How Monopolies Strangle Innovation: Record Label Demands Making Investors Nervous About Spotify
from the copyright-cartels dept
According to rumors reported by Business Insider, music streaming service Spotify is currently working on raising another round of funding at a valuation of about $3.5 billion—a figure that is making some major investment firms skeptical, despite the service's considerable success at growing its customer base. Over at TechCrunch, Josh Constine points out the most likely reason investors are reluctant: they know that the recording industry uses its copyright monopoly to exact a "tax on success" from innovative music startups.
Unfortunately, this is why investing in Spotify may not be wise and why firms like Andreessen-Horowitz may have passed. It’s a great service with a big lead on other music streamers. But as it scales and gains traction, the record labels will increase their tax. There’s no way Spotify will pay the same fees if it hits 15 million subscribers as it does now. That will make it harder for Spotify to return the multiple most investors want any time soon.
In most industries, if a partner charges you too high a licensing fee you can go to one of their competitors. That’s not how it works in music. You can’t get a cheaper equivalent to Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga like you could for enterprise software. If you want “Thriller” you have to pay whatever the labels ask. And even if it does, Spotify isn’t getting exclusive access to that content.
Though the specifics of the deals between record labels and music streaming services are secret, many details have been leaked over time, and it's long been known that they are onerous and one-sided. Last year, Michael Robertson of MP3tunes explained how the general structure of the deals make growth and innovation extremely difficult, while collusion among the labels eliminates any last shred of competition and ensures that a service like Spotify can never negotiate better terms. Investors know that music startups essentially live or die at the behest of the legacy industry, and investors are smart—they aren't about to bet millions on record labels making good decisions.
Economically speaking, none of this is surprising, because copyright is a monopoly and this is what monopolies do. They distort the free market and allow the monopolists to control the competition. Adding insult to injury, recording industry defenders like to tout streaming services as examples of how the industry embraces innovation, and RIAA CEO Cary Sherman recently said he was surprised that Spotify wasn't generating more revenue for the labels. To anyone who understands how difficult the labels have made life for these startups, claims like these don't pass the laugh test—and Spotify's difficulty securing funding is just more evidence of this fact. Its numbers would make it a hot investment property if it operated in any space other than music, but because it is shackled to a dying industry with a long history of technophobia, investors take their money elsewhere. Who can blame them?