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.

Why the struggle of small venues will affect the entire music industry

Prior to the dislocation caused by the pandemic, live music operated with a structure that gave artists a clear sense of where they were in their careers and where they could aim for next. Small clubs represented the starting point, before moving up a ladder of venue sizes to theatres, arenas and stadiums. Then along came lockdown, and the future of that lower tier of venues is now at risk. 

The plight of these smaller venues has had a fair amount of media attention, but the long-term impact of their potential demise will send shockwaves that will reverberate through the entire music business. Without this testing ground for emerging artists, an artist development gap is going to appear. One that could hold back the careers of the next generation of artists, affecting not just their live business but the entire spread of their careers – with clear implications for labels and publishers.

Streaming helped live, until it didn’t

Even prior to COVID-19, a strange dislocation was happening between live music and streaming. Streaming had built a symbiotic relationship with live music, delivering more listeners to artists which resulted in more fans at concerts. It was this very relationship that enabled artists to not worry much about streaming royalties until live revenue stopped with lockdown… and then the #brokenrecord debate kicked in. Alongside the previous, positive impact on live, there was a more insidious, unintended consequence: streaming was making a generation of artists less good at performing live.

Skipping rungs on the ladder

In the pre-streaming era, artist fanbases had growth guardrails that shaped how fast they could grow. If you wanted one million people listening to your music, on-demand, at home or on the go, then they had to buy your album. Selling a million albums is not something that many artists used to achieve, and it used to happen after a long, intense period of label marketing effort and TV and radio appearances. Now though, get picked for the right playlist and an artist could find themselves with a million streams under their belt overnight. Artists could look like superstars from stream counts long before they had comparable build-up.

The reason this matters, is that successful streaming artists often found themselves skipping rungs on the live venue ladder and going straight into theatres etc. Fans arrived expecting a quality of live performance to match the artist’s stream count, but instead got something that fell short. It turns out that putting in those hard miles, touring the country in a beaten-up van to play half-empty small clubs on a cold, wet Wednesday evening are often the making of a live act. It is the equivalent of an athlete putting in all the training sessions before breaking through to the team. 

Not made for live

Matters are compounded by the fact that much of the music that blows up on streaming relies heavily on production techniques and does not translate well to live environments. In fact, with many streaming-era artists focusing more time on the production of their music than the performance of it, live can sometimes feel like something that gets in the way. No surprise then that a number of artists Tweeted during lockdown that they were actually enjoying not being on tour and getting more time to write and produce.

The missing steps

Even though streaming distorted the path from studio to stage for many emerging artists, the importance of smaller venue tours is higher than ever. Yet these small venues are most at risk. Bigger live music companies and venues have access to bridge financing that will get them through the tough times, but smaller ones do not. Though some are getting state grants, many will struggle to generate profits with socially-distanced crowds – their capacities are just too small to make the staff-to-audience ratios work. . So we could end up with a gap where the first rungs of the live ladder are meant to be. Short term this will mean more opportunity for bigger, older acts that typically play the larger venues (not that they were exactly struggling before). Mid-term, artists, labels and publishers are going to have a talent development problem on their hands.

Changing cityscapes

The outlook gets even more complex when you factor in the changing nature of cities. With fewer people commuting into city centres daily and more people now moving out of cities, footfall for venues will decline. This means that the business models of many venues will struggle. An opportunity exists to put venues in the new commuter hubs that will emerge over time, but by definition those population centres will be less concentrated and so have less footfall. This may make it harder to build a business case for smaller venues. Larger venues that put on tent-pole events that people will travel to will, if anything, benefit from these population shifts.

So, long story short, unless the industry is careful, the bottom may be about to fall out of the live music business, and in turn the testing ground for tomorrow’s artists.

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.

Artists are Learning How it Feels to be a Songwriter

The ‘broken record’ streaming debate that continues to rage on is a natural consequence of the instantaneous collapse of live music revenue following lockdown. As soon as it was clear that live was going to be gone for some time, MIDiA predicted that the artist backlash against streaming royalties would be a natural, unintended consequence.

With many artists used to live comprising more than half of their income and streaming by contrast a sizeable minority, it was easy for them focus less on whether streaming paid enough and more on how many extra fans it was bringing to their concerts.

In the absence of live, all eyes are on streaming. As I’ve written previously, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to what is a complex, multi-layered problem. But there is a really important issue that artists’ lockdown plight shines a light on: the long-term plight of songwriters. Here’s why.

Streaming did not grow in a vacuum

The streaming economy did not grow in a vacuum. It rose in the context of a thriving wider music industry where artists were earning good money from live, merch and (for some) sponsorship. Nor did streaming ever consider its relationship to live as being neutral. Spotify in fact is vocal in its belief that it  ‘supports and extends the value of live’.

This matters because it encourages artists to think about streaming delivering a wider set of concrete income benefits than the royalty cheque alone. The streaming case is that without it, artists would be playing to smaller crowds and selling less merch. A high tide raises all boats.

Without the halo effect benefits though, artists would have found it much more difficult to adjust to the shift of paradigms from a series of large one-off income events (i.e. selling albums) to a longer-term, more modest monthly income, namely trading up front payments for an annuity. Artists would have found it as difficult as…well…as they are now. This is how it feels not to have live music and merch paying the bills. This is how it feels to be a songwriter.

Songwriters only have the song

Professional songwriters (i.e. not those that are also performing artists) may have many income streams (performance, sync, mechanicals, streaming) but they all depend on the song. The songwriter lives in a song economy. The artist lives in a performance/ recordings/ clothing/ collectibles/ brands economy. Songwriters do not tour or sell t-shirts. As a consequence, they have been paying closer attention to streaming royalties over recent years than artists have. Now that artists are also unable to tour or sell shirts (at least in the same volumes) streaming royalties suddenly gained a new importance to them also.

The good news for artists is that live will recover (though it will take until late 2021 to be fully back in the saddle). The bad news for songwriters is that there is no easy or quick fix and things will get worse before they get better. One of the key imbalances is in streaming. Music publisher revenue is around 2.8 times smaller than label revenues but streaming royalties are four times smaller. As streaming becomes a progressively larger part of the wider music economy, if the current royalty mix remains, songwriters will earn a progressively smaller share of the total.

A generation of whom much is asked

Artists are fighting an important fight now, but when live picks up post-lockdown, songwriters will still be fighting their fight. This is not to in any way diminish the importance of artists getting a fairer share from streaming services and record labels, but it is to say that much of their pain will ease when their other income streams come back online.

Be in no doubt. Songwriters have a long and windy road ahead of them.

Songwriter’s streaming era plight reminds me of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 quote:

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.”

But just as streaming does not exist in isolation, nor do songwriters. They are the foundations of the entire industry. There is a well-used saying that ‘everything starts with the song’. It doesn’t. Everything starts with the songwriter.

Quick reminder: if you are an artist and you haven’t yet taken our artists survey, then there is still time! We are keeping the survey live for a few more days. All individual responses are 100% confidential. All artists get a full copy of the summary survey data so you can benchmark yourself against your peers, including how they are dealing with the impact of COVID-19. The survey questionnaire is here.

The Future of Live

The almost total cessation of live music has sent shockwaves throughout the wider music industry. Though live companies are clearly at the epicentre, labels and streaming services are the in the blast radius too as the gaping hole left in most artists’ income is causing them to question their other income sources, streaming especially – with both labels and DSPs in the sights.

Finding both near- and mid-term fixes for live are therefore crucial for the wider music industry and artist community. There is a big opportunity here that goes far beyond lockdown era. This is more than the future of games and music, it is in fact an alternative future for live music. It is the ultimate lockdown legacy.

future live events midia researchMIDiA’s latest subscriber report ‘Recovery Economics: Music, Games, Live Streams and the Future of Concerts’ has just been published and subscribers can read it here. In this blog post I am going to highlight some of the key themes.

Live streaming’s teething pains

From a value chain perspective, Lockdown came too early for live streaming; it is under-developed, under-monetised, under-licensed, under-professionalised. Unfortunately, the live-streaming surge is showing all the signs of a goldrush with a lack of clear structure and the first signs of artist backlash, with some artists feeling that some platforms are relying on them to build their audiences while performing for free.

Furthermore, quality is patchy and artists are becoming concerned with the impact on their brand image. Saturation is another Achilles heel: with traditional performances saturation is negated by artists moving from one city to another. Live streaming has no geographical constraints so the effect of multiple performances is analogous to playing repeated concerts in the same small town.

Virtual concerts, not live-streamed concerts

Arguably the biggest single mistake the music industry made with music streaming was to think of it as a format rather than a paradigm. As a consequence, the (western) streaming services lack differentiation and true feature innovation. We must think of the live opportunity as something that goes beyond live streams. Live streams are just one part of the mix. The true opportunity is virtual experiences, that can range from 100 attendee super-premium intimate sessions, through mass scale ad-supported YouTube streams, to avatars performing in games.

If we start this journey thinking narrowly, the scale of opportunity will be constrained. And right now, the industry needs to get as many virtual event innovations going as it can, because it will have to continue to carry the baton for live for some time yet.

In a best case scenario COVID-19 recedes later this year and we have a small number of limited capacity concerts happening before year end. Alternatively, we may see recurring waves of COVID-19 denting consumer confidence with fewer people wanting to go to concerts even if they could. Either way, artists are not going to get most of their live revenue this year.

future of live midia

It is this post-lockdown opportunity that virtual events need to meet. But there is a lot of work yet to be done. The biggest problem to fix is monetisation.

Fans pay around 80 times more per minute for a real-world live performance than they do for listening to music on paid streaming services. The value exists in the shared moment. The problem with live streaming in its current manifestation is that it is abundant and is delivered in a ubiquitous format that is implicitly low value. If this sector is to become a serious income stream for artists then we have to stop giving it all away for free. What is needed is a sophisticated freemium monetisation model that can cater both to large free audiences and better monetise fans.

A set of principles for virtual events

There is also a lot more that can be fixed. Here are some meta principles that virtual events should adhere to:

  • Scarcity (fewer gigs, geo-restricted – Laura Marlin has just announced geo-restricted live streams – let’s make that the trailblazer not an isolated initiative)
  • Better production qualities
  • More sophisticated monetisation (freemium, pay-to-stay, super premium / VIP etc)
  • More sophisticated segmentation of types of shows (not all live streams are the same, but we currently only have a one-size-fits all product
  • Better platform segmentation (e.g. big tech platforms can play the role of stadiums and arenas while off-portal destinations like artist apps can host smaller, scarcer, super-premium events)
  • Better discovery (the equivalent of the TV EPG needs creating for virtual concerts, Bandsintown has made a decent start but much more needs to be done)
  • Better alignment between what artists want and what the platforms want

The birth of a new industry

COVID-19 will likely be a mid- to long-term part of life, so the traditional live sector will face a ‘cost of confidence’ as portions of artists and fans alike will initially stay away. Virtual concerts (live streaming and generative virtual performances) can become an important component of the live music sector as it builds out of lockdown. But it will not get there without concerted efforts to fix the problems that currently define this nascent sector.

A new virtual concert value chain is starting to emerge that traditional live companies are not – yet – well embedded in. The future market will be one defined by both incumbents and insurgents. The big live companies will bet big on virtual but we’ll also see new types of companies like virtual booking agents and avatar agencies. The whole concepts of what a concert is and what a venue is, can be turned on their heads. Fortnite’s Party Royale island is now hosting regular live streamed concerts. With 350 million users, Fortnite can lay claim to being arguably the biggest capacity venue on the planet. This may be the birth of an entire new ecosystem.

Recovery economics

The lockdown lag will create a whole new set of economics across all industries. Driving a recovery during this transition period will require innovation and a willingness to downplay old ways of doing things. For music it will be about exploring new income streams to recast a new music business. The first step is for live streaming to have a product refit that delivers a genuine value exchange for fans if it is to ever get out of its free / charity / tip cul-de-sac and become a genuine income stream of scale.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to this report then email [email protected]

If you are a client and would like to talk to us about the themes covered in the report then schedule an enquiry via [email protected]