Coldplay’s new album Mylo Xyloto isn’t on Spotify? You’d think someone would have said something… Okay, so Coldplay versus streaming music services is the hot topic today, with a lot of hot air being spouted about why their new album should or shouldn’t be on Spotify and its rivals.
Here’s Music Ally’s take, starting with one very simple point. Coldplay made this music. If they don’t want to license it to Spotify, Rhapsody, we7 and the rest, they don’t have to. You might disagree with their motives or think they’re being silly, but this is their choice to make. And just to be clear: their back catalogue is available on these services.
The second thing to debunk is this idea that ‘Oh, if they’re not on Spotify then people are just going to pirate Mylo Xyloto. Then Coldplay will be sorry…’ That’s half-right: there may well be a bump in illegal downloads of the album because people can’t just hop onto a streaming service and listen to it.
But Coldplay are still going to sell a load of albums – the major promo campaign on iTunes won’t hurt, but they’ll shift a lot of CDs too, especially in the run-up to Christmas. What’s more, Coldplay will fill stadiums and make money from a whole bunch of other things (sync, merchandise, etc etc etc).
Evidence has repeatedly shown that the most-pirated albums tend to also be the most-purchased ones, and there’s no reason to think that won’t be true here. Think of Adele’s album ’21’ too: it’s sold like hot cakes all year, despite not being available to stream on Spotify (although it is on Rhapsody in the US). Neither artist will regret their decision when they check their bank account balances come the end of 2011.
We expect some other big artists to follow their lead in the months ahead, and in many cases it’ll be for the wrong reasons: they’ll look at 21 and Mylo Xyloto and think those albums are selling in their millions because they’re not on streaming services. There are a number of reasons why Adele’s album has been a sales phenomenon in 2011, but ‘not being streamable’ isn’t one of them.
There’s certainly no consensus about streaming among big artists. Check the comments by Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter at Facebook’s f8 conference earlier this year. “What we’re looking to do is not just about selling the CD or the digital file. It’s how many people can we get the music to. How many people can experience it?.. If it was up to me, I’d give away the next album.” Managers like Carter have no problem with putting their artists’ albums on streaming services the day they go on sale.
Anyway, there are two main reasons we think Coldplay and Adele’s new albums being kept off streaming services is a shame. First: it’s where the fans are. Spotify has more than two million paying subscribers and many more free users, Rhapsody has 800,000 paying users in the US, Deezer has 20 million users in France alone…
People are on these services who’d like to listen to the Coldplay and Adele albums. If they like them, they might go on to buy the downloads, or buy tickets to see them live, or recommend them to friends. It’s an opportunity lost, although as we said, these artists have plenty of lucrative opportunities elsewhere.
The more serious problem, though, is the wider issue of whether streaming music services like Spotify are a big part of the solution to the piracy problem. We think they are, so do the labels – yes, big upfront advances and equity stakes hardly hurt, but there are plenty of smart people within the labels who support the rise of streaming on principle too – and so do many of the music industry’s harshest critics: people who said rightsholders should stop trying to sue or punish their own customers, and start focusing on creating more innovative legal services.
Without rehashing the entire debate, the theory that streaming cannibalises piracy more than it cannibalises sales of recorded music is gathering momentum. And if you agree with that argument, then the problem with Coldplay, Adele and other streaming holdouts becomes clearer. They might not be hurting themselves, but they are potentially hurting the streaming services, which have high-profile holes in their catalogues.
That’s why we think it’s a shame that two of 2011’s biggest albums aren’t available to stream.
But one final point. To our knowledge, neither Coldplay nor Adele (or their managers) have said that low payouts from streaming music services is the reason they’re shunning them. But the debate around how much money artists get from these services is an important one that shouldn’t be ignored. Streaming is a big part of the industry’s future, but only if artists are fairly remunerated (and, just as importantly, if they feel they’re being fairly remunerated).
Billboard has a good article on why people should stop talking about ‘how much Spotify pays artists’ – it pays labels, publishers and collecting societies and they pay the artists. There needs to be more focus on how advance payments from streaming services are distributed to artists by labels, for example, as well as how artists will share in any windfall when companies like Spotify (in whom the major labels have stakes) either go public or are acquired.
Meanwhile, there needs to be more transparency around the day-to-day payouts, so that managers and artists understand exactly how those payments work, how they’re growing over time, and how they compare to other sources of revenue.
The comparison of a per-stream Spotify payout to an artist’s share of a download sale is near-useless. The latter is a one-off payment, while the former happens whenever someone plays a track. Or here’s another one: how much does an artist make from their song being played once on Radio 1 to 4.5 million people, versus it being streamed by 4.5 million people on Spotify?
These equations may still not come out in favour of the streaming service, but this is the level of debate that’s needed. Artists will always be the most important people in the music industry. If they’re not confident in the streaming services – one of the most important ways people will consume music going forward – then it’s a problem that needs to be sorted out.