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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

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October 12, 2012

Is Streaming Music A Viable Business? For Whom?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I've been trying to write this story for a while and stuff keeps popping up. I'm going to focus on three related posts, all of which illuminate different corners of the current (problematic) business model for online streaming music. The core questions are: who gets paid for this and how sustainable is it.

Given: the Cartel charges a LOT to stream music in the US. There are several services operating overseas that just won't ever move into the US market because the copyright fees are so exorbitant. One that did make that move is Spotify and they may well be regretting that move. After being wildly popular and apparently successful overseas, CNET noted last week that there's a very good chance Spotify's entire business model is "broken".

Here "broken" means "can't ever possibly make money." The model advertises free-to-listen streams for US consumers (good for us) while the company has to pay server and bandwidth costs as well as those high US royalty rates (bad for them, and ultimately bad for people who like Spotify). Sandoval's story notes that Spotify is still a private company and thus not required to publish numbers, but it has agreed that the numbers posted by PrivCo are generally correct.

Spotify's strategy appears to be to absorb the losses (covered by venture financing) while it builds market share and audience size, then find a way to make money off that large audience. One way to do that is through subscription fees and you can see that the #2 comment on Sandoval's story (at least when I wrote this) is someone asking Spotify to raise subscription fees. In other words, there are real people out there who are really willing to open up their wallets and pay for a service they love. Shocking, innit?

Currently it appears that services are converging around a number like $10/month in fees, with a wide array of discounts and premium/freemium models being tested. I think, given the cacophony (you see what I did there?) of subscription models still being tested it's premature to write off Spotify or any other service just yet.

In order to survive, streaming services need not just to satisfy the Cartel with its royalty structures, but they also need to keep artists happy. For some time there has been muttering that streaming services aren't returning (enough) money to the artists and some artists have chosen to keep their latest hits off the streaming services. Two articles address this point head on: First, AP reports that the RDIO service will be paying artists $10 per new subscriber. Rdio is definitely playing catch-up in this business against the bigger names like Spotify and is hoping that artists will sign on to the program, create pages on the Rdio service that fans will find, and then lead the fans through the sign-up, for which artists will get direct revenue. Adding subscribers is a significant cost for these services and some kinds of affiliate-style programs make sense.

However, this doesn't address the deeper question of how stream revenue flows to artists. Pandora's take on this question hit their blog earlier this week. Stacking up real (if lesser-known) names, and actual revenue numbers, Pandora founder Tim Westergren shows how much money is flowing from the streaming service to artists.

In addition, he's not shy about pointing the finger directly at the RIAA and blaming them for artists not getting more money. As we've seen, the RIAA isn't shy about setting high fees for streaming music, and isn't shy about keeping those fees for itself. Westergren's points include the claim (sadly using awful marketing studies to back himself up) that streaming services have contributed to the decline of music piracy while the supposed anti-piracy RIAA continues to hoard the revenue that's being generated.

There's a lot more to say about this business and its models for survival, but this is a good set of places to start.

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