Beyond Sound and Science: Musicians, Researchers, and the Next Spotify

Last week I was filled with excitement and trepidation for the future of music. The Computer Music Modeling and Retrieval (CMMR) conference was held at Queen Mary, University of London, bringing together “researchers, educators, librarians, composers, performers, software developers, members of industry, and others with an interest in computer music modeling, retrieval, analysis, and synthesis.” If you’re not familiar with the field of music information retrieval (or MIR, or Music-IR), much of its current focus is on the automatic extraction of musical information from audio. Perhaps the most obviously apparent use of MIR is Shazam, the app that recognizes what song you’re listening to.

Musicians need to be paying very, very close attention to what researchers in MIR are doing right now, because it will have a dramatic impact on how music is created and consumed in the near future (even more than it already has). CMMR’s Thursday panel discussion (with John Sloboda, Alan Marsden, Tim Crawford, and Joydeep Bhattacharya, moderated by Geraint Wiggins) was particularly illuminating in this regard. Somewhat unusually, the larger impact of MIR was queried and prodded—Crawford talked about how the field isn’t serving musicologists, Sloboda discussed how it’s not serving society at large, and Marsden addressed whether or not it’s respecting the musical artifact itself. These are all important and provocative points, but almost shockingly, no one mentioned the impact of MIR on musicians or composers.

This omission is even more curious and troubling in the context of the recent heated debate centered around David Lowery’s Letter to Emily White, an alternately heartbreaking and exasperating article about the role of technology companies as the new arbiters of musical consumption. Unfortunately, some of Lowery’s best points are obscured by his patronizing tone, and his moralistic scolding of younger generations for their listening and purchasing habits seems unlikely to change anything for the better.

However, there is no doubt that Spotify, the target of much of Lowery’s ire, is bad for musicians; the only real question at this point is just how bad. The reasons for this are plentiful, but most of it stems from the fact that services like Spotify disconnect musicians from listeners. The more anonymous music is, the less likely people will be to feel attached it and to feel the need to support it. But when someone knows who you are, when you’re not just some disembodied vibrations in the air, they’re far more likely to stand behind you. It’s no coincidence that the musicians who have had the most success on the internet are those like Amanda Palmer, who aims for a very direct, personal connection with her audience. And it’s important to note that technology doesn’t necessarily lead to alienation; Palmer has leveraged services like Bandcamp and Kickstarter very effectively to create and maintain that sense of connection.

And it’s not just the warm fuzzy feelings either. There are very practical reasons for preserving the direct relationship between artist and audience—when you put someone in the middle of that exchange, you cannot necessarily trust them to have your interests at heart. With Spotify in particular, there is not one middleman but two: the label or distributor, and the technology company. It’s no wonder that the artist is the loser in this transaction. Charles Caldas of Merlin, who negotiates with Spotify on behalf of independent labels, has released some growth percentages for payouts to artists, but conspicuously, no dollar amounts. Zoë Keating, on the other hand, has been remarkably transparent about how she’s been compensated by various streaming services. With over 40,000 plays, Keating earned a seriously underwhelming $150 from Spotify for an entire quarter (12/29/11-3/28/12). In terms of popularity, Keating is pretty much at the top of the heap as far as independent classical-ish performers go—if you make music that is even remotely similar, you are extremely unlikely to do any better.

But is this really any better than other internet music sales models? Well, I’m not nearly as popular as Zoë, but enough people have listened to and bought my music on Bandcamp to make some sloppy calculations. Personally, I’ve made about $0.02 per play, which is over five times as much as what Spotify doles out. This isn’t a perfect comparison, because Bandcamp doesn’t pay per play; someone has to explicitly decide it’s worth it to pony up for my music. But even if only a small percentage make that choice, this model is still vastly better for the artist financially. (I’d be willing to bet that Zoë Keating’s play/buy ratio is better than mine, too.)

Supporters of Spotify are quick to point out that musicians get publicity from others sharing their music, but currently, there’s no real way to measure the impact of Spotify on how people share music, so this all remains conveniently speculative. And if Spotify becomes the main outlet through which people listen to music, this won’t matter much anyway.

Which brings me to my next point: Musicians need data about their listeners. I want to italicize and bold and ALL CAPS this point to the heavens, because I think it’s sorely overlooked. All the back and forth arguments about whether or not streaming music is good for artists is completely hypothetical until we have hard data, and most companies are loath to give away this proprietary information. The lag between when things happen and when artists find out about them is another huge problem—what’s the use, really, in finding out what music people were listening to over a month and a half ago? It’s hard to act on that kind of data unless it’s recent. (Bandcamp and Soundcloud are exceptions in this category, giving more or less immediate feedback on what people are listening to. Bandcamp also tells you how long they listened for, and what site they came from.)

This is why musicians desperately need to have MIR researchers on their side, because if there’s one thing they know, it’s data: how to get it, what it means, and how to use it. They will also almost certainly have a hand in whatever the next big music streaming service is; the theme of this year’s CMMR conference was “Music and Emotions,” and one recurring idea was a Spotify-like database that selects music based on mood. Fortunately, researchers also desperately need the expertise of musicians, though many are just beginning to recognize this fact. One of the most commonly evaluated MIR tasks is automatic audio-based genre classification, and while various state-of-the-art methods have been thrown at this problem, the accuracy has hovered around 60-65% for the past four years, an epoch in research community terms. As a result, researchers are finally acknowledging that methods based on surface musical features may not be enough, and higher-order musical knowledge may actually be necessary.

For these reasons, as much as I’m sympathetic to Lowery’s position, I can’t agree with his analysis of the current situation. I don’t think that the solution to today’s problems will be found in the consciences of individuals, which are so easy compromised by convenience and circumstance. I think that the solution needs to be one of infrastructure—musicians and researchers must work together to build a streaming music service that is musically and technologically sophisticated, appealing to audiences, fair to musicians, and conducive to direct engagement between the two. We must be involved in this next phase of creation, or we leave the future of music up to others.

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9 thoughts on “Beyond Sound and Science: Musicians, Researchers, and the Next Spotify

  1. Paul Muller

    Thanks for a good article on an inflammatory subject and kudos for the insight that the greatest damage done by Spotify and iTunes isn’t the lower revenues realized by musicians but rather the distancing of the artist from his audience.

    I wish the dialogue on this issue was a bit more precise: iTunes doesn’t let you download music, it provides digitally reproducible recordings of music, and when the supply of a product is infinite the invisible hand of the market – and the instincts of every consumer – pushes the price of that product to zero. All the copyrights and lawsuits that have been tried to add value to digital recordings are up against very powerful market forces acting in the opposite direction and the lawyers have yet to show any success in reversing the current trends.

    The bigger question, perhaps, is this: should the compensation of a musician be shackled to the monetary transaction for their art as purchased in a free market? Do we want music to be a commodity, the value of which is determined by what people are willing to pay for it?

    I say no. Music should be heard, not sold. Especially serious art music. There are other models for compensation: in the Baroque era there were no copyrights, little publishing of music and no recordings – yet musicians and composers were supported – indeed, esteemed – by their society. Rather than try to force a capitalistic model on the compensation of artists, it should be possible for artists to make their contribution to society without worrying if they can pay the rent.

    Reply
  2. Molly Sheridan

    Zoe Keating just posted her latest payout data from Spotify.

    She follows up (also via @zoecello) noting that Spotify is “maybe 0.2%” of her income, but that she’s also “never gotten royalties from plays on American radio.”

    “I’m all for streaming but thank heavens for iTunes and Bandcamp, or #cellofamily would be in trouble” and “FYI I’m not critiquing. I just keep reading about controversy over what Spotify artist payouts are, thought I’d just POST THE INFORMATION.”

    “I care about honesty & transparency, and I find it weird that hard facts about streaming $$ are hard to come by. Hence, my data post.”

    Reply
  3. Marc Geelhoed

    “With Spotify in particular, there is not one middleman but two: the label or distributor, and the technology company.” There have always been two middlemen in the recording industry. Change “technology company” to “record store,” and you have how it worked up until the present. Technically, there were even more middlemen, with the record label, their distributor, and then the retailer. There has also always been a delay in reporting sales: It used to be to allow for returns, with 10% or 20% revenues withheld, and now it’s the digital retailers, including Spotify, reporting a couple months after income’s received. Basically, the story is the same as it’s always been, it’s just that now, listeners do not have to pay much to listen.

    Any notion of building a streaming service that is “fair to musicians” has to confront the reality of where the income will come from to support such an endeavor. Spotify lost $60 million last year; what is “fair to musicians” in light of that figure?

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      Hi Marc,

      A good start on fairness would be to stop paying better rates to major labels over independents. That might be difficult, though, since the four major labels all have ownership stake in Spotify. It would be nice, too, if Spotify linked to artists’ websites, or showed their upcoming shows, or provided a way to donate extra if you appreciate a particular artist, but I have a feeling it’s not on their agenda because it would lead users away from their service. It really seems like they’re aiming to be the main method through which people listen to music, and that’s what scares me.

      The $60 million loss for Spotify is a problem too, one that suggests there are perhaps deeper issues with the pay-per-play model than they’d like to admit.

      You’re absolutely right having a lot of middlemen is how the recording industry has traditionally operated. But it’s pretty obvious that this model doesn’t work nearly as well anymore, which is why people are desperately trying new things. I still think music labels and online services can be valuable and positive for musicians, but the burden of proof on them is a lot higher now. When music needed to be actually physically distributed, having these intermediaries made logistical sense, but now it’s more artificial. For example, there’s absolutely no reason why there should be a six week delay in reporting plays or sales on the internet, and many online services — Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Steam, just to name the ones I’ve had personal experience with — don’t have this lag. (With the exception of Soundcloud, which doesn’t do sales, I’ve also made far more money with them than with Spotify.)

      So, that’s part of what I mean by fair to musicians. It’s not hypothetical, it comes directly from my experience and the experiences of other musicians like me. And like a lot of them, I have music on Spotify too, because I feel like I don’t have a choice. That seems to be the main appeal of Spotify for artists — the thinly-veiled threat of “You better be on it or no one will know who you are.” (Then again I’m reflexively suspicious when someone says I should do something “for the exposure”.)

      I’d actually love to be proved wrong on this — if Spotify is actually good for musicians, then that’s great for everyone! — but because they’re so non-transparent about their data it’s nearly impossible to actually tell what kind of effect they’re having.

      Reply
  4. G. Schankler

    The $59 million loss is interesting but not that surprising for a fledgling company that is rapidly expanding. If Spotify, as its executives contend it will, does turn the corner and start making significant profits, the question remains as to what is fair compensation to the artists – those who produced the product that is being marketed for profit. The Spotify business model appears to rely upon exceedingly low compensation to artists in order to generate earnings. (This is a business model that Mitt Romney would love.) So it is a valid question to ask whether this business model is good for artists. what can be done about it is another but separate question. Maybe nothing since individual artists do not have the market power to influence the thinking or the process.

    Reply
  5. Han-earl Park

    “There have always been two middlemen in the recording industry.”

    That’s a good point. OTOH, there are also significant middle-men in online music diffusion (from search engines to ISPs), but the exact infrastructural-network correspondences will be difficulty to gauge until serious sociological studies are made.

    “Spotify lost $60 million last year; what is “fair to musicians” in light of that figure?”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem to me that Spotify’s loss is relevant to the discussion of fair compensation. Any more relevant than, say, the profits/losses of Tower Records (RIP) since the musicians are not partner to Spotify’s business.

    Reply
  6. phillip buntin

    One of the ways that spotify is used, and I am sorry if it was touched on in the above, is as a preview before buying. Keating is actually an artist that I previewed on spotify and then purchased later. I am admittedly of the older generation that still wants to own my music.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Monday Links | songsfortheday

  8. Marc Geelhoed

    Hello Isaac, G., and Han-earl,
    The main thing, to me, is what Han-earl hinted at when mentioning Tower Records: The question was never whether Tower was good for artists, because your $15 for a CD did not go to an artist. It went to Tower, who took a cut (probably $5-$6), then they paid the distributor, who took a cut (probably $3-$4), and then the distributor paid the label the remaining price (wholesale, or ppd “published price to dealer”). The label then paid the artist their royalty, having determined whether any advance had been earned. So, if Rocking McRockers were paid $50,000 to make their record, the label would have to have been paid $50,000 before the musicians were paid a royalty. And it’s that $50K pot of money that the Spotify payments go into.

    Spotify, as Daniel Ek said in the article Isaac linked to (thanks!) points out that they have to pay publishers and rightsholders from what they earn, as well as paying the labels. All streaming services have to pay those costs, which lead to less money down the pipeline for performers, but does compensate the songwriters and composers. (Labels pay songwriters and composers for albums and downloads, by the way.)

    In the case of artists working without labels, which I think is somewhat more what you three are aiming at, it does work differently, and it can seem shocking what these streaming services pay out. It isn’t lucrative, but that leads to the point Han-earl makes about the irrelevance of Spotify’s profits. If they post a loss, how is that the artist’s concern? Because if they aren’t profitable, they have no money to pay anyone anything. I’m guessing there is VC capital behind them currently, banking on them eventually turning a profit. Subscriptions and advertising have to hit a sustainable, profit-turning point for the service to raise payouts – that is basic economics, otherwise, they’re just digging a deeper hole. If there isn’t a lot of revenue, then there is simply nothing to be lucrative with.

    Reply

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