Sep 21, 2015

Imogen Heap: saviour of the music industry?

When was the last time you bought a CD or a record? Chances are, you’re listening to more music than ever, but buying less of it. In 2012, for the first time, digital sales of songs – such as iTunes – surpassed physical sales. More likely still is that you were on YouTube or Spotify, which host hundreds of thousands of songs, played billions of times. It’s a golden age for music. Except plenty of musicians don’t agree. Over the last year or so, there’s been a growing public chorus of complaints from artists themselves, who have reached a tipping point of dissatisfaction about their industry. One of them, Imogen Heap, who’s “fed up of hearing herself complain”, is trying to change it instead. Heap is renowned for being inventive. She’s an award-winning songwriter and performer, having released four solo albums that have enjoyed commercial success in the UK and the US. She self-released her 2005 album Speak for Yourself long before it became popular to do so. She’s also the only female artist to have won a Grammy for engineering, and over the last six years has been designing and producing some musical gloves, along with the rest of her MiMu team, that allow the wearer to sculpt and manipulate sound on and off stage with gestures. Imogen Heap: 'I've just done a poll with YouGov to find out about my fans' Read more But these endeavours are likely to pale in comparison to her current project: to bring to life an entirely new landscape for distributing and monetising music and all its related data and content. Spurred on by the technology originally designed by libertarians to create the crypto-currency bitcoin, she’s releasing her next song, Tiny Human, as an event and an experiment. What she hopes to emerge is the core of a revolutionary system she refers to as Mycelia. It could completely transform the music industry. Music is in many ways a bellwether for the digital revolution. The products of many creative industries – art, music, books, papers, films – which were once solely physical objects, shipped, bought and carried home, are now digital files available on demand at next to no cost. Because digital files can be reproduced and shared infinitely and easily, the result in almost every industry has been more consumption and lower average returns, fuelling fears about how the people who make this stuff – the writers, artists and musicians – will get paid for it. The modern music industry was created at a time when it made economic sense to produce a million copies of one vinyl record, and copyright could be successfully enforced. But as the industry went digital, the whole way music was made and sold changed. In the early 00s, many feared the music industry would soon wither away as free streaming services and pirated content made music, de facto, free. Spotify, iTunes and YouTube, to their credit, came up with ways of monetising music again, turning pirates into paying customers. Spotify charges premium users a monthly fee to listen to everything on its catalogue (non-paying users have to listen to adverts) and then shares out 70% of its income to whoever holds the copyright. YouTube, which has many more users but no paid-for premium service, came up with something called Content ID. Videos uploaded to YouTube are scanned against a database of files that have been submitted to the company – and the copyright owner gets to decide what happens to his or her content: whether to remove the material, “monetise” it by allowing advertising to be shown alongside it and accepting some percentage cut, or leave it and collect data about usage. This has breathed new life and money into the industry. Spotify has paid $300m (£196m) in royalties in the first three months of 2015. YouTube has paid out more than $1bn (£654m) since Content ID started seven years ago. Advertisement But the streaming and revenue-sharing deals that are now so important for the industry have also brought into sharp relief just how opaque and complicated the whole system is. The structure of modern music production is Kafkaesque. An artist might sign a deal with a record label. In between them and the music fan there could be the label’s parent company, distributors and hundreds of music services, each taking a cut. There are sync rights, mechanical royalties, performance royalties. Consumers and music services pay different amounts for streaming, downloads and physical sales, and different amounts again to songwriters via collecting societies and publishers. Different deals can be struck in different territories. Add to that a mild obsession with non-disclosure agreements and it can be close to impossible for musicians to work out what they are owed. There’s no single bad guy here – it’s just not in anyone’s interests to make it easier. What should be a simple transaction looks more like a derivatives and futures market. According to Heap, “more and more third parties jump on board to help the artists, or labels, navigate and collect feedback or money, but it just adds to the noise and confusion, further widening the gap between fan and artist and the journey of their music. I feel digitally torn apart; and in the data-driven era, the movement of music, money and feedback should be frictionless. A total rethink is in order.” The more layers of bureaucracy, the more finely sliced the cake, especially as a growing proportion of money is coming from streaming services. David Byrne, of Talking Heads, estimates that only 15-20% of Spotify’s payments make it through to the artists.

Add comment