Streaming platforms have become the most ubiquitous purveyors of music and also the most vilified. But an unexpected ally spoke out on their behalf Thursday at the South by Southwest Music Conference.
"There's a lot of noise coming from the media" about streaming services such as Spotify, said Merck Mercuriadis, a business partner of songwriter-producer Nile Rodgers. "A lot of darkness, doom and gloom that these services don't pay enough, that artists aren't getting a big enough piece of the pie ... which is right, but the pie is exploding. It's growing every day. There is money coming into the music business that has never been there."
The bottom line, Mercuriadis said, is "we need to allow these streaming services to grow."
Spotify, the 10-year-old Swedish corporation that is the biggest player in the streaming pond, takes in $6 billion in annual revenue and doles out 70 percent to rights holders. But most artists see only micro-fractions of a penny for each stream by the time the revenue trickles down to them from a variety of middle men, including publishers and record labels.
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"The thing that propelled" my career was songwriting, "but the remuneration was not fair," Rodgers said, a problem that predates the streaming era. "When Bernard Edwards (cofounder of Rodgers' band Chic) and I started out, we were splitting 3 percent of the revenue on a song we wrote."
"Spotify is not the reason songwriters haven't had a seat at the table," Mercuriadis said. "They did not have a seat at the table with Universal and Sony (record companies) either."
To change that, Rodgers and Mercuriadis have created the Hipgnosis Songs Fund, a publicly traded music investment company. It's based on the idea that songs have value in the same way that gold or oil do. They claim to have raised $3 million so far for investors. It's the only music rights company on the London Stock Exchange, but it may spawn imitators if it continues to build.
"My career has proven that hit songs are highly investible," Rodgers said. But he also pointed out he's written songs that stiffed that later become hits when repurposed by other artists. "Songs can have a third, fourth, five, sixth life."
Artist compensation remains an annual issue at South by Southwest, and Hipgnosis provides the latest attempt to unify the artistic community to gain market leverage.
"The big holistic goal is to make an environment that's better for songwriters," Rodgers said. "There's no reason that the person who distributes the message should get far more than the person who creates the message."
Outside in the street and clubs of Austin, musicians whose songs are worth a third-fourth-fifth-sixth life, were out in force. None was more worthy than Martin Phillipps, whose reconstituted New Zealand band the Chills played a 35-minute set Thursday brimming with should've-been heavenly pop hits. Phillips turned his five-piece band into a mini-orchestra, with counterpoint melody lines on fiddle, guitars, and keyboards.
Phillips spiderwebbed treble-tinged guitar lines on his 1984 classic "Pink Frost" and found a poignant middle-age response in the recent "Deep Belief." That's a four-decade span of great songs, nearly as impressive as Rodgers five-year run of brilliance.
Newcomer Tasha delivered a solo performance as radiant as her smile. Before a packed-in audience, she sang songs of consolation and consecration, and also offered a luminous version of the Dixie Chicks' "Lullaby." The Chicago singer's guitar-playing was as understated and expressive as her singing. She also introduced a new composition. "This might be the only time a song gets out in the world," she said. When it was done, the audience applauded and she beamed. "Is it a keeper?"