Islands in the stream

It’s a documented fact that the music industry made a catastrophic error on the issue of downloads, and file-sharing, being ponderously slow to capitalise on the potential for revenue and growth. They were technologically inept, strategically slack and slow to adapt, eventually handing control of the sector to tech giants like Apple who were able to dictate the terms of engagement.  

Having ceded control in this vital area you’d have envisaged them being a bit more alive to the next development and in cutting equity deals with key players in the streaming market you might suggest that they have been. Unfortunately they seem not to have considered the artists. They made the same error in developing CDs but were able to circumvent any great backlash by delivering significant sales. The dramatically slower pace of streaming revenue looks set to cause greater issues with the artist community as those in control of creating the content continue to rebel against their perceived drop in revenues and status.

Artists’ retrospectively bemoaning the content of their recording contracts is far from new news; it’s as old as the industry. Wherever money is involved there is always a degree of mistrust and record company contracts are among the more convoluted documents ever created by lawyers, which must be saying something. Added to this royalty statements are easily some of the most complex forms I’ve ever had the ‘privilege’ of trying to interpret. Only lawyers benefit from scenarios where acts sign an agreement as penniless hopefuls and contest it as successful, widely-known celebrities. These scenarios exist because contracts attempt to cover all eventualities, including developments in distribution which didn’t exist at the time they were written.

We can’t predict the future but we can waste a lot of time in arguing about it, without any resolution. This piece from July 2013 covers a lot of the territory very effectively and this feature gives a good idea for a potential resolution in streamingissues which will never be pursued. There’s a lot of noise and not a great degree of light. What we do know is that there are far too many streaming services already and other major players are rapidly joining the throng. Meanwhile the industry tries to accommodate them all like a drunk gambler backing all the horses in a race or a trick surfer with feet strapped to separate boards as the tsunami approaches.

In 2014 streaming revenues shot up 65.1% bringing in £106 million for the record industry. Boringly it seems that what people streamed was remarkably similar to what they bought. The top ten most streamed tracks in 2014 (compiled by Official Charts Company based on chart-returning audio streaming services) are listed below with their end of year ‘sales’ position in brackets next to them. The top four tracks are identical bar a swap in the top two positions and none of the top ten streamed songs were outside the top 12 in the end of year countdown.

1.            Clean Bandit feat Jess Glynne - Rather Be             (2)
2.            Pharrell Williams - Happy                                         (1)
3.            John Legend - All of Me                                            (3)
4.            Mr Probz - Waves                                                      (4)
5.            Sam Smith - Stay With Me                                       (7)
6.            Ed Sheeran - Thinking Out Loud                              (5)
7.            George Ezra - Budapest                                             (10)
8.            Ed Sheeran - Sing                                                        (11)
9.            Pitbull feat Kesha - Timber                                         (9)
10.          Magic - Rude                                                                (12)

As I stated last week there’s nothing left-of-centre here, nothing remotely exciting or challenging, even though I might find some of them quite difficult to listen to. Artists can argue over their streaming rights and the revenue generated but streaming is not likely to go away, on the contrary it is only likely to rise as physical sales and downloads fall. To take advantage of it at the current time you have to be producing safe, possibly dance-influenced, songs with strong melodies and you have to be releasing them on a major label. It’s even safer-still if you’re a singer-songwriter with a soul influence or can make waves on the euro-dance or chart scene (possibly with a guest vocal) for starters. It’s only one way to read it currently, a glib way possibly but no less true for being superficial or flippant.
If they did distribute revenues in the ways suggested by Sharky it’s likely that the same big acts would still make the big bucks because what’s popular is popular across whatever format or medium. If it stopped the artists moaning it’d be a help though as some of them would be better focussed on improving the state of music generally. Something has to change, though it seems unlikely in the short term – more of which next time.

In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but by perseverance

                                                                                                                                H. Jackson Brown Jr.