Music News: In pandemic tech boom, who's making money on music?


The Current Music News for Aug. 25, 2020 (MPR Video)

We know who's struggling in this pandemic economy: workers, especially those whose livelihoods depend on people gathering in public places. That includes musicians, and also music industry professionals like studio owners and, of course, music venues. But evidence is also becoming clear that some businesses are booming during lockdown. At the top: America's tech giants.

Last week, Apple became the first U.S. company ever to reach $2 trillion — yes, $2 trillion — in market value. Incredibly, half of that value was built during the coronavirus pandemic. Of course the company doesn't want to sound like they're gloating over a pandemic, so it says it would have made all that money regardless — but with everybody hunkering down at home, turning to personal technology for both work and entertainment, it's not surprising that companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have benefited.

So how much of that money is being spent on music — and whose pockets is it going into? It's basically safe to say (a) a lot and (b) tech investors. We've talked before about how streaming revenue is up: Spotify picked up eight million new users and saw its stock soar 70% during the second quarter of 2020. That means more payouts overall to artists — but except for the pop stars with the biggest hits, no musicians are getting cash worth flashing from Spotify. George Howard, a professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, calls Spotify "a legalized version of Napster." In other words, artists are basically giving away their music for free and then trying to make money through merch sales and concert tickets.

Here's the irony: there actually is a legalized version of Napster, and it's called Napster. Napster today is a paid streaming service that leads the industry in per-play payouts. Right now, artists earn almost five times as much for a play on Napster as they do for a play on Spotify. But to give you an idea of just how little money streaming pays, even on Napster — and, again, this is the best-paying play-per-stream service — Digital Music News did the math and figured that for an artist to make minimum wage, they'd need their songs to be played over 2,500 times a day. On Spotify, make that over 10,000 times.

So artists are hurting, tech companies are are labels doing? Well, it depends. All in all, not great. Sony Music, for example, has seen a 13% revenue drop. They are making more money from streaming, but a major label like that also normally makes money from artists' touring and merch revenue, plus from song placements in TV shows and movies that have seen their productions shut down for safety. On the other hand, the K-pop label Big Hit — home to artists including BTS — has seen a big boost in its revenue. How? Selling tickets to livestreamed concerts.

Back to Apple, that company's name also popped up in music headlines last week because they're renaming their online radio station. Beats 1 Radio is now called Apple Music 1. No, Zane Lowe isn't going anywhere: in fact, the DJ whose job title is Apple Music Global Creative Director has been working to create two new radio stations for Apple, one that plays pop hits and one that plays country. Apple says it wants to keep investing in people and that hand-curated radio will continue to stand out in a world driven by algorithms.

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