The war over music copyrights

As paid streaming subscriptions get mainstream adoption, the big music streaming services – namely Spotify, Apple Music, and Tencent Music, but also Pandora, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Deezer, and others – have entered their prime. There are now over 51 million paid subscription accounts among music streaming services in the US. The music industry grew 8% last year globally to $17.3 billion, driven by a 41% increase in streaming revenue and 45% increase in paid streaming revenue.


The surge in music streaming means a surge in income for those who own the copyrights to songs, and the growth of entertainment in emerging markets, growing use in digital videos, and potential use of music in new content formats like VR only expand this further. Unsurprisingly, private equity firms, family offices, corporates, and pension funds want a piece of the action.


There are two general types of copyrights for a song: the publishing rights and the master rights. The musical composition of a song – the lyrics, melodies, etc. – comes from songwriters who own the publishing right (though generally they sign a publishing deal and their publisher gets ownership of it in addition to half the royalties). Meanwhile, the version of a song being performed comes from the recording artist who owns the master right (though usually they sign a record deal and the record label gets ownership of the masters and most of the royalties).


Popular songs are valuable to own because of all the royalties they collect: whenever the song is played on a streaming service, downloaded from iTunes, or covered on YouTube (a mechanical license), played over radio or in a grocery store (a performance license), played as soundtrack over a movie or TV show (a sync license), and for other uses. More royalty income from a song goes to the master owner since they took on more financial risk marketing it, but publishers collect royalties from some channels that master owners don’t (like radio play, for instance).


For a songwriter behind popular songs, these royalties form a predictable revenue stream that can amount to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars per year. Of course, most songs that are written or recorded don’t make any money: creating a track that breaks out in a crowded industry is hard. This scarcity – there are only so many thousands of popular musicians and a limited number of legendary artists whose music stays relevant for decades – means copyrights for successful musicians command a premium when they or their publisher decide to sell them.


Investing in streaming economics

In 2017, revenue from streaming services accounted for 38% of worldwide music industry revenue, finally overtaking revenue from traditional album sales and song downloads. Subscription streaming services hit a pivot point in gaining mainstream adoption, but they still have far to go. Goldman Sachs media sector analyst Lisa Yang predicted that by 2030, the global music industry will reach $41 billion in market size as the global streaming market multiplies in size to $34 billion (nearly all of it from paid subscriptions).


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