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Can Deezer Pioneer a New Streaming Royalty Model With ‘More Flexibility’?

As the company explores a new system with Universal Music Group, CEO Jeronimo Folgueira suggests different countries may require different systems.

French streaming service Deezer and Universal Music Group announced this month that they are partnering to develop and test new potential payment models that would more fairly reward artists, similar to a partnership UMG launched in January with Tidal.

While the streaming services and labels are still a long way off from implementing new streaming royalty payment models, Deezer’s chief executive Jeronimo Folgueira spoke with Billboard about some of the ideas being explored and the economic imperatives that are driving his company to push for a new way to pay rights holders.


Deezer has long advocated for changing payment systems. How have the company’s views evolved?

We were, I believe, the first to really embrace the concept of user-centric, which means that the artist gets a share of the payments that the user that listens to them pays, instead of a global pool. We could never do it unilaterally [because] we have not been able to get the majority of labels to agree to an initiative so far. To do it right, you really need a consensus from the industry and obviously, there are so many players involved that it’s difficult to get that. I do believe [an artist-centric] system is much better than the current system we have, but no system is absolutely perfect. There were some flaws, and that’s why there was so far resistance from some labels. I believe that there are a lot of elements in the artist-centric initiative that Universal is pursuing that make sense and could make something like [user-centric payment systems] even better.

You often mention the importance of “growing the pie.” What do you mean?

When the discussion is about sharing the same pie there are always winners and losers and it’s very difficult to get consensus. That’s why if you focus on growing the pie then you can have a discussion also about the distribution of that pie because some will win and some will win double. One of the things that I’m really excited about in this discussion is … also figuring out ways of monetizing fandom better. If we can find ways to increase the [average revenue per user] on the way, that would be a win for the artist, for the labels and for the platforms like us.

How does that fit into Deezer’s overall growth strategy?

Basically, today 100% of our revenues come from selling access to the catalog. So you pay $10.99 and you get access to the full catalog. But we don’t let users pay for anything else on the platform. We know that we have a lot of fans of artists on Deezer but we cannot monetize them in any other way. And the artist is struggling to monetize them in other ways because they don’t have direct access to the fans. We believe that working together with the label and the artists to figure out ways of helping the artist directly access their fanbase and monetize that fandom would benefit us and them as well.


What’s in it for you?

If we only change the compensation model there is nothing in it for Deezer except that we will be a platform where artists are remunerated better. It will give us a bit of differentiation but economically it will not really change anything.

If we find ways of monetizing better, let’s say, if we would allow fans to subscribe directly to artists, we would have an additional revenue source that we would share with labels and the artists, which will improve our growth and profitability profile. It is important to be more fair in terms of payout but to have a financial impact, we also care a lot about growing the pie. I fully share [Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl‘s] view. Music is extremely undervalued. We are very keen on working with Universal, but we are also keen on working with all the other labels like Warner, Sony, Believe and all the indies to make the industry better by monetizing better and then sharing that pie in more fair ways.

Do you have to “grow the pie” in order to pay artists more?

There’s not enough money right now for us all. First of all, music is undervalued. We’re giving too much for too little. Second, with the current monetization model, there is really not enough money for everyone. The platforms like Deezer or Spotify, we’re not making enough profits. And many artists are struggling to make a living. So for the system to be viable we need to grow the pie. That has to be the number one focus.

At the risk of asking a naïve question, what if the share of the pie that has historically gone to the labels shrank? Is that just impossible?

So basically the artists get more, and the DSPs get more and the labels get less? The thing is that it is a fragile ecosystem with a lot of negotiation power in the hands of the labels. You [the DSPs] do need a full catalog. The labels are not going to hand their money to us or to the artists. Instead of having that fight — which is what we’ve been doing basically for the last 10 years — it is a far healthier discussion to be had working together to grow the pie especially because music now is extremely undervalued. The piracy days are long gone. This is the right time to have the discussion. One of the things that doesn’t help is that a lot of the distribution is in the hands of companies that don’t have music as a core business.


Who are you referring to?

I’m talking to the tech giants. Three key players here are tech giants, and their core business is not really music. Then you have two independents, one that is very big — Spotify — and then Deezer. We are truly music; it is our duty and necessity to work together with the labels to make the whole ecosystem better and bring the value of the music to where it should be.

Where does the initiative with UMG currently stand?

There is nothing that we are testing yet, and we don’t have a deadline. But we are starting to work on different models of compensation that we could eventually test that would solve a lot of the issues we see today.

During a recent earnings call, Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge said he wanted a new model where “artists are rewarded for the fans they bring in [to subscribe to streaming services] and the engagement they drive [on those platforms].” How can you determine which artists drive subscriptions?

That is very difficult to know and quantify. This is one of the areas where we are working with Universal to figure out if there is a way to measure, quantify it and use it for payment or not. That’s part of the exercise. That is one of the most tricky ones. There are other areas [such as] if a user goes and searches for an artist and song, that has more value than if they just go and listen to that stream in a lean-back experience. A stream that is heard as part of a playlist is not as valuable as when you go proactively to a platform, look for a song and play that song. You as a fan care about that song more. We agree with that as a concept but the question is how do you apply that in a model that is easy to implement and explain? There needs to be transparency [so] everyone understands how things get calculated and how people get remunerated. It’s easier said than done. This is why we need to work with Universal but also with other labels to do that exercise. First, we have to agree with the principles. And then you have to find a pragmatic way of actually doing it.


Could you walk me through the different models you are exploring?

I cannot go into that level of detail right now because we are in a very exploratory phrase. We are looking at what is feasible, what impact does it have and, based on that, we will have a proposal to test. But it’s too early to explain these models.

Have you seen any examples of streaming services that have done a good job of encouraging active fan experience?

Video and music are very different so you cannot really draw comparisons between the two. I don’t think anybody has cracked it, and that’s why Universal is working with us. We would love to be the first ones to figure out the new model that makes sense. SoundCloud made an announcement with Warner Music around user-centric, but they haven’t disclosed anything. Since they are a private company, we do not know how that has worked or played out. [Editor’s note: In July 2022, the same month SoundCloud partnered with Warner, the company also released a report on early findings for its Fan-Powered Royalties initiative that launched in March 2021.]

Where are the majority of Deezer’s users based? Could the results of the Deezer and UMG experiment be applied on a global scale, or would differences in listening behavior in different markets limit the wider applicability of the study?

We are a global company with a presence in 180 countries. We have a large user base in France — less than half of our subscribers — then we have a lot of subscribers … in Brazil and then a bit everywhere else. Our model will have a big impact on the French market because there we are a massive player, but the learnings can be applicable anywhere in the world.

However, Lucian has mentioned that he sees different models for different platforms at different stages of their development in different countries. I think there is some merit in that. Our Brazilian business is very different from our French business and American business. You might need different models as you go through different stages in a market. Right now, it’s one model that came up really quickly, built 15 years ago on the back of piracy, and that model fits all. I think in the future we need more flexibility.


Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wanted to highlight?

Something that is really important is that we are working really closely with UMG because they are the largest label in the world. And they are a very important player and you cannot change the system without having Universal on board. I’m really excited that Lucian is leading this discussion and trying to make the industry better for everyone.

But I want to make sure it is well understood, as well, that this should benefit all real artists, whether they are from Universal, any other label or independent. We want to reward real artists that create real music. This is not to benefit Universal alone in any way. This is not a Universal-centric payments system. We’re working together to make the industry better for everyone who creates high-quality content.

You said a better system will reward “real artists” and “high-quality content.” What is the opposite of that? And should it not be rewarded in this new system?

There is a whole discussion on what are we going to do when machine-generated music comes because it is going to happen. There is not that much yet, but I think it’s a matter of months before we start getting flooded by machine-generated content, and we need to think about how we’re going to handle it. The other thing is it’s not the same that an artist creates new music and creates a fan — is a real artist in a way — compared to, for example, people that do a cover…. Those streams are not as valuable to us as the original song from the original band. The same thing with sounds that get uploaded, for example, the sound of the washing machine for people who need that to sleep. The sound of rain is not as valuable as a proper album created by an artist recorded in a studio. The fact that the recording of rain gets more streams than Lady Gaga, I find that astounding. We have to do something about it. It is hurting the user experience. We cannot flood the catalog with poor-quality stuff.

What should be done, and is this part of artist-centric royalties or another initiative?

We are trying to address that problem as part of the artist-centric discussion. We believe there are things we can do with the artist-centric model that will create the right incentives and will solve part of that problem. Yes, there are other areas where we might be stricter about the rules of what can be uploaded to the platform or not. We will explore all the different options. Obviously taking a big part of the economic incentive [away] is a big part of the job.