Imogen Heap and the mission to stop killing music acts’ long-term monetary value

MUSIC: Imogen Heap, the much-admired British singer-songwriter, producer and music technologist, made her disquiet about the way music creativity is undervalued as a profession heard on stage at a recent Futuresource conference.

Thanks to technology, from MP3s to downloads and from social media to streaming platforms like Spotify, fans have access to and are consuming more music than ever before.

And more international creative and leisure sectors, from TV, film, online videos and fashion to restaurants and work places, use music as background soundtracks for their businesses thanks to the same digital technologies.

But fewer and fewer of the music’s creators are able to make a living, she declared in October during the Futuresource Audio Renaissance gathering in London.

Heap (pictured below) joins a host of high-profile music acts, including Taylor Swift, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and, most recently, U2’s Larry Mullen, who have attacked digital-music distributors, and the labels they license music from, for failing to remunerate fairly the musicians that add worth to their businesses.

They wonder why emerging and mid-level artists are increasingly earning less for their toil while the digital-music platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and Google’s YouTube are given multi-billion dollar valuations by investors.

Speaking to MTF at the conference, Heap  said: “Everyone has been liberated with technology; technology has always been my friend. Music pushes technology and technology pushes music. But the reason the industry is not moving forward is because there are more middle men than there are artists, all taking a share of the income.”

Harvesting Mycelia
Unlike many of the artists criticising the digital-music services, Heap has actually been cultivating an idea called Mycelia, which aims to guarantee everyone in the industry’s value chain an equitable share of the revenues generated.

Heap used the Futuresource event to explain to music and technology executives the reasoning behind Mycelia, a Fair Trade-like movement she believes would enable artists at all levels to earn a viable living from music.

It is still an idea. But, should it come to fruition, she said Mycelia would be a kind of database that allows the music industry to use Bitcoin’s blockchain technology to ensure all contributors to any creative process benefit from the rewards gained by the venture.

“It would be a kind of portal that brings hundreds of artists and fans and tech developers together supported by some kind of investment in a foundation,” she explained to MTF. “With creators at the root level, it will be a system in the form of an incredible database containing every piece of information, on any music, that will grow organically.”

No transparency, dead business
Heap was the conference’s joint keynote speaker with Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), the organisation protecting the rights of UK singers, songwriters and other music creatives. 

Pacifico warned the audience that the days when genuinely talented music creators could hope to have a career, especially in the recording sector, were disappearing.

These days, it is almost impossible to find out who earns what and why from revenues generated from music sales and licensing, he said. That lack of transparency and the almost four years it takes for an artist to see any royalties for a particular work are hurting the whole business, he argued.

“There’s a mismatch of expectations between the (record) label and the artists, who expect duty of care when their rights are signed over to the label; but (that duty of care) doesn’t exist,” he said. “We’re in danger of losing the remuneration to artists that was hard fought for from radio during the 1950s and 1960s because many (of today’s) hidden costs are factored in via a back door.”

Why labels still matter
However, during her on-stage presentation, Heap had made it clear that Mycelia is about improving the music industry’s current infrastructure, not about undermining it.

“Even though it has been a troubled period for the past 10 years, I still believe in record companies. We all have to be excited about developing standards with artists, something that is solid, fair and true. It won’t happen overnight; it could take about 10 years but there is so much positivity to be had.”

That optimism coincides with recent data released by the British umbrella trade organisation UK Music in its Measuring Music report. It showed music contributed £4.1bn (US$6.2bn) to the British economy last year.

BPI, the UK’s recorded music business trade body, and the Music Publishers Association this month (November) disclosed that record companies and music publishers invested a record-breaking £497m (US$751m) in the careers of artists, songwriters and composers in 2014, including 150-plus new acts signed to the major record labels.

But that might still not be enough for artists’ long-term careers, according to David Sidebottom, principal analyst at Futuresource Consulting, the conference’s organizer.

For example, he fears the current monetisation of streaming music, where the vast majority of fans access millions of free tracks via advertising-funded platforms, will be insufficient for compensating those who wrote and performed the music.

He told MTF: “It is a tough business to be in and many (mid-level) independent artists are also debating whether there is any fairness in the business. The question is whether artists can survive in the long term?”

Technology needs music
Across the Atlantic, Farhad Mohit, CEO/founder of Flipagram, says his Los Angeles-based digital start-up’s business model centres on the appreciation of music’s value to storytelling. 

Flipagram, a storytelling app, enables users of mostly young Millennials to blend videos, photos, mini blogs and music to tell their story of any event or any experience they want to share in about 30 seconds of mobile multimedia creativity.

It has already entranced 30 million monthly actively users globally without any organised marketing since launching late 2013.

Flipagram’s investors include hotshot venture capital houses like Index Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, which contributed to US$70m in the latest round of funding this summer.

But “music is at the core of Flipagram because everyone has a soundtrack to their lives”, Mohit declares. “It’s also a way for musicians to engage with their fans to create stories and share with the fans.”

Each user’s Flipagram features links offering the opportunity to click to buy music via iTunes or to stream a track via the ad-funded Spotify. And to promote music, the company also compiles a weekly chart ranking the artists that receive the most number of ‘Likes’.

Licensing the music
However, it wasn’t until the company spent a significant chunk of its funds this summer on licensing music from the major labels (Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment), independent labels (via Merlin and The Orchard) and the leading music publishing conglomerates that Flipagram became entrenched as a business with a future, Mohit says.

Licensing the music means its users (there are more than 50 million registered Flipagram users) have legal access to a huge catalogue of songs to add to their audiovisual stories.

Furthermore, the move has encouraged a rapidly growing number of big-name artists in the “hundreds”, including Madonna, Garth Brooks, Demi Lovato and independent acts to set up their own Flipagram pages. Boy band sensation One Direction are scheduled to join on 13 November, the official release date of their new album.

And in response to the query about still not being signed to Warner/ Chappell Music, one of the world’s biggest music publishers, Mohit adds:

“We are still in talks. But we don’t need every song under the sun to succeed. We’re also about video stories and many stories are still relevant irrespective of the track used.”

He is also confident the music industry will do right by artists because “it is learning from the mistakes it made when the Internet started”.

[Read more about Flipagram’s social storytelling technology on TechMutiny Online]