|WEDNESDAY 24 MAY 2023||COMPLETEMUSICUPDATE.COM|
|TODAY'S TOP STORY: Sony Music chief Rob Stringer spoke as part of an event for investors in its parent company Sony Group earlier today, setting out his perspective on trends in the music industry, and discussing some of the challenges and opportunities that have become big talking points in recent months. So that includes functional audio, streaming fraud, short-form video platforms and good old music-making AI... [READ MORE]|
Sony Music chief talks streaming, short-form, gaming and AI in investor presentation
Stringer was upbeat about the state of the music rights business at large and the ongoing streaming boom, though also highlighted some of the challenges in the music streaming domain. That, of course, includes the price point of subscription streaming, which pretty much the whole music community agrees needs to increase, at least in line with inflation.
Though, on that point, Stringer noted that "we have seen price increases from a number of our digital partners that have been long overdue, and we look forward to more digital service providers recognising that the value of music continues to rise".
Assuming Spotify does follow the lead of its competitors and increase its baseline price point from 9.99 to 10.99, that means the main challenge in subscription streaming, as far as the majors are concerned, is the current model for allocating streaming revenues to individual tracks.
That current model treats functional audio the same as more conventional music - meaning an ever increasing amount of streaming income goes to the makers of mood music and background noise - and it's also open to outright scams, with rogue entities gaming the system for profit.
Alluding to those challenges, and the huge quantity of music now being uploaded to the streaming services every day, Stringer said: "At Sony Music our attention is on identifying quality, and not purely quantity, as we face competition from many investors and new companies wishing to capitalise on this sheer volume".
"We are convinced that consumers want the same quality", he added, "and remain concerned that [streaming services] are watered down by low quality and meaningless volume which negatively impacts music fans and real artists".
"In addition", he went on, "as publicly reported, fraud on key [streaming services] is a problem that must be eliminated through aggressive enforcement by these [services] and distributors, or by changing payment methods to better reduce the incentive for fraud".
Beyond subscription streaming, Stringer went on, "social media, short-form video and video games are all playing an expanding role in consumption today, particularly among Gen Z and Gen Alpha. Youth-led shifts to new music technology platforms are a constant in our business and we view the latest trends as indicators of another generational inflection point".
"Young consumers are gaming-first in their entertainment orientation and highly engaged in creating and viewing massive amounts of content", he added. "This translates into heavy use of short-form video, which is amassing total views well into the trillions. And overwhelmingly, they want music to be part of all these experiences. With this transformation, proper compensation of artists and songwriters is required".
That, of course, requires Sony et al to put ever more pressure on the short-form video platforms to pay more for the music that their creators utilise. Though Stringer was keen to stress that, while that pressure needs to be applied, Sony primarily seeks to partner with digital companies to capitalise on the opportunities.
"With any potential off-shoot of our audio and visual content we can be a partner", he said "and we support innovation throughout the digital landscape. We are aggressively leaning into numerous opportunities for our artists and songwriters, with the largest being in short-form video".
"In gaming" he added, "we're an established leader in activations for our talent including Travis Scott, Lil Nas X and The Kid Laroi. And as a member of the larger Sony family - where gaming has such core importance - we believe we're strongly positioned to develop and maximise a range of new offerings in the space. Additionally, we're supporting growth in promising areas like direct-to-fan solutions, creator-friendly licensing and, over the longer-term, Web3 and the metaverse".
Which is all well and good, but what about bloody generative AI? That's all anyone cares about at the moment, right? "We are at the gateway of a new technological era with AI", Stringer mused. "And unsurprisingly, music will be a core component of this process"
"AI promises to provide us tools so that our artists and writers can create and innovate", he went on. "It also heralds greater levels of insight through machine learning, as well as potential new licensing channels and avenues for commercial exploitation. There is a lot of opportunity in this area to be excited about throughout our company".
Though, "we are greatly aware of the challenges ahead too", he confirmed. "We will protect our creators on every level possible whether it be creative, financial or legal in basis. Infringement and unauthorised usage of their rights should be the basis for a unique new set of artist and songwriter protections industry wide. Tech does not simply overrule art".
Protecting music-maker rights in the context of AI is another issue that currently unites much of the music community although - as with the plans to change how streaming monies are shared out - the devil will be in the detail, of which there isn't much currently. It remains to be seen if the priorities of the corporates and the creatives in music diverge on all this at some point.
Gap sues Kanye West over alterations to former Yeezy store in LA
According to a lawsuit filed last month, it was West's team that instigated the alterations, putting Gap in breach of its agreement with the building's owner.
According to the New York Post, the alterations included "erecting an exterior ramp in the east side parking lot; installing a tunnel in the lot; removing ceiling lights; building a wall; and nixing three bathrooms".
The building's owner sued Gap over the alterations last year, seeking to hold the retailer responsible for the costs of restoring the property back to how it was prior to West's meddling. Unsurprisingly, Gap is now seeking to hold West responsible for those costs.
The Yeezy Gap partnership between West and the retailer collapsed last year, with a legal rep for the rapper stating at the time: "Gap left Ye no choice but to terminate their collaboration agreement because of Gap's substantial noncompliance".
Of course, pretty much all of West's business and brand partnerships subsequently fell apart as he courted ever more controversy in the latter part of 2022 due to his frequent racist and antisemitic statements.
Universal Music allies with music AI company Endel to create some "science-backed soundscapes"
Under the deal, Universal-signed artists will collaborate with Endel and its technology to enable them to "create science-backed soundscapes, designed to enhance listeners' wellness, including both new music and new versions of catalogue music".
Endel is the app that Universal-signed James Blake worked with to create his 'Wind Down' soundscape, which was then released as an album last year, and of which he said: "I think we've invented something not just beautiful or even meaningful, but truly practical".
In terms of how it works, the official blurb explains that "Endel uses artist-provided stems to create soundscapes driven by scientific insights into how music affects our mind-state. When crafting static albums, artists and their teams have the final sign off on the results they prefer".
"These soundscapes provide artists and rightsholders new opportunities to generate additional revenue for their catalogues", it goes on, "while expanding and enhancing their work into new areas and moments in fans' lives, while aspiring to support wellness for the listener".
It's an interesting deal because it touches on two topics that Universal has been quite opinionated on recently: music-making AI and functional audio.
On the former, the major has been warning the creators and users of AI-powered music-making tools that it will take action if they train said tools with data linked to Universal-owned songs and recordings without licence. And they have been seeking to stop the streaming services from distributing tracks that are seemingly the result of unlicensed crunching of its music by AI.
In terms of functional audio, Universal boss Lucian Grainge had been very vocal indeed about the problem of mood music and background noise on the streaming services being treated the same as more conventional music when it comes to digital income being allocated to tracks each month. Grainge - and others - are proposing a new approach that would reduce the money flowing to more functional sounds.
Perhaps with all that in mind, Universal was keen to stress that its partnership with Endel "will always respect creators' rights and put artists at the centre of the creative process". The music industry is keen, of course, to stress that it recognises the opportunities as well as the threats that come from ever more sophisticated generative AI technologies, and Universal presumably sees what can be achieved by the Endel partnership as being one of the positives.
As for the debate around functional audio, while it's easy to distinguish between conventional music and white noise or bird song, when it comes to mood music to help people relax or sleep, the line is much more blurred. So if any grand plan to reform how streaming monies are shared out can't exclude mood music from the main pot of royalties, maybe Universal and its artists can get involved in that side of streaming instead.
Or, maybe consumers can be persuaded to use specialist apps for this kind of audio rather than accessing it via the music streaming services. Endel does make music available via playlists on all the streaming platforms but also has its own app. If dedicated apps can offer a better functional audio experience, perhaps less of that content would be consumed on Spotify et al, leaving more digital income to be allocated to more conventional music. Who knows?
"At UMG, we believe in the incredible potential of ethical AI as a tool to support and enhance the creativity of our artists, labels and songwriters, something that Endel has harnessed with impressive ingenuity and scientific innovation", says Universal Music's Chief Digital Officer Michael Nash.
"We are excited to work together and utilise their patented AI technology to create new music soundscapes - anchored in our artist-centric philosophy - that are designed to enhance audience wellness, powered by AI that respects artists' rights in its development".
Endel CEO Oleg Stavitsky adds: "Endel has been artist- and human-focused from day one. Our goal was always to help people focus, relax and sleep with the power of sound".
"AI is the perfect tool for this", he reckons. "Today, seeing our technology being applied to turn your favourite music into functional soundscapes is a dream come true. We're extremely excited to put Endel AI to work and help UMG build new and exciting offerings to promote wellness and banish the perceived threat around AI".
Boss of Warner Music owned merch company EMP stands down
Ernst Trapp has headed up EMP since 2013 and oversaw its acquisition by the major. Via that deal, EMP became part of Warner's services division WEA, which subsequently rebranded as WMX. In 2021, Trapp also took on the wider role of President Global E-Commerce, Retail & Licensing for the whole Warner Music Group.
Confirming Trapp's departure yesterday, Warner noted: "Trapp has led EMP since 2013, working with globally renowned artists such as Guns N Roses, Metallica, Nirvana, Panic! At the Disco and Twenty One Pilots, as well as major entertainment brands including Disney, Harry Potter, Marvel and Star Wars. Under his leadership, EMP has developed a network of websites serving eighteen countries, with a community of millions of customers, and a fast-growing loyalty programme".
Trapp himself stated: "I've had an amazing time leading EMP through many changes over the last decade. We emerged from each challenge stronger than ever and the company has a bright future ahead of it. But now is the right time for me to move on and pursue new opportunities, knowing that the amazing team at EMP are in a good place".
Meanwhile, WMX President Maria Weaver added: "I want to pay tribute to Ernst for his incredible leadership at EMP and the contribution he's made more widely to WMX and Warner Music Group. He's always understood the key role merch can play in helping nurture the relationship between artists and fans. I'd like to wish him all the very best in his next adventures".
EMP's CFO and COO Jan Fischer will help lead the company until a new CEO is appointed.
Further job cuts confirmed at SoundCloud
It's the second round of redundancies at SoundCloud in less than a year. Though the previous cutbacks in August last year were more severe, affected about 20% of the company's employees. At the time a spokesperson explained that those cutbacks were the result of a "significant company transformation and the challenging economic and financial environment".
In a memo to staff yesterday confirming the latest downsizing, Seton explained: "I am sharing the difficult news that, today and tomorrow, we are conducting headcount reductions, impacting 8% of the organisation. Everyone whose job is impacted by this change will receive an invitation today to meet with the People Team and their manager. Meetings will take place today and tomorrow".
"Please know we do not take this action lightly", he added, "it is simply the hardest thing we can do in our business. Ultimately, I take accountability for this decision and will carry that with me every day. Most importantly, we are absolutely determined to treat everyone with the utmost respect and manage this process in as generous a manner as possible".
"This is a challenging but essential decision to ensure the health of our business and get SoundCloud to profitability this year", he then explained.
"In doing so, we are securing the company's future for the millions of artists who rely on us for their living and their self-expression, and the millions of fans who come to SoundCloud for the joy of music. It is critical to ensure that SoundCloud thrives in our mission to influence culture, be the preeminent home for artists and fans, and lead what's next in music".
BBC proposal would see radio programmes like Desert Island Discs produced by its commercial wing
It's part of plans to grow the audio output of BBC Studios, which - unlike the BBC proper - is able to compete for commissions from other broadcasters and platforms, and also seek commercial opportunities around content beyond the UK. The BBC believes that the growing popularity of podcasts presents numerous opportunities that its commercial wing should explore.
"The growth in the global podcast market is opening up creative opportunities in factual, entertainment and drama", the BBC said in a statement yesterday. "To respond to this, we will look to build on BBC Studios' existing, successful audio production unit to succeed both in the UK and internationally".
"We propose to move timeless network radio content over to BBC Studios that is made for audiences in the UK, but also has global appeal", it added, "including a range of entertainment and conversation programmes - eg 'Desert Island Discs', 'In Our Time' and 'The Life Scientific' - as well as drama and documentaries, which we can see creative opportunities for".
"This proposed transfer", it explained, "will create a thriving multi-genre audio operation in BBC Studios that can continue to make high quality programming for BBC audiences, as well as realise more of the opportunities provided by the global audio market - for example securing more commissions and identifying more collaboration and funding opportunities to scale up ideas and productions across TV, audio and digital".
Commenting on the proposal, BBC Studios boss Tom Fussell said: "There's real international appetite for content that is rooted in the BBC's public service values and we're excited by the prospect of growing our team and supporting their creative ambitions. We already deliver world class content to everyone from Radio 4 and BBC Sounds to Audible and Spotify and want to invest in more British audio IP".
AudioUK - which represents independent radio and audio production companies - has responded to the announcement by calling on the BBC to allow independent producers to compete with its in-house teams for the opportunity to make more of broadcaster's own speech-based radio content. Such a move is necessary, it argues, if BBC Studios intends to actively compete for opportunities outside of the BBC's stations and platforms.
The trade group notes that "previously, when the BBC moved its TV production to BBC Studios, enabling it to compete against independent creative TV producers to make programmes for other broadcasters, the government in return required that the BBC open up 100% of its TV commissioning to external competition".
Under the Royal Charter that sets out various obligations that the BBC must meet in return for receiving its licence fee funding, the broadcaster is required to make 60% of 'relevant hours' in its network radio commissions open to external competition.
The BBC has voluntarily applied that requirement to its BBC Sounds platform too, which was set up after the current Charter came into force. And it has also committed to ensure that 100% of new speech commissions are competitively allocated to production teams. However, AudioUK stresses, "there remain many long-running BBC programmes which do not have any creative competition".
Says AudioUK MD Chloe Straw: "The BBC's decision to move some speech audio production teams into BBC Studios represent a step change in its approach, with it moving production capacity to provide further competition to the independent sector. As most independent audio production businesses specialise in entertainment, factual and drama, they will now face additional competition from the BBC in the wider market".
"The BBC has assured us that it is committed to continuing to make 60% of all non-news network radio open to competition and it has also assured us that 100% of new speech commissions will be competed for", she adds, "however there remain large parts of BBC radio and audio commissioning which are not open to competition from indie producers".
"This means there needs to be a market correction", she goes on, "in terms of a further increase to competition for independent producers to make BBC radio and audio programmes, not just in speech but across all the BBC's radio and audio output. We look forward to working with the BBC to ensure that the licence fee paying audience are benefiting from the widest range of creative ideas".
The BBC's proposals are still subject to regulatory approval, but the broadcaster hopes to implement the changes in April next year.
Concord Music Publishing has signed a new global publishing deal with Nana Rogues, who has produced and co-written songs for Drake, Stormzy, Skepta, Dave, Future, Zara Larsson and more. "I'm really looking forward to this next chapter in my career", he says. "Concord are a major player that understands my vision and sound. Together as a team we will be putting out great feel-good music that transcends across the world!"
Ed Sheeran has teamed up with dancehall artist Ishawna, who he first discovered when she used the instrumental from his song 'Shape Of You' for her track 'Equal Rights' in 2017. Now the pair have recorded new song 'Brace It'. "Me and Ishawna made a tune after me being in love with her 'Equal Rights' cover of 'Shape Of You'", says Sheeran. "I love her and loved working with her".
Jake Shears has released new single 'Last Man Dancing', the title track of his new album, which is out next week.
Gogol Bordello have released new charity single 'United Fight Back' to raise money for Kind Deeds, which provides prosthetics to wounded Ukrainian soldiers. As well as Gogol Bodello, it features contributions from Green Day's Tre Cool, ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, Fugazi's Joe Lally, Agnostic Front's Roger Miret and more. "Here, living legends of punk and hardcore who always meant so much to me, come together to show their much needed support for Ukrainian freedom fighters", says Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz.
Cindy Wilson of the B-52's will release her second solo album 'Realms' on 25 Aug. Out now is new single 'Midnight'.
Fran Lobo will release her debut album 'Burning It Feels Like' on 18 Aug. Out now is new single 'Tricks'.
Kassa Overall has released new single 'Going Up', featuring Lil B and Shabazz Palaces. His new album 'Animals' is out this week and you can catch him live at Ronnie Scott's in London on 9 Aug.
GIGS & TOURS
100gecs will be in the UK and Ireland in October for a run of shows, including one at the Hammersmith Apollo in London on 21 Oct. Tickets go on general sale on Friday
Hard-Fi have announced their first full UK tour in over ten years, with shows throughout October winding up at Troxy in London on 21 Oct. "We're really excited to be heading back out on the road and playing venues up and down the country for the first time in too long", says frontman Richard Archer. Tickets go on general sale on Friday.
One OK Rock will be in the UK for a one-off show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London on 1 Jul. Tickets are available now.
Check out our weekly Spotify playlist of new music featured in the CMU Daily - updated every Friday.
Black Midi to perform the songs of The Beatles at Le Guess Who? festival
The one-off performance is part of a strand of the festival curated by Slauson Malone 1 - aka multidisciplinary artist Jasper Marsalis - and is intended to explore the unlikely intersection between the two bands.
"When listening to Britain's cacophonous Black Midi, not many would be reminded of the world's most agreeable band of all time", says the blurb for the show. "In fact, apart from sharing a homeland, the two groups seem to have little in common. Thankfully, Le Guess Who? curator Slauson Malone 1 has enough imagination to disagree".
"Looking closely, one can see why", it goes on. "Beneath Geordie Greep, Cameron Picton, and Morgan Simpson's tempestuous math rock lies a precious pop sensibility not too dissimilar from what can be heard on Lennon-McCartney records. Thus, a never-before-seen performance comes to life - as well as the chance to rediscover both bands".
The performance is set to take place on 10 Nov in Utrecht, with the band insisting that it will not be repeated.