User-centric streaming, the streaming platform model where a subscription goes proportionally towards musicians, continues to gain increased industry awareness. I’ve written numerous times
about the idea
and held a steady skeptical but supportive stance. Over the last few months there’s been an uptick in consideration of the idea, so here’s another check-in.
Last summer during its 2019 conference
, the Musicians’ Union, the United Kingdom’s largest music union, endorsed a motion
put forward by the classical musician Matthew Whiteside stating that the union would support the idea of user-centric streaming. Whiteside cited that user-centric streaming could address issues of fraud, poor payouts, and help move the business to more closely mirror classical music-centered streaming platforms like Primephonic
(which pay artists out according to song duration) as reasons to abandon the pro-rate model.
The Finnish Musicians’ Union commissioned a study on user-centric streaming
in 2018, but the Musicians’ Union stepped up its support over the last couple of months, marking the largest public gesture since Deezer last September announced
it was looking into the model. In June, the UK Labour Party followed suit by supporting for the idea
with the union chalking up this win to successful lobbying on their part along with Tom Gray, currently the director of PRS Music and the Ivors Academy, who created the #BrokenRecord to address issues in the current streaming economy.
However, it would be a misnomer to say that either Gray or the union view user-centric streaming as a catch-all solution. The Musicians’ Union in a short FAQ wrote
Is user-centric royalty distribution the answer?
This could be part of the picture, for sure. User-centric means that a subscriber’s £10 per month would be paid out on the music they personally streamed. At the moment, it is perhaps not well understood by music fans that the money they pay doesn’t go to the music they listen to. In fact, as much as 70% could go to the owners of rights in the music they never listened to, and this is after the platform has taken their share (around £3 per user).
Do we need to get labels to agree a 50 / 50 deals for all artists, including those who signed prior to the advent of streaming?
The MU would argue that this is a significant piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Getting record labels to reopen signed contracts when they are under no obligation to do so won’t be easy but it is crucial if streaming royalty distribution is ever going to get close to fair.
On top of expressing support for the idea, the Department of Digital, Culture Media & Sport in late July put out a report
stating that it should
investigate the streaming economy. Now, the Ivors Academy and the Musicians’ Union are continuing to call on the government for that push
. The #BrokenRecord campaign and the call to #FixStreaming from the Musicians’ Union shows increased mobilization around an idea that in many ways is attempting to turn a casual understanding of artists’ financial struggles into political change. This feels markedly different from the previous few years where user-centric streaming remained hidden in research papers and in the suggestions of a handful of artists
Mat Dryhurst, via his ever-insightful opinion on such topics, decried what he sees as “streaming fatalism
”, where all ideas of music’s future contort back towards a streaming-only world. User-centric streaming is indeed streaming fatalism, where the horizon is only streaming. That’s why I think it’s worth going back to Whiteside’s original proposal where user-centric stepped towards a different conceptualization of how music streaming currently works than an end goal in itself. Even IDAGIO’s model is fraught by trading one metric (plays) for another (time listened), but at least space is re-open for other innovative ideas. Dryhurst’s concern appears to be that such an obsessive eye on Spotify can distract smaller scenes from reconsidering this entire current system.
and commented on alternative political economies
for digital music and will continue in the future, but if a labor-led coalition is going to try and enact some
change to the streaming status quo, why say no? Even more so when in the United States the last big
piece of music legislation continues to reveal unfortunate holes
. A single solution for the crisis in recorded music isn’t likely to be found but rebuttals and new directions need a more coherent vision forward, which can be seen in the Musicians’ Union and Gray’s campaigns. User-centric streaming wasn’t designed to solve all economic injustices in the record industry but likely isn’t going to make it any worse. Or if/when things do get worse, the finger of blame shouldn’t point to musicians who sought to make the system they were handed ever so slightly
better. Plenty of executive suites across the industry can rightfully shoulder that blame.