At this week’s Web Summit conference in Dublin, Music Ally interviewed Steve Angello and Brian Message on-stage about the digital music world: and particularly on the impact that streaming is having on artists.
As co-owner of ATC Management, Message works with artists like Radiohead, Nick Cave and The Staves, and has been a key figure in the industry’s debates around transparency and artist investment. Meanwhile, Angello was one third of Swedish House Mafia, and is now a solo artist as well as the owner of label Size Records.
A transcript of the discussion follows.
Music Ally: How optimistic are you feeling about the digital world for musicians in 2015?
Steve Angello: I feel great, I think it’s been a really good year for streaming, first and foremost. I think competition is always good. It’s good for us because all these bigger companies are going to fight about who can give us the best and who can work the hardest. As an artist I think it’s been great. It’s a big world of music out there, so it’s good to be noticed and it’s good to have people talk about it.
I started out when I was 12-13, and I had my first release when I was 15. And the past 18 years have been growing up in the music industry. And for me to go from cassette to vinyl to CDs to even Mini-Disc, to downloads and to where we are now with the streaming – it’s been such an amazing trip for me.
Because I still appreciate the physical, so it’s always been really interesting to see where we’re going now, and I think, I really appreciate music, where it’s at right now. So I think it’s a good time for us.
Brian Message: For me, one of the great things that I’m seeing is new talent, new artists coming to the market at some level, when they’ve got this interest in both being creators, and being involved in their business as well. And starting to really understand that the whole thing is not just about trying to find a record deal and trying to find an advance. But actually they’re trying to build something that is going to last for a long time.
You can see that shift: this year has been very similar to last year, but you can feel it accelerating. And for me that’s probably one of the most exciting things: having been in the music business for 20-odd years, it’s a good time.
Music Ally: We’ve heard the idea about young artists as the equivalent of startups, hustling to build their businesses…
Steve Angello: Oh for sure. I think now more than ever you can do everything yourself. I’ve managed myself my whole life, I run my record label, I’m involved in legal to artworks to all the streaming. So for me, I can go and talk to these guys direct. I can go and talk to Daniel at Spotify and be like ‘Hey, this is what I want to do’.
I think it’s a really good time for artists: you can do everything yourself. It’s not as complicated as it was 15 years ago, or 10 years ago even, when you had to go through all these filters to reach the masses. Now you can reach with social media, you can reach anybody out there.
I always try to tell everybody: don’t sit around and wait. You don’t have to sit and wait for anybody. If you just want to go and pursue something, just go for it because you don’t need anybody now. And I think that’s the beauty of it.
Brian Message: Of course, one of the interesting parts of that is no one’s got a divine right to be successful. So you can have the tools, it’s obviously a lot cheaper now to make a record. You can reach a lot of people all over the world. But you have to be good, and you have to work hard. You have to do all of those things. Just because you can doesn’t mean it’s going to be a successful business.
The parallels now within music are much more like other industries where you’re a startup effectively: you’re going to have to find some capital, you’re going to have to find some fans. That’s a big part of it. There is no right to be successful.
Music Ally: How do we judge streaming’s impact on musicians? When artists talk or tweet about tiny royalty cheques, is that the start of a bigger conversation about how they make their money, and the role streaming plays on that?
Steve Angello: Personally I think the artists should go back and talk to their record labels. The record label still makes 70 to 80 percent of your revenue. So for me it’s different because I’ve always owned my own rights, I always own my masters, and I get 100%. So for me it’s always different.
Most of these guys have a really poor deal with the record label from the beginning, so obviously they’re going to make less money. But at the same time there’s a lot of artists saying ‘hey, streaming is not paying’. But also artists still have their videos up online without getting paid.
So for me, it’s one of those: it usually always falls on a time when they need to market a record, y’know? When they attack the streaming services, because they get a lot of publicity out of it. But for me it’s like, I started making music because I want to create music, I didn’t start making music because I want to make money.
For a lot of these young boy-bands or manufactured groups it’s different, because they were put together to make money, so they’re a money-making machine. So for them it’s different, because they need to make money, because the record label’s invested a lot of money. But for me it’s different: I’m just happy that anybody listens to my music. Sometimes you give stuff away for free, and I do that a lot, so it doesn’t really matter for me.
Brian Message: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just recently with our last Nick Cave project, we very much saw streaming as the language of his business that was going to allow other revenue streams to propagate. And so Nick didn’t do any TV, no promo, nothing in advance. We just used streaming to get to as many people as we can, and off the back of that built his business a bit further up the food chain, at some level. That worked out very very well.
It’s almost the language of that business – I think you made a good point Steve, actually: if you’re an artist signed to one of the major corporations, then you are going to absolutely have a question mark over where’s the money? Because those labels will, on the whole, keep the vast bulk of it. And it’s very difficult to see how you can actually quantify what you’re supposed to be getting.
If you’re working with more contemporary services like Kobalt Label Services or BMG Label Services, you get a much better transparency, and you can see what you’re getting. But overall, I think the streaming thing for us is very much about helping those artists build their businesses.
Music Ally: What about new artists, though? How do you help the early-stage artists you both work with navigate this streaming world?
Steve Angello: For us we go after the money. If we’re a record label, we’ve got to make sure our guys are getting paid. If they have 10m plays, it’s a lot of money for these guys, because they don’t make any money. It’s just about going after it and making sure they do get paid, because every streaming service does pay.
Today it’s really transparent: I can pin down one person in a country that’s listened to my song. With Spotify’s new services that they do, I can go in so deep into it that it’s the most transparent I’ve ever had in the record business. Not even in the vinyl days was I sure about the plant pressing too many vinyls, I had no idea. Now it’s pretty transparent, for me at least.
Brian Message: Look, the streaming thing, what I really like about it: we are in this era where somehow streaming and digital has become more important than radio, which certainly for me and my artists is really great. The thing about radio was you’d take a track – and obviously we still take tracks to radio – but it’s come and gone very quickly. It’s almost like you move on.
Nowadays, if you’ve got a focused track, you launch it and radio is one of the things you want, but the streaming of that track will carry on forever. So you just want to keep working and building and adding more music to it, and building up something that’s interesting. So it’s not just about this promo, promo, radio slog.
Music Ally: Steve, you’ve got a new album coming out soon: how does the way you’ll launch that differ from the pre-streaming days?
Steve Angello: For me this album was different because I put three years into making it, so it wasn’t something that I just wanted to throw out there and be put together for a couple of months. I worked crazy on making video content, and partnering with interesting companies.
I’m having cool launches within the album. Now I’ve decided to split my album and do chapters, where we have a pre-order that releases a couple of tracks. Then we go into a chapter of the album, which is going to be half the album. Then we present six videos, then we go into the second half, then we go with six other videos.
For me it’s just interesting to see what is happening, because kids today are different from what they used to be. We have kids that are spending eight, nine hours a day on their phones on social media. And it’s like if I would read 30 newspapers a day: the information is just flowing really fast.
So for me to split it up, it’s going to make it more interesting for me and the fans, because they can be part of it. And if you’re trying to tell a story today with an album, you need their attention. It’s different, but streaming for me, both downloads and streaming, it’s the evolution of music services.
A lot of people are fighting it, but I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened because [to Brian] like you said earlier, I don’t need radio. And I don’t necessarily make music for the radio all the time. But I can still make the numbers. So for me it’s still really important.
Brian Message: Look, as well from an artist’s business perspective, the album is important from the perspective of the touring cycle. The live business hasn’t changed much: when you talk to promoters and agents they’ll say to you ‘When’s your album coming out? Oh, your album’s coming out? Then we can start planning how you’re gonna play, where you’re gonna play’. And obviously a lot of our business is run off tickets now, because that’s a very profitable part of the business.
But there’s no doubt that the album is still an event. It’s not as massive an event as, say, it was for us in the 90s and the noughties, but it’s still an important event in that business of an artist.
Music Ally: In the pre-streaming days, the marketing was weighted towards selling lots of copies early on. Are we now moving towards more emphasis on getting fans to listen six to 12 months down the line?
Steve Angello: For me I created a lot of content. My album cycle’s nine months. And usually a digital album’s cycle is two weeks. For me I created virtual reality experiences, I built live-streaming apps, and we do concert series, and we do a documentary that’s split into episodes. So I created a lot of these aspects of the content just to drag out the album because I’m trying to tell a story.
For me it’s different now, but at the same time I really miss the old days of marketing where Pink Floyd would release an album and you would just jump right into that world, and it was all you talked about for two years. I miss that, because what the digital world is doing is people’s attention span is so short: people just move ‘next thing, next thing’ all the time. So you’ve just got to drag them into your world.
Brian Message: The visual content thing is key, isn’t it. Going back to the Nick Cave project, one of the things we did when his album came out was we were working on a film project that we knew would come 18 months or two years later. And for everybody in the team, that was an important thing because it gave us a lifespan. It wasn’t just about a front-end then a rearguard action. It was about ‘here’s one bookend and here’s another bookend, and we’ve got to see what we can do across that period’. Again, going back to telling that story.
Music Ally: What does it mean when big artists opt out of streaming, or window their albums from some or all streaming services like Adele and Taylor Swift?
Steve Angello: For me it’s more a publicity thing. People always tend to talk about bigger companies when they’re about to release an album. Because a lot of people talk about it. At the same time, yeah you can stop a couple of stores. I see it as record stores. Why would I not allow a couple of stores to release it?
There’s fans everywhere, and the fans… a 15 year-old might not be able to afford Apple, Spotify, and Tidal and Google. So if you have 15,000 fans at Spotify, why would you limit those guys to hear your music? Us bigger touring artists, we make enough money touring. We should just be happy that people support us, and try to make the best of it.
Brian Message: For me, the big picture of it, it’s an irrelevance. It’s a big news item, it’s a story, it’s an event. And it’s great if that’s what some artists want to do and it’s their principles. Go for it. If their management or their business partners are creating events, that’s fine. I don’t think it has too much of an impact on the real big business stuff.
Music Ally: You’ve both given music away for free – Brian with Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want album In Rainbows, and Steve with a Size Records giveaway through Google Play. What did you learn?
Steve Angello: I think it was incredibly important for me because I wanted to talk about the story of the record label to all these new fans. So by doing that initiative with Google I had an idea of giving out a whole decade of music for free. Which we did for a limited time. I think we had about 700,000 people log in and download the content. We had almost 70m downloads, so that was massive for us.
Music Ally: What about In Rainbows?
Brian Message: The big thing for us that were involved in that project, and doing different business things going forward, is it’s all about trying to find things that are exciting and inspiring. It was never designed to be a business model for the future. It was what was the right thing for that time and got everybody excited. We try and push that, not just in terms of the artists and the creativity that they will have in making their records or making their visual content, but how can the business thing be exciting as well?
If you can keep all that exciting, it’s kinda one thing feeds the other. We see that time and again. The other thing I got out of that was just to keep pushing the boundaries, keep cutting edge, keep driving exciting, inspiring things. For me, one of the interesting parts of where we’re at in the world is that as this artist-fan relationship business becomes more and more the norm, rather than this funnel of supply down a very structured supply chain: with that artist-fan thing going on there’s so much more tech, and so many more different ideas coming into it.
At some level it’s quite difficult to keep up with everything that’s going on. But at least you have those opportunities to pick and choose interesting, exciting things to do. Which all augments what you’re trying to do with creators.
Music Ally: What is the scope for partnerships between musicians and music/tech startups directly?
Steve Angello: Yeah, I work with people all the time. I think those are the most fun collaborations. When it becomes too big, when a tech company goes to a record label or a publisher, it becomes too complicated and it becomes really stiff and strict.
When I work with creatives straight, we can get in a room and we can get ideas together and we can execute on the day if we want to. I think it’s a really good thing to do.
Brian Message: Oh yeah, it’s a melting pot. There’s lots of people, particularly young startup businesses that are trying to push their business forward. So that tie-in with young creators, or any creators is great.
Historically technology and the major rights corporations have had a difficult time, whether that’s a Google and a Universal, or a Sony and a Spotify. But I think at that human being level, music creators and tech creators, it’s a real hotbed.