Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Note to Authors: Streaming Falls Flat

Why authors and artists should beware of the streaming business before following the music industry's footsteps.  ♦ 
If you’ve successfully managed a pulse for the past decade, you’ve seen an explosion of technology rattle our conceptions of media and how it’s purchased, stored, and consumed. The shift from physical media that you actually own (and hold in your hand) to digital media stored in gigabytes, and finally to streaming media, which the consumer neither owns nor stores but merely pays for access to, really began in 1999 with the emergence of the music file-sharing service Napster. According to co-founder Sean Parker, Napster was a “cultural revolution more than a legitimate company.” Due to its glaring illegitimacies in the face of U.S Copyright Law, the service was effectively shut down through the legal action of several major labels—but not before it had commanded well over sixty million registered users (Lamont). It was clear from Napster’s meteoric rise that Internet distribution of digitized content was the future, but as is so often the case, the business and legal sectors of society lagged behind the technological vigor of Parker’s invention.
     Ever since Napster hit the scene, the way we access music has fundamentally changed. Since 1999, we’ve shifted from the ownership model, where the consumer pays for and keeps a copy of the product, to a streaming model where the user pays for open access to a multitude of artists and albums at once. Spotify, a Stockholm-based music streaming service co-owned by Napster’s Sean Parker and Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Ek, has itself amassed over sixty million users since its formation back in ‘08, and Apple, once known for its iTunes store where users could purchase and download tracks for 99 cents apiece, has recently launched its own streaming service, Apple Music (Stella).
     But if the consumer has seemingly benefitted from such a model, the way artists and writers of music are compensated for their work certainly has not. “Wake Me Up” by Avicii has garnered over three hundred million streams on Spotify, making it the most-played song in service’s history (Blacc). However, each stream of the song must be apportioned out and reconciled with a royalty-payment scheme that hasn’t seen a single change since 2001. In an interview with WIRED Magazine, Aloe Blacc, co-writer and featured singer on “Wake Me Up,” highlights the disparity: “In return for co-writing and singing on a major hit song, I’ve earned less than $4,000 domestically from the largest digital music service [Spotify]. A system that allows digital streaming services to enjoy enormous profits while music creators struggle is imbalanced and broken.”
     Mr. Blacc is absolutely correct: we must take who subscription-based streaming services work for into consideration. We know from the music industry’s large-scale experiment with streaming that the originators of the content—the people without whom the system could not exist—are hit especially hard, while the distributors reap the rewards. By cutting profits at the source and artificially inflating them at the end of the line, we disincentivize the creation of the very material on which the entire system relies.
     Which is why, as we look to streaming media’s next big media frontier—books—we ought to consider its rise with skepticism.
     Increasingly, e-books are being readily made available through publishing’s own version of streaming services; NYC-based startups Oyster and Scribd compliment Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited as popular, flat-fee e-book subscription services, each boasting millions of titles (Technology). But while the music industry has already irreconcilably aligned itself with a streaming, subscription-based future, there is still plenty of time for the publishing industry to get cold feet. So, to any of the authors out there that are surely hanging on every word: take heed. Better to have cold feet than a hole burning through your pocket.
     As of July, 2015, Amazon stated that they would begin to pay Kindle Unlimited author’s royalties by the number of pages read instead of per books downloaded (Wayner). Moreover, this new plan excludes re-read pages from counting towards the total, and prevents authors from using that sly, high school trick of enlarging the font through a new standardized metric called the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). Considering the vast majority of all Kindle Unlimited books already sell for less than $5.00, the payout-per-page Amazon affords writers is shockingly small—and that’s only for self-published authors. Many larger publishers’ books are also included in Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, and Scribd catalogues, but the deals inked have not been made available for public viewing.
     This is the same collusive, backstairs way of making deals that we have seen become rampant in the music industry in the past decade. The specific terms of the licensing deals Spotify and Apple Music made with the four majors are not known (all parties involved signed nondisclosure agreements), and resultantly the majors have ultimate discretion in divvying out profits to their artists (Seabrook). Maroon 5 could have accounted for 15% of all streaming revenue for their record label Universal in a given year, but there is no safeguard in place to prevent executives from paying them only for 10%. If streaming were to eclipse standard transactions of ownership in books as it has in the music, authors could likewise be shorted. As both the music and publishing industries have to some degree demonstrated, subscription streaming is an enemy of transparency in the way it is currently implemented, and only serves to strip profits away from the deserving creators of the art we consume.
     So, if publishing shouldn’t rush headlong into streaming as music has, what should it aspire for? This is a much more difficult question, as streaming could be an ideal solution if deals were brokered prioritizing the artist. History, however, has unfortunately shown us that deals prioritizing the artist are the exception, not the norm, and that corporations will always exploit artists for sake of a better profit, if given the chance. The success and health of any creative industry should not be defined by executives’ profit margins, but by the environment that it fosters for the creation of future art. The ill-used, defrauded artists that streaming creates are less likely to produce important work, and therefore less likely to advance culture in a positive direction. Publishing should justifiably be wary of large-scale streaming, because we’ve already seen its effects in an analogous industry. Transparency in business is what it ultimately boils down to—the book and music industries being the pot in which this transparency boils. It’s time both the music and publishing industries realize that only so many secret deals can be made, that the lid can only stay on the pot so long before a whole mess of hot vapor comes streaming out. And compared to boiling water, cold feet don’t seem like such a bad thing.
  • About the Author
    Zach Sharb is a creative writing major at Miami University. His interests include producing music, cooking scrambled eggs, and imagining hypothetical situations. He really is more grown up than he looks.

    Share this article :


    Post a Comment