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Cognitive Dissonance: Squaring Booming Industry Revenues & Valuing Songwriters (Guest Column)

As filings to the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) become public in the next few days, a more informed conversation about future rates paid to music publishers will begin. As we start to assess the potential impact of the various rate proposals, my hope is that we can look beyond rhetoric of songwriters versus streaming services. That framing does very little to achieve positive long-term results for anyone within the industry.

I’m reminded of a heated group conversation I was part of a few years ago, when someone observed: “I’m hearing a lot of listening for judgment and very little listening for understanding right now.” Everyone was simply waiting for their turn to speak and tell the last person why they were wrong. This has me reflecting on what I understand songwriters to be frustrated about, where I understand streaming services are coming from, how those pieces fit into the context and facts of a music industry that has changed dramatically over a short period of time, and, most importantly, whether there is any chance of finding common ground.

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Songwriter frustration has been growing in parallel to the broader resurgence of the music industry driven by streaming. In the United States alone, music fans now generate well over $10 billion from streaming and the overwhelming majority of that money makes its way to rightsholders. Publishers reported a nearly 10% increase in revenues in 2020, reaching $4.1 billion for the year. And in the first half of 2021 alone, recorded music revenues grew 27% to $7.1 billion from the same period in 2020, with streaming accounting for 84% of total revenues. Just yesterday, the flow of capital into the music industry from hedge funds and private equity continued, with KKR purchasing a portfolio of rights for over $1 billion. Songwriters have made clear that they believe not enough of that money makes it to them. How can it be that streaming drives record IPOs, billions invested into song catalogs, and incredible annual growth in publisher, PRO, and label revenues and that songwriters feel they are undervalued?

I think much of it can be traced to the fact that streaming has changed the way we consume music—from buying a collection of individual songs and recordings packaged in an album, to listening to whatever song or recording we want at the push of a button. That transition from album sales to singles listening has direct economic impact—the biggest songs get the biggest share of streaming revenue—but it also impacts the viability of songwriting as a career.

Because mechanical royalties for CD sales were split across all the writers on the album, album tracks were a way to support and sustain the work of writing, even for writers whose song wasn’t the hit or drove sales. Writers for the hits made more money, not through mechanicals, but through performance royalties because their songs were performed more.

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Streaming (unlike CDs or radio before it) pays for both mechanical and performance rights and both payments are tied to the same act of listening. This has pushed virtually all the money into the hits, whether new releases or catalog tracks that experience the kind of resurgence that only streaming can generate. The value of the average song and the money that a songwriter makes has been fundamentally altered. The issue is compounded by the fact that more and more songs (particularly hits) are credited to more and more writers meaning even the money for the most popular songs often gets shared across five or more writers. Finally, there is the fact that the availability of accurate and authoritative data of who owns what music still lags, which leaves songwriter money caught up in the system far too frequently.

All of this helps explain the seeming cognitive dissonance between headline after headline about the value that streaming delivers to the entire music industry with the very vocal claims that streaming doesn’t value creators. It is the difference between the macro and the micro. In the aggregate, music is making a lot of money from streaming. Publishers are making a tremendous amount of money from streaming. Labels are making even more. Publishers and labels have the advantage of operating at scale. That’s the name of the game for any sort of consumption-based model. But songwriters don’t operate at scale. Because of these dynamics, a huge increase in mechanical royalty rates will benefit rightsholders operating at scale far more than it will help those frustrated by the changed value of the average song and the impact on songwriters.

What of the streaming services? Much like songwriters, they aren’t monolithic. The upwards of 50 digital services operating under the mechanical license at issue vary in size, scope, and focus. They are innovative companies competing vigorously to offer ways to connect fans to music. Whether a genre-specific service, a service reaching a particular set of users like audiophiles or fitness instructors, or a service that focuses on emerging and independent creators, they bring in billions in revenues to publishers and labels that weren’t available in the pre-digital industry.

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Streaming services operate in a highly complex licensing landscape that no one would have designed if we were starting from scratch. None of them, regardless of their size or market cap, can absorb massive cost increases for only one necessary component without negative impacts somewhere else. Some folks will say the labels should take less. Others will say that services should operate on lower margins.

On that latter point, streaming services already operate on margins far lower than record stores at the height of either vinyl or CD sales. What should it be worth to have a record store, radio station, MTV, liner notes, fan club, concert marketing hub, mp3 (or CD) collection and smart music friend all in one experience? What is the right operating margin for a service that requires constant investment and innovation to retain fan interest in a saturated, highly competitive media environment? What is the value of obliterating traditional barriers to entry and offering unlimited shelf space to creators who never would have known what door to knock on, let alone had that knock answered, in the pre-streaming industry? How do we foster a diverse and competitive digital music landscape for fans, creators, rightsholders and entrepreneurs? And how, at the end of the day, do we balance the unquestionable value delivered by streaming to fans and the music industry writ large with the frustrations of those who believe their contributions are not adequately reflected in how that value is shared?

These are questions that deserve to be part of a larger conversation, not brushed aside. I remain an eternal optimist, in part because the fundamentals are incontrovertible. For both streaming services and music to exist, we all need songwriters. That truth can serve as the starting point of meaningful conversations.

There are thoughtful people in the industry who want to find solutions that make a difference rather than further entrench the underlying challenges. To find those solutions, we will all need less listening for judgment and more listening for understanding.

Garrett Levin is president and CEO of the Digital Media Association (DiMA), which includes Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube and Pandora as members but is not representing them in the rate trial because the services have chosen to participate individually.