GESAC report: Pricing of streaming services and its impact on authors and composers
GESAC study puts authors and composers at the heart of the streaming economy
A new report, released by GESAC, the European Grouping of Societies of Authors and Composers, and prepared by Emmanuel Legrand from Legrand Network and Editor of Creative Industries News, makes the case for a more sustainable and author-centric streaming ecosystem.
This article is a summary of the report — titled ‘Study on the place and role of authors and composers in the European music streaming market’ — which can be downloaded here.
Streaming is a song economy
The music economy is a song economy. Songs and compositions are at the origin of everything. Performers and musicians (who are often songwriters themselves) take the blank canvass of a composition and create a rendition of a song, and then recordings take the songs to the masses.
However, authors and composers’ role is not sufficiently reflected in the streaming economy as they are neither recognised nor remunerated to the scale of their contributions. This has generated an imbalance over time that needs to be addressed, especially as, today, streaming is the dominant way in which people enjoy music in the world. It allows access to over 70 million tracks everywhere, anytime, in all possible devices.
Dominated by global players, the streaming market has developed in the past decade with the help of collective management organisations, which secure the largest repertoire in one go by offering the necessary licence agreements, including sometimes at their embryonic stage, that allows them to start scaling up their businesses.
This report highlights the concerns and expectations of authors and composers when dealing with the music streaming experience. Concerns because they long for more visibility, and also have higher expectations from the growth of streaming environment.
A – The main findings of the study
As the report points out, there are several reasons why the music streaming market is currently failing to generate meaningful growth for creators. And they may be encapsulated in three primary issues that need to be addressed to create a more creator-friendly music ecosystem:
1 – Asymmetry between the goals of streaming services and the aspirations of authors and composers
The main objective of most streaming services is to increase their user-base, and in certain cases, to sell other services or devices that are related to their music offering (e.g., Apple audio equipment, Amazon Prime account or home assistance devices). This is usually done through business choices of the services that make streaming market uncapable of ensuring the value of creation and generating sufficient revenues for authors and composers, despite their growing user-base.
Firstly, most streaming services offer very extended free ad-supported tiers, which are still the preferred choice for most consumers due to their convenience, although the revenues generated from those versions are around 10-times less than paid subscription. As those services do not sufficiently motivate customers to move to paid subscriptions in time, the very-low- revenue-based free offers become the main exploitation.
Then, when it comes to paid subscriptions, the initial individual subscription fee of 9.99 (in Euros, US dollars, or British pound) set in 2006, has never increased, despite the exponential growth in the quality, amount of songs, and user-friendliness of music streaming services.
French rights society SACEM has provided data for this report showing that the share of the two main pricing plans (Individual and Family) has been following asymmetric trends in the past three years, with the percentage of total revenues from Individual subscriptions falling by 11 percent- age points between the first quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2021, respectively of 68% and 57%. Meanwhile, the percentage of revenue from Family Plans rose by 10 percentage points during the same period, from 28% to 38%. Student and Free tier plans remained stable, accounting on average for 3-4% each quarter.
Adding to that the shrinkage of ARPU (average money paid by each user) through several promotional and family plans, and the inflation in time, the value of a subscription per user has considerably decreased over the last 15 years. The consequence is a general decrease in value of music, making it difficult to grow the revenue pie, which is one of the primary requests of authors and composers.
2 – Structural issues about fairness in the streaming eco-system
The current hit-driven market of music streaming has resulted in a pyramid system, whereby a small number of songs capture a large portion of the listenership. For instance, 57 000 artists accounted 90% of monthly Spotify streams in March 2021. The use of algorithms, as well as bottleneck rep- resented by the most popular playlists, exacerbates this.
The use of algorithms, as well as bottleneck represented by the most popular playlists, exacerbates this. Furthermore, long-standing flaws in the operations of music streaming platforms, such as “streaming fraud”, “ghost/fake artists”, “payola schemes”, “royalty free content” and other coercive practices worsen the impact on many professional creators. The massive availability of content is overshadowed by the fact that these services are under no positive obligations to ensure visibility and discoverability of more diverse repertoires, particularly European works.
This report suggests solutions to bring greater transparency in the use of algorithms and invites stakeholders to undertake a review of the economic models of streaming services and evaluate how they currently affect cultural diversity which should be promoted in its various forms — music genres, languages, origin of performers and songwriters, in particular through policy actions.
3 – Systemic imbalance in revenue allocation
The growth of music streaming services has boosted the music industry but has primarily benefited the recorded music side rather than the authors and composers of songs. According to recent UK parliamentary committee report, due to several structural and economic reasons, the revenue split from streaming is currently curved in favour of the owners of sound recording rights.
The conventional wisdom among authors and composers in Europe is that they are not “fairly remunerated from music streaming services,” as expressed by the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance (ECSA), which represents over 30,000 professional composers and songwriters in 27 countries, via 59 member organisations across Europe and beyond.
The #Fix Streaming movement further illustrates the feeling authors and composers have of being at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to music streaming while they are at the start of the creative process. The reasons for such feeling are multiple. Many creators surveyed for this report have highlighted it as one of the key issues for them.
The overall feeling from songwriters is that if the music industry has experienced a rebound for the past seven years thanks to the development of streaming, this boom has not yet reached songwriters, due to the rates applied to the remuneration of compositions.
Current split of the digital pie suggests that 30/34% of the price paid by subscribers are kept by the streaming service, out of the remaining 70%, 55% go back to the labels and performers, 15% to the songwriter and music publisher.
As one European CMO explained: “For composers and lyricists, even more so when they are not performers too, streaming services have not been generous. Even though the unending availability of music has cut the level of online piracy, the revenues accruing to composers are still small. All statistics show that in order to receive an amount of royalties approximately comparable to minimum salary from streaming services, an author should have his or her song streamed millions of times. This is very hard to explain to authors when, on the one hand, the value per stream can be so low as to appear fundamentally unfair, and, on the other, we hear that the streaming market is flourishing.”
To give an idea of the scale necessary to earn a decent remuneration from music streaming, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek disclosed in March 2021 that 57,000 artists represented 90% of monthly streams on Spotify. Even though the number has quadrupled over the last six years, this is a small figure compared to the number of artists present on the site, which means that the vast majority of artists only account for 10% of the streams.
The study advocates for a better sharing of the value generated by streaming economy between all stakeholders and considers that after addressing the need to grow the overall revenue pie and the systemic imbalances and dysfunctions in the operation of online platforms, authors and composers should benefit more favourably from the resulting success of this growing market.
B – Towards a more author-centric streaming ecosystem
The music streaming eco-system could become more author and composer centric if several changes were applied throughout the three following pillars: Recognition; Remuneration; Identification & Attribution.
While most of these changes require a more responsible approach by services and/or rightholders to build a more sustainable and fairer streaming economy, some others would require further industry cooperation and in certain specific cases possible regulatory interventions. Such changes would imply and require that those at the heart of the streaming economy as the main providers of the “content”: authors, composers and their CMOs are part of the streaming debate.
1 – Recognition
Recognition of the role of authors and composers in the streaming economy is crucial to develop a fair and sustainable system that values their contributions to the eco-system and fosters cultural diversity. If the streaming economy is a song economy — based on the consumption patterns of users — then it must ensure that those who are at the heart of that economy are better recognised and they receive the appropriate reward for their contributions.
This means ensuring authors and composers get visibility for their works. There are two notable impacts linked to recognition:
– one is the ability for authors and composers to be identified for their creative contributions (i.e. the song or the composition);
– the other is the possibility for DSPs to build an eco-system for authors and composers within the wider eco-system of the services.
Authors also emphasise the importance of accessibility of lyrics — with identification — as a way to increase visibility and recognition. Several DSPs do offer access to lyrics covering the most popular songs, but there is the perception that more could and should be done in this area.
“[Lyrics] should be further supported,” said a music publisher, “in particular, as it is proven that consumers listen to songs longer if lyrics are pro- vided in parallel.” 28 In addition, efforts should be made to “push” niche repertoires or repertoire in languages other than English.
A CMO from a “small” European country said that “recommendation algorithms do not work well for smaller repertoires.” The same CMO suggested, for example, that contemporary “serious” music should be treated in a more dynamic way, with more classical music playlists, highlighting contemporary music pieces, or playlists similar to Spotify’s “pop rising” playlist, with a “classical rising” playlist, featuring lesser-known composers’ new works next to more popular composers’ works.
Analytics are also key to a better recognition, if they can help access data linking to users and their consumption habits.
Other suggestions include:
– Ensuring that DSPs put in place tools and systems to increase visibility and recognition
To ensure the visibility of authors and composers DSPs should create, develop or re-assign existing tools to showcase authors and composers. This in turn will give them a wider choice of services for their users, through direct use of the data in playlists or specific content pages, and by integrating it into algorithms.
The result should be a more diverse and richer output for users, opening doors to more choices and discovery through a wider set of entry points.
– Ensuring equal access to market for all authors and composers
Access to and use of data about authors and composers should not be limited to top tracks, but cover the whole repertoire, including more niche material. Cooperation between DSPs and CMOs should ensure the equal access to market. This is a critical condition to ensure a wider canvas for cultural diversity.
CMOs will be (and “are”) the guarantors that cultural diversity permeates the music streaming eco-system by ensuring that all repertoire is taken care of by DSPs, and not simply the most popular music genres. CMOs also have the ability to promote their repertoire through partnerships with DSPs, showcases, songwriting seminars, etc.
It is necessary to make more room for less popular repertoires to benefit a wider diversity of authors and composers.
– Improving discoverability
A lot of research has been made in Canada with regards to discoverability, in particular in the context of French-Canadian music, which is subject to quotas for over the air broadcasters which however do not apply to music streaming services. The research shows that while the lists of new releases from Québec, studied are present in a large proportion on streaming platforms, they are “not very visible and very little recommended.”
It further shows that the situation is even worse when it is not about new releases, including hit music, when the presence of titles “drops radically.” It is not very difficult to imagine that if we were to swap Québec in the above sentence with the name of any country from the European Union, and even with music from the European Union as a whole, we could find similar results.
– Monitoring diversity
Organisations such as the European Music Observatory, that the music sector is calling for, or within the European Commission itself, could help the music sector create tools to monitor the presence, visibility and discoverability of European authors on digital services. In addition, it is recommended to connect the notion of discoverability with algorithmic transparency, in order to take into effect lesser-known repertoires.
DSPs could also voluntarily agree to give more prominence via algorithms to the discoverability of European authors and less popular music genres or languages. As a recommendation, this study invites Europe- an stakeholders and the European Commission to consider commissioning a similar research to develop similar indexes, monitor European content and determine if there are similar restrictions in the exposure of European content.
2 – Remuneration
Authors and composers are expecting a better and fairer creation and sharing of value from the streaming market. The music streaming market has been expanding non-stop for the past 15 years. While the growth of new subscribers has slowed down in the most mature mar- kets, such as in North America and Europe, other parts of the world still enjoy steady growth rates in terms of further penetration of streaming services. Therefore the music streaming market is mature enough to take the next steps for a meaningful growth for the creators and rightholders by growing the revenue pie through more realistic market oriented pricing models and value-added services.
This would immediately benefit authors and composers, who will likely see an uptake in revenues as the overall volume of users and subscription fees grow with market conditions. Once the pie of streaming revenue grows, then the split of revenue allocated to authors, composers and music publishers within this additional pot should evolve in different and fairer ways.
– Ensuring that authors and composers are part of the debate on the remuneration from streaming
Authors and composers, as seen in the UK with the DCMS process, deplore that they have been left on the side of the road when it comes to the streaming economy. They feel treated like a minor by-product of a sound recording, when in fact without them, there would not be a song.
There is also a compelling reason for authors and composers to take a front seat in the discussions about the allocation of the revenues from streaming: the new streaming economy is song-based, and songs are written and composed by songwriters. If the streaming economy truly wants to be a song economy, it should then treat the music creators who are at the beginning of the value chain accordingly.
The issue of fair and balanced remuneration will remain on top of the agenda of authors and composers, with the view that progress needs to be made in this field.
– Set variable pricing models to attract new consumer spending
As described previously, pricing is the entrance door to a better remuneration of rights holders and as such of authors and composers.
Because subscription prices have not increased and are running to the bottom to attract new consumers, the remuneration of rights holders has greatly suffered. Prices should be set in order to make content and services more valuable and then attractive for music users.
DSPs could set variable pricing models based on the new offered features to attract new consumer spending in relation to streaming subscriptions: increasing quality of sound, access to NFTs, etc, this could in turn provide new revenue streams for rights holders.
– Re-balancing the value gap
The other issue expressed by rights holders relates to user-generated content platforms, that have historically remunerated rights holders below mar- ket rates, if at all, compared to what streaming services pay. The perceived value gap that ensued got its first correction with the adoption of the EU’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, with its Article 17, which requires UGC platforms to make “best efforts” to identify rights holders, se- cure licences or take down the content.
The expectations from the creator’s side is that the obligation for UGC platforms, — and most notably for the largest, YouTube — to make “best efforts” to identify rights holders and license content will result in higher volumes of royalties paid to rights holders and more even playing filed in the streaming market. It is yet too soon to know to what extent this will be the case, but in any case, market conditions have changed in a way that is more ba- lanced towards rights holders.
– Create a set of best practices
The idea is to have authors and composers as parties to a set of best practices to which DSPs as well as CMOs, would adhere. These should consist in prohibiting or eliminating the following practices:
Avoid “Payola” schemes
DSPs should no longer offer schemes enabling authors and composers to have greater visibility on play- lists and through algorithms in exchange for lower royalty rates. Their remuneration should not be a variable against promotional visibility.
“Such promotional schemes are not compatible with collective rights management and risk undermining the collective bargaining power of authors,” said one European CMO.
Royalty free content
Similar to payola schemes, authors believe that royalty free content for which authors surrender their share of remuneration for whatever reason should be avoided.
Use of fake artists/ghost writers
Using ghost writers for music compositions that would be featured on playlists of certain music streaming services should be eliminated as well because of the ethical and economic concerns such practice raises.
Music streaming services should not have recourse to coercive practices against authors and composers or their representatives. Such practices contravene the basic notion of fairness and equity. Especially in VOD production, broadcasting, advertising and video-games sectors coercive practices are quite common and significantly jeopardise the principle of “appropriate and proportionate remuneration” of creators guaran- teed by the Article 18 of the new Copyright Directive.
This study also recommends the commissioning of a study to evaluate the depth of streaming fraud and mechanisms to avoid their spreading, as well as the adoption of a code of good conduct between stake- holders, some of which is already in place in several countries to stop streaming fraud.
– Discuss music streaming distribution models
Deezer has introduced the debate of which one needs to be aware of when reflecting on authors and composers’ revenue from streaming exploitations.
The Market-Centric Payment System (MCPS)
The dominant payment model at the moment used by streaming services is the pro-rata model or Market-Centric Payment System (MCPS) which has been implemented since the very beginning.
The User-Centric Payment System (UCPS)
The other model, which is known as the User-Centric Payment System (UCPS) is based on what is consumed by the subscribers of streaming services and on the proportionality of what is used versus what is paid.
This study suggests that a future European Music Observatory can make more in-depth studies on this to evaluate the full impact of different distribution models, and their potential benefits for stakeholders, in particular for European authors and composers.
3 – Identification & Attribution
3. a Identification
Identification of authors and composers is crucial not only for their recognition but also for their remuneration. The following measures could improve the current situation.
Need to improve data from the point of creation
The key issue with identification has to do with data first and then the use of the data. Most music streaming services do not display the names of the authors and composers of songs because either they do not have the information or because the system is not designed to display this information.
The call for accurate and reliable data is among the main findings of the survey conducted for this report, and one that DSPs can also be attuned to, since it is also the best way for them to ensure that all the songs played by their users are identified.
The key to accurate data is to be able to source from the origin of the creative process. Driven by their awareness of this and their special relations with authors and composers, CMOs worked together to improve databases to the benefit of all parties and are at the origin, sometimes through start-ups, of various initiatives and projects – and The MLC in the US19 as well – to help build better and more accurate data.
A company like Session — involving ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, currently President of CISAC, producer Max Martin and entrepreneur Niclas Molinder — has for its part launched a platform for project collaboration in the audio space which follows a creative project at every stage of production, from songwriting to mastering, to ensures all credits are accurate.
Services such as Jaxsta, which is the largest database of song credits in the world, have also extended the sources of information available both for B2C purposes (their database can be licensed to services), and for consumers wishing to identify the “people” behind a song.
Young authors (and also established authors, songwriters and composers) do not always understand the ramifications of having proper data about their creations. Not documenting who did what in a recording studio or during a songwriting session, and who are the contributors to a song, can seriously affect the way they will be identified as the authors or co-authors of a song, and their ability to be remunerated for their work.
We suggest that stakeholders — from record labels and music publishers to CMOs and DSPs — conduct regular awareness- raising campaigns to ensure that songwriters better understand the value of proper data and its consequences on their careers.
Better dissemination of ISWCs and matching with ISRCs
A song usually comes with two identifiers:
– ISRC, the International Standard Recording Code, for the sound recordings and music video recordings. ISRCs are unique to each recording, regardless of the format (CD, digital audio file).
– ISWC, or International Standard Musical Work Code, for the composition. The ISWC is a code which connects accurately, efficiently and quickly authors to a specific musical work. According to the ISWC Network, it allows CMOs, publishers, DSPs and any stakeholder in the music value chain “to track, identify and ensure that music creators are attributed the remuneration that is duly owed to them for the use of each specific musical work.”
By linking the obligation to provide ISRCs with ISWCs, one major step could be made. But there are some limits to that process. For a start, ISWCs are often allocated after a song has been distributed to DSPs, as artists and labels tend to speed up the distribution of songs, sometimes before they have identified all the parties to a song.
Discussions are already taking place between stakeholders to improve the quality of metadata, but, as suggested by the DCMS, there could be an industry goal “to establish a minimum viable data standard within the next two years to ensure that services provide data in a way that is usable and comparable across all services.”
Strong obligation on DSPs to report properly and accurately
Metadata coming out from the DSPs is often as good as what has been ingested when DSPs are serviced by rights holders, but put- ting on DSPs an obligation to report properly and accurately data would ensure that both rights holders and DSPs have the quality of data in mind.
Especially on the UGC platforms, not properly ingesting authors’ data, not sharing proper usage data, or using identification tools for authors’ works that are not attached to a sound-recording are major issues that create bottlenecks for remuneration of creators due to missing links and information. The new Copyright in the Digital Single Market in the EU Directive contains, through Article 17, a specific obligation on the Youtube-like services to provide transparent information about the usage of music on their plat- forms.
Moreover Article 17 of the Collective Rights Management Directive provides a broader obligation to report in agreed format and time period on all users of protected works. This would ensure that quality of data would permeate throughout the whole chain.
EU funds for rights management
CMOs rely on data and therefore should be part of any solution improving the flow of data to and from DSPs.
CMOs have already engaged in programmes to improve the quality of data, through individu- al initiatives, partnerships between CMOs, or through CISAC.
The European Union can play a role in the improvement and wider use of data management technologies in the music sector by allocating resources for projects destined to improve capacities of CMOs in this respect. More specifically, as part of the Creative Europe or the Horizon programmes, a pilot programme to help CMOs to manage the digital transition would accelerate the ability for CMOs to capture the value from digital and redistribute to their members.
3.b – Attribution
The concept of attribution is linked to the need for identification. It may sound obvious, but you cannot attribute something that has not been identified. So, the foundation of attribution is proper and accurate data.
Authors and composers need to be properly identified at all steps of the process, and that data needs to flow throughout the streaming system, from rights holders to DSPs and vice-versa.
Attribution is also about making sure that all authors and composers — regardless of their origins and their music genre — receive equal treatment in the identification of their data. With the ubiquity of streaming, music content is now accessible anytime from anywhere. The licensing efforts made by DSPs, owners of sound recordings and CMOs to cover as many territories as possible has made all kinds of repertoires available globally.
Hence the need to be able to identify every single piece of musical works susceptible to be streamed. It has economic relevance and is also a guarantee of cultural diversity, as every single work will matter.
Another aspect of attribution is the often frustrating situation that authors face when their works are used on User Generated Content platforms. Aside from the licensing issues linked to UGC, works that are used in such content are rarely identified, depriving authors of the recognition they are entitled to.
In the context of smart devices, attribution is also a key element in ensuring that songs can be identified through their songwriters, composers or lyricists (Alexa, play me a song by Max Martin!).
Several steps could ensure a better attribution of credits to authors and composers.
Ensure that data on authors and composers is available to consumers
Data on authors and composers is not always apparent or even available on streaming services. In general, DSPs aside, data on songwriters accessible by consumers is hard to find. As described above, efforts by services such as Jaxsta to provide such data is only recent and for the moment their reach is limited.
DSPs argue that a lack of accurate data is often the rea- son why they cannot feature the names of songwriters.
Discussion among stakeholders — in particular DSP and CMOs — to find ways to better disclose to the public in- formation about authors and composers could lead to an increase in the data available to consumers.
Ensure that song data is included and available to DSPs
The discussions between DSPs and CMOs and interested stakeholders could lead to a better transfer of data to DSPs and also the creation of the tools necessary for DSPs to ingest data related to authors and composers. The benefits will be felt on both sides of the value chain. Authors and composers will have identification and the tools for attribution. CMOs and DSPs will have more accurate data to share.
More data transparency from DSPs
“More transparency is required” said IMRO CEO Victor Finn, “increased transparency in relation to streaming rates, usage reports, unidentified works is critical to ensure creators have full confidence in how they are remunerated from the exploitation of their works on streaming platforms.”
“Transparency should be a requirement,” stated a label and management company execu- tive, talking about the need for DSPs to provide more data about the usage of songs. Some bigger services provide daily APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) of information, but he says not all DSPs are required to deliver robust API of info to their suppliers. Another issue for rights holders is that they often have to wait for the quarterly distribution of royal- ties to have a picture of where the music has been played.
Transparency efforts could however clash with some privacy laws such as Europe’s GDPR, which could limit the access to certain type of data.
Create tools ensuring that authors and composers can be searched and incorporated in playlists and algorithms
DSPs shall tailor specific tools for consumers to access such data, with the knock-on effect on recognition and remuneration.
A music publisher suggested that search engines allowing to identify authors, composers and music publishers should be “a standard feature” on digital services.
A whole new layer of tools can be created around authors and composers’ data, multiplying the potential offers to DSPs’ subscribers/users, offering a wider possibility for searches, expanding the ability to build playlists centred around authors and composers, and feeding algorithms with additional data, leading to deeper capacity to address recommendations to users.
One CMO suggested that it would be “useful” for artists (and creators in general) to have “more specific and qualitative figures among those provided by the platforms, especially those related to their total streams and their follower bases.”
It added: “Ideally, for each artist’s or creator’s profile, the follower base could be segmented according to the nature and the quality of the users to get a clearer picture on their ‘quality’ fans, telling them apart from random followers or listeners.”
However, a data specialist warned that access to too much data could have unintended consequences for songwriters, if for example, all DSPs start providing data about usage of songs based on songwriters in different formats, and without some consolidation.
C – Conclusion
The inexorable growth of the music streaming business creates a lot of expectations from authors and composers to see a valuable improvement in their relationship with DSPs as well as in the way they are identified and exposed by digital platforms.
This study was prepared in the midst of turmoil as the incomes of authors and composers are still affected by the health crisis and as usage has definitely shifted to streaming, highlights the need for creators to take back control for a fairer ecosystem.
As mentioned at different places in this study, the issue of fair remuneration will remain on top of the agenda of authors and composers, with the view that progress needs to be made in this field. For sure, CMOs with their authors and composers will play a big role to counter the ‘race to the bottom’ payment models by DSPs.
Besides describing the place and role of authors and composers in the streaming market, this study also tried to demonstrate how to value and protect them, keeping in mind that regulation of these services could be considered to remedy some imbalances in the way they operate. But the spirit of dialogue should prevail.
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