Music Business

Music Streaming Royalty Hacking proves how desperately the system needs to be changed

Glyn Moody of Tech Dirt believes that the music royalty system is unfairly structured and must be amended now in order to truly support artists and creators. Here is how…

Op-Ed by Glyn Moody of Tech Dirt

There’s an interesting story on Wired about “functional music” – things like white noise and brown noise – which is widely available on music streaming platforms. These kind of streams are causing a problem that arises from the fact that the money earned by streaming platforms is allotted in a rather odd way. All the revenues are put together, and then divided up according to an individual artist’s share of the service’s total number of streams. In practice, this means that the subscription paid by someone who only listens to interesting but obscure artists nonetheless goes mostly to the big names in pop music, whose music is listened to millions of times a day.

Because of this revenue division, spam streaming can be highly profitable. Here are some of the tricks that are used, as described by Wired:

They might involve uploads with optimized search names like “Relaxing Music Music Therapy” or “Relaxation, Sound Therapy.” Sometimes, they are songs just long enough, at 31 seconds, to trigger royalty payments. Other times, scammers will upload 10,000 versions of the same track, each with a different artist name. As generative AI becomes more accessible and sophisticated, spamming platforms is only going to get easier.

It’s clearly unfair that these kinds of songs should receive a share of the platform’s revenues based purely on the total number of streams, which is easy to game. But the solution that the French streaming platform Deezer has come up with has its own problems:

Deezer will demonetize the hum of the washing machine and the drone of bot-generated muzak. Additionally, every stream of someone whom Deezer dubs a “professional artist”—those with a minimum of 1,000 streams per month by a minimum of 500 unique listeners—will count for double.

One issue is that Deezer gets to define who is a “professional artist”, but music tastes are notoriously personal. Moreover, it’s quite possible that some people like listening to washing machines or bot-generated muzak – or just avant-garde music that sounds like these things. There’s no reason they should be discriminated against.

The real solution is to adopt a more rational, and fairer, streaming payment system. If artists were paid a fraction of an individual’s subscription according to the percentage of that person’s total streams – not the total streams of all subscribers – then functional music would only be rewarded if people choose to listen to it, and not because it was flooding the system with “songs” that people listened to once, or by mistake. One way to bolster that effect would be to adopt a stepped payment approach similar to that used by Resonate, discussed on Walled Culture back in 2021.

Moving to such a system would be fairer to all musicians, who would be rewarded with non-negligible amounts when even a small number of fans listened to their music, especially if they did so repeatedly and obsessively, as true fans do. It would address the criticism that most artists are paid a pittance by streaming services, which is certainly the case. The main problem here is that most of the money is kept by the companies involved, and that a very small group of high-profile artists receive a disproportionate share of what’s left over.

Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available) explains in detail how that’s not just an issue for music, but is actually a general problem with copyright, where the top 1% capture most of the available money, such as it is. As a result, there is no middle class of creators, only superstars and paupers – another good reason to move to a completely different funding model.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon. Originally posted to WalledCulture.

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