Let’s talk with Paul Clouvel (part 1 : about streaming revenues)

Let's talk with Paul Clouvel : about music streaming

Let’s talk with Paul Clouvel (part 1 : about streaming revenues)

We discuss different subjects such as streaming, gender equality in music, the life of a label today and other subjects with Paul Clouvel, composer, performer and especially the one who runs Elektramusic. Let’s start with a subject that annoys many: revenue from music streaming.

Elektramusic is a very active label online. Do you have a particular link to the internet?

Yes from the start. For me the internet was emancipation. At the time, I was close to a major contemporary music institution in a small town in France. This kind of institution which has total contempt for the young composers that we were at the time. We were scheduled for their festival on Thursday at 2 p.m. in front of 4 people…

So we created a web radio, and suddenly we had 400 listeners. It was a lot on the internet at the time, and better than 4 spectators. So at that point it was like, “fuck off with your crappy old festival,” we’re going to take matters into our own hands.

Labels and musicians don’t make money from streaming on Spotify for example. Why choose Spotify. ?

It’s not just Spotify that you don’t make money on. This is the case with all streaming platforms. But Spotify is like Google. If you look for the name of an artist and you can’t find it, that artist doesn’t exist (laughs).

Seriously, my job is to promote musicians and their work. So Spotify allows you to have visibility and reach the whole world. This is the one and only interest.

Some may prefer to address a niche, an elite, but that is not my choice. My choice is to reach as many people as possible. If we do not introduce contemporary music to as many people as possible, this music will continue to be perceived as complicated and reserved for “people who know”, therefore elitist music.

It is not by remaining “among ourselves” or “among friends” that we will democratize contemporary music. Even if being “among yourself” is reassuring for some.

So streaming is still a good idea, even if the income is indecent?

Streaming is a simple internet broadcasting technique that allows you to reach the entire world in real time, and it’s great. Streaming by definition is not an economic model. It’s a technique.

But the economic model of streaming is not fair?

No, it’s theft and exploitation. Today some platforms sell a product for which they have not paid. And when the platforms pay, the income is ridiculous. These are not even symbolic incomes, but ridiculous and indecent.

When you say that the platforms sell a product for which they have not paid, what does that mean?

They didn’t finance the production or anything. Also, not many people know, but musicians cannot broadcast directly on streaming platforms.

They must go through a technical intermediary who charges artists around 30 euros for putting their album online. And to recover these 30 euros, it will take a lot of time in 99% of cases…

So never was Karl Marx so relevant when he wrote in “Capital” that “the capitalist’s profit is that he sells something for which he has not paid for”.

It’s an economic model close to Uber or all these other services. These are companies that put themselves in a monopoly position by offering a service that is super easy to use for people

But how does this system work?

The stroke of genius of all these companies is to have completely changed people’s consumption and thinking habits.

Today we find it normal to pay only 4 or 5 euros for an Uber/Bolt ride (even finding that it is still too expensive sometimes). We find it normal to pay 1000 euros for a phone (with a huge profit for the manufacturer) knowing that it was manufactured in disastrous social conditions by the workers.

The exact same thing happened to people’s “consumption of music.”

Yet before there was a music and record industry that brought in money?

There was a recording industry that made a lot of money and benefited a lot from it. When this industry moved from vinyl records to CDs, it cost it nothing. She just transferred recordings already paid for and already profitable on a new physical medium and it was the jackpot without any effort.

We went from a system where we sold an object, to a new system where music was dematerialized. Suddenly there was no longer a physical item to sell.

From the beginning of the internet and mp3, everyone began to exchange these files for free peer to peer. It was the heyday of illegal downloading. An era of “music theft” that became completely free.

So the streaming platforms were to limit illegal downloading?

It was presented like that in fact. But the principle of the subscription or service paid for by advertising remains theft. And the musical world, the artists, the producers have never been associated. We never asked them for their opinion.

It’s as if you said to the boss of the supermarket: either I steal from your store, or I give you 10 euros a month and I take everything I want from your store as many times a month as I want.

So we can clearly see that this is not a “fair and just economic model”. It’s still theft.

How can this system still work?

I think everyone is somewhat complicit and active in this system. There is a form of ambivalence.

Governments know that the system does not work but it has the appearance of legality by having replaced illegal downloading.

People know that the pay is zero but are happy because they have access to everything almost for free.

And musicians need visibility, and don’t want to be outside the system.

So there are no alternatives?

There are other services, like Bandcamp for example, that offer more reasonable remuneration to musicians. But these services do not have the impact of large streaming platforms.

Bandcamp remains niche. There are mostly music enthusiasts there and that’s very good. These are basically the same people who are on Bandcamp and buying vinyl. They are real music lovers.

Is there such a big difference in terms of audience reached?

Yes really. The audience is on average 1000 times larger on streaming platforms than on sites like Bandcamp, from what I can see in our statistics.

Do you see an improvement?

Unfortunately no. Not long ago Spotify even announced that the first 1000 listens of a track would no longer be paid to artists… It’s getting worse and worse.

As long as we let these companies do what they want and we don’t say “stop” there will be no improvement.

We have all known the situation for years, but nothing changes.

Should we have mobilized earlier?

It’s too easy to say “we should have done it like that”, because I don’t think anyone had the solution.

It was also difficult to mobilize collectively because the music sector is unfortunately a sector of strong competition between musicians.

There were also professional organizations, but they often represented the “big musicians” and not enough of the small ones.

And also differences in mindset: an internet startup is very different from a copyright company which has rules dating from the end of the 19th century.

Can we collectively still change the system?

I certainly hope so. I was just at a meeting a few days ago on this subject. And the views were interesting.

There were representatives of professional musicians’ organizations, who wanted to have more members. And who were for political and government lobbying action. And also for a form of boycott of these platforms.

There were also other people who lost confidence in these institutions and in politicians. They wanted to focus on campaigns on social networks for example. Also highlight the problems that people of color, or queer people, may encounter in music world.

And a third, more pragmatic group who knows that there is not a single solution, and that mobilization is difficult.

Finally, there were also musicians who were completely against this capitalist system, but who would be very happy if they could one day make a lot of money through streaming…

Are these opposite solutions?

I am a totally inclusive person. I hate it when people are put into categories. And I hate when we pit categories against each other. We are in such a segmented world that I am against segmenting it even more.

Mobilization is possible if it is unitary and inclusive. If we stop considering others as the source of our problems. Whether it’s composers, labels, musicians, professional unions, we are all involved in this business and we are all in the same boat.

So I think that all actions must be complementary and add up and above all not oppose each other.

Especially since some musicians (not all) are in their own bubble and have little social or political curiosity, and that needs to evolve. And quick.

What would be the solution?

Haha I don’t have the answer. But if a company makes people work 40 hours a week but only pays 20 hours, there will come a time when unions and governments will act. And it will be a legal response. With a law to respect.

The question is whether governments still have the means to act in a capitalist world, and also whether they want to. I don’t think it’s a priority for them.

Is it possible to make people pay more fairly?

Do you mean that suddenly you are going to ask people to pay for the air they breathe?

It’s been far too long, 20 years, that listening to music for free has almost been considered a “human right”.

I think people are okay with paying for something “extra”, something concrete.

A concert, a physical object, a special experience with the artist: yes! If there is added value people are willing to pay for this “user experience”.

If it means making them pay for something intangible that they have had for free for 20 years, it will be a total failure.

People are not stupid. They know very well that they have a “supermarket” of free online music accessible.

They agree to pay more, but for something quality and new.

Yet a subscription of 10 euros per month is very little?

For some Europeans it is true that 10 euros is not much. For some countries in Eastern Europe this is huge. And it’s also huge in many African countries, in Asia and elsewhere in the world.

There are many countries where the standard of living does not allow paying 10 euros per month just to listen to music. So illegal downloading still exists.

So if 10 euros is not much in Europe, why not increase the price of subscriptions?

Too much subscription kills the subscription. Yes, 10 euros is not much. But 10 euros for music, 10 euros for Netflix, 30 euros for the gym, 10 euros for Tinder haha. At the end of the month the total hurts.

Is streaming ultimately so important in contemporary music?

Big question…

No because some musicians are financed by public money and have no financial interest in streaming. They have orders, scholarships, jobs in universities. And these streaming revenues do not interest them.

They are very comfortable in their “bubble” and do not want to face this capitalist world in which they have little or no chance of surviving. And I really can understand them.

But yes, streaming is important because it allows you to share. There are more and more “contemporary” musicians who are on the border between lots of genres that mix “serious” music, experimentation, electro, etc. The borders are no longer there. And for these artists, yes, streaming revenue counts. Sharing. Visibility too.

And having these artists there is a lot of fun.

What could the future be?

I don’t know. It can be a “mix” of different strategies: putting a single track on Spotify to get visibility but no more, putting the entire album on Bandcamp, offering physical objects in concert, trying, experimenting.

A sort of mix: we are in the system because we have no choice, but we do not validate this system and we look for other solutions. And it’s good.

Have you achieved your goals with streaming for the label?

If we talk about sharing and visibility, the answer is yes. We are in a niche but in two years we have made 4 million streams. 4 MILLION ! So the sharing objective has been largely achieved.

And on the financial side?

In experimental music, streaming is a source of expense for us and generates almost no income.

It costs us more money to maintain albums online than it brings us. We must therefore understand that this is not an economic model, but a real militant activity so that contemporary music is accessible online.

Why is it important to stay focused on streaming revenue?

We must remain mobilized on all possible income for musicians, and more and more. Streaming music online must make money. Concerts too. The composition too.

We are coming out of a period of pandemic which has caused a lot of damage to music. Many musicians today are in unpleasant situations regarding their work, their income and their psychological state as well.

It’s not about earning a lot of money, but about allowing musicians to build a career and a life that is not permanent stress, but a sustainable life.

Is there any positive in all of this?

Yes there are positives.

The first thing is that streaming generates a lot of money. That’s almost 11 billion euros worldwide. And streaming represents, for example, 84% of recorded music revenues in the USA.

So there is money, but this money is poorly distributed.

The other positive point is the vitality of musical creation. There are over 100,000 new recordings uploaded every day! This means that all over the world, we compose, we create, we record, we create.

But we must be even more vigilant in this overabundance of music, in particular on the role of artificial intelligence which guides the choices of listeners (among other things).

Shall we end this very long first part with the final words?

We must remain both positive and attentive to all developments. The Internet makes it possible to do what was impossible just 15 years ago. In the recent past a musician had much fewer opportunities than now. We must always look at this tool positively and develop it on a fairer model.

It’s an environment that is constantly evolving and we don’t know what the new music distribution models will be tomorrow. I have a lot of trust in the inventiveness and curiosity of the different players in the world of music.