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Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

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.”

Read the whole article here.

Listen to the podcast here.

In this economy, it’s hard to imagine anyone making thousands of phone calls trying to give money away. But that’s exactly what is happening as Sound Exchange contacts musicians who have earned, but not yet claimed, digital performance royalties.  And they are building their database fast, by tapping into the cloud of musician profiles available online. How cool is that?

Sound Exchange is a performing rights organization undertaking a massive education campaign about the fact that the rights and revenue exist, and how to go about getting the money.  In the past few months alone, thousands of artists have been contacted.

When sound recordings are streamed on the Internet, played on digital satellite radio, or used on cable music channels, the performers on that recording accrue a small royalty. Those digital performance royalties are collected by SoundExchange, who processes logs from services and distributes the payments to artists. Unlike other royalty societies, who collect and distribute only to their members, SoundExchange collects royalties for all performers, then has to locate and register artists so they can be paid.

If you want to get paid, you have to register with them at Sound Exchange. If you think your music has been played on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, Internet radio such as Pandora, Yahoo, Live 365.com and AOL, or on digital cable and satellite TV services like Comcast’s “Music Choice” and DirecTV, you can collect.

The data being collected by today’s digital music companies is being knitted together to connect the dots between online listeners and the copyright holders.  By partnering with CD Baby, ReverbNation, SonicBids, Nimbit and others, Sound Exchange is tapping into the long tail of the market, and rewarding musicians who have online profiles – with cash.

CD Baby says they were notified by Sound Exchange that many of their artists were owed money.  They matched their databases and found that thousands of artists had not registered with Sound Exchange and therefore were not receiving their payments. CD Baby then reached out to these members with the good news.

According to iLike founder Ali Partovi, a database matching effort for artists that had uploaded their information onto iLike found more than $8 million for more than 8,000 artists. According to Partovi, the $8 million was just a first-run effort, and a broader initiative involving MySpace Music remains forthcoming. “MySpace has a much larger database, so we’ll be unlocking even more money.”

To stake your claim visit Sound Exchange, or to send an email to info@soundexchange.com

Many people have asked me to explain the current status of royalty payments for online music.

A thorough discussion of this past year’s agreement on mechanical royalties was produced by my friends at the Future of Music Coalition.

There is also a good summary on the meeting of the Copyright Royalty Board this past fall here.

The royalties that songwriters receive from CD sales and digital downloads will remain the same, the same for both media and the same as the current rate: 9.1 cents per song. The rate for ringtones will increase to 24 cents a song, above even the 15 cents songwriters and publishers lobbied for.

However there is still great unease with the direction that things are headed on the part of online webcasting and streaming music services as they look into the reality of making payments at these levels. Pandora, NPR and others seeking a new structure want rates to be set as a percentage of total revenue, similar to how royalties are assessed for satellite radio or subscription music services. At the very least, they want a system that will favor webcasters big and small.

Webcasters are required to pay an escalating fee to copyright owners every time they play a song for a listener. This year, for instance, Web radio stations are supposed to pay 14 hundredths of a penny ($.0014) per song streamed, per listener; site operators figure that will cost them about 2.1 cents per user, per hour. That is a figure that most webcasters simply cannot afford to pay, since most sites are advertising supported and do not generate enough revenue to pay the license fees and operate their businesses. Read more from All things Digital here.

We will see what happens in the next month or so as things come to a head.