Pandora wants – wait for it – better transparency
At first, I expected a bit more of a backlash.
Last week, Tim Westergren of Pandora, the streaming service known for its – let’s say – less-than-generous royalties, took to the Inter-web to align himself with singer and artist David Byrne.
To recap, in late July, Byrne wrote an editorial in the New York Times calling for better transparency across the music industry. He spoke somewhat generously of Spotify’s “opaque” royalty payment system (although not without referencing the “paltry” royalties issued by it and Pandora), targeting the bulk of his ire at record labels for taking the lion’s share of streaming royalties. He called for a fairer, more transparent system where artists have a better understanding of where their music played and what royalties they are owed. He wrote, “we need information from both labels and streaming services on how they share the wealth generated by music.” Even Byrne, a musician of a long-standing, lucrative and varied career – with his own label – found it difficult to extract this information from his own distributor.
Perhaps it was this ire, coupled with the vague referencing of Pandora, that left the door open for Pandora’s CEO to weigh in. Westergren echoed Byrne’s core complaint, that “music makers cannot access even the most basic information around the rights, usage and economics of their music.” What might have been seen as a bit rich by some was Westergren’s assertion that Pandora was the good guy in this fight. “We’ve opened up our data to artists,” he said. “Through our Artist Marketing Platform, every single artist can see a complete summary, not only of their song spin activity, but also a comprehensive view of their fan base. Such information can be used not only to audit the financial picture, but also to make smart, tactical career decisions, such as where to tour.”
Pandora, as you all might be aware, is repeatedly blasted by artists who are quite rightly dissatisfied with their royalty checks. Parking – for a moment – that Westergren’s Internet piece extols the virtues of their transparent, SoundExchange-administered payment system (when SoundExchange, in fighting for fairer royalties, nearly put Pandora out of business), I expected some kind of backlash to Westergren’s other assertions – that Pandora is providing the exact kind of transparency Byrne described in his editorial.
The backlash hasn’t come. Aside from our friends at Music Ally who also postulated that Westergren’s words would become industry fodder, reaction to his piece has been muted, if completely absent. Instead, it has been reposted several times across the Internet.
Is this because, while it’s easy to argue with meagre royalty payments (which Westergren only addressed to say that Pandora works within the law), it’s harder to find fault with Pandora’s current system of allowing musicians to access its data? Westergren also detailed other existing and upcoming features, which include a “self-service platform that will allow artists to freely communicate with, and market to their fans, through Pandora.”
All positive noises, right? But it brings us to a larger question: with all the streaming services out there, and indeed all the various ways in which music is currently accessed across streaming, satellite and digital, what hope is there that artists could access their data from every service where their music is played? Or, even better, that this data might be made available in one glorious place?
Byrne, in his editorial, cited the widely-circulated Rethink Music report that the Guardian believes asks “ the music industry to create an accurate database of music rights ownership – who should be paid for sales and streams of any given song – then builds a cryptocurrency system around it to automate royalty payments.”
Perhaps this is why Westergren’s piece received so little backlash. Pandora is, in fact, providing transparency and data. Call it “Rethink Lite”: whilst it is not an industry-wide database, is it a working model that could be the starting point for one?
Ever since Rethink Music published its report, our internal conversations have been rife with that burning question: who will do it? Who can do it? And now, considering Westergren’s piece, could Pandora’s model scale to include the whole industry? Could other players already be building something bigger and better? Or – as we fervently hope – there’s a plucky start-up in the wings about to disrupt it all.
Image courtesy of basketman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.