Record labels are still ripping off artists…and getting away with it

    A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an A&R person at a global dance music label. It was a pretty standard email along the lines of “hey we like your song, would you be interested in licensing it to us?” which I’ve received before and usually they amount to nothing. This often happens when A&R’s use those online tools we all know and love that show when a song is picking up traction in Spotify playlists in particular. Anyway I replied saying that I’m always open to collaborations as I wanted to see what they had to offer and I always like to do my best for my artists which sometimes means upstreaming the song to another label.

    11 days later I finally get a reply (which in itself was a warning sign as who takes 11 days to reply to an email) and this is what it said…

    Advance: $2,000 USD
    Options: 3 Options
    Territory: World
    Term: Perpetuity
    Royalty Rate: 17%

    So to break this down, they are basically offering a $2k advance and then just 17% of royalties ongoing FOREVER. Meaning they keep a juicy 83% of royalties for themselves. FOREVER.

    To make matters worse they didn’t say how or why they would promote the song or even if they would at all. Nothing on how they would help develop the artist going forward either. It would seem that the fact they are a globally known dance label that’s been around for over 15 years is enough to have crappy deals like this snapped up by unsuspecting artists.

    The sad thing is that artists are accepting these terrible deals, they are blinded by the fact that a well known label wants to sign them, then they get buyers remorse once they see that the label doesn’t offer support. I see it every day.

    And then I usually get an email from the artist a few months later saying they regret the deal and once they signed with the label they couldn’t even get their emails returned, never mind any promo.

    The best advice I can give to artists is to ask what they will get in exchange for giving up such a big chunk of their royalties. How will the label promote the song? Will it be a priority for them? How will they invest in you as an artist? Don’t assume that just because you’re signed to an established label that you will have a hit. I see thousands of releases on these labels bomb every week. It seems their new business model is to sign as many songs as they can offering terrible terms and then just throw them on streaming platforms to see what happens. There’s pretty much zero risk for the label as they’re keeping the majority of the royalties forever so they’ll make their money back at some point.

    I really feel that these labels are the modern day pirates, taking artists for everything they have and giving nothing in return.

    An armada of pirates

    One thing I’ve always been proud of at my label Humble Angel Records and Humble Angel Dance is that we offer a fair 50/50 royalty share to all artists and we invest in every release we put out. We offer everything from playlist marketing to full radio campaigns, press and more. We have an open submission policy too, you don’t need an “in” to send unreleased music over for consideration, just head over here and click submit.

    The importance of Spotify save rates and how to get on Discover Weekly

    We all know that getting a song added to an editorial or algorithmic playlist on Spotify can help boost streams and lead to more fans discovering your music. It’s well documented that you need to submit your upcoming releases for editorial submission via either Spotify For Artists or Spotify Analytics. But how do you get on the popular algorithmic playlists like Release Radar and Discover Weekly? The answer, in part at least is to have great save rates.

    So what is a Spotify save rate? The save rate is the number of times somebody saves a song to their Spotify library divided by total number of listeners (a save is defined by Spotify as when a user saves a song to their library or adds it to one of their own playlists btw).

    Spotify for Artists dashboard

    So in the Spotify for Artists dashboard screenshot above users have saved a particular song 25.3k times and has had 258.6k listeners during the same period. If you divide saves by listeners (25.3k / 258.6k) then multiply by 100 you get a save rate of 9.78%.

    What makes a good save rate then I hear you ask? Well Spotify don’t publish any guidelines here but I’m going to go out on a limb and say anything above 10% as being “good”. During my years of studying stats for hundreds of artists I typically see save rates of between 3% to 7% on average.

    This 10% figure seems to be backed up by singer.songwriter Steve Benjamins who posted this excellent blog post on how he earns $400 a month from Discover Weekly playlists. In his post he published some stats that show that his songs with the highest save rates are the songs that get featured in Discover Weekly most.

    Image courtesy of Steve Benjamins

    Of course the next question is how as an artist do you get good save rates? Apart from releasing brilliant music that people love so much that they want to save it, I would definitely recommend using a pre-save tool (as I have written about before) as these make it easy for your fans to add your music to their library and hence increase your save rates.

    Finally, there is one big caveat to this whole article and that nobody knows exactly how to get your music featured on algorithmic Spotify playlists. Using anecdotal evidence we can presume that having healthy save rates is a factor but we also hear that having low skip rates, getting playlisted on independent playlists, people sharing your music on social networks, having a strong following of fans on Spotify and other factors all contribute towards the algorithms “liking” your music. In short, do it all, there are no short cuts!

    Playlist placement is not a marketing strategy

    Last Friday (19th July 2019) an independent artist’s debut single was placed at the top of Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist and Apple Music’s Best of the Week playlist in the UK. Not only that but at the time of writing this, 5 days later the song is in a total of 54 Spotify editorial playlists around the world and around 12 large Apple editorial playlists globally. The song is “Unspoken” by Aaron Smith and it’s currently sitting on 379k Spotify streams after just 5 days.

    This is unprecedented. Ever since we saw the launch of Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists in 2015 I have never seen support from the DSP’s for a debut artist. Not once. Of course this hasn’t gone unnoticed in the industry and Music Business Worldwide wrote a piece on it here. The best quote from that article btw is from an unnamed source at Sam Smith’s record label who is having a gentle dig at Spotify for putting Sam Smith on the cover but his song third in the playlist…below Aaron’s – “It’s like putting Sam Smith in the shop window to attract people into the store.” Bitter much?

    So who’s behind it? As suggested by the MBW article it’s Platoon who in all fairness do an excellent job at growing talent. I’ve seen a few tweets this week from staff at the DSP’s who suggest that there is much more to come from Aaron and this is just the beginning. Which leads me to think that Aaron’s team have put together a package of new material along with a plan to bring Aaron to market and presented this to the DSP’s to get their buy in and support. Which of course is the right way to do things, as we all know that DSP’s want to support artists and not just songs.

    Playlist placement is not a marketing strategy

    With all this editorial support and hundreds of thousands of streams you would think that Aaron’s fanbase would be growing exponentially wouldn’t you? Not so much, his Twitter followers are just 167 and he has just 746 followers on Spotify. Which proves the point that playlist placement is not the route to success alone. I hear from so many artists who think that getting on one or two editorial playlists will give them success and instant fans. It won’t. Most listeners are passive and don’t even know or care who they are listening to. You still need to put in the graft to build up your fan base from the bottom up. Play live to those crappy pub nights with 10 people in the crowd, talk to each and every one of your fans on social media. Hustle to get that press coverage or those interviews, create content, then more content and keep writing and releasing great music. Of course I have no doubt that Platoon will be doing all of this and more but I just wanted to highlight the fact that even massive unprecedented editorial support like this won’t make you a star overnight. So artists, please don’t hang your career on whether you get playlist support or not.

    Side note – dear Platoon please get a proper domain ending in .com as your .ai domain name appears precisely nowhere in Google’s search results.

    No I don’t want to “hop on a call”

    If you’re in business of any kind then undoubtedly you will have had the “can we hop on a call” email at some point.

    It can come in the form of a well meaning friend making an introduction to you on behalf of someone else or it can come straight out of the blue from a stranger. The email will go something like this….

    “Hey Kieron, great to meet you! I’ve heard a lot about you/your business and thought it would be great to get in touch. Can we hop on a call sometime? How does next Wednesday at 11am sound or 2 weeks on Thursday at 2pm? Look forward to chatting!”

    Or worse still are those absolute serial killers who send you an invite to access their calendar via Calendly or similar and ask you to schedule a “free slot”. Right. OK.

    And that’s it, no context, no explanation as to why they want to talk, no clue as to their business. I guess the expectation is that all will be revealed when I do indeed “hop on the call”.

    So in the spirit of politeness (we are British after all) after all you accept the invitation and then the time comes for “the call”. They usually follow the same format, the caller starts with the spiel about their company/business, their history, how they got started, their motivation, their successes etc etc. Then you get the dreaded “So that’s me, I’d love to hear about you and how you got started”. Sigh. So you go into your “story” tell the other person how you got to the place where you are now, etc. etc. yadayadayada. You maybe talk about mutual business acquaintances, people you know in the industry/and/or the state of the industry and perhaps, and only perhaps the person who set the meeting actually tells you what they want. 9 times out of 10 they want something from you, a collaboration, partnership, they want you to buy their product or services etc. But it takes all of this faffing around to get to the “ask”. Most times also, you find out that there isn’t a fit and you end the call with a vague “OK let’s keep in touch” and there goes half an hour of your life you will never get back.

    So how about a much better way….

    In your first email give a brief intro to who you are and what you do. Outline your “ask”, your service, your idea or whatever. Put it in the email. It’s so easy, that way you can decide straight away if there is opportunity. If there is then maybe you will chat at some point. Maybe you won’t. But either way you can decide right away without all of the hassle of waiting around and spending half an hour of talking nonsense on the phone.

    There you go, productivity life hack and blue sky thinking from Kieron right there. If everybody adopts this practice just think of the wasted hours we could all save.

    And before anyone mentions it, not all phone calls are pointless. If you want to discuss something important with a colleague then they are great and I like a good chat with friends/colleagues from time to time. But for that initial first contact from strangers, the reason email was invented was so that we don’t want to “hop on a call.”

    Spotify to stop displaying playlist follower counts…possibly

    Yesterday I noticed that the Spotify Windows desktop app had changed and instead of a “follow” button under a playlist there was now a heart icon. If you hover over the heart it says “Save to Your Library” and when you click on it the playlist appears with all of the other playlists that you have followed, or saved.

    The new “Save to Your Library” action on Spotify desktop

    This got me thinking about why Spotify would make this change, after all following playlists has been at the core of Spotify’s experience since day 1. It’s been ingrained in us all to follow playlists so we can access them with ease and also keep up to date with the latest music as they get refreshed.

    Spotify themselves have traditionally been the first to announce major playlist follower milestones, such as when Today’s Top Hits reached 20 million followers it was a big deal. Rightly so too, that’s a huge achievement for one playlist.

    Over the last couple of years though, a whole ecosystem has sprung up around playlist pitching with the aim of getting your song on Spotify playlists. Some of these are straight out scams, especially the services that promise you 500 email addresses of Spotify curators for $99. However some of them are from more traditional PR and marketing agencies where as part of a campaign they will seek out and contact playlist curators on your behalf and pitch your music to them in the hope of gaining playlist placements. A lot of the major labels now have staff in house whose sole job is outreach to playlist curators, it’s seen as an essential part of a new release campaign.

    But maybe Spotify recognise that the seedy part of playlist pitching is harming the industry and one step to fight it is to remove the follower count from playlists to make the most popular playlists less identifiable in Spotify and therefore cut down on the amount of “outreach” that playlist owners can expect. For example right now it’s relatively easy to type a search term into Spotify, say “tech house” for example and then you can easily see the most popular playlists in the search results by the number of followers a playlist has and there you go, there’s your target list for your outreach.

    I may be wrong but I think that changing the action of following a playlist to adding it to your library is the first step towards Spotify removing follow counts. Right now, playlist follower counts are still shown next to playlists in the Spotify desktop app but they don’t really make sense if the action is to add a playlist to a library. I suspect Spotify are introducing these new features in phases, as they often do and will roll them out over time.

    It’s worth noting that not everybody’s Spotify desktop app may have this new feature yet, they tend to roll them out in stages. Also in their mobile apps the action is still to follow a playlist. This is normal for Spotify who often test out new features on one platform at a time.

    So if you’re in the playlist outreach business my recommendation would be to get those spreadsheets updated with follower counts before they disappear forever!

    Why haven’t Spotify released an offical pre-save tool?

    Back in November 2016 Music Ally wrote an article about how Laura Marling fans could pre-save her new album on Spotify. This was the first ever pre-save.

    This functionality wasn’t (and still isn’t) an official Spotify tool, it was put together by David Emery (who now works at Apple Music) who was VP of global marketing strategy at Kobalt at the time. In a Music Ally follow up article David said “Their API lets you add releases to someone’s library if they authorise it,” “We’ve added a layer on top of that to do that when a future release comes out.”

    Since that time we’ve seen Spotify pre-saves become almost standard as part of the pre-release strategy when artists release new music.

    For anybody not familiar with Spotify pre-saves they make up a marketing tool whereby fans of an artist can pre-save a future release from their favourite artists. By pre-saving it the song will appear in their Spotify library (and/or a user’s playlist) the minute it’s released. But more than that the tool typically also “follows” that artist in Spotify, hence building up their fan base and it also collects the users email address. So from an artist’s point of view not only do you get new fans and immediate distribution of your music but you can also collect those all important email addresses.

    Here’s what a typical pre-save campaign looks like. This one was built using who offer what I think is the best pre-save tool on the planet.

    But here’s the thing, despite the pre-save tool being an almost universally adopted tool for new releases globally, it isn’t a native Spotify feature. Artists can’t log into the excellent Spotify for Artists control panel and create a pre-save themselves. Nor are pre-saves tracked or recognised in any official stats provided by the company. It simply doesn’t exist. Instead, the pre-save campaigns you see everywhere from labels, distributors and marketing agencies are all hacks that use the Spotify API to create the tool. All that pre-saves do is ask users to grant permission from the user to manipulate their Spotify library. That’s it. It’s a workaround, a clever one but it’s a workaround. That’s why you don’t see a “click here to pre-save” anywhere in the official Spotify app.

    Up until mid 2018 pre-saves where only available for Spotify but that changed when Apple Music released pre-adds for albums in June 2018. Shortly after they made pre-adds available in the official Apple MusicKit API. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to differentiate itself from Spotify, Apple Music adopted pre-adds as an official tool for artists and labels to use.

    Then in March of this year Lewis Capaldi and Apple Music released this video explaining exactly how pre-adds work. Shortly after it was announced that Lewis’ album was the most pre-added album on Apple Music in the UK ever with 113,000 pre-adds.

    Then a week later we saw a similar announcement that Billie Eilish’s debut album had achieved over 800,000 pre-adds globally on Apple Music, breaking records.

    What I found really interesting was in that same article on Music Business Worldwide, Apple Music’s Oliver Schusser said…

    “While most services focus the majority of their efforts around playlists, Apple Music still emphasizes albums because we understand their value as a storytelling tool for artists to create context around their music.

    “To that end, pre-adds are great early indicators of engagement around an artist and the intention of the fans. To actively pre-add an album, much like the pre-order we invented with iTunes, means that the fan is excited about the content and wants to be among the first to enjoy it the moment its available. That kind of engagement is very valuable to an artist and to us.”

    Not only was that statement a dig at Spotify for perhaps focusing too much on playlists and not on albums. It was also the start of Apple Music’s ambition to own pre-adds by referencing and relating them to pre-orders which they did indeed invent in the iTunes days.

    Then just yesterday there was yet another Apple Music pre-add announcement, this time talking about how Taylor Swift’s new album has broken day one records for a female artist. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see more of these announcements from Apple Music as they position themselves as the inventors of the pre-add and make it an industry standard.

    Which begs the question, why haven’t Spotify released an official pre-save function themselves?

    I have no idea if I’m honest. I’ve heard whispers that Spotify have experimented with an official pre-add functionality but for some reason they have never released one. Might they now that Apple Music have released a similar official function on their platform? I hope so. The fact that pre-saves/pre-adds are becoming more and more common, unavoidable in fact must surely be noticed by Spotify. Spotify have a really slick Spotify for Artists tool and an official analytics package for labels, it would fit nicely in both.

    The 10 most important things to look for when choosing a music distributor

    I’ve been researching the distributor space lately and watching with interest as more pop up and margins get squeezed. It’s got to a place now where you can actually distribute music for free. But what else should you be looking for other than a pipeline? I’ve spoken to a lot of artists and record labels and put together the following list of what I think is important to look out for when deciding on what distributor to choose. If I’ve forgotten anything please let me know in the comments below.

    P.S. These are what I consider the absolute essential services, there are lots more add ons that some distributors offer and I’ll maybe cover in a future post.

    1. Distribute to all of the major platforms globally – by that I mean the obvious ones like Spotify etc but also Tencent, Anghami, Saavn, Pandora, KKBox, iHeartRadio etc.
    2. Awesome reporting – at the very minimum you want stats that are updated monthly. However some distributors offer stats updated daily or weekly which is helpful.
    3. Regular payments – again you want a minimum of monthly payments but some distributors update your account multiple times a month when payments come in from the DSP’s, and you can withdraw cash at any time.
    4. Support – a real person at the end of the phone is best but a real person you can email is a close second. Failing that a support ticket system that is answered in hours (not days) is sufficient.
    5. Songwriter & producer credits – now that Spotify support the publication of these credits it’s important you’re distributor does too.
    6. Splits – the ability to give stakeholders a percentage of revenue a song makes and have the distributor pay them directly. For example, you may want to give the producer 5%, if you can find a distributor who can handle these payments directly for you it can be a huge time saver.
    7. Shazam – want your music to be discovered if it’s heard in a club/radio etc. Make sure your distributor uploads the song to Shazam.
    8. Instagram/Facebook stories – OK nobody uses Facebook stories but a lot of people use Instagram stories so the ability to have your music available in the background of an Insta story is a fantastic way to grow your audience and get your music heard.
    9. YouTube Content ID – make sure you’re music is uploaded to the YouTube Content ID system so that if another YouTube channel uses it you can monetise it if you want to. Or you can let the channel use your song for “exposure”. Key is to be informed though so you can decide.
    10. Longevity – when I asked the good people on Twitter about what they look for in a distributor a few said longevity. I feel that people are worried that there are so many distributors cropping up and so much VC money sloshing around that there will either be some that flame out and fade away or get acquired and shut down etc. So maybe do some research into who the guys are that have been around for a while and have some history.

    The Distributor Wars

    The streaming wars are what the mainstream press like to focus on (Spotify v Apple etc.) but I think the distribution landscape is much more exciting and interesting.

    It’s reported that DIY artists will earn more than $1 Billion this year and Goldman Sachs has just issued a report estimating that by 2030 1.15 Billion people will pay for music streaming. That means there’s a landgrab going on and some pretty crazy stuff happening.

    Just a few years ago, artists had to give away up to 85% of their revenue in exchange for a record deal. Often even successful artists barely made any money, due to how record label contracts were structured, where EVERYTHING was billed back to the artist.

    Streaming and technology now allows artists to upload their music to platform like Spotify and Apple Music quite literally for nothing. Or at worst, up to just 20% of their revenues in exchange for marketing support and label services as well as distribution (true story, I don’t even know what label services mean in 2019 but that’s a topic for another day).

    This week at the Midem conference in Cannes, Amuse CEO Diego Farias told a story about how he offered Lil Nas X over $1 million dollars to sign with them. It’s worth noting that Amuse distribute artists for free, no cost at all. If an artist starts to pop on their platform then they offer more traditional record label deals but it’s free for artists to use Amuse, at least initially.

    This caused a bit of a reaction online, not least of all from Ditto Music CEO Lee Parsons.

    Then this week another distributor, Stem culled a lot of their artists and increased their rates from 5% to 10% (8% for the existing artists they retained). This caused anger from the artists they let go and discussion on the sustainability of VC funded distributors operating on low margins to gain market share.

    Then I saw this tweet from Distrokid which is actually genius…

    Think about it, nobody actually plays cassettes any more but they are a great novelty merch item that will go down well with the Instagram generation and who doesn’t love nostalgia? Looking at the comments on their tweet I’m not the only one who thinks this.

    Which got me to thinking, with a lot of distributors offering pretty much the same service, ie a pipe to the streaming platforms, what should they be doing to differentiate themselves from each other?

    Keep an eye out for my next blog post where I’ll have some suggestions.

    Playlist stuffing and SEO. Gaming the system.

    It’s well documented that a popular tactic to generate more streams and therefore more revenue in the streaming age is for artists to release albums with as many tracks on as possible. The rights holder gets paid from streaming platforms as soon as someone listens to 30 seconds of a song and therefore we get artists like Chris Brown releasing 45 song albums like his 2017 album “Heartbreak On A Full Moon” which was certified Gold in less than 10 days even though none of the songs from it made it to the top 40. Clearly this “strategy” works, if you can call stuffing an album with scores of low quality songs a strategy but hey that’s where we are now.

    So when I saw this advert in my Instagram post for a “Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms” playlist from Sony Music UK I was intrigued.

    When I clicked through I was taken to a Filtr playlist (Sony’s playlist brand) in Apple Music that promises to help me relax and fall asleep to the sounds of pouring rain and thunder. OK then.

    P.S. Notice how the playlist artwork says “Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms” which although is nonsense, it reads logically, kind of. But the actual title of the playlist is called “Thunderstorms Sleep & Relax Tracks” which makes even less sense but is playlist SEO at work given that these are all keywords that Sony thinks people will be searching for in Apple Music.

    But here’s the best bit, the playlist is made up of 330 tracks, all just over a minute long. Yes 330 tracks. Each track is as you would expect is just ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure. This is the strategy I mentioned in my opening paragraph taken to the extreme.

    By using a playlist as the “format” and not an album the guys at Sony can really go to town and add in 330 tracks without anyone blinking an eye, after all there are no rules or constraints for playlists so any number of songs goes. Then making sure each track is just over a minute long, thereby qualifying for the 30 second is also calculated to extract the most revenue possible from the playlist.

    Finally, marketing the playlist as something to fall asleep to is also genius. The hope is that you play this playlist to help you fall asleep and when you do the playlist of course continues to play in the background while you’re asleep racking up streams and therefore revenue. Kerching.

    One final note, the artist credited to all 330 tracks on this playlist is called “Sleepy John” and the songs all link to an artist profile in Apple Music for a rock quartet formed in 1969 from Lewiston Idaho. Either the meta data is messed up or this 1960’s rock band have done a serious pivot.