Spotify cover artists are making money while other musicians fight over payment

Spotify and musicians have been going back and forth for some time over the amount Spotify pays out. See here for a recent story on the issue.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon on Spotify and it seems to show that at least a few artists are benefiting from the licensing woes of their brethren. The phenomenon, which I’ll call Song Placebo, occurs where Spotify has failed to secure a license for a top radio song, thus signalling to pragmatic cover artists that a common search term on a service with millions of subscribers is open for business. If you google around, you’ll find that a listen on Spotify is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $.007 – .01 per listen, and there is an argument that cover artists would probably reap a high amount of the absolute cash because they are less likely to be signed to a major label. Taking the high-end of that range then, a cover artist is probably reaping about $1 for every thousand listens on Spotify, give or take 20%.

So how prevalent is Song Placebo’ing? Probably more common than you think, and two artists in particular seem to have nailed it. Let’s look at some prominent examples.

Search results for Rihanna's "Stay" on Spotify

Search results for Rihanna’s “Stay” on Spotify

Rihanna’s “Stay” is certainly a hit, certified Platinum in the US with sales over 3 million, and radio success topping Billboard charts in multiple countries. But as the image above shows, it is nowhere to be found on Spotify.

The top hit is a cover by Shaun Reynolds, a UK-based singer-songwriter dude who is a leading prescription writer for Song Placebo. His cover of “Stay”, which is sung by a guest named Laura Pringle, has a whopping 19.8 million listens on Spotify. Opening up Shaun’s larger portfolio on Spotify reveals that Shaun quite likes him some covers, and his top 10 are all works originally (made chart-toppers) by other artists. “Stay” stands out, however, as the only one that seems to have gained any traction (his second most popular song has 200k listens, and his third just 20k). But at the conversion rate above, “Stay” has generated about $19,800 for Shaun. Not bad for a song he didn’t pay a dime to market.

Tyler Ward is another ‘popular’ cover artist in the Song Placebo game. Here’s what his top 10 hits look like:

Tyler Ward Spotify Profile

Tyler Ward Spotify Profile

As you can see, his top 10 is all covers. In contrast to Shaun Reynolds, however, many of the songs he has covered are actually up on Spotify, though in the case of a few of them at least, I know they were put up after Tyler had a chance to corner the market. Altogether, Tyler has more than 11 million listens on these covers alone, good for $11k.

Is there a video of Shaun Reynolds and Tyler Ward meeting, called “When Shaun Met Tyler”, you ask? Why, of course there is.


So no judgment on these artists, providing our Song Placebo before the big labels come to terms with Spotify on the details for the real deal. I’m sure Shaun and Tyler are hard-working, aspiring artists, using covers as a vehicle to push their brand while also making some income. No shame there.

But it opens up an interesting question about the legal justification for allowing “covers” of songs in the first place, and possibly questions about how much we really value an original recording versus a cover. 19 million people made it through Shaun’s version of “Stay”, and probably liked it (it’s a good cover)! In a world where artists are fighting to move payouts from $.007 per play to more than $.01, though, you have to wonder if Shaun and Tyler are helping to prove that we don’t need the real thing when an army of Song Placebo providers are willing to give us “the same” for less.


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Have video games gotten shorter?

The length of video games seems to be a hot topic lately. As somebody who plays video games on occasion, and probably reads too much about them, it’s an interesting discussion. This article at ArsTechnica was referenced heavily in video game media for a while, with Raptr writing a bit of a nonsensical rebuttal here, which showed that people on average only play a game for 7-8 hours no matter how long it is, an interesting but tangential point. Early 2013 speculation about the price of next-gen games going up provided additional kindling for the conversation, specifically whether it was worth it to pay $70 – $80 if games weren’t going to get any longer.

When considering the question, it’s important to define the scope – there are certainly more video games released each day today than ever before, across a wider range of platforms than ever before. But if the question is “have home console games gotten shorter”, ignoring iOS apps and Facebook games, then I think the answer is no.

I threw together the below charts based on two data sets: the VGChartz all-time sales list, and game length data from (appropriately) First I looked at the best-selling game for each year since 2000, and charted the length of the campaign. There are a number of caveats though; many of the top-sellers don’t have campaigns, and many came packaged with a console (inflating their sales numbers). For example, Wii Sports is the best selling game of all time according to VGChartz, but it doesn’t have what you could consider a “campaign”. Similarly, a sports title like Madden doesn’t have a real campaign either. So I ignored any game that didn’t have a length on, and went to the next best-seller for the year. Also, console only (Xbox/Wii/PS etc.)

Top Sellers by year, with campaign length for comparison

Top sellers by year, with campaign length for comparison

This is admittedly a clunky approach, and only answers the question as it relates to the single most popular games with a campaign each year (along with answering “how much has Call of Duty dominated the last half decade”). Also, Need for Speed Underground was the best-seller two years in a row? Where was I for that game? Gran Turismo 3 was actually the best seller in the year prior as well, but had no official campaign length to quantify. I can guarantee that represents a unique three year stretch in video game history where racing games were king, an era we aren’t likely to see repeated.

Anyway, the chart above doesn’t give us much of a pattern across time. Shooters tend to be in the 7-10 hour range, Action & Racing are in the 10-30 range, and RPGs (of which Zelda really should be classified) are 40+. It would be foolish to make a broad statement about game length based solely on which genre sold the most units in a single year, even more so because Call of Duty tends to actually suck up more total hours than any of the games on this list, if this chart is to be believed, showing that gamers spent 67 hours on average with Black Ops 1 in contrast to its 7 hour campaign.

So let’s take a different approach. How about looking at established series in these established genres to track their progression over time? I, somewhat arbitrarily, picked Shooter, Action, and RPG as my genres, and Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Final Fantasy as the series to track, respectively. Here we go:

Call of Duty length over time

Call of Duty length over time

As sure as the sun rises, Activision releases a new entry into the Call of Duty series every fall. Call of Duty has barely  moved over the past 9 years, sticking right at that 6-8 hour band where Raptr claims we simultaneously lose interest, but  stick around for another 60 hours. I omitted a few where my source had no reliable  campaign data, but I have a feeling  it’s in the same range.

Assassin's Creed length over time

Assassin’s Creed length over time

Similarly, Assassin’s Creed has been relatively consistent since it’s debut in 2007, adhering to that 20-30 hour mark. If  anything, the first entry was something of a tech demo for the ps2, and it’s been easier to add in content since the basic  engine was completed.

Final Fantasy length over time

Final Fantasy length over tim

Besides the few entries here where I either have no data or the game had no campaign (XI and XIV were MMORPGs), the  FF campaigns have actually trended upwards since the olden days, when cartridges likely limited the number of hours a  developer could cram into a machine. Final Fantasy 3 should probably be in the all-time efficiency hall of fame, providing  a 31 hour campaign on a cartridge that could only hold 512KB of data. For context, the images in this post alone take up  200kb of space, and they certainly don’t provide more than 2 minutes of entertainment!

So in terms of an empirical answer, it looks like no, home console games have not gotten shorter. If anything, the evidence suggests that increased storage capacity has yielded longer games in at least one genre (the RPG). And with the advent of broadband multiplayer, many games that are technically “short” (like Call of Duty), are actually played the longest (67 hours on average for Black Ops, according to Raptr, as one data point). We can also conclude that Shooters have gotten too popular, but at least they aren’t racing games. :)

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Studying for the Bar

I’m out of toothpaste, I need a haircut, and my car needs an oil change. I must be… studying for the bar! See you in a few weeks.

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Would newspapers benefit from collusion over paywalls?

I’ve had almost no time to post here in the past few weeks, as I just began studying for the bar, but I wanted to take a break from studying Evidence and Torts for a second. I have owed my friend Brad Greenberg, a fellow UCLA law new-grad, some attention. Brad’s most recent contribution to the world of legal academia is available here, and it covers a topic that should be interesting to law nerds and normal nerds alike – the survival (or, alternately, impending doom) of the newspaper industry. And the discussion is currently as alive as ever, with recent discussion of the topic focusing on the New Orleans Times-Picayune laying off staff despite it’s profitability.

Brad’s paper can be broken down into a few key arguments:

– Newspapers need to make more money than they are making now to survive,

– Collusion to set paywall prices could save them, but antitrust law bans such action,

– Congress should endorse and promote an exception to the antitrust laws to save the newspaper and the United States itself (I added that last part…).

Typical for a guy with multiple published pieces who also blogs on the side, Brad’s piece is refreshingly easy to read for a law article – but that doesn’t mean I agree with his points. Actually, I disagree with just about every one of them. Originally I thought of reasons why each point was wrong – newspapers can make money without paywalls, newspapers could probably escape antitrust charges through signaling their concerted action anyway, points about how the last government-endorsed entertainment/news monopoly (cable) has set us back by a decade. But really, none of those things matter, because ultimately the newspaper is dead and our children simply won’t care because the world will be just fine without them:

Welcome to the 21st Century, now with 100% less Newspaper – 

Newspapers were lazy, crappy, overachieving businesses for decades. These weren’t glamorous jobs, necessarily, but they weren’t well-run businesses either. Major newspapers lived off of two major cash cows – the natural monopolies of the classifieds and print ads. The network effect of having everybody in town looking at the same few pages of paper everyday let newspapers turn 10 cents of ink into a $1,000 ad or a $100 classified. If you needed to fill a job opening in the pre-internet era, you went to the newspaper, and you paid whatever it cost. Couch to sell? Car to sell? Plumbing services to offer for consumption? Same deal. Call the newspaper. The rest of the business wasn’t particularly fine-tuned, because it didn’t need to be.

A decade of Facebook, Google Adsense, and Craigslist later, and suddenly those ad monopolies are gone. Newspapers now offer an unattractive product (ie we pick the news that’s important, deliver it to you in a physical format once a day, and you pay for it) compared to what the internet offers (ie you pick the news you want, whenever you want it, and you don’t pay for it). It’s a lot like what’s happening right now with cable: people are realizing they shouldn’t have to pay for the 200 channels full of shows they don’t watch when all they want is Mad Men and Game of Thrones, and they can watch those on-demand online (if not completely legally at this point).  The fundamental problem facing newspapers is the same one facing cable, but the newspapers don’t have any unique content. The papers that do have unique content (for example, the Wall Street Journal) are having less trouble staying profitable, because they have something they can charge for and make a margin on. The ones that don’t are struggling to drive readers to their website, because in all likelihood those readers are already getting that same news from the few sites that have successfully transitioned online already. Content with value will always find a way to get out – but most papers just don’t have much content of value, and that’s a business problem, not a societal one.

But Brad would tell me that I’m focusing too much on the business and not enough on the societal benefits of the newspapers; ‘why don’t you lament the loss of our bold muckrakers, Dan?’ he might contest. For the most part, I just don’t think there is any risk that the sort of injustice newspapers cover will go uncovered in a digital world. As newspapers die and websites take their place, journalists will make careers (though likely fewer) of breaking and covering the same stories as they did when those stories were cast in ink. Will that make it easier to “corrupt” the news with bribes? To corner the market on an area of journalism and subvert it? Who could say at this point, but the bottom line is, newspapers are on the way out and personally curated digital news has already taken over. I’m almost certain we wouldn’t have missed Watergate if we had only had Twitter to rely on, but only time will tell.

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Sensationalist reporting of legal battles by Techcrunch continues with Oracle/Google

Google has been embroiled in a legal battle with Oracle for some time now, and the jury in the case is slowly releasing their verdicts on multiple issues. I haven’t written on it much here, because it’s being covered extensively by far more intelligent people elsewhere. The basics of the case are that Oracle has claimed that Google infringes on Oracle’s copyright in their Java APIs (37 API packages, specifically), as well as infringing on patents related to the same.

Though the story has been reported on quite extensively, the twitters and techmemes were abuzz yesterday when the jury in the case released their first verdict. The verdict? Well, they didn’t really reach one. The jury was instructed to assume the copyrightability of the Java APIs, and to come to a conclusion on whether Google’s use of the APIs was “fair use”. The jury instruction all but ensured that the jury would decide that Google infringed the API copyrights – the real issue in the case really ought to have been whether the APIs were indeed covered by copyright, but the judge has saved that determination for himself. The jury came back Monday with the statement of “we don’t know” on the issue of fair use.

How is that news being reported? This is Techcrunch’s Headline:

The Verdict Is In: Google Infringed On Oracle Copyrights

Correct, but completely misleading. Anybody following this story knew that the jury was going to find infringement (see here for one example), and anybody following the story also knew that the real issue was whether the jury would find the infringement to be fair use, and whether the court would find the APIs to be copyrightable. Techcrunch’s article is written as if the case is over. It’s not just Techcrunch – Wired is reporting today that “if” APIs are copyrightable (note: many legal pundits say that they are, and have been for a long time), then apparently the world will explode. The lead picture for the article is an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb? Really?

This isn’t the first instance of overzealous tech journalism, far from it, but Techcrunch’s (and other outlets’) coverage of major legal battles has sunk into the realm of tabloid sensationalism. Techcrunch recently reported on the Facebook v Yahoo patent fight by analyzing the patent abstracts, rather than the actual claims, to come to the ridiculous conclusion that “Facebook has the upper hand”. This is, obviously, months before any actual claim construction or significant developments in the case.

These are really important issues for the tech community to understand, but sensationalism and poor analysis only confuse the issues for readers. If Techcrunch wants to help educate on these issues, the least they could do is have a reputable source write a guest post.

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Spotify Frankenreview: Nine Months Later

I listen to a lot of music, and I love the internet, so one year ago I was avidly following the race to capture the internet music space. Obviously this race isn’t quite over, but it’s been about 10 months since I handicapped the race (and some here, too) and about 9 months since I wrote what turned out to be one of the most popular posts on my blog, a rather harsh review of Spotify that garnered a couple hundred page views by itself (even the picture of Spotify’s interface that I included got a few hundred views alone, so there was clearly some interest).

In my original handicapping of the internet music scene, I gave a big nod to iCloud and iCloud seemed like it would have an immediate headstart based on the cross-promotion possibilities with iTunes and iPhone, and saw explosive early growth and looked like a winner based on it’s ability to sell virtual goods. Plus, Spotify hadn’t officially launched in the US yet. What’s happened since? Spotify has grown after launch, but not incredibly (just 3 million subscribers, only 20% of whom pay for the service). Turntable has gone legit with licensing by the major labels, and they’ve raised a bajillion dollars. And most people still don’t know what iCloud is.

That gets us to my original review of Spotify. The highlights: On the day I signed up, Spotify was doing pretty poorly and users couldn’t play a large number of popular songs. And the discovery-through-facebook method wasn’t particularly thrilling because nobody was on the service yet. I’m happy to report that 9 months later I’m still using the service, and it has now gotten more money out of me than any single internet service in the past couple years outside of the Apple app store. The viral/social component is great as Facebook jumped on board with Spotify integration whole-hog, and now my news feed constantly shows me songs my friends are listening to. One click there and Spotify launches, and I’m listening to whatever it is my friend listened to. Popular playlists are also a cool feature, and one I actually use. The radio feature and app store are cool too, though I use those less. I gave Spotify a 72/100 in my review based on the nonworking aspects, and modified that to an 80/100 after they fixed the non-playing songs issue. Now that the social features actually work, I’d revise that up even further to a 85/100.

But is Spotify going to solve all of the world’s music problems, and take over the world? If the numbers are any indicator, then my original review nailed the problem:

It’s not better than downloading the whole album for free as a torrent. People who pay for music pay for music, and maybe for them this service makes sense. But people who don’t pay for music get nothing from Spotify that they aren’t getting for free at a torrent site – on both I need to know what I want, and search for it. As a torrent, I can have the whole thing in 3-5 minutes, on Spotify, I have to pay, they may not have it, and it may not stream if they do. The only chance the music industry has to recapture the people who don’t want to pay for music is to either ramp up enforcement (which they’ve tried, and doesn’t and will never work), or to offer them a value proposition that they can’t turn down – Like utilizing the social graph in a new and cool way ( or offering an interesting method of discovering new music (pandora). Spotify doesn’t do either of those things well. It’s just a legal version of Napster, which is cool, but Napster was cutting edge in 1999, and didn’t have the possibility of drawing on advanced algorithms or facebook friends to suggest new music. Spotify should utilize those things, but it doesn’t.

Spotify is absolutely loaded at this point with every feature you can eke out of a service that knows your friends and your tastes – it’s got radio, it’s got an open development app store, it’s got recommendations. It’s doing everything I said it would have to do to have a chance at revolutionizing the industry. But it still is only converting about 20% of it’s (rather puny) 3 million user base to paying customers. In the end, if utilizing the social graph to provide the experience Spotify is now providing can’t convince more than 600k people to pay, there probably isn’t much that will. In my original breakdown of the competitors in this space I noted that even Pandora, hailed as a blueprint for the new internet/music fusion, hadn’t turned a profit. Spotify is likely in the same position, and the music industry still hasn’t found the route to getting another company to make it’s product wildly profitable again.

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The value of a software patent, why Twitter voluntarily forfeiting a property right isn’t crazy

You can look at Twitter’s move to their new invention assignment agreement (they are calling it an Innovator’s Patent Agreement, which has a fittingly unlegalese ring to it) from a number of different angles.

For one, it signals a growing movement in the technology space to do SOMETHING about software patents. To put it bluntly, many feel that things are out of control. You don’t have to pay too much attention to the industry to have heard about the battles between every major technology company. Patent holding companies are making a fortune off of licensing, and companies are abandoning their Business Plans! in favor of Patent Trolling!. Hell, companies are forming with business plans that consist of Step 1 Acquire Patent Step 2 Sue People. If you are into the efficient allocation of resources (and who isn’t, these days?), let’s put it this way: Nathan Myrvold is currently using his time to buy and license and sue over other people’s inventions. The patent problem is skewing incentives for the economy, luring our greatest minds from more productive innovation! Silicon Valley and it’s bevy of engineers knows something is wrong, and as the inventors of 90% of the problem patents in the country, Twitter is empowering them to do something about it. Or at least, Twitter is saying they will and taking a step towards that end.

On the other hand, think about Twitter from the business aspect. This is a company that is criticized for lacking a revenue plan. It’s the weakest “business” of the major social networks, and it’s seen many changes at the top over the past few years, plus it’s sat on the sidelines while Zynga, Groupon, LinkedIn, Yelp, Pandora, and soon Facebook have gone public. Twitter has some of the highest average salaries in the scene, and it’s a place engineers want to work, yet it has weak ad revenue compared to the company it will always be compared to in Facebook. With patents being so valuable, and social networks becoming so prevalent, and Twitter being a social network with a strong engineering team, one might think that a strong strategy for Twitter to boost revenue would be to start firing off licensing efforts of their own. Here’s the thing though: They only have one granted patent (though it’s a good one that probably reads on all mobile devices and many mobile apps). If a patent nuclear war started yesterday (oh, wait, it started months ago), they are the Melians to the Facebook/Yahoo!/Microsoft Athenians. Twitter is clearly at a bit of a competitive disadvantage in a world where patents are incredibly valuable.

So for Twitter to take this step of limiting the downstream value of their patents (ensuring that the Coase theorem dictates the patents remain with Twitter, though I’m torturing the Coase theorem a bit there [another shout-out to my resource efficiency homies!]), while also potentially cutting off current licensing revenue potential… well, it’s a tiny bit noble, but a whole lot more a Trojan horse for the rest of the patent-holding technology companies of the world. Very clever, really. Twitter is politely asking everybody to sign a non-proliferation treaty, and making a nice gesture by signing it first, but that would be like Switzerland looking to end World War II by being the first to sign a peace treaty. Twitter is hoping this international relations metaphor is a bit more Gramsci and a bit less Hobbes (If I haven’t shaken you yet with all these political theory references, then congratulations). They would love nothing more than for every company that has already invested millions of dollars in patents to sign the treaty for Twitter’s own protection as much as they would like them to for their edification. So Twitter makes this big PR gesture, they will be hailed as saviors by the anti-software patent crowd, engineers will claim this as a great reason to work for Twitter, and Twitter gets to step back and hope others give up more to gain less by doing the same.

So there you go. I’ve successfully told you why Twitter’s move today is great for software patents generally, pretty clever by Twitter itself, and not really a big loss for them in terms of what they had to give up to get some amazing PR and recruiting, all while hitting you with multiple resource efficiency, political science, and international relations references. Hopefully more entertaining than self-indulgent, but the blog does have my name at the top so maybe I can take that luxury every once in a while.

(Some other articles that helped form my thoughts for this article: 1. 2. )

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