Winning arguments: What the streaming rows tell us about the music biz right now


It’s been something of a vintage few weeks for music business dust-ups.

Spotify and Apple are in dispute in Europe over the latter’s App Store. Songwriters and streaming services are at odds in the US over the Copyright Board reforms (a fact Apple, which hasn't joined the action, wasn't afraid to use as it hit back at Spotify). Warner’s legal dispute with Spotify in India is still rumbling on. Even within the music business, rights-holders' hitherto united front on the Copyright Directive showed a few signs of crumbling in the face of intense lobbying.

Bar a couple of considered interventions from Warner/Chappell's Carianne Marshall, and this week's Music Week cover star, Sony/ATV's Martin Bandier, most of the rhetoric around the rows has also been pretty uncompromising. Daniel Ek pointed the finger at Apple for leveraging an "unfair advantage". Apple said Spotify was trying "to make money off others' work". Spotify accused Warner Music of "abusive behaviour". Warner said Spotify's comments were "appalling".

And round and round it goes. Older readers will remember when such spats were a regular feature of Music Week’s pages (and you can check our weekly archive slot in the magazine for the proof). But in recent years, as the biz coped with a sales slump, arguments – at least public ones – drifted down the agenda, as all parts of the value chain pulled together to try and make things work.

Those days of unity, however, are under threat. The size of the prize in music’s newly-globalised world right now – what Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer refers to as the ‘jackpot economy’ – means there is a veritable sharknado of opportunists heading the music business’ way at the moment.

But higher expectations and higher investment also ramp up the pressure. For Spotify to be involved in three significant business disputes at once seems unfathomable – especially given their hard-won reputation for being low-stress and artist-friendly – until you consider the financial investors they now have to answer to.

But all sides might want to remember what they achieved together during the economic hard times. Labels and publishers made sacrifices to help streaming services get started, and DSPs in turn have powered the rights-holders’ recovery. Both sides are now in much better positions than they were a few years ago, but neither has much of a business without the other. And whatever ultimately happens in the multiple disputes unfolding day-by-day, most of the protagonists are going to have to deal with each other in the future, however many insults they chuck around now.

And ultimately, like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the music and streaming businesses are stronger together. So, while Saturday night might be alright for fighting, Monday morning might be a good time to get along and get back to business.

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