previously dismissed faction: the artists.

This flows right into the last part, which is an exploration of how many of the things which should be considered and bundled may not be the “sexiest” or most exciting of things to include. But “sexiness” and utility don’t always go hand-in-hand, and reality prevails at some point.

BUNDLED

Bundled in the Wrong Way

This is the biggy. Inasmuch as many things in the music universe(s) have become unbundled, so too are there a variety of things that have also become bundled. In the light of all the unbundling going on (Chris Saad blew through an extensive example list from everything including music and news to relationships and war), it appears somewhat unsexy to talk about the things going through the bundling process.

Where unbundling is fast and sexy and simple, bundling appears slow and outdated. But in music at least, this is far too simple an assessment.

The reality is that there are many things in music that have always been bundled, but bundled in such a way that they appeared to be unbundled. Many of the things which “music” apps are now trying to tackle separately—distribution, marketing, social, ticketing, analytics, messaging and/or communication, and live booking—have always been bundled under the banner of the record label.

The label controlled virtually everything, from distribution and radio play (yes, payola is real) to marketing and fan engagement. If you wanted to exist as an artist, you needed to be a part of this world in some way. Otherwise, you were relegated to the “independent” pile, which in the years prior to 1991, was much less glamorous than it is now.

Power and Paradigm Shift

When the digital age hit, the unbundling of the record labels’ power began. Since around 2005, major label power has seeped, and independent power has reached new heights. However, in their new-found power, independents were also sold a myth that everything they needed could be solved by partaking in a variety of unbundled services, from analytics to social platforms.

What this myth fails to address though, is the massive time-suck it really promotes. There are a great many things that should be bundled. Things like analytics, ticketing, distribution, radio play, social engagement, community, and marketing should all be offered under the same banner of a startup or new company.

But—and this is so important—done so in a way where the artists retain their power.

Sexy vs. Unsexy

The unbundling that has occurred has amazingly and unexpectedly taken much of the power away from the labels and delivered it to the artists. Artists now have the ability to control nearly every aspect of their operation, from recording through distribution through community engagement. But they don’t really have it all in one place, for free (yes this is huge), with the level of choice they need.

They have a variety of music discovery sites to choose from, a variety of analytics engines to use, and a variety of social platforms to post on, among other things. This is too much, and simplification is necessary. A music company should offer all of these types of functions under its purview, wherein artists can then choose to use them—or not—as they like. Choice and freedom remain intact while efficiency and simplicity are underscored.

But why stop there? Why not tackle the unsexy things that major labels have always done and give that power back to the artists as well?

Have a company that encompasses all the functions above, and then add (fan-driven) radio play, legal information and resources, management, copyright, and informational context. In making the experience of one site all-encompassing, you then succeed in changing the artists’ paradigm, thus changing the music landscape.

Giving artists access to these “unsexy” things is just as easy as (easier actually than) giving fans access to the music the want to hear.

The only difference is that instead of focusing on half of the equation, you instead complete the circle, and do so independently of the former rigid structure.


The Power of Knowledge

Whereas the points of the previous piece—choice and format—led to the overarching concept of community, the three points here point to something different, but equally important: knowledge.

If knowledge is power, then bundling things in a new way to give artists access to more knowledge clearly translates to a shift of power in their direction. This upends the previous paradigm immensely.

As artists gain perspective and knowledge on things like music analytics, marketing strategies, and engagement statistics—as well as “unsexy” things like legal resources and contacts—the power shifts significantly away from the major record companies. Their power has always been cemented in two main things: money and knowledge. But once artists and creators have access to the second of these two things (knowledge), they can apply it flexibly to attain the first of these two things (money).

This creates major fissures in the current music landscape, and opens up a splintering ecosystem of new opportunities for creatives at all levels of music creation and engagement.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part III: Democratizing the Future, which will take a look again at a new unbundled dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how the new unbundling will change music ownership and identity.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

The Spotify-SoundCloud Supergroup Is Dead

Originally published on Mattermark on December 29, 2017. 


tl;dr: The SoundCloud and Spotify deal is dead. For Spotify, no deal avoids unnecessary headaches. For SoundCloud, the road ahead looks lonely as the platform heads into 2017.

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Cream. Bad Company. Temple of the Dog. These were some of the greatest supergroups that ever existed. The Spotify-SoundCloud union could have been next, but like many supergroup concepts, it only lasted a short time.

The real question is why. Ultimately, in my view, the deal died because SoundCloud tried to become something that it wasn’t, alienating its core fan base in the process.

It was easy to argue that a Spotify-SoundCloud combination could benefit each party: SoundCloud’s independent-heavy catalog and Spotify’s major label material are natural complements.

But the prospect is no longer on the table. It recently became known that Spotify passed on acquiring the little orange cloud.

Let’s talk about why that happened.

Supergroup Not

2016 was not kind to SoundCloud.

Despite signing deals with major labels, securing its largest to-date funding round, and launching its own subscription service, key questions remain concerning its current operational results, where it fits into the M&A landscape, and what an independent SoundCloud looks like in 2017.

Fiscal Expense

Mattermark recently examined, broadly, who could afford to buy SoundCloud, now that Spotify has left the table.

To understand why Spotify might have passed—neither Spotify nor SoundCloud responded to requests for comments regarding this piece—on SoundCloud, it’s worth remembering the smaller firm’s P&L.

SoundCloud’s revenue quickly expanded from $1.8 million in 2010 to $9.6 million in 2012, to $19.6 million in 2014. Its losses tracked upwards, however, from $2.01 million in 2010 to $14.9 million in 2012, to $44.2 million in 2014.

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Much like Spotify and other streaming services, some SoundCloud revenue quickly passes through its books. In SoundCloud’s case, around 80 percent of its revenue from a portion of its aggregate top line goes right to labels. Spotify’s results are similar.

The context for those numbers is simple: SoundCloud has raised around $193 million to-date over a series of five rounds. Just comparing the company’s through-2014 losses, SoundCloud has spent around half its raise so far. And since we’re not including more recent operational results, that figure is very conservative.

The Sophomore Slump

If 2010 to 2013 was SoundCloud’s breakthrough album, then 2014 to 2016 was its disappointing follow-up.

Beginning in 2015, SoundCloud started to move away from its initial user base of independent artists and began courting major labels. The company inked a deal with Warner in later 2015 and Universal Music in early 2016.

Warner and Universal were joined by the last remaining holdout in March of 2016 when Sony signed on. That effectively marked the end of SoundCloud’s days as the independents’ playground.

Following the three major label deals, SoundCloud released SoundCloud Go, its entry into the music subscription wars. The company has yet to report major gains from the subscription product. I’d posit that it may be difficult for SoundCloud to entice music fans to the service. If potential subscribers are interested in mainstream music, they can already go to other music services.

Money Talks

While Spotify sports extensive independent material, its focus is major label artists. That fact did not escape those who made the argument in favor of the combination. SoundCloud’s huge base of independent EDM, acoustic, rock, and other artists could help balance the scales and provide a funnel into the Spotify nest.

If the argument for Spotify buying SoundCloud was that the latter could help the former pull in independent music, do SoundCloud’s operational results matter?

The answer is yes, as Spotify doesn’t want anything to threaten its impending IPO.

Earlier this year, I took a deep dive into Spotify’s own financials, examining the numbers and reasons that they already might have a tricky path to IPO. New cost centers could make that already difficult-looking trek nigh impossible.

Even with SoundCloud’s legal issues seemingly taken care of by major label deals, SoundCloud’s subscription service arrived to lackluster reviews, and its sizable debt may present too much of a headache for Spotify just before their looming IPO.

This is all especially stark considering SoundCloud’s desired price-tag of $1 billion. Even with Twitter’s most recent $70 million investment into the service, valuing it in the neighborhood of $700 million, Spotify would still need to pay an additional $300 million to close the difference.

2017

What does this all mean for SoundCloud’s future?

As with Spotify, the major labels now have a vested interest in SoundCloud’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that they have a long-term interest in its health. As I noted in my previous Spotify piece, the labels may not want to kill SoundCloud, but they also don’t have to go out of their way to help it. So long as it sends in revenue, who cares?

Some people will care. The danger could be that independent artists may care enough to go somewhere else more focused on them. (Since they operate independently, SoundCloud’s major label deals have no sway over their prospective decisions.)

SoundCloud’s challenge is that the faster it rushes to catch up with Spotify and Apple in the mainstream arena, the faster it may alienate its key demographic of independent artists; in working to compete with the larger, mainstream players, I wonder if SoundCloud has become what its initial user base—its core point of differentiation—was trying to avoid

We’ll see in 2017.


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled, Part I: Reformatting the Barriers

How unwrapping the previous barriers is changing music.

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This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published piece here:


The first movement in this symphony is the “unbundled” piece. It’s all about “reformatting” the conceptual barriers that initially existed for decades. It’s divided into two parts: Choice and Format.

The former is an exploration of how choice has evolved with the changing technology, and how it’s taken on a power it previously lacked. The latter, however, discusses how new formats have changed music and broken down barriers which artists historically were—most times—unable to scale. Similarly, it’s given light and life to format types which for decades have been ignored by the broad base of music consumers, except perhaps for the most die-hard fans.

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Choice

The first and most obvious form of unbundling in the music industry is the industry itself; no longer is their simply one music industry to partake in.

Now there are multiple, and they exist as completely separate universes; the major label mainstream, the exponentially growing independent industry, and everything in between. Along with this kind of unbundling of different musical arenas comes a freedom for music fans to explore in new ways.

Where non-mainstream fans were once relegated to shoddy mixtapes and bare-bones independent releases (which many times meant lower quality), now they have a plethora of music sources to choose from, as do all music listeners.

This leads to a level of choice the likes of which has never been seen in music. Now, it’s realistically possible to exist as a music fan outside the mainstream in a holistic way. You’re able to not only find the music that you like, and which speaks to you, but are similarly able to take advantage of growing communities of people like yourself. With the free access to all this new material comes access to other like-minded people.

This is community.

Chris Saad pointed to two distinct contributing factors which have lead us in this direction:

  • Reducing the cost of inventory and discovery to, in many cases, zero or near zero
  • Reducing the cost of direct communication and orchestration with more people at once—bypassing the need for manual mediators/editors/orchestrators/curators

Format

Saad’s post also mentioned this within the scope of musical format. What was once a record and CD has now become digital information, thus with more power to disseminate. Even the album format itself is restructuring, as fans looking for a single-song experience are abandoning the long form in favor of something musically shorter.

But this has a swing dynamic as well; while some argue that the album format is dying (or is already dead), many see the opposite.

The unbundling of the album format has actually given it more power than it had before. Now, when an artist chooses to create a full album, a fan knows that there is an artistic meaning behind that, rather than a record label’s fiscal bottom line.

It also lends long-overdue validation to releases that fall in between singles and full albums. EP’s and double-sides have long been ignored by most but the hardcore fans. Now, however, they exist with the same legitimacy as their gaunter and fuller peers.

The Ironic Thing

The ironic thing about these two points—choice and format—is that they’re inherently about one overarching concept: community.

As choice expands and begins to encompass formerly ignored genres and artists, new communities have the ability to coalesce and thrive. Choice isn’t merely about having new material for already established communities to engage in; alternatively, it can lead to a mixing of communities that otherwise might not happen.

Punks and jazz fans may begin to mix over a new punk-jazz fusion genre, and people who otherwise would never have met one another can not suddenly exist alongside each other. This leads to an increased level of creativity and an exponential production of creative material.

And this material is further disseminated throughout communities—splintering them and rebonding them—through new formats of information technology. Communities cease to be rigid and orthodox in their functionality towards music and instead become more elastic—they become living, breathing things which grow and continue to evolve.

This is the unbundling process within music as it should be: an unwrapping of previously rigid dynamics that lends more flexibility and power to the overall process of community cultivation.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part II: Shifting the Paradigm, which will take a look at the BUNDLED dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how bundling — but doing so incorrectly in the new era — impacts music consumption and community cultivation.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled: Introduction to the Bundle

Why the unbundling of the music universe matters.

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In recent years, the dynamics of bundling and unbundling have changed everything in media. But they’ve had an especially palpable effect on music.

This is an exploration of the bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in the music universe right now. Because of the massive amount of information discussed herein, it is necessary to cover it in series of parts, each explaining a particular aspect of change and restructuring.

This series will appear as the following:

  • Introduction to the Bundle
  • Part I: Reformatting the Barriers
  • Part II: Shifting the Paradigm
  • Part III: Democratizing the Future

Additionally, all four pieces (including the introduction) will subsequently appear as a single, holistic text, entitled: Unbundled: The Story of Music.

This is the first entry in the story.

A New Emerging Dichotomy of Freedom and Reach

A few months ago, Uber’s own Chris Saad penned an article on the dynamics of bundling, and how they’re affecting a number of fields. In his piece, Saad addressed how concepts of bundling are impacting areas of creativity like art and music, among others. Ironically, it had a similar air to Joshua Topolsky’s earlier article on media companies, which itself prompted my response on music-startup realities.

Such examples were only briefly mentioned, but one can go deeper on them, particularly in the way of music. Things are happening now to the age-old structure of music that arguably haven’t changed for the better part of five or six decades. And even that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Part of what was so intriguing about Saad’s examination of these morphing areas is just how much change is going on which is not being discussed. In many ways, Saad’s piece shines a light not only on the changing bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in music, but how these two different forms—yin and yang—are interacting with one another to shape a new musical landscape. What we see is an emerging dichotomy of freedom and reach that we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Three Trends in a Specific Order

Within the context of music, three trends—unbundling, bundling, and unbundling again—matter. And they matter in that sequence. This is so because each (un)bundling action touches a different area of the music arena, and thus their interaction together forms a new paradigm.

They lay out as follows:

unbundled

Covered in Part I, Reformatting the Barriers

  1. Choice
  2. Format

BUNDLED

Covered in Part II, Shifting the Paradigm

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

unbundled

Covered in Part III, Democratizing the Future

  1. Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization
  2. Ownership
  3. Money and Community
  4. The Expansive Powers of Identity

The music industry, like all other forms of media, is undergoing such a massive tectonic shift that we’re only beginning to now see how big the fissures are. The most interesting thing will be how these changing power paradigms affect the music coming out, and the communities which are built around the material.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Why Ignoring the Independents Means Thunderstorms for SoundCloud

SoundCloud logo

TechCrunch published a post recently, the premise of which was SoundCloud’s recent tapdance with major labels. The post discussed SoundCloud’s $35M in debt funding, and newly signed deal with Universal Music Group. The fact that the aforementioned funding was actually finalized last May notwithstanding, the piece concluded that the upshot of the whole situation is that SC would end up being worth more than rival Spotify. Here’s why that’s not exactly the case.

The Background: Courting the Mainstream Players

While the TC piece makes some astute points, its most important argument—that SoundCloud has the opportunity to become the YouTube of audio—doesn’t exactly stand on its own. SoundCloud has a major issue in that it’s caught in between two completely different paradigms—that of the independent and that of the major label—and doesn’t seem to know how to resolve those differences. Up until now, the ill-fated balancing act it’s been trying has been somewhat workable, but going forward it will be tenuous at best. As such, the real story here is how SoundCloud is evolving, and not in a way that is wonderful for the independent artists who have historically been its core constituency.

As SoundCloud moves further into the major label fold, it simultaneously does two things:

1) It resolves (at least for the moment) the issues which the music service is having with some of the labels over licensing and royalties. The new deal with Universal clearly comes with it an agreement that the label will drop any pending legal action against the service, as music will now be licensed directly to SC. (It does, however, do nothing for the mass of pending litigation  between Sony and SoundCloud, as the former is that last major label holdout to strike a deal with the service).

2) It effectively continues the alienation of the independents upon which the service has historically built its core and more loyal following.

Leaving the Core Content Base

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with serving the mainstream. However, most every one of the major music companies already does that, leading to an already crowded crawlspace of competitors vying for mainstream supremacy. While the major music companies set their collective focus on mainstream material, the independent demographic is left languishing in the wind time after time. Initially, SoundCloud was an exception in this respect, cutting its teeth in the independent arena long before it signed deals with any of the major labels (starting with Warner Music Group last year). Since then, however, SC has been moving further and further away from the paradigm from whence it rose and closer towards the crowded party at the mainstream table.     

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The music pipeline

While SC battled other services for mainstream consumers, it had for a while been the favorite among independents and underground artists looking to cultivate their fanbases from the ground up. Even Alex Moazed in his guest TC piece acknowledged that this is what makes SC win: the fact that this is where the content stream starts for a lot of new artists (a rapidly growing demographic) and where they begin to build their initial fanbases and cultivate their followings. That SoundCloud is not only moving away from that, but seemingly shunning it in the long run, is a palpable kick in the face for a lot of independents.    

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Growth of independent music between 2003-2012; image courtesy of Techdirt

What Moazed doesn’t address in his piece is exactly what I discussed last spring: why independent artists should essentially kiss SoundCloud goodbye, why their subsequent deal with the NMPA was irrelevant for independents, and ultimately why the precarious high-wire balancing act was leading them down a difficult path. Independent artists, unlike major label performers, are not locked into any required loyalty as a result of record label contracts. They can come and go as they please on any variety of services, and thus are free to explore any new ( and better) opportunities that might arise.

SoundCloud’s error in judgement here is assuming that the independent demographic (arguably its only real unique demographic of content producers) will stick around when the winds change, and the focus of the platform shifts to mainstream desires. Already there were grumblings in the independent underground when SC premiered its new layout early last year. The simple reality is that SoundCloud fundamentally cannot serve two masters (the independents and the major labels) because each is moving in an opposite direction, with desires and mentalities divergent of one another. Now, with the Universal deal, I see only one way SC can continue to struggle towards profitability, and that is in the major label direction.

That, however, presents another can of worms.

Money and Equity

As some have already pointed out (or could simply guess), the Universal deal could not have been cheap by any means, particularly as it meant Universal dropping its legal action against the music service. Furthermore, as Warner gained around a 5% stake of the company when it licensed its own catalogue, one can calculate that Universal settled for nothing less than a similar deal (likely pushing for more equity in order to drop the legal suit).

That’s a huge premium to pay for Universal’s recording and publishing catalogues, and doesn’t yet take into account all the royalties SC will now have to cough up on the backend. The real hard hitting numbers come when one imagines what Sony, the last major holdout, will demand for its material. Seeing as it currently has legal qualms with SoundCloud, it’s conceivable that Sony could demand even more cash upfront and equity in order for access to its musical coffers. At a minimum, one could calculate the collective equity of the major labels to total somewhere around 15%—at a minimum.

Though not listed specifically, the chart below gives one a good idea of where SoundCloud will inevitably fit within the royalty paradigm, and just how much friction it will cause between both the service and artists, and the service and the labels. Two different (divergent) interests make for a massive headache in the long term for SoundCloud.

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Royalty rates, minimum wage, and reality; image courtesy of informationisbeautiful.net

This may seem like a paltry price of doing business until one considers the fact that the relationship dynamic is not an equal one: the major labels hold the keys to the material which SoundCloud wants (and desperately needs, in order to win the mainstream game), but are not equally in need of SoundCloud itself. They similarly license the same material to a variety of competing music services, and essentially can dole it out to the highest bidder, through contracts which then become renegotiable every few years. Thus, SoundCloud (and others) are beholden to the major labels for their lifeblood, but the opposite is not true. SoundCloud has entered into a paradigm that’s nearly impossible to backtrack from. They’re tying their own concrete shoes.

Operating in the Red

All of this firmly underscores the uncomfortable news recently that SoundCloud took a $44M hit in 2014, making their raise of the above-mentioned $35M almost irrelevant. That the raise of the $35M in debt financing will essentially have to go to cover SC’s 2014 losses must be a bitter pill for investors to swallow, particularly as much of their customer base uses the service for free. The simple truth, as it appears to be, is that SoundCloud is hemorrhaging money with no clear path to take to fix things, either quickly, or in the long term. That being the case, it’s fairly probable that SoundCloud will need to start raising another round of money somewhat soon, even if it’s just to weather its current storm.

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SoundCloud losses (in Euros); image courtesy of Music Business Worldwide

And then there’s this, the Reddit thread that must be the most painful thing for SC right now. Titled “SoundCloud could close after $44m losses,” the thread spent a few nights recently blowing up, and had an upvote-percentage of 96%. What does this mean in reality? It means a lot of people were reading this conversation, and the commenters are not wrong. In fact, many of them are quite astute and know exactly what’s going to happen:

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These comments highlight the discussion going on regarding SoundCloud not only among its general consumers, but among the artists who create the content on which the service was built. It’s important to remember that before SC had any major label deals in place, it was doing quite well because of the huge influx of independent material coming in from independent artists and DJ’s. In moving further and further away from this core demographic, SoundCloud is quite aggressively biting the hand that feeds it. SoundCloud’s response to the Reddit thread was equally underwhelming and unpersuasive.

The loyalty of such independent artists is a complex thing; on the one hand, they aren’t tied to any one particular party, and thus their loyalty to any one service may be thought of as ephemeral. On the other hand, however, their loyalty has the potential to be ferocious and dogged if and when they find a service which works for them, in their favor. SoundCloud used to be that service, but it isn’t any longer. They’ve traded the long term loyalty of these smaller—but much more numerous—independent artists for the short term benefit of being able to peddle major label mainstream material. The same exact mainstream material which all their major competitors are already selling. They’ve traded the long term benefit of being unique for the short term “benefit” of being just like everyone else.

Short Term Gain, Long Term Loss

The big kicker though, is that SoundCloud didn’t start as Spotify of Apple Music did, with deals with the major labels. It doesn’t come from that part of town. It comes from the less expensive, more experimental street of independent artists, covers, and remixes. It blew up among independents long before mainstream listeners got wind of it, and now it’s moving away from those early adopters towards a more corporate clientele.

As far as I can see it, this is incredibly ironic: the independent music universe is just now starting to mature and expand rapidly, while the major label world is getting cramped and hideously expensive. Over the last decade, independent music has grown immensely while major label-signed content has actually decreased. Put simply, the number of expensive, mainstream artists which big music companies are fighting over is shrinking while the number of free and/or inexpensive independent artists is actually growing at an almost exponential rate. Insofar as the independent universe might not be as lucrative as the mainstream arena in the short term, it nonetheless is where the most growth is happening.

So where does all of this leave SoundCloud? In the short term, the Universal deal is a great breakthrough, and certainly will help them more aptly compete with Spotify and Apple. However, it’s clearly been overshadowed over the last few weeks by their financial woes and discussions of possible paths forward.

In the long term, though, they will end up dismissing the demographic and core base that made them special to begin with. Someone else will pick up that gauntlet and run with it, and that’s where the growing independent base will go.  

The Undeniable Hypocrisy of the Apple-Swift Saga

Image courtesy of Mirror

Image courtesy of Mirror

The Background

With Taylor Swift’s cleanup at the Grammys this year and attention over her misleading “victory” over Apple—and her subsequent partnership with the company—having waned (if not faded) over the last half year, it seems to be the appropriate time now to dissect what the fuck really happened back in July of last summer. Prior to the past few months when things seemed to have boiled down to a low simmer (focused mostly on SoundCloud and Spotify), the music news arena was blowing up over Taylor Swift’s push-back against Apple. Her open letter criticizing Apple, and subsequent statement that she would be boycotting the new music service—as she had done with Spotify—made it easy for the media to paint her as a martyr for “artists’ rights.” But that’s not the whole story. Not nearly.

When Apple announced early in June of 2015 that its new music service, aptly titled Apple Music, would not be compensating artists with royalties during the first three months of a user’s free trial period, there was significant push-back before Swift even got her letter out the door. The announcement was panned by the general music community, as well as by both artists within the mainstream paradigm, and the broad base of independents. When Apple retracted the statement and replaced it with a “fine, we’ll pay artists for the three-month trial period,” artists felt that they had won a major victory against the tech giant. Many even felt that Swift spoke up for them and that they benefited from her desire to help the general music community. Here’s why that’s wrong.

A Misleading “Victory”

Numerous sources reported on Apple’s recanting and Swift’s “victory,” from TechCrunch to Forbes to Mashable. But it wasn’t that at all. The retraction by Apple was telling of a much larger trend at play (and frankly, a much larger problem for independent artists which they should be focusing on). Swift made the same stink that she did when she “broke up” with Spotify, drawing on arguments like “artists shouldn’t give anything away for free” and her favorite “art needs to be rare to be valuable.” Soon after, Apple caved and said artists would be paid, and everything ended happily ever after.

Not.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Swift that artists shouldn’t have to give away their music for free if they don’t want to (as opposed to Swift’s catch-all “no free music ever/free music devalues your art” blah blah blah), I don’t think her motives are as angelic and altruistic as they might initially appear. People should be asking why exactly Swift made such a big fuss over this. Why? Because it really cuts into her bottom line. A bottom line that many of the independents she somewhat claims to “speak for” don’t have. Their economics are a very different reality from hers. Swift lives in a completely different universe, and no, as Matt Atkins wrote in a great Medium post , she is not an “independent artist.” Her signing to Big Machine Records makes her seem more independent than she really is; make sure you remember that she owns a huge stake in Big Machine, and that it’s distributed by Universal Music Group. So no, Swift doesn’t see it from the same perspective as that of an indie band in the garage in Ohio just trying to scrape by.

If an Independent Tried to Strong-arm Apple…

This doesn’t make Swift a bad person; it simply makes her human in looking out for her own best interests. At the time, that aligned with the best interests of the general music community. But people should not confuse happenstance with correlation.

Swift was able to strong-arm Apple into changing its position on paying royalties for the free trial period, and I commend her for that. But I can pretty much offer a dead guarantee that if it had been an independent artist who took to Twitter to complain (and many did, mind you) or write to Apple, nothing would happen. I’m not even sure they would receive a response email addressing their grievances. The fact that their position changed as a result of Swift’s vocal stance was a sheer coincidental benefit for the independent music community.

Artists who are not on Swift’s level (that is to say, most artists in the world) should be asking what could and would happen if and when their best interests don’t line up with hers. (Never mind the fact that Apple completely screwed up an independent artist’s entire catalogue upon Apple Music’s release). The moniker of Swift as “the Apple-Slayer” was nice and poetic, but all the more misleading. It painted Swift as the David to Apple’s Goliath, but that’s on a whole incorrect. Swift is just as much a Goliath as Apple is, and that’s precisely the reason that Apple caved to her in the first place. Had she been the David-level artist she parades around as (and which most independents actually are), she most likely would have been roundly ignored, as most independents usually are. When Apple caved, it was a good week for all artists. But what happens when Swift decides that what’s best for her is to choke the radio market and keep out other artists who might be stepping on her musical toes? I can’t imagine that she wants to give up any of her power.

It’s All About the Power

And that’s exactly what it’s about: the power. Swift has the power to turn heads and make things happen the way she wants. But that could be very bad for other up-and-coming artists. Swift, ironically, has become yet another gatekeeper, akin to the ones she so readily criticizes. She’s signed to an “independent” label which is distributed by one of the Big Three labels (Universal), and she has the clout to mobilize legions of fans (when she’s not suing them, I suppose).

But what about her whole “anti-free” mentality? That’s directly at odds with a lot of the thinking within the independent music community, where artists increasingly see their music as a means of marketing, rather than an end commodity for sale. What happens when push comes to shove and she’s on the other side of the fence from the much broader—but much more unknown—independent music community? She will still have the power to push her agenda, and they will simply be more obstacles in her way.

The reality is that no artist, of any caliber or genre, should have the power to dictate changes like that. At the time, it worked out for the better, but next time will be another story.

Subsequent Partnership

All of this made the announcement of Swift’s subsequent partnership with Apple more confusing, and in some ways, harder to swallow. After all the stones that were thrown, and all the press that was garnered (a calculated effort, I’m sure), the end result was somewhat anticlimactic. We were all ready for a super showdown of a major mainstream artist (yes, that’s what she is, live with reality) bucking the system and sending a message for musicians everywhere. What we got was…well…predictable.

As soon as Apple caved, so did Swift. She caved to using the service when it turned out that her open letter would get her exactly what she wanted. That sounds logical, except for the fact that she pretty much abandoned the “Apple-Slayer” independent gauntlet when she stopped focusing on how the new service would be for non-mainstream artists, and just said “ok.” In so few words, it seems that Swift was content to “take the money and run,” so to speak. Her victory really wasn’t a victory for anyone who wasn’t seeing massive streaming or airplay already anyway, so let’s not treat it as one.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Perhaps the most glaring result of Swift’s flirtatious battle with Apple, though, was the fallout over her own contracts. In the wake of her open letter, other types of creatives called her on her own hypocrisy, though this time, they weren’t musical artists: they were photographers. In an open letter of his own, professional photographer Jason Sheldon shined a light on Swift’s own hypocrisy in her company’s contracts with photographers at her shows. According to the Washington Post:

Swift’s management company, Firefly Entertainment, demands that photographers who shoot Swift’s concerts to do so on a “one-time-use” only basis and relinquish any rights to republish or sell their photos. Additionally, the contract states that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” the very same photographs in just about any way it sees fit, without compensating the photographer for their usage.

Wow, let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. Swift—the great “Apple-Slayer” and champion for artists’ rights and fair compensation—didn’t (doesn’t?) even feel that those same dynamics should apply when she’s the one who has to pay royalties. That’s pretty staggering.

As she wrote in her own Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Considering just how much Swift seems to think that “valuable art should not be free,” it’s fairly amazing that she doesn’t go out of her way to create the best working opportunities for other creatives. In fact, the only thing it does is make her an undeniable hypocrite. If she wants to sit on top of the mainstream and act in a holier-than-thou way, that’s fine, but she should at least be honest about it. She shouldn’t be parading around as some “champion for the independent artist” when clearly her actions say otherwise. It essentially negates everything she’s done to “bring attention to artists’ rights.”

Perhaps the most upsetting thing of all is that many were lulled into thinking that Swift is something that she’s not, including other artists, and independents in particular. This was akin to telling someone that they now had a spokesperson they could trust and count on to speak up louder than they could for their general rights, only to find out that person wasn’t nearly as altruistic as they initially appeared. Most frustratingly, though, it has the power to negate arguments made by others who really are looking to campaign for artists’ rights. Swift’s hypocrisy has the power to undermine other voices (ones who might not be as loud as hers), and to take the focus off the matters that need to be addressed.

(Legal) Iceberg Ahead

Even as the fallout from the Apple-Swift roiling seems to have unfolded months ago, so too was there something else on the horizon for Apple which spelled a different kind of trouble: monopoly. As the FTC subsequently sent out subpoenas to competing music services following its initial probe of Apple Music, attention began to focus again on the tech giant in a way that is less than flattering. The “war” which Spotify started last July with Apple seemed to spread to other areas of the collective music business conscience. Apple Music may not have been “doomed” as Tidal was (or seemed to be) upon its initial release, but it does have new things to take care of that other services don’t need to account for.

Perhaps the irony of the whole situation is that Apple’s legal issues regarding Apple Music really only surfaced after the service was announced and released. Inasmuch as Apple would like to pretend that it has enough money to push its way through to any opinion and finding that would benefit it, it still must contend with U.S. legal code, not to mention its own Terms of Service. Power and money notwithstanding, the outcome of the said legal issues won’t resolve super quickly.

In the End

In the end, the whole Apple-Swift saga that encompassed the end of last summer really wasn’t what people reported it to be. It won’t (and hasn’t) really resulted in a super-massive victory for independents beyond some news attention, and it actually served to highlight some dirty little secrets in Swift’s own business affairs. I don’t know if the saga is concluding or just in a lull itself, but I don’t think this “picture-royalty” thing is going to go away anytime soon. Now that the dam has broken, I bet we’re going to see many more creatives (photographers for sure) speaking up over the next year or so about their business experiences with Swift, and I don’t think they will all be positive.

As for Apple, it continues to chug ahead after the release of Apple Music, albeit in the shadow of the new FTC probes. Though the service boasts a few interesting features, few of them can really be described as “new” or “earthshaking.” While ex-BBC host and DJ  Zane Lowe likely made U.K. listeners happy on the new Beats 1 radio program, for us in the States he was a somewhat irrelevant “exclusive” for Apple to tout (simply because most Americans didn’t know who he was). If Apple really wants to set itself apart in the long term (10+ years), it’s really going to need to do better than a few exclusive names. I suppose we’ll see, but for the time being, the Apple-Swift saga has left a sour taste in my mouth that won’t be going away any time soon.

Independent Music Is Big. Really, Really Big.

PC Gaming Is Just Like Independent Music

Chris Dixon’s article yesterday discussed the trends that media is experiencing in the digital age. While his article focuses mostly on the gaming industry, it also heavily references the music industry, drawing numerous parallels and comparisons throughout the piece. Since I’m not much of a gamer, the music-related aspects of the post fascinate me because:

  1. They so closely mirror those in the gaming industry, which I find intriguing and even somewhat surprising, and
  2. Because Dixon is exactly on-point in his dissection of them.

Regarding the first point, it’s almost eerie how broad Dixon’s thesis could have been, were one to read the piece out of context. Of particular note are subtitles like “PC games are way bigger than you think[,]” which could easily say “independent music” instead of “PC games.” And it is way bigger. Way, way bigger.

Independent Music Is Way, Way Bigger Than You Think

Independent music, like PC gaming (it seems), is substantially bigger than many people initially realize, particularly if they’re only considering one part of “the music industry.” The “music industry” is a misnomer itself since it lends credence to the thought that there is a singular music industry in which to exist and do business. This is incorrect because there are in fact multiple paradigms that exist within the music universe, all of which operate according to very different rules. Independent music is a whole different world than major label music, and thus the opportunities that lie there do not necessarily mirror the opportunities that lie in the latter.

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Growth of independent music between 2003-2012; image courtesy of Techdirt

The stark reality is that independent music cannot be measured according to the traditional metrics. Unlike major label material, independent music cannot be measured and calculated metrically based on chart success, album copies sold (physical or digital), or video hits. Independent music extends to places major label music never touches: to the garage of the punk band in Chicago, the coffee house performance of the singer in London, the bedroom demo of the multi-instrumentalist in Melbourne, and the piano jazz bar in Amsterdam. As a result, the sheer number of artists that exist (and are popping up every day) is staggering.

The Problem with the “Walled-Garden”

As Dixon pointed out, where gaming wins is in providing endless choices for users, and relying on the dynamic of attention instead of scarcity. This is directly at odds with the current approach in most of the traditional music industry (in streaming especially) where the “walled-garden” approach is used as a means of obtaining exclusive rights to material on one service, and thus making it scarce or unavailable on all the other services. The notion here is that if you can garner enough scarce material, you’ll have something your competitors simply can’t lay their hands on.

The problem with this line of thinking is twofold:

  1. It doesn’t actually work, since material (major label or independent) inevitably finds it way off of solely one system and onto multiple systems; and
  2. It’s against the nature of music. Music is art, and the nature of art is to be seen, shared, engaged with, and shared again.

Music is freedom and expression, and to try and stifle that on one system is simultaneously useless and misguided. It’s misguided precisely because music is inherently social. Unlike movies or books, music has a unique live element which can be leveraged to the benefit of both the artists and their fans (both current and prospective). One of the fastest growing trends in independent music is for artists to alter their perspective of their own music: rather than looking at it solely as an end commodity for sale, now it’s becoming a mechanism for free marketing and advertising. It’s a means to an end, a way to get people to come out to shows, connect on a personal level in the live paradigm, and walk away feeling a direct identification with that artist.

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

Unfortunately, major labels have been less enthusiastic about this approach. As Dixon notes, they rely heavily on litigation and have effectively stayed focused on protecting their back catalog, looking backwards at the past with forlorn eyes rather than tasting the future.

Royalties Are the Emperor’s Clothes

The royalty system is a whole other monster, which I’ve tackled a number of times, and which I think is simply a chain to the past and nothing more. It doesn’t help artists the way they need to be helped, doesn’t make fans feel good about how artists are compensated, and just remains a massive headache for any music company, streaming or otherwise.

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Royalty Rates, Minimum Wage, and Reality; image courtesy of informationisbeautiful.net

Simply put, the royalty system is arguably the best example in media of the Emperor’s clothes: everyone keeps saying that we just need to find a way to make it work in the new age, when in reality there is no way to make it work in the new age. Arguably, it didn’t even work in previous decades; but it was the only real, scalable revenue system around, and thus became the industry standard.

In the post, Dixon quoted the post-mortem statement of Turntable.fm, which states that the Turntable team spent tons of cash on lawyers, tons of time trying to secure label deals, and ultimately that they didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. I’ll go so far as to argue that one of these mistakes (which founders continue to make) is buying into the old royalty-based system, and thus undercutting their own feet before even beginning the race.

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The music pipeline

The diagram above paints this picture, and if you look closely, you see that there are really only two entities who hold any significant amount of consistent power: the major labels and independent artists.

  • The former group essentially controls the lifeblood of dependent streaming services (like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and more recently SoundCloud), the payment to artists from the royalties collected, and the gatekeeping authority over the music to which the mainstream is exposed.
Major Label Percentage Ownerships of (some) Streaming Services

Major Label Percentage Ownerships of (some) Streaming Services; *(Beats has since been purchased and rolled into Apple Music)

  • Independent artists, however, control their own distribution, exposure, and revenues models. Because they’re not beholden to any one paradigm or other entity, they are free to explore a wide range of possibilities, and mix-and-match those that work best for them. In many cases, this is highly individualized; what works well for one artist doesn’t work at all for another, and vice versa.

Community. It’s All About Community.

Dixon nails it home in the latter paragraph on books, when he states:

From a legal perspective, some fanfiction could be seen as copyright or trademark infringement. From a business perspective, the book industry would be smart to learn from the PC gaming business. Instead of fighting over pieces of a shrinking pie, try to grow the pie by getting more people to read and write books.

This is exactly true for the music business too. Instead of looking to block remixes and free distribution models, music companies would be better off learning how to leverage those models for improved community building and engagement, particularly as music is so heavily impacted by live continuous interaction. Build the community around the artists, and fans will follow. From those core fans, new and more flexible revenue models arise. The future of music is democratization and community.

If you look at many of the companies that are winning in media/tech right now—companies like Medium, Twitch, Product Hunt (with Games, Books, and Podcasts), and BuzzFeed—you see that they have invested a substantial amount of time and energy in creating communities around their products and/or services. The Medium community writes about anything and everything, and communities on Product Hunt and Twitch are super sticky. And all of this is to say nothing of the Dixon’s crowdfunding point, which certainly has massive and positive implications for the music business moving forward.

Scarcity Is Obsolete, Democratization Wins

Dixon’s closing statement gives me chills:

The internet renders business models focused on scarcity and litigation obsolete. But as the PC gaming market shows, it also unlocks lucrative new business models, and lets creators connect with consumers in new and exciting ways.

It gives me chills because it’s so on-point with what’s happening in music. Dixon set out to write a post on gaming, but in the process he laid out precisely the dynamic that’s bubbling to the surface in the music universe. I can’t believe this is a coincidence. Art is art, its essence is sharing and engagement. Music and games are forms of art, and draw their life-force from the communal engagement that occurs between the creators and the consumers. It all comes back to community. Every time.