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Welcome to the latest episode of the Music Business Worldwide Podcast. The MBW Podcast is supported by Voly Music.
On this ‘cast, MBW founder Tim Ingham is joined by Travis Rosenblatt, founder of the SaaS platform for A&R research and scouting, Meddling.
Rosenblatt is a particularly interesting person to speak to because, by his own admission, he spends a lot of his time NOT consumed in his day job.
This allows him the bandwidth to think deeply about the music business, its challenges, and where it might be headed in future.
Meddling is very clever, gathering data from multiple touchpoints on new artists for clients that have included the likes of Republic Records, Kobalt, Columbia Records, and Atlantic Records.
But as a SaaS platform, Meddling largely runs itself – enabling Rosenblatt’s mind to wander toward various crucial topics for the modern music industry.
On this podcast, Ingham asks Rosenblatt about Meddling – a bit – but their conversation also dives into PROs, DIY distribution, music’s role on video platforms, and much more besides.
Listen to the full interview above or read an abridged and edited version of the discussion below…
One of the criticisms we hear about digital A&R scouting tools like Meddling is that they can lead to labels, management companies, publishers, etc. spending too much on novelty acts – a song or track that explodes from an artist that will never be seen or heard of again. What do you make of that idea?
We need to have a better understanding of what data can and cannot do – or what you should be using it for.
First of all, data is descriptive. Meddling’s even predictive – it can tell you what’s likely to happen next. But it is decidedly not prescriptive. [It cannot] tell you what you should do about this information.
“One song that accompanies a cute dance online that has a viral moment does not necessarily translate into an artist career.”
I think the [music industry] is getting better and better at understanding context. One song that maybe accompanies a cute dance or something [online] that has a moment does not necessarily translate into an artist career.
Unless you have a vision for that artist in the same way you would for an artist that you found at the Mercury Lounge… it doesn’t mean it’s something you should sign.
That idea fits with a more old-school A&R approach of developing talent long-term, often associated with an indie label approach. What would you say to a label like that if they said they didn’t need a digital A&R research tool to find ‘quick hits’, and will find artists their own way?
I’d say they’re right in their approach, but they should also be open to where those artists are coming from. We can’t ignore that the internet exists; [it enables you] to see everything that’s out there.
Five years ago, one of the major [record companies] in the UK kind of shooed me out of the room and said: ‘I hear hits in my sleep; I have ears made of gold! How dare you suggest that I need to use data?’
“Five years ago, one of the major [record companies] in the UK kind of shooed me out of the room and said: ‘I hear hits in my sleep; I have ears made of gold! How dare you suggest that I need to use data?’”
I understand that instinct. But even that person has now come back around and said, ‘Well, I guess as long as it’s presenting me things that I should listen to, it’s useful. But it’s not going to replace gut instinct, and it’s not going to replace artist development.’
It’s simply leveraging the audience that already exists out there that’s listening to things that maybe they’ve found before you have.
I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this, but Meddling is a largely automated service. You’ve told me previously that it allows your mind to wander and thoughtfully observe other parts of the industry. One of the biggest topics on the lips of the industry right now is this idea of ‘fandom’, that one person listening to a stream may be doing so with far more interest and passion than somebody who may be listening to another stream – and whether or not those two streams are necessarily worth the same in royalties. Are we moving into an era where more in-depth fans of certain artists or certain genres etc. may benefit from there being different platforms for different types of music listeners?
Absolutely. Neil Young, I believe, has his own streaming service [via the online Neil Young Archives]. When you’re a superstar artist, you can do that.
If everything is available for free at everyone’s fingertips, that’s a great value proposition for ‘lean-back’ listeners, but you then also have large number of superfans who are under-served. And while [those superfans] may be a small portion of the market, they’re a very important part of the market.
“Streaming services don’t care about converting listeners into fans. They just care about the time you spend in-app. For artists, that’s a huge problem.”
Streaming services don’t care about converting listeners into fans. For artists, that’s a huge problem. [Streaming platforms] just care about the time you spend in-app.
If you offer everyone on the planet a $9.99-per-month [price] for every song ever made, it’s a fantastic deal. But it also creates a culture of lean-back listening.
And when every DSP has the same catalog, the same offering, at the same price, if it essentially becomes basic cable [TV]. And I think there’s probably room for an HBO.
Is there anything particular over the past few years, when it comes to the side of digital services, that you think the music industry could have done better?
We’re very lucky that people really like music. [The music industry] captures some of the value of everything [out there] but we don’t capture all of the value.
For example, YouTube does [approximately] USD $28 billion a year in ad revenue, they pay about $4 billion in [recorded music] royalties; we’ve given the value to the points of distribution rather than capturing it ourselves.
Spotify right now has about twice the market cap of Warner Music Group. That’s pretty crazy.[The music industry] lets everyone else capture the value, and then goes back and says, ‘Well, you need our licenses.’ And then it gets, what, $200 million on TikTok’s $10 billion [in annual revenue]? It’s not a great value proposition.
“Spotify right now has about twice the market cap of Warner Music Group. That’s pretty crazy… we’ve given the value to the points of distribution rather than capturing it ourselves.”
I always like to go back to Vevo on this question.
Disney woke up one day and realized Netflix was capitalizing on their IP, and said, ‘Hang on a second, we could [launch our own streaming platform].”
That was the original concept for Vevo [when it was launched by Universal and Sony as a joint venture], and then we backed down. Now we just use it as a collective bargaining tool.
But [turning Vevo into an industry-owned streaming service] wouldn’t require a new content budget, you wouldn’t have to build out a new ad platform, a new app – it’s all already there.
You were involved in an interesting concept a while back CALLED SIGNAL. it brought together distribution as well as performance royalty collections, neighboring rights and other essential areas of commerce in the industry. When you look across the 2023 business, what do you feel are the most old-fashioned or outmoded elements of the business, and what needs to change?
All of it!
Right now you have [separately run] distribution, neighboring rights, performance rights, and mechanical rights administration; all of that has redundant infrastructure costs for [each part’s] unique customer acquisition. Yet it’s all based around the same asset.
The idea that you distribute [your music] and then chase down your collections later, is rather crazy.
Distribution has now become commoditized, and I think we’ll start to see the same thing on publishing [admin], maybe possibly neighboring rights too.[Today] you’re paying a publishing administrator to go and figure out your performance mechanical collections [in addition to paying a distributor]. You’re adding a layer of complexity rather than taking it away.
How susceptible Do you think incumbent territorial PROs in particular today are to being disrupted?
I think they’re incredibly fragile businesses. One of the largest non-US PROs ran an audit a few years ago and [according to Rosenblatt’s sources] found that if they lost their top nine writers, they would no longer be able to afford to operate.
“There are very real issues moving forward on how can these companies continue to run.”
There are very real issues moving forward on how can these companies continue to run, make enough money to cover their bases, and not completely change how they operate.
I can’t not ask your view of artificial intelligence, and the industry terror that erupted in the face of what was dubbed ‘Fake Drake’. What’s your reaction to the replication of superstar voices in music, and those subsequent copycat recordings becoming popular?
The last time we talked, maybe 12 to 18 months ago, your last question was around how I expected NFTs to change everything. I think it goes to show that [with people in the music biz] we’re a jumpy lot!
“I don’t think AI is here to steal Drake’s job. It’s basically a fancy autotune setting.”
I don’t think AI is here to steal Drake’s job. It’s basically a fancy autotune setting. But there are really interesting pieces of it. Obviously, the legal implications have not really been fully fleshed out yet.
But I go back to it: if people are only listening to music because it sounds like a [human] artist they already like, then [the industry] messed this up 10 turns ago [because] we haven’t converted real fans.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you here that is particularly on your mind?
There’s something really interesting happening. After Hipgnosis proved that you could put some pressure on the major publishers, we’re now seeing real investment [being made] in putting pressure on the majors.
You have HYBE, Gamma, and Firebird all trying to do a high-end disruption of the majors. It will be really interesting to see where those three companies go in the next 12 months.
MBW’s podcasts are supported by Voly Music. Voly’s platform enables music industry professionals from all sectors to manage a tour’s budgets, forecasts, track expenses, approve invoices and make payments 24/7, 365 days a year. For more information and to sign up to a free trial of the platform, visit VolyMusic.com.