Stung by accusations that it doesn’t pay enough royalties to artists, Pandora Media has been quietly working on a tool that would demonstrate the company's value by giving artists more information on how their songs perform on its Internet radio service.
The tool is essentially a dashboard that tells artists such things as the spin counts of each of their songs, how many thumbs up (or down) their songs have received and their audience reach by age, gender and geography, among other things. Pandora has been circulating the prototype to various independent artists in recent weeks, soliciting feedback as a possible prelude to releasing a self-serve product for all artists looking to check on their performance on Pandora.
The effort dovetails with a growing chorus of musicians who have lobbied music services for access to more data that could help artists better promote their careers. Partly as a response to this movement for “data transparency,” Spotify last week began publicly displaying total play counts for individual songs.
The Pandora initiative seems to go much further, although no product has been approved yet, according to Pandora spokeswoman, Mollie Starr. The dashboard, a mock up of which is shown at the bottom of this post, includes a geographic “heat map” that shows how often an artist’s music is played in different parts of the country. Such information can be valuable in deciding where an artist should tour. (The mock up contains actual data for a real band, but the band name and the titles of their tracks and albums have been replaced with fictitious names.)
Ben Arthur, a New York singer and songwriter who saw Pandora’s data for his music, said he could imagine using the information select which songs he should push more heavily.
"They showed me which of my songs were getting lots of thumbs up, and they were not the songs I would have guessed," Arthur said. "I can imagine a time when I would upload tracks before they’re released to test which songs would be more popular, which songs to make videos for and which songs would get a label’s attention."
Arthur, however, confessed that while the data was “fascinating,” he wasn’t certain how useful it would be in practice. “I’m not sure what else I would do with that information,” he said.
Pandora executives aren’t sure, either. In an email to artists accompanying the charts, Pandora said it wanted to “hear your opinions about how we can use this information, and our product’s capabilities to benefit your career.”
Tim Westergren, Pandora’s chief strategy officer, said in an interview that the email was meant as a starting point for a “dialogue” with artists.
“This is the raw material for developing a potential product,” Westergren tells Billboard.
Since last year, Pandora has been looking for ways to connect more closely with artists and demonstrate how the service can support musicians. The company, which is lobbying Congress to change the method used to calculate the royalties it and other Internet radio services must pay, has been pilloried by labels and musician groups such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In a letter signed by more than 125 artists, including Billy Joel and Katy Perry, artists accused Pandora of “gutting the royalties that thousands of musicians rely upon.”
Since 2009, Pandora has operated under an agreement that compels rights holders to grant licenses to any Internet radio service, as long as they pay the royalty rate calculated by the Copyright Royalty Board. With Congress due to examine in a series of hearings later this year whether to change the methods used by the CRB, Pandora has launched its own campaign to recruit artists to its cause. The Oakland, Calif., company has been asking independent musicians to sign a letter supporting Internet radio.
Asked why some artists oppose Pandora’s efforts to change the way its royalties are calculated while others support the company, Westergren said that independent, unsigned musicians are more likely to side with his company because they receive more exposure for their music on Internet radio than they do on broadcast radio. Established artists on the other hand feel they should get more money for hits that have already proven their worth.
Arthur, who is signed to a small label called SonaBlast!, said he valued the exposure as an independent artist whose songs aren't regularly featured on traditional broadcast radio. As for whether he feels adequately compensated by Pandora, he replied, "At least I got paid. In this day and age where we’re all creating content for Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Pandora is one of the few companies where the dollars flow in my direction."
Westergren argued that major record companies "don’t like compulsory licenses. They’ve been trying to undermine them by making the rates so high that Internet radio companies would rather do direct deals with them."
Asked whether labels supported the compulsory licensing regime, Cary Sherman, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said, “We oppose compulsory licenses as a matter of principle, but we acceded to having a compulsory license as a pragmatic solution. And we would be okay with it as long as it reflects the fair market value of our work.”