From the Wharton School, an article on the new economics of life for creators and how they will be compensated in the future.
Making a living as an artist has never been easy — whether in film, music or publishing. But the digital revolution — and to a lesser extent, the global economic crisis of the last two years — is transforming the business of content creation. One of the biggest shifts is in how filmmakers, musicians and writers are compensated. There is an evolving relationship between creator and publisher in which the artist bears a larger percentage of the upfront costs for the production and marketing of his or her work. In this new world, artists’ pay is based to a greater degree on how their product sells in the marketplace, a change that has major implications for the content creators themselves, large firms like Hollywood studios and music labels, and consumers.
“In the past, it used to be the case that content creators got paid the bulk of their salary in advance and whoever made that payment — whether it was the music label, the book publisher or the studio — would take on the risk of marketing and distributing that product,” says Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor of operations and information management. “If [the project] was a success, [the publishers, studios, etc.] kept the upside, and if it was a failure, they bore that failure. Now the upside — or downside — is shared with the content creator.”
This shift is largely driven by the move away from shipping physical products toward increasing digital distribution. In music, the threat of digital piracy has made the business of selling songs more challenging, even as the shift from album sales to digital singles has further undermined traditional revenue streams in the music industry. In film, the decline in home entertainment revenues as consumers switch from DVD purchases to online streaming video has also put pressure on profits. And in book publishing and journalism, the move toward e-readers and online news platforms where revenue models are still in flux has created additional uncertainty. The difficulty in predicting the profitability of these products, Hosanagar notes, means that marketers are trying to shift their cost base. “A lot of firms are asking, ‘How do we move from fixed costs to variable costs?'” he adds. “That makes a lot of sense when you have unpredictable returns.”
In the music industry, the pressures on the business model have been even more intense. Ed Pierson, a Seattle-based attorney who represents musicians, says the 1990s were the heyday of big advances for musicians. According to Pierson, easy credit and a war for talent led labels to pay escalating upfront fees to musicians. But as music sales began declining, in part due to piracy and digital downloads that allowed consumers to buy just the songs they wanted and not the entire album, the flush times came to an end. The result these days, notes Pierson, is that labels are making fewer advances and the upfront money they do dole out is smaller.
Artists have responded by taking greater control of their business. “The risk is shifting away from the label and toward the artist,” says David Kusek, chief executive officer of online music school Berkleemusic.com and a digital music technologist. Some big names, including the Dave Matthews Band or the Eagles, have created their own recording labels. Lesser known artists have been forced to become entrepreneurs of sorts. Kusek points to firms like ReverbNation and Top Spin Media that have sprung up to help artists sell their music on platforms like iTunes, to promote a group or artist, or to help sell merchandise. Those firms, in many cases, will charge a small upfront fee and then get a cut of the sales the act generates. “It is a different gamble now,” adds Wharton’s Whitehouse. “The corporate players may be gambling a bit less and the artists may be gambling a bit more. But those artists can now have more control over their work than they did before.”