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UK government provides update on economics of streaming work – and publishes algorithms report that proposes more transparency from streaming services

By | Published on Friday 10 February 2023

Music streaming services

The UK government’s Department For Culture, Media And Sport has posted an update on its work around the economics of music streaming, as well as publishing a new report looking at the impact of streaming service algorithms on music consumption.

A number of government-led initiatives were instigated after the UK Parliament’s culture select committee completed its inquiry into the economics of streaming in 2021.

That inquiry was sparked by campaigning from UK artist and songwriter groups who raised various issues with the streaming business, including around music-maker remuneration, transparency, data and the impact of those pesky algorithms on what music gets streamed.

In the report produced at the end of the select committee’s inquiry, MPs raised various concerns about how streaming works and how digital income is shared out across the music community, proposing a number of reforms – including changes to copyright law – that could address those concerns.

In response to Parliament’s report, the government said that it would prefer industry-led solutions to the issues raised rather than legal reform, although with possible future changes to copyright law still on the table.

To facilitate that process, the government’s Intellectual Property Office commissioned research around music-maker remuneration and the copyright law reforms MPs had proposed; and convened expert working groups to discuss issues around transparency and data.

Meanwhile the Centre For Data Ethics And Innovation – which was previously part of the government’s culture department – began doing some research into all those algorithms on the streaming services.

Ministers also encouraged the Competition & Markets Authority to look into whether any of the concerns raised were caused by a lack of completion in the marketplace. The CMA did just that via a market study, publishing its conclusions late last year.

In its update on all this yesterday, the government notes: “The CMA found that the concerns raised by artists are not being driven by the level of concentration of the recording market. They also decided not to undertake a market investigation”.

“The IPO’s work focuses on some of the copyright issues raised in the inquiry”, it then adds. “Both the metadata and the transparency working groups met regularly throughout 2022 and work is now at an advanced stage. The outputs will be published in the coming months”.

“The IPO also commissioned independent research on the impacts of three potential legislative interventions on creator remuneration: equitable remuneration, contractual adjustment mechanisms and rights reversion”, it goes on.

“The research on contract adjustment mechanisms and rights reversion was published on 6 Feb 2023. The research on equitable remuneration is at an advanced stage and will be published once it is finalised”.

Restating those upcoming outputs, a timeline of the government’s work on music streaming to date includes some future targets, with “metadata and transparency products to be finalised and published” and “publication of the equitable remuneration research” both scheduled for spring 2023.

Of course, the music-maker community – and the MPs back on the culture select committee – have also called for IPO-convened discussions around music-maker remuneration, building on the research reports. Though that’s not currently in the published schedule.

As for the research into the impact of streaming service algorithms, that reviewed previous academic research on how such algorithms work and operate, and also surveyed music-makers and music fans.

In its key findings, the resulting report states: “The belief that recommendation algorithms result in unfair outcomes is widespread. Academic literature about these types of biases tends to be divided into those looking at popularity bias and those looking at biases according to demographic characteristics”.

“There has been more research into popularity bias and some evidence suggests that issues of popularity bias have reduced in recent years”, it goes on. “There is limited evidence proving or disproving the amplification of existing bias or the introduction of biases felt across different demographics”.

“The impact of recommendation algorithms cannot be considered in isolation from the wider history and condition of the UK’s music industry”, it then says. “These recommendation algorithms should be considered one among several different cultural intermediaries that influence how consumers engage with music”.

“The majority of listens on [streaming services] remain unguided by recommendation algorithms. Whilst uses of recommendation algorithms bring their own risks and opportunities, these should be considered in the context of other cultural intermediaries”.

“Current approaches by [the services] towards transparency in relation to these technologies are not sufficiently alleviating the concerns of consumers, creators, and other stakeholders across the music industry”, it concludes. “Feelings of mistreatment and suspicion, whilst not necessarily justified, are widespread”.

The report’s recommendations hone in very much on that latter point around transparency. “Changes to the ways that [services] communicate about these technologies could help ease feelings of discontent and better foster trust between parties in the music ecosystem”, it says.

It then sets out four ways in which transparency could be improve, reckoning that streaming services could…

1. Provide a clearer indication to consumers about when a playlist is curated by algorithms, editors, or a combination of both.

2. Offer consumers a ‘why am I seeing this recommendation’ function, similar to features provided by other online platforms that allow consumers to understand why they receive certain advertisements.

3. Better communicate to creators and their representatives about how to access data about how their music is consumed, and provide more information about what types of data are available and why this might vary across creators (eg a creator’s audience being too small).

4. Produce more content, tailored to non-academic audiences about how their recommendation algorithms work.

You can access the government’s general economics of streaming update here. And the report on algorithms here.

And this timeline in the CMU Library collates all our coverage of the Parliamentary inquiry and everything that has followed.