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UK research on music creators’ digital earnings is out today


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Earlier this week, the British government said that the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) would soon be publishing its report on music creator’s earnings in the digital era. How soon? It’s out this morning!

To be clear: this is very much an exercise in gathering and presenting data, rather than coming down on one side or the other in the ever-heated debate about artists and streaming royalties. It’s a report that aims to inform that debate rather than to lambast major labels, tear a strip off streaming services, or say that everything’s fine and musicians should stop moaning.

“Our main objective is to provide evidence that might contribute to a more informed debate about matters of public concern concerning music creators’ earnings,” as the authors put it.

Naturally, this means the various participants in that debate will scramble to find data in the report that they think supports their views: e.g. that labels should be lambasted or that everything’s fine. Our recommendation is that you settle down with a cup of tea (other cultural brews of choice are available) to read it yourself, and think about its findings.

If we ended this story there, that would be laziness of the highest order, of course! We’ve been reading and thinking too since receiving an advance copy of the report yesterday.

There are some interesting stats on overall earnings. Income for featured artists, non-featured performers and producers were around £220m in 2008 – which the report notes is £296m in 2019 terms – fell to a low point of £200m in 2012 (£238m in 2019 terms) and have since rebounded to around £300m in 2019. Music publishing income for composers and lyricists have grown from £265m in 2008 (£356m in 2019 terms) to £395m in 2019, meanwhile.

See, everything’s fine! But of course (and as the report makes clear) the streaming era has seen this pie divided out in ever-smaller slices: more recordings; more works (and more ‘active’ recordings and works because older catalogues keep earning); more music creators; and on the songwriting side, often more people with credits on the same work.

However, for musicians who earn money from their music, 40% said that their overall income has increased since 2015, 32% said that it had decreased, and 28% said that it had stayed the same. Note the ‘overall’ word there: one of the report’s otehr findings is that for many musicians, recorded music is only a ‘small proportion’ of their earnings.

The concentration data is also worthy of study, with the IPO finding a consistent pattern of the top 0.1% of tracks accounting for more than 40% of all streams; the top 0.4% accounting for more than 65%; and the top 1% accounting for 75-80%. “The top 1% of artists account for 78-80% of streams, and the top 10 per cent for 98 per cent,” added the report.

This is where one of the conclusions trailed by the government earlier this week comes in: that “a sustained achievement
of around one million UK streams per month may be some kind of guide to a minimum threshold for making a sustainable living out of music, at least in cases where UK streams are complemented by non-UK streams and other sources of income”.

(That last bit is important, especially about non-UK streams.)

Consider this in the context of solo performers versus groups, of course: a five-piece band will need more streams than a solo artist for each member to sustain a liveable income. Still, the IPO draws on data showing that 1,723 artists did more than 1m streams in the UK in October 2020 to estimate that around 720 of them may have been British artists. That’s a figure to be conjured with in the coming weeks.

There’s a lot more in the report, including a section on ‘research gaps and avenues for further research’ that hints at some of the no-go areas for this particular study, for which the scope was agreed with an industry steering group – a process that has raised some rumbles of discontent among artist-activists.

We may hear more about that now that the report has been published, but in our view, it’s an important study that deserves to be read widely, rather than simply cherry-picked for the parts that may suit one argument or the other. And while it is focused on one country, there is a lot to learn for anyone engaged in the creator rights debate (and, indeed, the possible future shape of the music industry) across the world.

Stuart Dredge

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