This is a guest post from Marc Brown, founder of audio sharing platform Byta. Recently, the company published a whitepaper that examines how the music ecosystem shares digital audio files and streams. We asked him to give his personal thoughts on some of the findings on a section of music industry infrastructure that may have wider-reaching consequences than it initially appears.
I am going to make a claim most of you will think is very controversial: artists getting paid is not the biggest problem in the music ecosystem today, music sharing is.
First, I will briefly summarise why this is the case. Then I will focus on the most important insights we gleaned from researching and releasing “The State of Music Sharing 2021”, the first-ever whitepaper on the subject.
Music creation and distribution has been democratized, or one could even say, commoditized. Gone are the days of recording studios and shipping records to distributors for selling-in to individual record stores. Now anyone can use a multitude of apps to create, mix and master their tracks and distribute them to all the major platforms with the click of a button.
It would be hard to argue that the future we now live in is not a good thing. Many would say that the access streaming platforms have delivered has come at a cost: that they don’t pay artists fairly. I am not here to debate that fact one way or the other. What I am here to tell you is that how much artists might get paid isn’t really the problem. Most artist’s music is never even listened to, and generates no revenue; even 100% of 0 streams is still $0.
I am not highlighting anything new. Just last year Music Ally’s own Stuart Dredge wrote that over half of the tracks on Soundcloud are never listened to. This challenge is not platform specific either. The root of the problem is a statistic Spotify’s Daniel Ek mentioned in 2019; that 40,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day. As of February 2020 that number increased to 60,000, a new track uploaded to Spotify every 1.4 seconds. Getting your track released is easy, getting it listened to is harder than ever.
As the founder of Byta, I think about music discovery all the time. So much so that we launched our non-profit educational arm, #HowWeListen, specifically to highlight the nuanced challenges artists and their teams face when trying to negotiate the music ecosystem.
Another group of people who regularly think about music discovery are those who help promote new music more than most. The media; writers and djs, highlight the best music in print, online and on the radio (yes, still very important!). Even just a few weeks ago a well known UK music writer was wondering if artists knew just how difficult labels make it for the media to listen to music they are trying to help support. Again, this is not a new problem. The transition to digital has been a struggle for anyone who has to try and manage the deluge of files and streams delivered every minute of every day.
One such writer is Shawn Reynaldo, who aside from writing for some of music’s best publications also pens the great First Floor substack. We started hanging out on Zoom during the pandemic and quickly realised that we saw a lot of the same challenges around digital audio playing out over and over again. The result of those conversations is Shawn’s three article series for Byta’s blog called Digital Blues: The Day-to Day Challenges of Music Sharing, highlighting how the challenges around music sharing are both common and deeply impact music discovery.
Having worked in music for so many years, some have been quick to say that what I see is only a niche problem. A problem only felt by a select few in the music industry, and not by the broader music ecosystem. However, we know this is a problem affecting the whole music ecosystem. This is why we decided to research the first ever report on music sharing.
I for one had many hypotheses about what we would find. Dr. John Sullivan who holds a Ph.D. in Music Technology, from McGill University in Montreal, conducted the research to ensure unbiased findings. We also asked Shawn Reynaldo to write the finished paper to make sure that we framed the results in a way that was both scientific and readable at the same time.
Here are the key findings from Byta’s “The State of Music Sharing 2021” report. I’ve included quotes from the paper along with a few of my own comments.
Security and metadata rank high on the list of user priorities
“Frustrations regarding metadata tend to rile up more emotional responses than nearly every other issue.”
Part of the problem is technical: nearly all the platform’s mentioned do not support any form of reading and writing of file metadata. There is also a knowledge gap on the user side. Since most knowledge around audio file best practices is shared informally, bad habits, or no habits at all, are the norm. This is not just a problem that exists within the traditional music industry, who have been slow to learn digital best practices. From speaking at schools I can see that newer generations entering the music ecosystem also lack core knowledge.
Concerns around security are not a surprise either. These concerns reflect the wider public’s worry about operating online. Our qualitative one on one interviews reflected this, those rating security as a concern in our survey were unable to specifically point to any specific threats.
Recipients want what they want
“In the streaming vs downloads debate, there is no correct answer. Although preferences may be shifting, entrenched camps specifically need either streams or downloads.”
I believe this point is the key finding of our research. This is the main frustration from the media and broader music industry who are, granted, at the sharpest edge. Yet everyone has the same problem, as evidenced by the fact that our respondents skewed more towards artists and less industry. This further confirms the music sharing’s broad effects.
I would like to emphasise that I have always seen music sharing challenges as a social problem. The woeful technical innovation in music sharing, especially for those within the music industry, is partly to blame for the streaming vs download debate. However music is very social and that extends to music sharing. A lack of focus on communicating about what the recipient needs to make listening easier affects music discovery. This is especially frustrating for those in the media but also hinders collaboration long before audio is widely shared.
Flexibility is important, but functionality is an even bigger priority
“Faced with a complex and ever-changing file-sharing landscape, simplicity is what users crave most. This is why loyalty to a single file-sharing platform is impossible, particularly when most users are both sending and receiving files on a regular basis.”
This insight reinforces my lack of innovation argument while highlighting that more features are not the solution either. Anyone sending and receiving digital audio files and streams wants what we all want in today’s digital world, simplicity. This leads to what I believe is our other key finding: survey respondents use, on average, 4.8 different platforms and services for sending and receiving digital audio. I would suggest this mirrors the wider messaging environment from Whatsapp to Messenger and iMessage.
One question I will leave you with is why has it taken so long for anyone to report on this foundational element of music discovery? Most of our findings reinforce what most of us already know; that music sharing is still a massive mess. Byta’s goal in releasing this research is to initiate a conversation about what we already know to be a problem.
Maybe the first step is to ask those you collaborate and work with: “what can I do to make your listening experience easier?”.
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