The trade press in the last few days has been full of news about a letter of inquiry from two Congressmen to Spotify asking for details about Spotify’s promotional royalty rates where, in exchange for lowered royalties, songs to which these rates apply may be played more frequently, as Spotify factors in lower costs into its music selection algorithms. The Congressional letter asks whether this promotional approach is already in operation, and if it will lead to a “race to the bottom” forcing lower royalties on artists, resulting in economic losses to these artists. While the implication is that negotiation over royalty rates is a new phenomenon, in fact such negotiations are common in the digital music marketplace and, based on the way that Congress itself established the royalties for music services, they are inherent in that system. In effect, this Congressional letter seems to be asking for Spotify to forego a private business transaction by which it lowers its costs of doing business through providing its business partners something that they want – more exposure for certain music.
Indeed, as we have written before, these negotiations over royalty rates are required to operate in the digital music marketplace. Royalties paid to performers and record labels for the use of music by an interactive music service like Spotify are not set by governmental decision (there is no Copyright Royalty Board setting a default rate as there is for noninteractive music services – see our article here). Instead, the rates are set by private business negotiations where there is a give-and-take between the parties over various considerations – including the promotional benefits when songs are featured on certain playlists provided by services like Spotify. Certainly, there are counterweights to any downward pressure on all royalty rates, as listeners to an on-demand service like Spotify want to hear the hits. So Spotify needs to pay for those hits to attract and retain its listeners. In some cases, artists have determined that there is insufficient promotional value to the playing of their music on an interactive service and that no royalty would be enough to compensate them for perceived lost sales of their music when it is featured on an interactive service. As we wrote here, these artists may deny an interactive service the use of all their music, or portions of their catalog. In other cases, as in the instances that apparently gave rise to the Congressional letter, record companies or artists may feel that it is important that their music get exposure, so they will be willing to accept lower royalties in exchange for wider exposure to their music to consumers that such plays deliver. In other cases, other promotional benefits may be given to the copyright holders for lower royalties (in fact, initially, the record companies received equity positions in Spotify, presumably to help convince them to make their music available at rates that Spotify thought it could afford). Royalties in the interactive music marketplace are simply the result of a marketplace negotiation, as Congress intended when they adopted Section 114 of the Copyright Act providing for digital performance rights for sound recordings.
Continue Reading Congress Asks Spotify for Information About Promotional Royalty Rates – Is This Much Ado About the Way the Interactive Music Marketplace is Designed to Work?