The latest outburst in the high-profile Spotify debate does more than just criticize streaming, it condemns it. Rosanne Cash, who testified in a congressional music-licensing hearing this summer, stirred up mixed reactions with two recent Facebook posts in which she equated streaming with music piracy, and also continued her impassioned campaign to alter U.S. copyright regulations.
Her most incendiary remark came first: “If you download and pay, it’s the same as buying a record. If you stream, it’s just dressed-up piracy.”
In a second, longer post the following day, Cash criticizes broadcast radio’s exemption from performance royalties to artists and labels, and the Copyright Act loophole in which music produced before 1972 is not protected, or generally paid for by any kind of radio. “The entire system is faulty,” she said.
Cash joined a few other musicians (e.g. Bette Midler) who have publicly disclosed royalty payments from online music services. On Facebook, Cash complained that her music had been streamed by Spotify 600,000 times over an 18-month period, resulting in a royalty check for $104. She did not clarify whether that amount represented an artist payment through her label, or a songwriter royalty — on of many points of distinction frequently blurred in streaming critiques.
The idea that streaming is piracy inasmuch as it might displace a music sale, while legally wrong, is convenient for whipping up outraged support among fans. It’s also worth noting that any payment from a radio-like experience improves the licensing and revenue potential for performing musicians, who receive nothing for the use of their records in broadcast. Likewise when comparing to broadcast, 600,000 streams (during 18 months) is not a high number of impressions — a song which enters rotation in a few U.S. markets can achieve that much exposure in a day.
Jeremy Rosen, Director of Audience Development at The Orchard, succinctly observed, “Her complaint about Spotify payment sounds like the streaming version of a record not selling much to me. It’s not that the pay isn’t fair, it’s that it actually could be.”
A contrasting example is Ed Sheeran, who told The Guardian that his new album was streamed 29-million times in its first week. That number is now over 400-million streams, and his previous album is at the same level. The Guardian estimates royalty payments (for performing and songwriting) to be over $6-million. (Sheeran’s personal bottom line depends on his contracts with labels and publishers.)
Perhaps the main takeaway is that the general shape of success in the music business hasn’t changed: Most of the rewards are concentrated at the top, no matter what the delivery platform is.