Last October, the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee announced an inquiry
into the “economics of music streaming
”. The call for a government investigation
came from The Ivory Academy, in particular Tom Gray of the #BrokenRecord social media campaign, and the UK Musicians’ Union. I’ve written for years about wanting more government oversight and investigation into various aspects of the recording industry, and with this inquiry, the U.K. went straight for this newsletter’s primary point of interest. Now, I’ll say I’ve talked, and tweeted (!), to Gray and a couple of other Musicians’ Union folks before, but my interest is a little less in the government’s final decision this week. (Though I’ll be sure to cover that whenever such recommendations are made.) Rather, I’m far more interested in the written responses to the government and
the implications they could hold for recorded music.
Though not comprehensive and only a couple hundred submissions were made, the endeavor still provides a colorful tapestry of how industry factions interpret not only the current record industry but also how we got to this moment. Will Page, Spotify’s former Chief Economist, shared his thoughts
; Patreon gave a short submission
where they mentioned supporting user-centric streaming; and the British Copyright Council, along with a number of others, expressed continued concerns
over piracy. It can be hard to find any
writing from major music firms that explain their own understanding of the industry they inhabit. I, therefore, want to center on three submissions from the Music Manager Forum, YouTube, and the Hipgnosis Song Fund. Each outlines potential proxy fights across sectors of the recorded music industry. So, here is where the Music Manager Forum draws the line.
Last month, I wrote about how the record industry
is in great shape for the coming decade because of the rent it can collect from tech firms (think: Facebook, TikTok, and even Twitter
). My main concern centered on how artists would even enter the conversation about Facebook’s money being split amongst major label rosters (if that even ever happens). It’s this exact pot of money that the Music Manager Forum, which represents thousands of musician managers across the United Kingdom and the United States, highlights:
With some social media services that are still working out how they plan to actually use music, the advance may be a one-off lump sum payment covering a set period of time. No additional payments are made during that time period and what music has actually been streamed may not be reported.
The MMF raises a good number of questions about this particular pot of money and points towards it becoming an increasingly contested realm by artists, much like traditional music streaming. Yet, highlighting this gap within the context of this government inquiry exposes the lack of a clear understanding of how music is used by social media platforms. Unlike traditional music streaming, there are no clear guidelines for how these funds should be split amongst publishers and record labels.
Even more importantly, when someone interacts with music on Instagram, TikTok, Triller, or Snapchat, it isn’t at all clear whether the songwriting or recording should take priority. Nor is there, as the letter argues, currently any comprehensive method for managers or artists to know how much their music is really being used or consumed and how that might compare to other acts. There’s potentially a whole shadow, or regulatory, industry that could be formed to fight over percentiles of TikTok revenues. The MMF’s callout will certainly keep me asking questions to shed some light on who is and isn’t benefiting from this fresh source of revenue and where the UK government might throw its weight into the discussion. While some drew lines in future record industry profits, another tech firm is interested in maintaining the status quo.
YouTube’s submission to the DCMS
was noteworthy enough for the Guardian to cover it
but the actual ideas contained in it were profoundly bland. YouTube’s perspective on the record industry could easily be summarized as: Don’t change a thing! There are plenty of anti-regulation suggestions pretending that such changes might hurt smaller startups or that YouTube might not be able to sustain its business if it has to deal with copyright-infringing content on its platform. Another suggestion is that YouTube might need to pay artists more and that it might not be able to survive under such conditions. However, another firm that’s been accused of shaking up the record industry the last few years isn’t playing so conservatively.
The Hipgnosis Song Fund’s submission
achieves similar corporate talking points but is far more insidious than YouTube’s blunt anti-government musing. Instead, the company trotted out its usual story of how it’s helping songwriters find value from their song catalogs, which it then flips to advocate for pro-songwriter reforms. The company supports the user-centric streaming model, moving to a broadcast model to devalue passive streams (think: Spotify radio), increasing songwriter voice in deals made with streaming platforms, and a number of other suggestions. This could appear fairly altruistic, except that Hipgnosis owns quite a large catalog of music, and while there’s an assumed steadiness of publishing returns, the company is effectively lobbying the government to help its bottom line on behalf of artists.
That’s the long game that Merck Mercuriadis, the company’s CEO and co-founder, lays out in this report. These submissions illustrate who really is winning from the current recorded music industry (major labels and major streaming platforms) and show potentially interesting alliances that could be formed. The Hipgnosis Song Fund might be more vocally curious about the deals being signed with TikTok if it means that the song catalogs they hold could receive an additional, government-imposed source of revenue. Much speculation could emerge from these reports but I find them a great way to understand that there are a number of strange coalitions and struggles ahead in the coming decade of recorded music.