Beyond music distribution (Cybercultural Daily Update 5-29-2019)

One of the challenges for the cultural industries in the internet era is how to distribute and promote your product.

Cultural sectors discussed in today’s newsletter: music (but this is relevant to all sectors that have cultural products to distribute)

While the internet undoubtedly made it much easier to publish a product - be it a piece of music, a book, a magazine, a movie or tv show, or anything else that can be divided into ones and zeros - it’s become increasingly difficult to find an audience in this era.

There are a plethora of ways to distribute a cultural product online. But how to get it into the hands - or ears - of your intended audience? That’s the challenge now: we need to look beyond distribution.

Note: today I’ll be looking specifically at music distribution and promotion, but my goal with Cybercultural is always to apply any lessons learned to other cultural industries too.

So let’s get to it. You’re all familiar I’m sure with Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play and Bandcamp. They’re just some of the places consumers can find music to listen to or buy in 2019. But how does the music get onto those platforms in the first place? And how (if at all) can artists get people to listen to it?

The state of the recorded music industry

Even in the internet era of the cultural industry, distribution is still dominated by a handful of multinational corporations. The music industry is a classic example, with three major labels - Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group - making up the majority of the market.

According to an end-of-year report for 2018 by Midia Research, global recorded music revenue was $18.9 billion last year. That was an increase of 8.2% on 2017.

69% of that revenue was earned by the major labels. 28% was earned by independent labels, with about 3% being “artist direct” revenue.

That last stat, artists direct, is what I want to focus on - since it’s a small but rapidly growing part of the recorded music market. According to Midia, artists direct revenue was $643 million last year, an increase of 35% on 2017. This means the market share of artists going it alone is now 3.4%, up from 2.7% in 2017.

DIY with online music distributers

Much of that artist direct revenue was distributed through companies such as TuneCore, CD Baby, Distrokid and Ditto Music.

According to Tim Ingham from Music Business Wordwide (MBW), TuneCore is likely the biggest:

TuneCore has confirmed that its artists earned $308m in distribution income in 2018, up 28% year-on-year.

That figure, says Ingham, “suggests that TuneCore’s market share of the indie-artist landscape may be as high as 45%-plus.”

MBW had earlier reported that CD Baby artists earned over $100m in 2018.

In a column in Rolling Stone this month, Ingham further speculated that 2019 revenue for indie musicians may hit $1 billion. He bases this on the 35% growth rate from last year, plus another $100 million for publishing rights:

Broad industry calculations suggest that publishing/songwriter rights accrue around a fifth of the money, per track, that recorded-music rights generate from streaming platforms. Which suggests that you could comfortably add another $100 million onto Midia’s $643 million estimate for 2018 if you were to include publishing in your final tally.

What online music distributers offer

Let’s take a closer look at TuneCore, reportedly the biggest of the independent music distributers. It promises musicians they get to keep 100% of their revenues:

Every time you get streamed on Spotify. Every download of your music on iTunes. You get paid, and we put your money directly into your TuneCore account. TuneCore never keeps a percentage of your sales revenue.

TuneCore makes money by charging a distribution fee for each music product an artist uploads; for example $29.99 for an album (that’s for the first year; it goes up to $49.99 for each following year).

Once uploaded, the product can be distributed to “150+ digital store and streaming services.”

Getting back to the opening paragraphs of today’s newsletter, the real challenge now is how to promote the product once it’s in Spotify, iTunes, et al.

TuneCore also offers what it calls “artist services” to help with promotion. That includes partnerships with three external marketing services: (“guaranteed plays on services like Deezer and 8tracks”), radio airplay (“guaranteed spins […] on internet radio”), and Bandzoogle (create a website).

It also has an in-house service, called TuneCore Social. As the name suggests, it’s a social media engagement and analytics tool for musicians. There’s a basic free version, and the Pro version costs $7.99 per month or $85.99 per year.

But…streaming platforms hold the balance of power

Despite its best efforts, TuneCore can’t offer much help in promoting artists on the main music consumption platforms. It won’t get them on Spotify or Apple’s famous playlists, for example.

Indeed, according to a recent TuneCore blog post:

Curated placement is much like winning the lottery: securing a spot requires the approval of a Spotify tastemaker. Win them over, though, and your streams can skyrocket.

When I spoke to indie musician Zoë Keating earlier this year about the challenge of promoting her music, she was very frustrated with the streaming platforms:

“I am at their mercy and have no ability to communicate with my followers on those platforms,” she said. “Instead I have to rely on whatever features they choose to implement. For example, Spotify is now sending out notifications to people who follow me, to let them know I have a concert – which is a huge improvement. iTunes and Amazon should do the same. But this doesn’t do much for artists like me who can’t tour very much [Keating is a solo mom]. I should be able to notify followers of other things besides concerts. My blog posts could be autopublished to those who follow me, for example.”

Keating also thinks services like Spotify can and should make it easier for people to contact her.

“Most of my licensing comes from people who fall for my music and then track me down to license it for a project,” she said.

I don’t think Keating uses TuneCore, but regardless it does demonstrate a limitation of music promotion in the internet era: if you’re not dependent on the major labels for promotion, you’re dependent on the major streaming platforms!

Create a narrative

It’s hard to knock online music distributers like TuneCore; or indeed any online distributer for a cultural product. They do a great service in enabling creators to easily send their products to hundreds of online retailers, streaming platforms, etc., all over the world.

But it’s clear there are also big limitations to what the likes of TuneCore can do for an artist. The fact is, the cultural industries are still reliant on large corporations - be it major labels, or tech companies like Spotify - for promotion and marketing of cultural wares.

To end on a note of optimism though, what artists like Zoë Keating have taught us in this era is the value of a compelling narrative - which can be communicated via social media.

“An individual telling a story does make a difference,” Keating told me. “Even though more people are telling their stories and it is harder for an individual story to be told, that does not diminish the power of it."

That’s a message TuneCore itself promotes:

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