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Classical Music, Composers, Performers and Streaming

This week I read this headline iTunes Announces All Music Downloads Will Be Shut Down and It's Not a 'Black Mirror' Episode

Which turned out to be a complete lie after a very brief search Fake news: Apple isn't killing iTunes music downloads

However, the initial headline inspired a Twitter Rant ™. Read the full chain here but I wanted to develop on a number of the thoughts I presented within it.

When I released my album Dichroic Light a few years ago (thank you Creative Scotland!) I was disheartened that more people weren’t buying it. I was thinking quite naïvely that if I built it (put it out for sale) they would come (buy it). After buying adverts and getting various good reviews didn’t kick-start the buying frenzy I had expected it dawned on me that I had an Apple Music subscription and since getting that I had hardly bought any music. So, if I’m not doing that why should I expect others to buy my music? I switched and started concentrating on streaming to see what would happen.

I was prepared for the low payments that I’d heard numerous complaints about from mainstream bands, to fellow composers and other performers. However, I thought I’d give it a go there was nothing to lose. And it worked and has been since. Playlists.

Value of Streaming

Before I go into more detail I’m going to first talk about royalties and the confusion for one name for different things. I’m in the increasingly common position of being able to self-release. This means I’m not tied to a label agreement and can see ever royalty that comes in. There are three main royalty streams I’ve received so far from CDBaby (my distributor), PRS and MCPS. I’ve yet to get a PPL distribution that includes streaming payments (PPL only pays out once a year and can take a few years to come through).

Below is the per stream rate for each of these for Three Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Electronics: Piece One on Apple Music:

  • CDBaby – c. £0.0066 (paid at $0.0092)
  • PRS - £0.0017
  • MCPS - £0.0013
  • PPL - ???
  • Total per stream - c. £0.0096 +

Compared to a BBC Radio 3 distribution of £144.09 (total between PRS and PPL) for the same piece the streaming totals look awful. However, Radio 3’s payments are based on both the duration and the assumed number of people listening. When the piece was broadcast that was roughly 2.05 million for the station or for Late Junction specifically around 30,000 which works out as £0.0048 per listener. So, on a per listener basis Apple Music pays out about twice the amount of radio.

It seems the only question about making streaming viable is the volume of listeners and that is where my Twitter rant came in.

Making Playlists and Sharing

For the last 18 months I’ve been making playlists. I’ve got a few massive ones and I occasionally release new much shorter curated ones. Then spend a few days promoting them on Twitter and Facebook. Yes all the playlists have a piece or two of mine in them but mostly they are filled with the music of other people. So, in essence I am mostly shouting about other people’s music and hoping people will listen to mine. I try and tell those people they are in the playlist either by tagging them or messaging them directly and in reply I get……. nothing. At very most I get a ‘like’ from that composer, performer or record label. Why? Why can they not at very least retweet the playlist?

In almost every guide I’ve read about playlists (all aimed at bands) they say a variation of ‘be polite and thank the person who puts your music on their playlist and Tweet about it a few times to show your appreciation’. Bands sometimes even shout about each-other’s events and album releases, they might even talk to fans who like their music. What?!

Composers hardly ever do any of this, from what I can see. There isn’t the same culture of sharing. There seems to be an attitude of everyone out for themselves or just writing music for fellow composers. I’m not suggesting writing music for your audience (I think if you write music for a specific audience it will fail) but just to engage with the one you already have.

I’m not looking for appreciation with playlisting I’d just like to share music I like and enjoy. If someone makes a playlist and it includes a piece of mine in it I will Tweet about it and say thanks. Maybe one or two of my followers will click the link, give it a listen and discover a new composer or performer they then go out and explore new music. Maybe they won’t. Maybe that’s how someone discovers and falls in love with my music because someone else tweets their thanks for inclusion in a playlist.

This lack of sharing is a MASSIVE frustration and I just don’t understand why people are not sharing. Is it because they think streaming is bad (see above for my argument that it’s not) or is it some other reason? We as composers, performers and record labels in a fairly niche genre should try and help each-other to build the level of streams that are required to make a decent income. And do what we can to introduce people to other related music.

If there are more people listening to my playlist there are more people listening to your music. Is that not a good thing? Also means the potential for increased audience numbers and I’ve found an increase in actual CD sales. It is a clichéd phrase, but a rising tide lifts all boats.

The other thing that frustrated me. I set up a collaborative playlist expecting composers would jump on the chance to add their music to a playlist of someone who is actively searching for new music to add to other playlists. Nope, hardly anyone. In the month that it has been active I have to delete music almost on a daily basis that has been added from genre I am not looking for. At time of writing the last eligible submission was 20 days ago and that was borderline.

This means that mainstream artists are actively searching for an opportunity, somehow finding it and adding their music to it. That takes effort. I’ve shouted about this playlist on Twitter to my followers who are mostly composers and performers of contemporary classical music. It will have appeared in their feed and required 5 minutes to add something and maybe put it on random to listen to some other things. From what I could tell it was a similar experience with NMC’s #KeepTheMusicGoing playlist.

Graph of streaming numbers for the week 22nd March to 28th March 2018

Source: My CDBaby Apple Music Artist Stats

Streaming is low risk for the listener. £10/month to listen to as much of anything that they can. This means they can take risks on new music they might not have before when they had to spend £10 on one album. It means there is a higher chance of someone trying and loving your music and has given rise to the Genreless Music Fan.

The difference between streaming and sales is that streaming has a long tail whereas CDs have a large upfront but no long tail. If I buy a track for 99p on iTunes I need to stream that 103 times to pay the same amount. There are over 100 pieces in my iTunes library that have more than 100 streams. But that’s before touching on the lower opportunity cost and the potential for a larger number of listeners because of the ease of access and playlists.

If composers, performers and record labels made more of their own playlists with music that is linked but slightly outside of their immediate sphere (i.e. not just music released by that label) then there is the possibility that we can help everyone in the sector.

Biggest Issue with Streaming for Classical Music

One issue that does need addressed for streaming is the way the rates are paid. Currently the payment is all or nothing. If someone listens to 30 secs or more a payment is triggered, if they don’t hit that 30 second mark then nothing. This is even changing how people are writing songs. That style of payment is ok when most of the tracks are somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes. But when you get to classical music when pieces and movements are mostly above 5 minutes. A 3 minute pop song is being paid out at the same rate as the third movement of Mahler 5 (about 17 mins).

To make streaming fairer the payment system need to move to a durational based payment in the same way as radio. To use my Three Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Electronics if every 30sec chunk was paid out at £0.00096 (in total between all royalty streams) then that would make streaming fairer and more viable for long form works. It would mean 60 mins of music would be paid out at around £0.12. It isn't a huge amount of money but when we factor in scale (as above) then it becomes more viable. This change can only be done by lobbying the streaming companies by composers, performers and record lables and from organisations like BASCA, the Musicians' Union, Incoperated Society of Musicians, UK Music, PRS and PPL. There also needs to be more from the streaming curators to help contemporary classical music. Unclassified/Naxos are doing a decent job but they are the only organisation I can think of doing it. There isn't anything in classical music with the same streaming clout as Pitchfork or Filtr that I have found.

Another change to the system should be based on a 'user centric model' where the payments are based on a proportion of someone's subscription compared to how much they listen. For example if someone only listens to 1 piece in the whole month then the rights owners of that piece get that person's whole subscription fee (minus whatever cut the streamer takes). At the moment all fees are put into a pot and then that pot is divided up between all streams so, part of my subscription is going to pay artists I never listen to. Though this is also the case for PRS licenses where they use Sample and Analogy based distributions to work out royalty payments. Look at PRS Distribution cycles and Concepts pdf for more info on this. Because of this I've received payments from my music being used on a cruise ship and in a gym which I highly doubt has ever happened! Thanks to @otraihala for the reminder about 'user centric' vs 'pro rata' model.

Until then if you have a piece that can be cut up into smaller sections (like George Crumb’s Black Angels) then you might be onto a winner.

Suggestions for artists to make the best of streaming:

      • Make playlists. These can be themed, if you like x you might like y or just a massive genre playlist
      • Share playlists on social media and tag those featured
      • If featured in a playlist shout about it, share and say thanks. Maybe reciprocate and add that person to one of your playlists
      • Reach out to those who make playlists and ask for inclusion
      • Use a service like Soundsgood to sync playlists across platforms.
      • Self release using distributors such as CdBaby (fixed price + % cut), TuneCore (subscription + smaller % cut) or RouteNote (free with high % cut)

Please do comment, tweet, Facebook or email me ideas, suggestions or disagreements about what I've talked about. I do feel this stuff needs discussed more within classical music circles. Also, if you start making playlists because of this blog let me know (even if they don't have my music).

Edit 11:48am 2/4/2018 – Addition paragraph about ‘user centric’ vs ‘pro rata’ payments

3 thoughts on “Classical Music, Composers, Performers and Streaming”

  1. This is a superb article with great insight! 🙂

    I am with you 100% that the concept of “sharing” and collaboration in the classical music industry is vital. There is this conditioned competitive belief that you have to hoard your audience for fear of losing them to others, and to focus solely on your own career. The strategy is defense when it needs to be offense.

    Thanks for the education on royalties from streaming. The criteria should definitely change for longer classical music works.

    And you’re spot on about the long tail. Album releases obviously require a lot of time, energy and money but they rarely bring in much revenue in one hit, such is the current landscape. Perhaps also thinking of these more as “marketing materials” and as content to build personal brand, produce quality free content and build a following/audience by providing immense value is a long term strategy that might ultimately pay off.

    Easy to say that when bills need paying, of course, but it’s a strategy that so many other artists and bands from other genres are employing to great success.

  2. Pingback: A Rough Guide to Self Releasing Classical Music | Matthew Whiteside

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