How sustainable is music in the streaming age? (#SonarPlusD)


“If you talk about what creators want today, especially young creators, they don’t talk about wanting to achieve platinum record sales, or platinum level streams.”

Allen Bargfrede, associate professor at the Berklee College of Music and director of Berklee’s Rethink Music initiative, was talking at the Sónar+D conference in Barcelona this week, in a panel on sustainability for creators in the digital age.

They talk about wanting exposure. Exposure on YouTube and millions of views… They want people to know who they are,” said Bargfrede, offering a different perspective on the music industry’s current tension with YouTube.

The panel also featured Oliver Franklin-Wallis, associate editor at Wired UK, and Music Ally co-founder and managing director Steve Mayall. It was moderated by digital media consultant Vickie Nauman.

If Bargfrede’s view was that these young YouTube creators sit outside the traditional music-industry ecosystem, Franklin-Wallis took another view.

He suggested that with YouTube turning 10 this year, the fact that there aren’t many YouTubers from 2006 who are still famous today poses a question about the sustainable model of that ecosystem.

“I don’t feel like there’s the space to be supported as an artist for those that just want to sustain themselves,” said Franklin-Wallis, although he was more optimistic about the potential of online fan-culture to generate an income for artists.

The mindset of the industry should be looking at new paradigms, not try and cram the old model into the computer,” he said.

Bargfrede agreed, pointing to increased connectivity between creators and consumers, but warning that the music industry has been slow to build a modern framework for micro-transactions. He suggested that rightsholders have held on too long to the way music was sold in the past.

Mayall offered some stark words on the current wave of industry disruption, noting that the “middleman” – the music business – could be seen as being stripped out. “You could say we’re increasing the connection between artist and fan or you could say we’re decimating the music business,” he said.

He added that the music industry has historically been constantly looking for the “silver bullet” to drive growth as well as “the scapegoat” for its problems at the time: from home taping in the 80s to piracy and now YouTube. “Stop that culture of blame and it’ll improve the outcomes,” he said.

The conversation turned to the prospects for music startups, with Nauman outlining some analysis she’d done that suggested a startup that requires music rights needs £50m to get off the ground with the necessary legal, licensing and development costs.

“So £50m buys you access to the club of losing money at scale?” said Mayall, referring to the losses posted by the big, independent streaming services.

The panel also discussed the question of whether streaming works best for the “1%” of artists – those at the top of the music chain – but not for other music-makers.

“How many streams do you need to qualify for an album sale? 1,500? Those economics only work if you’re doing Taylor Swift numbers so it makes incredibly difficult for artists to break into those other tiers,” said Franklin-Wallis.

Mayall looked forward five years to a point where potentially there are a few massive streaming platforms – most owned by big technology companies whose core businesses are outside music – with a shrinking ‘middle class’ of musicians below the top tier.

We’re not a developing market we’re a regressing economy… and that’s rather depressing,” he said, before brightening up at the prospect of the music industry working more cooperatively and collaboratively with new technologies, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence.

Bargfrede also talked up the potential for the Berklee-led Open Music Initiative, which was announced earlier this week. He suggested that bringing the recorded-music community together to set standards and protocols, particularly around rights and data issues, will fuel such collaboration. “We’re really excited about it,” he said.

Kriss Baird

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