Misplaced concern?

In today’s The Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti laments Toronto songwriter Diana Williamson:

Toronto songwriter Diana Williamson, who recently moved back from L.A., told me about a song she’d co-written that had reached 260,000 downloads and made it to No. 3 on the Billboard dance chart. She hadn’t seen a penny in royalties. To complain about rip-off downloading, she said in an interview, is to invite “abuse from the mob. But if those fans were bakers, they wouldn’t be giving away their croissants for free.”

Ms. Renzetti’s concern might be a bit misplaced. The Billboard dance chart (and all of their charts) are a measure of relative sales. Just recently they amended their formula to include streaming:

The updated Billboard 200 will utilize accepted industry benchmarks for digital and streaming data, equating 10 digital track sales from an album to one equivalent album sale, and 1,500 song streams from an album to one equivalent album sale. All of the major on-demand audio subscription services are considered, including Spotify, Beats Music, Google Play and Xbox Music.

It’s always easy to blame the big, bad internet for the problems of an artist, but let’s do some math first. Ms. Williamson’s 260,000 downloads would have been equivalent to at best, if all were digital track sales, about 26,000 album sales. Or at worst, if they were just streams, a whopping 173.3 album sales. Now a lot of detail is left out in the article. The song made it to number 3 on the Billboard dance chart. Was that purely on the strength of downloads? What was Ms. Williamson’s agreement with the record company? She is a co-songwriter, which means that she and her partner may share royalties equally with the artist. Or they may not. Or her contract may call for the marketing expenses of the record company to be fully paid before she sees a dime. After all, a record company would never treat artists unfairly, now would they?

There are ambiguities here because of the way record contracts were traditionally structured and worded. Record deals with new artists are (nearly) always totally stacked in the label’s favour, to justify the investment the record company is making into unproven talent, and to allow for the fact that 90%+ of all the investments traditionally made by record companies fail to break even. Once a label has made back all and any monies it invested into launching a band, and releasing all and any of their records, it then agrees to share with the artist any future revenues that are generated by the sound recordings created under the contract. Though usually subject to a plethora of further deductions and charges, especially when recordings are monetised by another subsidiary of the label group the artist signed to. Some record contracts are more generous and less complicated than others.

We could consider the legacy of problems artists have historically faced when dealing with music distributors. Or we could just blame the whole thing on downloading.

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