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If the 2010s were the decade that established streaming as the de facto way that most people enjoy music, the 2020s will be the decade the platforms’ royalty rates took a leap forward.
For much of streaming services’ existence, the industry has tried to gently balance the need to foster growth with the need to generate something close to subsistence-level income for creators and rights holders. If rights holders squeeze too tight, they could strangle the life out of the companies they depend on to carry them in a post-CD, post-download world. Too loose a grasp on streaming platforms would mean the spoils of technological disruption would remain with tech companies.
The process requires patience. With social media apps, licensing deals start small, with lump-sum payments rather than percent-of-revenue royalties while the fledgling platform builds a sustainable business model. Because licensing deals are renewed every three years, rights owners endure long waits to secure better terms that will result in more royalties. It will take a few cycles for a platform to generate meaningful royalty income for its label partners.
This year, there were numerous developments that point to better royalty rates in 2023 and beyond. They have different degrees of certainty, however. Higher subscription prices are sure to move the needle and result in higher payouts to artists and labels. Whether artists and labels will finally get paid for terrestrial radio play in 2023 is less certain, although the mood in Washington D.C. seems favorable. And with the authors of Chokepoint Capitalism, Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin, currently making the media rounds, and the Federal Trade Commission cracking down on companies that take advantage of gig workers, the plight of creators in today’s digital economy is getting mainstream attention (my colleague Rob Levine brought attention to tech companies’ value destruction in his book, Free Ride, a decade ago).
Music subscription price increases
Artists have wanted a raise from streaming services for years. Part of the problem is how royalties are calculated — a pool of money is split according to the number of times the tracks were played. That puts album-oriented artists at a mathematical disadvantage to mainstream artists in popular genres like pop and hip-hop. Another common complaint is that streaming services have barely raised their subscription prices for more than a decade. With prices flat, the best way to improve streaming royalties is to attract more subscribers. Keeping subscription fees relatively affordable, especially when Netflix and other video streaming services routinely hiked their prices, ensured customer acquisition would continue. Affordable family plans, which cover up to six people for 50% more than an individual plan, helped attract customers and reduced churn — but didn’t help artist payouts. Finally, this year Amazon, Deezer, YouTube Premium (which includes YouTube Music) and Apple Music announced broad price increases to individual and family plans. Spotify has hinted it will follow with price hikes of its own in 2023. The financial impact could be massive: A modest increase of $1 per month for individual plans and $2 per month for family plans in mature markets — less in developing markets with lower prices — would easily generate many hundreds of millions of incremental subscription royalties, which totaled $12.3 billion in 2021, according to the IFPI.
A TikTok subscription service
TikTok doesn’t pay much in royalties, but it plays an outsized role in cultural trends — the app has over 1 billion active users and is especially popular with Gen Z consumers. That has changed the balance of power in music streaming. “The major streaming platforms are reacting to culture now rather than driving it,” Tatiana Cirisano, music industry analyst and consultant for MIDiA Research, recently told Billboard. In that light, news that TikTok is working to expand its Resso subscription service (it’s available only in Indonesia, Brazil and India) is a big deal. Currently, TikTok creates impressions and demand for music that has downstream effects on other platforms — see a TikTok video, listen to the entire track at Spotify, YouTube Music or Apple Music. But if TikTok owned both the short-form video platform and the subscription platform, it could better convert that initial interest into downstream listening while eroding the influence of the Spotifys and Apple Musics of the world. More importantly, a TikTok subscription service would help change TikTok’s status as a royalty underperformer.
Subscription streaming rates
Publishers and songwriters will get a slight raise in subscription streaming royalty rates over the next five years due to a settlement reached in August by the National Music Publishers’ Association, the Nashville Songwriters Association International and the Digital Media Association. The headline royalty rate will go from 15.1% of revenue in 2023 to 15.35% in 2027. That’s not a huge gain, but it’s an improvement. The settlement could help in other ways, too. Streaming services were able to get favorable terms for bundles and free trials that allow them to get more subscribers into the ecosystem. That would help songwriters and publishers by increasing the number of subscribers — the major driver in streaming royalty growth — as they enjoy modest annual increases in royalty rates.
Inflation adjustments to noninteractive streaming rates
Each year, the rate paid by noninteractive streaming platforms in the U.S. is adjusted to account for inflation over the previous year. In 2023, artists and labels will get a raise due to inflation rates that reached a 40-year high in 2022. (The rates increased 7.1% for subscription plays and 9.1% for ad-supported plays.) In years past, noninteractive streaming services such as Pandora were a more significant part of artists’ and labels’ incomes. That gave extra weight to the decisions of the Copyright Royalty Board and changes in the per-play streaming rates. Now, on-demand services like Spotify and YouTube dominate the streaming landscape and noninteractive webcasting has diminished in value and relevance. Still, Pandora’s ad-supported listening hours fell only 5% year over year in the third quarter of 2022 — to 2.75 billion — and it paid out $921 million in royalties in the first nine months of the year. Above all, a raise is a raise.
Terrestrial radio royalties
Legislation that would pay artists and labels for airplay on U.S. terrestrial radio was passed by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday (Dec. 7). With only a month left in the current Congress, Rep. Jim Jordan, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s confident the bill could make it through the next Congress (that could be 2023 or 2024). While this isn’t the first legislation to address the lack of a performance right, the AMFA arrives at a time when lawmakers — in D.C. and elsewhere — have taken an interest in creators’ ability to make a living in the streaming age. Outgoing House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler has shown concern about a “race to the bottom” in streaming royalties, for example, and U.K. lawmakers examined the equitableness of streaming royalties paid to artists in that market. Passage of an AMFA-like law, or a settlement with radio broadcasters, would be a huge coup for artists and labels who get only promotion from radio airplay while radio stations are obligated to pay songwriters and publishers. In fact, U.S. radio royalties would be two — not one — new stacks of money. That’s because the lack of a performance right for broadcast radio in the U.S. means European countries withhold royalty payments from American artists for performances on their soil, SoundExchange CEO Michael Huppe explained in a recent Billboard op-ed.