The world of song royalties has always boggled me. Did you know that a “recording artist” (the singer and musician you actually hear) isn’t paid anything for “public performances” of a song on terrestrial radio (AM/FM), TV, or in bars and restaurants? The theory is that song plays help make songs popular, which then drives album sales, tour bookings, and merchandise, which earns the performer money. There’s certainly some truth to that. During the old “payola” scandals of the past, people were accused of taking money in return for more airplay, which tells you something about how valuable it is.
On the other hand, the “songwriter” (the one who wrote the lyrics and music) and the “publisher” (the record company) get paid on both public performances and on album sales. If you never understood why John and Paul were ultra-rich and George and Ringo were not much more than famous, look no further than this dynamic. George and Ringo were (mostly) just players in the band and didn’t get paid for airplay, whereas John and Paul wrote the music and earned money for everything the Beatles did.
The model has changed slightly in modern years. Internet and satellite radio aren’t considered “public performances,” according to the law, and so there is some money paid for performances in these venues. The money is still low and biased toward driving real revenue through album sales, however. But Internet “radio” changes the model completely. Whereas terrestrial radio could help drive a song and might give you broad geographic information about where a song was popular, the Internet can tell you exactly who is listening.
Recently, one composer and performer, Zoë Keating, a cellist, has called for access to the big data behind those Internet song plays. Zoë cares far less about the revenue earned through plays (and even shows you what she’s making). She knows that the real money is in the big data:
I want my data and in 2012 I see absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t own it. It seems like everyone has it, and exploits it…everyone but the creators providing the content that services are built on. I wish I could make this demand: stream my music, but in exchange give me my listener data. But the law doesn’t give me that power. The law only demands I be paid in money, which at this point in my career is not as valuable as information. I’d rather be paid in data.
For the first 6 months of 2012, I calculate I had more than 1.5 million listens on Pandora, for which I received $1652.74. That seems great on the surface and I’m grateful for the extra money, but I want to know: Do these listeners also own my music? How many of these listens are on Zoë Keating stations? What other user stations do I pop up in, and sandwiched between what other artists? How many listeners gave me a “thumbs up”? How do I reach them? Do they know I’m performing nearby next month? How can I tell them I have a new album coming out?
The new model says that in the future I’m not supposed to sell music: I’m supposed to sell concert tickets and tshirts. Ok fine, so put me in touch with the people who will buy concert tickets and tshirts (p.s. I’d like the same from on-demand services like Spotify too).
And that’s the real crux of the issue. If artists can connect with their fans, they’ll make more money. And the connections are in the data of who listened to what. Further, it’s in things like repetition numbers, ratings, favorites and “Likes” associated with each artist and song. The music world has always been about merchandising and marketing, but in the past it was done on a very coarse granular scale. The mega-stars got really rich and the rest of the artists labored in obscurity. But the Internet is providing access to artists who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get big recording contracts or mainstream terrestrial airplay. As Zoë says in her blog, “In short, I think I’m solving my obscurity problem, so now what?” Access to the data can allow Zoë and other artists to connect with those smaller but growing fanbases and merchandise them as much as possible.
It’s a different model, where the performance money is worth less than the data generated by it.