As an addendum to the Last.fm story today, what are the actual royalty rates we’re talking here? They’re not much – precisely the reason musicians will have to get broadcast-style play counts to ever see anything worth counting. For instance, Last.fm makes the comparison with the BBC in the Wired story. The BBC has more hegemony than even a giant US ClearChannel radio station, and I suspect it’d be virtually impossible for an unsigned artist to see that number of plays.
How little? Try $0.0005 per play, as Steve of sighup writes in comments. (I think that’s just radio plays; assuming you get both radio and on-demand plays, you should do a little better – but, still, you might be better off with your CD sales out of your guitar case.) Keep in mind, that’s on top of other revenue, like performance royalties from ASCAP, BMI, and such, but it’s still not much.
Low as that may sound, it’s in the same ballpark as traditional webcasting rates. Prior to the big shake-up over Copyright Royalty Board rates here in the US, its rate was US$0.0008. And that’s only in the US, whereas Last.fm is international – and some of that goes to SoundExchange, and some goes to your label, and … you get the picture.
The CRB and record industry did successfully pass higher rates, up to $0.001 (okay, still not putting your kids through college). Those rates caused an uproar from webcasters, but they were also initially associated with punishing minimum fees, which depending on the definition of what a “channel” is could have driven millions of dollars in fees for some webcasters. Those requirements, not the relatively tiny per-song rate, were what concerned artists and writers, because the new rules threatened to take away important channels for getting their music out there and driving sales to more lucrative enterprises like CD and concert sales.
As it happens, that debate continues as we speak. In the June 5 RAINcast (Radio and Internet Newsletter), Paul Maloney points to reports that Pandora’s chief executive is personally lobbying against these rules, because they’d suck up 70% of that services revenue, for a total US$18 million in royalties. You can do the math: that’s enough to bury Pandora, but not enough so that you’d ever see any of the change. Everyone loses. RAIN also notes that SoundExchange hasn’t actually been enforcing its new rates, so we haven’t yet seen what happens to Internet broadcasting with the new rules – even though they were ratified last summer.
So, Last.fm’s rates, while small, go straight to the artist, they’re transparent, and they’re in the ballpark of webcasting fees in the past. Since they’re set by Last.fm, we can assume CBS isn’t destroying its own business, either. And keeping things in perspective, this is really about Last.fm, not the entire universe of music. That’s the good news. The bad news is, they’re so impossibly small that for most people, it won’t really matter. And, yes, if Last.fm’s main business model is advertising, you have to wonder if artists won’t be more successful directly selling ads. Even Google AdSense could wind up being better for the artist, partly because it’s unclear how much ad exposure Last.fm can cram into its service. In the long run, my guess is you’ll see all of these – given the amount of ad inventory out there, and the rising consumption of music, and new ways of consuming music, I don’t think this is a zero sum game.
But the bottom line: cool as the Last.fm announcement is, even I’ll quickly admit that royalty rates in general are unlikely to make or break most artists’ lives. The real business is elsewhere, at least for now. If Last.fm can massively expand the number of listens, though, the whole game could change – and that means even that fraction of a penny could wind up being an important precedent. Stay tuned.