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One of the smaller points in the Spotify fund-raising piece in the FT that flashed around the globe Tuesday was mention of a “strategic partner” in the wings. This was widely interpreted to mean a record company. Some might have raised an eyebrow and wondered why a single record company would wish to take a piece of Spotify when it’s widely acknowledged that only when a service can offer all the content from all the labels can it be said to be in a position to offer a meaningful consumer offering (niche and genre-specific takes aside). These days however, Universal appears to be flying in the face of that truism by going alone in its recently announced services with both Virgin and Orange. Perhaps having such a high share of the UK market gives them that confidence. Music Week reported earlier this month Universal has currently 44.5% of the UK album market and 46.5% of the singles. As the FT argues, having a record label on board might allow the company to negotiate lower royalty rates. Artists signed to such a label might begin to query the value of such a deal to them however.
So might this “strategic partner” in the wings be Universal? Well earlier in the year, around the time of Spotify’s launch, rumours swirled around the industry about the cost and terms of Spotify’s licenses with the major record labels. Estimates from between £4m and £7m have been bandied about as the amount they had to pay in upfronts to the majors to achieve their slam-dunk comprehensive license pack. Hence perhaps the need to raise substantial sums again so early on. If that weren’t crippling enough, a new and sophisticated deal option was rumoured too. In the early naughties, taking some equity in start-up music companies as well as charging upfront royalty fees was common practice. I like to think I helped pioneer such deals during my time in Los Angeles with EMI. It was therefore widely assumed that the majors had repeated this practice in the case of Spotify. But, it was also alleged that the majors had created a ‘put option’ in their deals that would allow them to cash in their shares in the event that the company’s valuation reached a certain threshold. Such an option would be attractive to both sides since it would motivate the labels to collaborate with Spotify to increase its valuation and help Spotify by incentivising the labels to help Spotify and not some of its competitors.
If the magic number was $200m then it might just be that this new round of investment is accompanied by a more significant re-jigging of the ownership of Spotify with several labels seeking to cash in and help their suffering bottom lines, while one or two others choose to enhance their holding position. One of the great advantages of cashing out in such a manner to the labels would be that no artists would need to be paid since the revenue came from the labels’ aggregated position not through individual performances. Of course, until the day when Spotify goes public (something of a distant prospect in this market) we may never know. How any of this plays into Apple’s thinking about Spotify’s iPhone app is hard to fathom – if indeed Apple are aware of this dimension at all.
And from the perspective of a large record label, what real value would building up a single player like this bring in the long term? It is often argued that if one record company were to take some ownership in a big market-dominant player, then the other competitor labels would never play ball and would support a competing player. But that was an argument made in the days when one major label didn’t control almost 50% of the market. So this begs the larger question, as the architecture of the music industry continually evolves and reshapes, what path should a record company take in the digital arena and how does it achieve its mutation from a recording and marketing business to a digital relationship management company? How fast can one company alone, get ahead of the rest of the industry before the others catch up? As the speed of change increases so, it would seem, does the opacity of the game. As Mr Grainge, Chairman of Universal Music, said to me recently with a twinkle in his eye: “Oh, I’m very, very opaque”.
As he stood in the Royal Society of Arts’ Great Room, adorned by James Barry’s celebrated paintings The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture on the upper walls, I wondered whether Stephen Carter’s work had afforded us any real progress in either knowledge or culture. The final Digital Britain report feels more like the usual mangled series of ongoing compromises that has lost the pioneering innovation edge that the debate around the interim report suggested it might at one point have aspired to. The news of his imminent departure from government doesn’t do much to encourage confidence.
One of the key messages coming out of the final Digital Britain report was that Lord Carter would like to see Ofcom given further powers to implement technical means to reduce file-sharing and prevent online piracy. There are a number of serious concerns about this which need to be addressed.
Carter’s views on an approach to file-sharing are worth exploring. At one point during the launch, he explained that he saw a spectrum of views on file-sharing which he described as having, at one end, the “nay sayers who believe that nothing can be done about it and so let’s just move on and those that believed it is morally wrong and who want something done to prevent it.” Carter positions himself firmly at the latter end. But, and I quote Carter again “let’s try to be rational about this as opposed to irrational which is so often the British way.” Indeed.
The spectrum Carter depicted is a confused one. There is a moral spectrum which at one end has liberatarians and others who believe in a highly extended version of “fair use” and a notion that file-sharing without remuneration is acceptable – and at the other end those that think that file sharing is morally wrong and should not be allowed. Of course, if a creator says “share my files freely – I don’t mind” then there can be no moral wrong. If he or she is silent on this matter which mostly they are because they’re all as confused about this as the rest of us, then we enter the terrain of debate.
The moral question is quite separate from the technical one which has its own spectrum of belief. At one end sit those who say “copying of digital media may be slowed but never prevented” and at the other end of the spectrum are those who say “it must be stopped and we will find stringent technical means to do so.” But of course the more morally outraged you are, the more you are prepared to invest in seeking technical solutions and going head to head with rational scientists who say it can’t be done.
There is a third spectrum of opinion to line up here too – the commercial spectrum. At one end of this spectrum sit those who say “file-sharing is really helpful, it is promotional and people who file-share often spend more on digital media than those who don’t”. Their motivation to seek preventative measures is clearly quite low. At the other of the commercial spectrum are those who say: “This is theft and it is damaging our business because file-sharing is substituting for sales and therefore must be stopped.” Their motivation is quite high.
I’ve tried to express this debate in a simple graphic:
I’m more than happy to have anyone who wants to elaborate on this. I have tried to maintain its simplicity for the sake of clarity, but really I ran out of dimensions. After all, you may well believe, as I do, that file-sharing is immoral but not believe that it damages businesses particularly badly or that preventative measures are technically feasible. Equally, you might feel as many kids do today that it’s not morally wrong, it does no-one any harm and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
Lord Carter’s high moral belief in this is of course in tune with the times. We are entering a new era of economic austerity, but also of high moral outrage brought on in the UK by both our bankers and our members of parliament. Illegal file-sharing sits on the other side of the table from the bankers and MPs’ scandals. Here is a proud and venerable industry, which would never dream of engaging in any kind of behaviour contractual or otherwise that people might think of as “immoral”, which has suffered unwarranted and crippling blows arising from the “wrong and immoral” behaviour of hundreds of thousands of consumers. The music industry maintains proudly that illegal file-sharing is 95% of the activity out there and that is why they have lost so much value. The fact that hard disc sharing, blue tooth sideloading, and simple e-mailing of mp3’s is likely to equal if not exceed the amount of material that is file-shared does not enter the argument. The moral argument is in tune with the zeitgeist but it ignores its own complexity. What do we say of the student who downloads 15 albums but doesn’t listen to any of them? What of the student that downloads two albums and then goes and buys the CDs afterwards?
When the Digital Britain report refers to the prevention of “egregious offenders”, what does it mean and how will we know an “egregious offender” when we see one?
I have two concerns about the proposed provision of further powers to Ofcom. The first is about privacy and the second is about the consequences of these actions.
In relation to privacy we are facing some of the most complex tensions of opportunity and challenge. The capabilities of companies like Detica to carry out deep packet inspection (DPI) and see almost anything that they want flying across a network are troublesome to civil liberties and privacy. This kind of company is employed by our national security services to spy on potential militants, agitators and forces of evil intent. Should we feel comfortable that such powerful probes should be deployed against consumers and fans of music or TV shows too? If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear comes the old reply – but if in the dystopia of Orwell’s 1984 it didn’t make Winston Smith feel too comfortable – why should we feel any different? At the same time, of course, the power and sophistication of data processing and analysis could have immense benefits for contextual advertising and content discovery. If only Phorm hadn’t screwed up their opt in opt out procedures so badly we might all be feeling better about this end of the spectrum.
The second concern is about consequences. The folk at Pirate Bay have allegedly already launched their encrypted paid for service which will enable all their users for a small fee, to render all their transactions anonymous and impenetrable. That suddenly places teenagers and students in a far more dangerous kind of environment where much more seditious material is likely to be flying around and showing up unexpectedly in search results, etc. It’s precisely the kind of environment we would really have considerable social and security concerns about, but it would be much less easy to control or supress.
So we do live in a troubled time where the positions on these different axes do not point to clear or simple solutions. Many artists feel highly conflicted in discussions of this kind. They do not wish to see the very fans with whom they are trying to develop longterm relationships, turned into criminals for listening to their music. At the same time, they feel very strongly that work they have produced should not be exploited for profit by anyone who is not contracted to them in some way.
My personal belief is more carrot and less stick. The development of businesses that can attract customers with delightful services that are a pleasure to use will be the real way to win this struggle, not by giving more government agencies even more draconian powers to spend tax payers money on technical measures that will only serve to divide us further from each other and send our children into deeper darker undergrounds. We need to continue lobbying against the recommendations in Digital Britain – a lot more balanced thinking is required here about how to encourage the true potential of digital UK .
“The degradation of the quality image is the only thing I fear from the digital age.” (Frank Stella, artist)
“How do you value consciousness?” (Frank Stella)
“Artists are lazy but they are capable of being mobilized. But they won’t organise around financial things but more about moral protests and causes.” (Frank Stella)
“In 1967, I turned up at A&M Music in a stolen car. I looked like a kid until you put me next to a real kid. Then I looked like a kid with a hangover.” (Paul Williams, songwriter)
“The Internet is like a supermarket shopping bag with all the things in it for free too.” (Milos Forman, film director)
The Featured Artists Coalition got off to a roaring public start this week. I had the honour of presenting the first general meeting of the organisation and introducing the key speakers Billy Bragg, Ed O’Brien, Kate Nash and Dave Rowntree. They each spoke from their individual experience and with great personal passion about how much freedom they felt in being able to create their own direct relationships with their fans and audiences, and make their own decisions about how to release their work. The meeting started with this video and it was clear that they each felt the incredible degree of change in the world has to be a source of excitement and opportunity for forward-thinking artists. The FAC is a reflection of that.
No one knows yet exactly where the focus of this new organisation will be exactly or what direction it will take, but the vibe in the room at Heaven was energised and hugely optimistic. There was a real sense that this was a historic moment in the development of the music industry, that this was the day when artists finally were acknowledged as being at the centre of the industry – and not a peripheral asset to be bargained down and exploited – the day when the record companies joined the ranks of suppliers to the artists – alongside collecting societies, publishers, digital delivery platforms, social and mobile network operators – and even gasp – managers!
Of course, the range of opinions among different artists about how to respond to technological and business challenges will be as diverse as are the artists themselves. But the underlying principles of a desire for transparency and for fair-dealing in the commercial aspects of making and selling music – and the desire to maintain personal ownership of their creative output – are incredibly strong unifying factors which bind together the interests of new and established acts.
There were unsigned bands who expressed real concerns: “If we sign up for the FAC, will that put our relationship with a major label under threat?” asked one new act about to sign a recording deal with a major. From the organisers of the FAC that was certainly not the intention and by the sounds of the welcoming comments from the BPI, it was not the view of the labels either. But there was also a real hunger for guidance and advice on a wide range of topics from navigating the digital landscape to contract reviews to advice on selecting a manager. The arrival of the FAC will be a tremendous enlightening and progressive force in the industry and should quickly be able to get to a point when it can act as an authoritative guide and give bands a chance to take a step back and reconsider their options. The FAC has the opportunity t0 offer real advice on approved alternatives to artists so that they can make informed choices about whether they want to sign to a label, go via digital distributor platform or set up their own site to sell to their fans.
Much has been said too about how the FAC will negotiate rights for its members and seek to take a seat at the table with the major players when deals are being struck. It will be interesting to see how the strengths of the organisation can be directed to best use in this area. Some companies like Myspace Music have been cautious in their response to first soundings, while others like Nokia welcome the direct involvement of artists and the creative community in what they’re doing.
There is lots of work for the FAC steering committee to do right now, including hiring a staff to turn these aspirations into reality. So wish them well on this journey, music should be the better for it!