Updated: May 17
Covid19, Brexit and Apple Privacy changes have collectively caused the perfect storm battering unsigned musicians like never before. The combined effect has left the grassroots music scene teetering on the brink of crisis.
In case you've been under a duvet, here is a quick recap of what's been happening.
Brexit makes the European tour a near impossibility
Such is the complexity of paperwork, permits and permissions, the Musicians Union have been forced to create a detailed flowchart showing how musicians can travel and play live in Europe. Music economists calculate Europe to be a 4x larger market than the US for UK touring artists. Bands like NME darlings Fontaines DC are losing £10-15k for every lost festival booking.
Music venues are closing down
Covid19 lockdowns forced the closure of music venues across the country. Despite the government creating a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund many are struggling to stay open.
Musicians quit being musicians
Research by Encore claim up to 64% of musicians in the UK are considering quitting due to the financial crisis caused by Covid.
Facebook once offered an affordable way for unsigned musicians to run advertising via their self serve Facebook Ads platform. Since Apple IO14 changes, advertising conversion costs have skyrocketed reducing the ability of musicians to promote music.
The tip of the iceberg
When these stories were reported, the natural focus is 'the music industry,' which typically means major label signed artists or professional musicians. Statistica identifies 45,000 'professional musicians' in the UK.
But to limit the music industry to this group is a mistake, it's only the tip of the iceberg, especially when you realise most unsigned musicians are not registered as musicians, most have full-time jobs.
The real size of the UK 'music industry'
There are 140,000 members of the PRS for Music, the right collection agency. But let's be clear not everyone registers (they should)
Facebook includes approximately 800,000 people in it's UK target audience of people that have 'musicians' in their profile page 'Job Title' and includes a further 10,000 who include music in their 'Field of Study'.
3.8m people visited Distrokid (distribution) website in the last year from the UK
Whichever number you believe to be the truth, it's clear that changes to the music industry affect more than 45,000 professional musicians. It's time to take indies seriously especially when you consider the independent music scene is now estimated to represent 10% of the total recorded music industry, which means +$2bn globally (The Raine Group).
Live music is a key income source for unsigned musicians
While it's heartbreaking that one of our favourite 'new-ish' bands Fontaines DC is losing money from lost festival bookings, spare a moment to think about the real grassroots musicians. Consider the longer-term impact on UK culture, if the next generation is forced to quit their dreams before they have even begun.
The short-term closure of music venues is eclipsed by the threat of permanent closure of the 30 music grassroots venues identified by The Music Venue Trust. These include loved venues like The Lexington and The Windmill.
Now consider over half (52%) of unsigned artists report 'live music' as their biggest source of income (RCM The Big Survey). So it's easy to understand the impact, even if only 30 small venues just disappear. Then if you remove European touring from the equation and independent musicians really start to suffer.
Alongside the changes, some things remain the same.
To earn the equivalent of minimum wage Digital Music News. calculated a musician based in the US would need between 230,000 and 400,000 monthly Spotify streams! When you think many are lucky to pass 1,000 for a release that's often unreachable.
But at least they are paying musicians something for every Stream! It's more than can be said of Facebook or YouTube, the latter limits monetisation to musicians who achieve subscriber and viewer watch hours beyond the reach of most independent musicians.
Meanwhile, radio playlists unsurprisingly continue to be dominated by major label signed artists. This makes radio a cost prohibitively expensive channel for an independent artist to drive reach, and forget monetary returns. (EG Would you spend £1,000 on a radio plugger to generate a couple of one-off, late-night spot plays?).
And then there is Facebook...
Now hampered by the Apple privacy changes, their advertising suddenly feels way less attractive. Previously a well crafted creative and well-targeted conversion ad campaign might deliver 'Conversions' from ad click to Spotify stream of around 10p.
Now the same musicians, with the same creative and same audience are reporting the cost of conversion jumping to £2 or £3.5o! When you remember one stream pays back approximately 0.003p it's hard to justify the continued spend.
How many other industries can you think of that lose money the minute they start advertising? The record labels in their excitement to escape digital piracy really did sell musicians and their art down the river!
Could other media channels play the role of saviour?
So where do unsigned and independent artists go from here? Social media's organic reach has hit the floor, paid ads are too expensive, live is closing and radio is closed!
Every day brands and businesses spend millions on media to promote their products and services, across a variety of on and off-line channels. Could any of these other media channels support musicians?
What if media owners and ad-tech companies gave musicians a break?
Let's start with 'out of home' advertising. Did you know, that when they don't sell all of their advertising inventory it's called 'filler inventory' and often it's donated to charity. Just imagine if outdoor advertising operators like Global (who consequently also run Capital FM, XFM and a ton of music festivals) agreed to give up their unsold ads to promote musicians. Now that could be game-changing and a great chance to prove the power of their new formats and placements!
Or what if YouTube gave up the ad space on the top of YouTube known as the 'mast-head to one musician when it had hadn't sold. Or if Indie musicians unable to crack radio playlists had music played in 30-second ad spots?
You get the gist... If advertisers siphoned off a proportion of unsigned ad inventory to support indie musicians that would be a real game-changer.
And it's happened before... A few years ago a then unsigned band called Broken Witt Rebels (now signed to Universal) found themselves supported by media agency Wavemaker who leveraged the media power of their partners to help 'break the band'
Broken Witt Rebels found themselves on billboards and their video for Guns attracted almost half a million plays in just one day when it was featured on the front page of YouTube. How do I know? I ran the project! (Listen to the case study).
Wouldn't it be good to reprise this approach, but this time not as a one-off but as an ongoing concerted attempt to support grassroots music culture?
The challenge to UK media companies
This isn't just a challenge to media owners, there are tons of smart ad-tech companies out there that could also play a role in helping musicians reach and connect to their fans more effectively. Yes, I'm thinking of you Captify, Teads, Ogury, Bliss, Xaxis to name just a few.
Everyone claims to love music, now might just be the time to do something to protect its future. We'd welcome a conversation with any media own or ad-tech company that can offer their services to support unsigned and self-released musicians.
It's time for action.
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Words Mark Knight (Founder Major Labl)