An article about streaming and the dominance of catalog sales that appeared earlier this month in The New Inquiry. It's written by Jaime Brooksmarch, a musician who talks about catching the tail end of a golden moment of music blogging and online music-fan communities:
".... Over the course of the decade that followed, so much changed that it’s difficult to know where to even begin talking about it. The file-sharing ecosystem was smashed to bits by cops and lawyers so many times that even the most dedicated archivists lost the will to keep rebuilding it. Smartphones brought most of the world online, transforming the internet from a fringe space that only occasionally surfaced into mainstream popular culture into what basically feels like the exact opposite of that. Most people settled on platforms like YouTube where copyright holders had exponentially more power to issue takedowns and generate ad revenue than they ever had in the file-sharing era. The major labels easily assumed control of the vinyl market, sidelining the independent labels that had been driving the resurgence of interest in the format throughout the 2000s decade. No one can get records pressed up quickly enough to sell them on tour anymore because every pressing plant in the world is booked to press up expanded reissues of albums by Toto and Journey."
The piece then addresses its major topic, which is the changes wrought by the Streamers, referencing a 2014 email by an executive called David Goldberg about music biz strategies addressed to the CEO of a massive music industry conglomerate.
'“Music is becoming a purely digital product,” Goldberg’s email begins. He goes on to talk a lot about “catalog,” which is the word that the record business uses to describe music that was released more than eighteen months ago. “Catalog provides 50% of the revenue and 200% of the profits of recorded music. This has generally been the case for other recorded music companies when the analysis is correctly done. The correct analysis requires including reissues, live albums, [and] greatest hits releases in catalog.”'
Brooksmarch notes that in 2004, "catalog accounted for 35% of digital and physical sales in America. The vast majority of music being bought and sold back then was new music."
That was two years before Spotify existed and back when lots of people bought MP3s and were still attached to the idea of owning music and collecting it, rather than renting and having a passing relationship with it.
"Streaming turned out to be a great boon for the catalog business. In the pre-streaming music business, catalog had to compete for shelf space with new releases in record stores. When a new format like cassette tapes or CDs arrived, labels could squeeze dedicated listeners for revenue by encouraging them to re-buy their collections, but streaming was a complete paradigm shift. Streaming platforms have infinite shelf space. Every single recording the majors own the rights to is a potential source of revenue, regardless of whether or not it has recently been remastered, reissued, or featured in a film. On streaming, there’s nothing stopping an artist who has been dead for decades from outperforming working musicians living today. This is the future that Dave Goldberg was predicting in his strategy email. Infinite opportunities to monetize catalog, very little incentive to bother pushing anything else.
“Streaming revenues tend to be more heavily weighted to catalog,” he wrote. “Pandora and Spotify are probably 65% catalog under this definition..... The catalog is also primarily generating this revenue off the ‘deep’ catalog that is at least 5 years old or older.”
Brooksmarch observes, grimly, that "today, catalog accounts for 75% of sales and streams. [i.e. more than twice what it was in 2004] Only 25% of the music being bought or streamed today is “new,” potentially even less than that depending on how exactly “catalog” is defined now."
Goldberg in his strategy memo advises that because most of the moolah is coming from catalog, “new releases need to be cut back dramatically to the point where the new business either breaks even or loses a small amount of money… " The gist of the idea that follows from this is that the new groups on a label gets consigned to what is effectively a kind of "internal indie label" within the major company - getting not much in the way of the typical old skool major label promo push, in other words."
A particularly sharp and alarming observation from Brooksmarch is that early death seems to transform new artists into legacy artists:
" A fairly startling number of young rap artists who signed to majors off the back of viral success already in progress were killed or incarcerated shortly afterwards. Pop Smoke, Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Juce WRLD, Bobby Shmurda. Posthumous releases by some of these artists were marketed more heavily by the label than anything the artist released while they were alive, which makes sense. In an industry that revolves around catalog, dying young is like graduating early to the part of the business that actually matters to the people running it."
Various solutions and utopian alternate paths forwards are outlined in the piece, which is well worth a proper read.