The music business is booming, and it’s doing so thanks to streaming. But the tech pioneers who made this possible in the last two years aren’t making any money, and neither, really, are musicians: It’s legacy businesses — the music companies that own the catalogs — that are collecting all the profits. Something has to give.
The Recording Industry Association of America reports that U.S. retail music sales were up 17 percent year-over-year in the first six months of 2017, to $4 billion. That’s still very far from the industry’s revenues at the height of the compact disc boom in 2000, but it’s spectacular for this decade. Streaming is running behind this achievement: In just two years, it’s grown from 33 percent to 62 percent of the market.
Yet the market leader, Spotify, is still unprofitable after posting an operating loss of $412.3 million in 2016. Pandora, another beneficiary of the streaming boom, posted 10 percent year-over-year revenue growth in the three months to June but dramatically increased its net loss — to $125.8 million from $76.3 million. For Tidal, founded by rapper Jay-Z and now part-owned by Sprint, no profit is in sight. It’s unclear how much Apple and Alphabet make from their streaming services because the companies don’t break out these results, but they probably would do so if the services were profitable.
Like at the dawn of streaming, musicians are still complaining that it’s next to impossible to make money from it. The RIAA has calculated that a music creator only earns $1 from 58 hours of streaming video on YouTube — the company most often blamed for the “value gap” that plagues artists. Other industry leaders are more generous, but that’s not saying much. On average, an artist earns $100 for 152,094 streams of a song to Spotify subscribers. That’s dismal; you have to be extremely-popular before you can earn enough for food.
Only the oligopoly of record labels that control the intellectual property — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music — are reaping profits from the boom. Warner Music posted a record profit in the three months to June; no wonder it now controls one of the world’s top streaming services, Deezer, which once planned to go public. At Sony, music is one of the strongest profit drivers. UMG consistently provides most of the profit of its corporate parent, Vivendi.
In its recent forecast for the music industry, Goldman Sachs predicts that record labels’ share of the music industry’s revenue will increase by 133 percent between 2015 and 2030, while the share that goes to musicians, venues and tour organizers will only grow by 60 percent. So the investment bank expects the labels to continue reaping a disproportionate share of the benefits.
It’s unfair. Streaming services don’t just provide the content delivery mechanism the way, say, a CD factory does. They curate the content and, in effect, keep and manage our music collections for us. And artists don’t just deserve a greater reward as the reason the industry exists: The relative lack of money for musicians makes for less good music. It’s one reason back catalogues now outsell current releases.
Perhaps the music market is even distorted enough for regulatory intervention: Breaking up the record label oligopoly on anti-trust grounds could hand both streaming services and musicians more market power. But whether that’s feasible or not — all recent attempts to accuse the record labels or price fixing have failed — the market is getting ripe for a big renegotiation of terms. Spotify has already managed to reduce its payments to the record labels from 55 percent to 52 percent of revenues; its competitors ought to drive a harder bargain, too. Artists, who have traditionally complained about the streaming companies and fought with them, even removing their catalogs from the likes of Spotify, are the streaming services’ natural allies in the negotiations: It’s from the labels that they need to get a bigger share of the pie.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.