Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Zoë Keating and David Lowery talk streaming, fans and music artists | Music Ally

Besides being musicians, Zoë Keating and David Lowery have been two of the most prominent voices for artists’ rights in the streaming era.

Solo artist Keating has regularly published her streaming income data to further transparency around payouts for artists. She was an early adopter of Bandcamp, went public with her concerns about YouTube’s artist contracts in early 2015, and was one of the first artists to talk about the potential of blockchain technology for music.

Lowery combines his music career (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) with teaching at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, running artist-rights blog The Trichordist – which publishes its own annual table of average per-stream rates – and also filed a class action lawsuit against Spotify on behalf of independent songwriters in late 2015. The lawsuit was settled in 2017.

Earlier this month, Music Ally brought Keating and Lowery together (via Zoom) for a conversation about streaming and artists. Specifically, in the light of recent public discussions about how the model pays off for musicians – #BrokenRecord in the UK for example – how they think streaming could and should improve.

You can watch the full interview – conducted by journalist and music business tutor Joe Sparrow – here, but this article runs through some of the main talking points from the conversation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened some of those discussions around artists’ incomes. “Generally whenever I discuss this topic, there’s a large percentage of people who say ‘Shut up you whiny artist!’. Or it used to be ‘Get out there and tour, sell merch!’” said Keating.

“This [Covid-19] is a terrible thing that’s happening, but one tiny silver lining is that everybody can really see that you’ve just taken away a large percentage of our artist income… Now people can see ‘Oh yeah, maybe this doesn’t work. We need to come up with something’.”

Lowery suggested that many artists had been “distracted” from the payouts debate by touring over the last decade, with revenue from concerts – the same revenue that abruptly crashed this year – offsetting the decline in their income from recordings.

“We used to tour to sort of generate sales of music, and your touring was kinda break-even. You made a little bit of money and the ticket prices were definitely a lot lower,” he said.

“In the digital age, we slowly shifted where we started charging more for tickets, we started playing more shows. And this kind of distracted us, cos in a way it seemed like we were making the same amount of money. Perhaps more money.”

Note ‘seemed’ in that sentence: as Lowery pointed out, the actual profit from touring once the costs were factored in and everyone (crew included) had been paid was not quite as rosy.

“Ultimately as an artist you didn’t really make that much touring, so I’m kind of excited in a way – sort of a perverse way! – that we’re now looking at what the actual recorded music generates, and perhaps we can get back to a healthier, more sustainable system,” he said.

What is a healthier system? For Keating, it’s going to be about strengthening the bond between artists and their audiences.

“Having less middlemen, less people mediating that experience. That’s something that artists are really good at: connecting with people. And sometimes I feel like everything about the digital music industry is designed to sever that relationship, so that other people can take some of the money!” she said.

“It’s only when pressured that services like Spotify have added ways for their users to connect with the artists. They want to keep everybody inside their sandbox, and they don’t want people [in her case] to leave the ecosystem to go to me.”

One thing that the Covid-19 lockdown has done is lead more artists to experiment with livestreaming video, with Keating hailing the sense of a “Wild West” of different platforms and startups, and artists trying to figure out what works best for them.

“I always enjoy it when there’s a lot of different experiments happening and there’s no consolidation yet. I’ve felt a sense of dismay over the last few years as all the services have kind of consolidated into just a few, and that’s when number one, power starts being taken away from those at the bottom, and also it’s sort of boring!”

“The ability to sort of disintermediate again, where we can directly engage our fans and have economic transactions with them and stuff like that, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it whereby there’s a platform, but a larger share of the revenue comes to us,” agreed Lowery.

Both artists are using Bandcamp to put their music out, and approve of the control it gives musicians over that process.

“Yes, it’s a platform, they do take a fee, there’s a lot of artists on there, but you set your own prices and the way that your music is released,” said Lowery, who uses Bandcamp as part of a wider ‘windowing’ strategy: he sells his albums on Bandcamp first, then when they reach a certain age, he puts them on streaming services.

“I’ve windowed, like the movie business! All I’m really doing is what the movie business did,” he said. “I do respect that a lot of labels feel that that’s not right, but I’m telling you it works for me. What I’m getting at is I think there’s not a one-size fits-all solution here, and what we really need is for a hundred flowers to bloom. We need a hundred experiments going on. We need people trying different things to figure out a new way to monetise the music.”

Keating also praised Bandcamp, where the audience she has built over the years helped her to plug the income gap when she had a tour cancelled in the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown. She’d made some live recordings in London last November, and for one a friend had filmed a video of the concert, so Keating put it on Bandcamp for $1 and emailed her mailing list.

“One huge problem we have right now is how do you reach people when Facebook makes it so you can no longer reach the followers in the audience [without paying]. You built that, right? You built those fans and now you have to pay to reach them. All these companies put barriers between me and my audience. And the most powerful thing is my mailing list and Bandcamp,” she said.

“Anybody who has purchased anything or subscribed, they get a message. So suddenly, 15,000 people got a message that I had a new recording for sale, and I just made $5,000! That’s immediate, and that’s real. So I think more things like Bandcamp. There’s still a big gap in livestreaming. I would like to be able to easily do livestreams this way and release them.”

Zoë Keating

Zoë Keating – photo by Sattva Photo

Lowery pointed out that he and Keating are both established artists who’ve built up good mailing lists over their careers, which is what makes this model work. When he talks to younger artists, he doesn’t tell them to keep their music off Spotify (“even though I’m the guy who sued Spotify!”) as he understands why that isn’t really an option for emerging acts.

It illustrates his previous point: “There’s not a one-size fits-all plan out there. And in some ways we fooled ourselves into thinking that streaming is that one-size fits-all. One price, flat price per month, when in actuality different people will pay different things and go jump through different hoops depending on how engaged of a fan they are, and we need to engage some of that more, cos we’re leaving money on the table.”

Keating agreed, saying this is one issue she has with Spotify. “Their model is one-size fits-all for a particular kind of popularity contest, and we’re way more diverse than that, and our fans are way more diverse,” she said.

“I want to capture out of the 10 people listening, one of them is going to really care and want everything, and the other nine might be casual listeners, and you need to be able to reach both of them, and you might reach them in different ways.”

The conversation ranged over YouTube (“Probably at least 40% of all music consumption,” said Lowery. “The big gap here – the value gap is I think what the industry is calling it now – is that YouTube pay so little, depending on which part of their platform it’s as little as one twentieth of what we would normally see…”) and label deals as the pair discussed how musicians’ streaming lot could be improved.

Lowery considered some of the trends around dealmaking for major labels, suggesting that there may be some dangers looming even for those large companies.

“Possibly, because if you’re coming in later once an artist is popular, which seems to be the case – somebody goes viral on YouTube and then you come in later – what does that artist really need? What is the value add?” he said.

“I do think labels signing artists after they’ve gone viral means they’re probably paying a lot more for those artists, and the question of the value add is… it’s questionable, right?”

Some of those questions may also be spurred by artists’ growing knowledge of the tools available to them to reach fans directly, mailing lists and platforms like Bandcamp included. Key to making this work is talking frankly to fans about what supporting an artist financially means for their ability to sustain a career.

When Keating first started releasing music, she realised that her job was “to let people know that I was a real live person with no one representing me… to educate my audience that if they liked my music they could support me, and it goes right to me and it’s not going to anyone in a suit. Unless I wear a suit!”

She admitted that even now, fans who’ve happened upon her music on a digital service can still be shocked by the realities of how she makes money. “There are a lot of people who are very shocked that actually I don’t earn anything from YouTube!” she said.

(Keating recently had a public exchange with YouTube on Twitter, questioning why – with more than 10,000 subscribers to her channel, more than 23k watch hours and 25m views of videos with her music in them, she doesn’t meet its threshold for monetisation. The company’s support team replied saying she didn’t have enough ‘public’ watch hours to qualify.)

Keating and Lowery have also been following the industry discussion about ‘user-centric’ payouts from streaming services, and whether they’d be a fairer way of distributing streaming royalties. Lowery pointed out that many listeners think this is how streaming works already.

“So I think it’s a good idea in that it meets the consumers’ expectations for what they are doing,” he said, before suggesting that it will also be a timely shift for the musicians who need it most.

“Niche artists and middle-class artists, the mid tier of artists, are the ones that are really struggling right now, and they tend to be the ones with the paid fans, and the super fans.” he said – referring to these fans as being most likely to pay for a streaming subscription.

“What you have here is not necessarily that the top artists are suffering. All artists aren’t suffering in the new streaming environment. What you have is the middle tier and the niche artists are suffering. And it’s not really income redistribution, but the money would go to the artists who need it the most, the ones who are creating more of the paid demand. So I’m generally for it.”

Keating would like to see more transparency around streaming payouts, and the wider models, more generally.

“The services, sometimes it’s in their best interests to not have their users know how things work. So one thing I would love to see is discussions, public ones, about how things work now, how they could work, and what systems could we make that would be transparent,” she said.

“The music industry is guilty of keeping things hidden as well… In the music industry a lot of people have a vested interest in appearing larger than you really are, because that’s how deals work… I think the way forward is transparency, as uncomfortable as that might be.”

Will transparency nudge more fans towards directly supporting artists, or at least upgrading from free accounts to paid streaming subscriptions? Lowery isn’t sure.

“A lot of music fans are actually kind of Jacobins! They’re sorta like ‘these rich artists! They’re just making all this money! Yeah, take their money from them, steal their music! So I’m a little more pessimistic that consumers will rally around artists in this way,” he said.

“However, look at all the things like fair trade coffee or ‘we’re a clothing maker and we don’t use sweatshop labour’… It can be done, and I think we certainly should try it” – ‘it’ being enlist music fans in campaigns to boost artist royalties, and support the services who are making the most effort in that direction.

David Lowery

David Lowery – photo by Jason Thrasher

The conversation finished with a discussion of whether governments and regulators could (or should) get involved in the issues around musicians’ income.

“We might actually have a window here right now, because I know the US government is trying to figure out a next round of the stimulus, and there’s a fair number of musicians that I know who have not only got unemployment, but… it’s possible that maybe we could have some sort of stimulus to artists: ‘Hey, we’ll match your streaming revenues’ or ‘we’ll double your streaming revenus’ or something like that for six months. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities,” said Lowery.

Keating suggested that now is the time to continue shouting about the value to wider society of music, the people who make it, and the teams around them.

“Everybody is aware that artists – musical artists, performers – were the first to lose our jobs, and we will be the last to go back,” she said. “I think a lot of people are unaware of the size of our industry. When we go on tour, we put a lot of people to work! People travel to see my shows, people stay in hotels. Restaurants. It’s actually a huge economy, and it’s not respected, and not taken seriously. We quickly give the airlines a bailout, but people would laugh at the idea of giving the entertainment industry a bailout. But wait a minute!”

Keating sees some green shoots here: for example recently-formed lobbying organisations in the US for booking agencies (the National Independent Talent Organization) and independent venues (the National Independent Venue Organization).

“Everybody’s recognising that you need to have a voice, and we need to get a story out,” she said. “That’s the positive thing right now. There is more awareness and more of an opportunity to get a story across that we need some changes.”

Stuart Dredge

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