Why Rishi Sunak is both wrong and right

Earlier this week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak suggested that creatives such as musicians who had seen income dry up during COVID-19 should consider retraining for the new ‘opportunities’ the lockdown economy is generating. 

The principle makes sense from an economic perspective, but it is just that – an economist’s solution to a cultural problem. A guitarist becoming an Amazon van driver or a Just Eat courier will certainly have the desired economic output (i.e. more economic productivity), but the cultural damage is potentially irreparable. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is throwing in the towel after the first round of the fight. 

A quick lesson from history

Culture is one of the most important outputs of society and the more developed a society is, the more it normally invests in that culture. A brief overview of history illustrates the point. The Roman Empire, one of the first great civilisations, was focused on warfare and expansion. It spawned some famous philosophers and orators, as well as great art (sculpture and mosaics especially). Yet warfare was the defining trait of the empire, and so the majority of the great figures we remember are the military generals and emperors. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in the same Italian peninsula and we had the Renaissance, ironically rediscovering the lost art techniques of the ancients. Although Italy in this period was dominated by warfare, and although there are no shortage of generals and petty princes to fill the history books, it is the art and culture that the period is best known for. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are the great names of this era. There was no structured art marketplace, however; instead, rich benefactors (bankers, princes, generals) patronised them, subsidising their art. They did so often in the hope of immortalising their own names, but instead immortalised the artists. Art does not always pay for itself. Sometimes it needs a helping hand.

Small venues create national economic output; virtual ones may not

Now to be clear, I am not advocating that music should become state subsidised. Nor am I comparing the musical output of a bedroom musician with that of a renaissance master (though Kanye does think that he is ‘unquestionably’ an even better artist than even those Italian greats). The lesson to learn from history here is that in tough times, society benefits from supporting culture. If small music venues continue to fall like flies,smaller and emerging artists will be bereft of real-world places to perform and to build audiences. The music market will stagnate with new talent having one more hurdle to success put in its way. Live streaming will pick up some of the slack and may even become a valuable alternative for many artists. For the UK government, however, that will mean swapping the economic output of UK venues for that of predominately American technology platforms. That economic output will leave the UK economy – and at a time of trade uncertainty leading up to Brexit, to lose music, arguably the UK’s most culturally renowned global export over the last century, would be a weighty hit.

Artists need to experiment and innovate now more than ever before

This is bigger than national economic protectionism, and it is certainly bigger than the UK. To use that horrible management consultant phrase: change is difficult. We are cursed and blessed to live in interesting times. Technology has changed the recorded music business beyond recognition; now, because of the pandemic, technology is going to accelerate change in the live business as well. This process may be difficult, and it may be long, but it will result in a differently shaped music business in the mid-term future. Artists have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to innovate and experiment. Before COVID-19, live, merch, recording and publishing were – in varying degrees – the majority of the revenue mix for most artists. Live is unlikely to return to anything resembling normality until 2022. From this moment on, then, artists need to experiment with new models, new ways to engage with audiences and to generate income – whether that be writing for other artists on Soundbetter, making sound packs on Splice or Landr or selling digital collectibles via Fanaply. Artist income is more varied and sophisticated now than it was 10 years ago. The reality is that this trend is going to accentuate both in the lockdown economy and post-pandemic. 

However, new models take time to become viable. In this interim stage, if there is a role for state support, it is to provide artists and songwriters with the financial support and technical and business training to enable them to be winners in this new creative paradigm. Rishi Sunak was wrong to suggest that artists should retrain out of music. But he was right that they should retrain. They should retrain from being artists of the 2010s to artists of the 2020s, and that is where he should be providing support.

Independent artist creativity and innovation in the age of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the music industry upside down in many ways but among the direct artists community there have also been signs of resilience and creativity in the face of adversity. For these ‘unsigned’ artists, 2020 is both the best of times and the worst of times. 

Self-releasing artists are not bound by industry promotional cycles, and in many cases, today’s artists must not just create their music but ‘sell it’ as well. If you have the drive to create music there is very little stopping you from writing, recording, producing and indeed releasing that music. All the tools and platforms are available. 

It’s been a boom year for music making – from record Fender guitar sales to yet another peak in streaming demand. Yet there’s never been a tougher time competitively—with 40,000 tracks released daily, cutting through the clutter is a very real challenge. The age of ‘create it and they will come’ never really existed, but today’s music market started to obliterate the notion completely and COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for the changes that were already taking place.

For MIDiA’s latest independent artist survey report in partnership with artists services and distribution company Amuse, we interviewed 346 artists around the world during the heart of lockdown to get a unique view of how the crisis is affecting artists. What we found was anxiety mixed with aspiration and creativity. The full report is available for free here but we’ve pulled out here five key themes for artist success:

1 – A sector with real scale: Artists direct (i.e. those without record labels) generated $873 million in 2019, up 32% from 2018. These independent artists represent the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business, a segment of global scale with real impact and influence. They are also more streaming native than label artists.

2 – Lockdown was a unique creative window: Nearly 70% of independent artists took the opportunity in lockdown to spend more time writing or making music, and a further 57% created more content for social media. Artists took full advantage of being away from the spotlight and the treadmill of promotion, to dive back into their creative spaces and make new music. In terms of releasing music, artists were split – with 46% releasing more music, but 40% putting projects on hold.

3 – Collaboration: 36% of independent artists reported working more on collaborations during lockdown than before. Music is becoming more of a collaborative undertaking than ever before and a whole ecosystem of digital tools and services is emerging to meet growing artist demand, providing more structured and networked process than many labels ever can. An unintended consequence of lockdown is that it has compelled more artists to explore ways of doing remote collaboration and many of these new learned behaviours will persist beyond the pandemic. A new way of making music is being born.

4 – Independent artists need side hustles like never before: Artists need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentumFor independent artists, streaming is their primary source of income at 28%. Live revenue is second at 18% (which means they are less exposed to lockdown’s impact than established label artists). But the key for today’s artists is to make revenues from multiple sources including publishing, teaching, session work, sponsorship and merchandise. Artists’ need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentum. The number of artists offering online tuition has grown hugely during the pandemic, as has artists selling their old kit. Additionally, artist skill platforms will only grow as the number of aspiring creators grows, and, as with live streaming and making sound packs, is yet another revenue stream for artists. Artists are small entrepreneur businesses. They need four or five income streams to get off the ground.

5 – Marketing IQ is becoming key: Half of all direct artists do their own marketing, with one third managing their own marketing budget, but less than one in five are working with a distributor or label on marketing activities and 40% spend nothing at all on marketing. Artists are self-reliant but still inexperienced with marketing and most are not making the most of the tools available. While almost two-thirds of artists are using Spotify For Artists, few of them are using any other marketing related tools. The independent artist must know that marketing is about research, experimentation and persistence and is even more important for independent artists that do not have labels to do this work for them.

Making and marketing music is both getting easier and harder at the same time. Easier because artists can be in control: releasing music when you want to, growing and using social media, seeking out like-minded artist collaborators and sponsors, not having to rely on paymasters or gatekeepers. Easier also because artists can go global right from the beginning. 

On the other hand, the road to a career is longer and possibly never ending. The gap between artist and fan, creator and consumer is narrowing. Equipment makers are having a boom year, and one of the many things people have done with more time on their hands is fulfil their passions. So, for aspiring independent artists, a whole new wave of competition has arrived in the form of talented amateurs, armed with the tools and the time to make their own entertainment. 

The independent artist sector had another boom year in 2019 and the early signs are that it has not only weathered the COVID-19 storm but has made the best of a bad situation, seeing lockdown as an opportunity to create, experiment and innovate. Which should not surprise us, as after all these are some of the defining characteristics of one of the most important and exciting elements on the modern music business. Pathfinding through the pandemic requires innovation and patience and it looks like the direct artists sector has plenty of both. 

Why Kanye West is the modern-day Prince

Not ‘prince’ in the Machiavellian sense of the term – though there is an argument for that too – but as in the artist formerly known as. Back in 1992, Prince fought his label Warner Bros to get ownership of his rights and more creative control, struggling to get out of a deal he signed when he was 19 and had since decided was unfair and overly restrictive. He famously started appearing with the word ‘slave’ on his face. The bitter conflict resulted in Prince changing his name to ‘symbol’ and self-releasing via an artist subscription service long before subscriptions were even a thing. He then came back to a label deal on his own terms, later returning to Warner Bros and winning ownership of his masters, and finally signed with Tidal (read this for a succinct history of Prince’s label deals).

Now we have Kanye posting pages of his UMG deal on Twitter and saying it represents slavery. Why, nearly 30 years later, is history repeating itself?

Many artists start naïve and become educated 

Many artist careers follow a similar path: 

  1. Sign a deal as a young, commercially naïve artist 
  2. Become successful
  3. Learn how the business works
  4. Realise that the deal you signed was heavily stacked in favour of the label

In recent years, this path has started to change, with most artists initially spending a few years as independent artists, learning how the business works, before getting a deal. When that deal comes, more of them go into it with eyes (relatively) wide open and negotiate terms that are more equitable for them. Companies like Cooking Vinyl, BMG and Kobalt’s AWAL helped change the market dynamic, pushing a new paradigm in artist deals and, in turn, driving the wider industry in the same direction. Label services, distribution deals and joint ownership deals are now commonplace even among major record labels.

A two-tier system

This dynamic has created a two-tier system. Many of the new generation of younger artists who own their masters have favourable royalty splits and high degrees of creative control. The older, established artists – including many of today’s superstars – are meanwhile still locked into the old way of doing things. These artists are starting to question why, as the artists with most sway, they seem to have less negotiating power than smaller, newer artists, and they don’t like it. Enter stage left, Kanye.

The reasons why artists did, and still do, sign traditional deals are simple: 

  1. They are often what is first offered to them by many labels
  2. They reduce the artist’s exposure to risk by putting more of the risk on the label
  3. They give them the best chance of getting the full marketing heft of the label to make them into superstars
  4. They get a big advance

Kanye signed the deal he signed

Kanye’s Twitter posts indicate that he was given millions of dollars in advance payments. Now, however, with his ‘nemesis’ Taylor Swift enjoying the benefits of a new(ish) deal that gives her ownership of her rights, Kanye wants the same treatment. (Kanye’s advisor couldn’t avoid having a little dig suggesting that Kanye’s masters are worth more than Swifts’). I am not a music lawyer so I am not going to get into the details of whether Kanye’s deal is fair or legally watertight, but it is nonetheless the deal that he signed. And it was long after Prince’s campaign to get ownership of his masters. Kanye, knowingly or otherwise, signed the deal that he signed despite other deal types being available. It is a deal that may now look outmoded and out of pace with today’s marketplace, but he remains tied to its terms – for now at least.

From indentured labour to agency-client

Kanye and Prince’s use of the word ‘slavery’ is emotive and has extra connotations for black artists – and there is some logic to the argument. In a worst-case scenario, traditional label deals can resemble indentured labour, with the artist permanently in debt to the label, having no ownership of their work and unable to take their labour elsewhere. Modern day label deals are able to reframe the relationship to one of an agency-client model.

When Prince took on the music industry, he was a lone voice trying to bring a new way of doing things (though others such as the Beatles had previously fought the battle for their masters too). Prince’s actions helped pave the foundation for today’s better-balanced music business, and many superstars have taken advantage of his pioneering efforts, with Rihanna and Jay-Z just a couple of those that now own their masters. Nor is this the first time Kanye has been angling for ownership of his masters.

So, to answer the opening question, why is history repeating itself? Simply put, many young artists new to the profession will take the big cheque and the promise of being made into a superstar over getting a better deal. Many of the newer generation of music companies will note that it is no longer a binary choice if an artist signs a deal with them; nevertheless, the case of Kanye West shows us that for many artists it still is. 

What has changed is that a new artist today has more opportunity to educate and empower themselves – to get a deal that will enable them to build an equitable, sustainable career. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to Prince.

Who will own the virtual concert space?

2020 will go down as a rough year for many artists, largely because of the income they lost when live ground to a halt. Unfortunately, the live music sector is still going to be disrupted in 2021 and it may take even longer for the sector to return to ‘normal’. In fact, we could see the bottom of the live sector thinned out as the smaller venues, agencies and promoters do not have the access to bridging finance that the bigger players have. So, smaller artists may find the face of live permanently changed for them in a way that larger artists do not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: live music is not going to be the same again, and the innovations in virtual and streamed events are not simply a band-aid to get us through tough times. Instead, they are the foundations for permanent additions to the live music mix. The big unanswered question is, who is going own the live-streamed and virtual concert sector?

Bringing it all together

One of the most important things digital tech does is to bring things together. The smartphone is a perfect example. 20 years ago people switched between phones, calendars, diaries, computers, maps, phones, music players, DVD players etc. Now these are all in one device. Streaming did the same to music, taking radio, retail, music collections and music players and putting them together into one unified experience. Until now, live music was not subject to streaming’s great assimilation process. But COVID-19 changed all that. Live used to be separate because it required logistical assets like buildings, ticketing operations, relationships etc. The last few months have shown us that the virtual live sector can operate entirely independent of the traditional sector’s frameworks – which is one of the reasons so much innovation and experimentation has happened. Sure, lots of the early stuff was scrappy and of patchy quality, but is through mistakes that we learn the right way forward. Thus, we have new companies like Driift emerging to bring a more structured and professional approach to a fast-growing but nascent sector.

Disruption is coming

The big traditional live companies right now may be most concerned about whether the still-dormant venues are looking at the new ticketing models being deployed with the likes of Dice and wondering whether they can rethink their entire way of doing business when they reopen. While that may trigger what could prove to be the biggest-ever shift in the live business, the virtual part of the business is where the money is flowing right now: Melody VR bought pioneering but struggling streaming service Napster, Scooter Braun invested in virtual concert company Wave and Tidal bought seven million dollars’ worth of access into virtual concert ‘space’ Sensorium. Virtual reality (VR) spent much of the last couple of years in the trough of disillusionment but now COVID-19’s catalysing impact may see it starting to crawl onwards and upwards. Prior to COVID-19 VR was a technology searching for a purpose. COVID-19 has created one. This is not to say that all of VR’s prior failings no longer matter – they do – but it at least has a set of music use cases to build on. VR can now realistically aspire to be a meaningful component of the wider virtual event sector.

Streaming+

It is no coincidence that streaming is playing a key role. Nor is it just the smaller streaming services at play – Spotify has built the tech infrastructure for live events, while Apple is introducing artificial reality (AR) into Apple TV+, so it is not too big a leap to assume Apple Music AR experiences will follow. Live was the last major component of the music business that streaming could not reach, and that is all about to change. The value proposition for music fans is clear: why go to multiple different places for all your favourite music experiences when they can all be in one place? Think of it as Streaming+. Whatever the future of live is going to be, we can be certain about one thing: it will never be the same again.