Everyone’s getting the music streaming business wrong

Tony Wagner Jul 23, 2015

Taylor Swift picked a pretty big fight this summer. No, not that one.

The pop megastar took on Apple over allegedly skimping on royalties during Apple Music’s free trial period, and got the company to change its tune. This wasn’t the first time Swift and others had spoken out about low royalty payments from music streaming services like Spotify, from which she pulled her catalog last year. Meanwhile, Spotify argues it has paid out over $2 billion in royalties.

But a new report from the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship says these squabbles miss the point. In fact, there are a bunch of other players, complex accounting and backroom deals that stand between the royalties services pay out and the artists’ paychecks.

“We were trying to figure out what exactly happens in the value chain from the minute I [listen] to music, to the minute the creator on the other end gets paid,” says Allen Bargfrede, Berklee associate professor and one of the authors of the report.

Berklee has launched a new initiative, Rethink Music, to untangle all the streams of money, dispel misconceptions about the business and propose more transparency. Let’s do the numbers:

70 percent

That’s the portion of revenue the iTunes store and streaming services pay out in royalties. It’s tempting to think of per-stream royalties — often a fraction of a cent — as piddly contrasted with a 99 cent song or $9.99 album, but you can’t really compare the two business models. The report notes someone could easily stream a song enough times to generate far more in royalties than they would have ever paid to own it. As streaming grows, what’s more important is the way businesses split revenue, Bargfrede says.

“They’re still paying 70 percent of their revenue, so what do you expect them to do? Do you expect them to pay 140 percent of their revenue, so you’re getting twice as much? Twice as much would still be a fraction, maybe a penny or two,” he says. “What exactly can a digital service do beyond what they’re already doing, and waiting for the market to grow?”

Digital music revenues in the U.S.


That’s about how many streams of royalty revenue a single song can have, according to music data company Kobalt. That’s all the internet and terrestrial radio stations, streaming services, digital music stores, physical sales, licencing and so on. As more music becomes available online and services start paying royalties by-the-stream instead of by-the-sale, the amount of micro-transactions increases exponentially, Bargfrede says, and it’s harder for the existing technology to keep up with all that information.

68 cents

That’s the portion of a $9.99 monthly subscription to a streaming service actually makes it to artists, according to the Berklee report, and all told, labels keep about 73 percent of royalties from streaming. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story.

Here’s the rub: those royalties are passed down a line of rights groups, publishers or third-party distributors before they make it to the label and then the artist. These players are supposed to divvy up the royalties companies like Spotify are paying out, which is complicated; the composition and recording are usually two separate copyrights, or there might be several co-writers or publishers. All the agreements dictating those payments are secret, and researchers found that royalty statements were difficult to parse.

Bargfrede says Rethink Music got a hold of one statement from a “platinum-selling artist” signed to a major label and traced back the average royalty rate per stream, but it’s difficult to know how accurate those numbers are if a sizable chunk of royalty payments don’t make it to artists at all.

$42.5 million

That’s the advance royalty payment stipulated by a 2011 contract between Sony and Spotify that leaked this spring. According to the Berklee report, if royalty payouts add up to less than an advance, it’s typical for labels to pocket the remainder. And that’s not the only way royalties get stuck in between services and artists.

When streaming services or rights organizations don’t know where to distribute royalties, they’re put in a “black box” account that’s eventually paid out to labels according to market share. 

How could rights groups not know whom to give royalties to? Songs are often not registered in a consistent way, and sometimes titles are incorrectly translated, Bargfrede says. The disconnect could come down to a simple spelling issue — the difference between “Beyonce” and “Beyoncé.”

Some have pushed for standardizing codes assigned to each composition and recording to more easily distribute royalties, but the report notes these standards — along with better technology for tracking royalties — haven’t been widely adopted yet.

“There are a lot of things that could be fixed here, and there’s a lot of foot-dragging,” he says. “You’re looking at a legacy business that’s decades old, and it takes time to adopt new technology. But it’s time to say, ‘OK lets march forward, we need to do this,'” Bargfrede says.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.