A year into SoundCloud’s fan-powered royalties, a departure from the traditional “pro rata” method of calculating streaming royalties, artists have a better understanding of their fan bases and a better chance to monetize their listeners, according to a new report by author, podcaster and economics professor Will Page.
Fan-powered royalties — known more broadly as user-centric royalties — is a method for calculating streaming payouts to independent artists based on individual fans’ listening on SoundCloud. The traditional, pro-rata model divvies up a large revenue pool based on a track’s total number of plays. In that scenario, an up-and-coming artist shares the same royalty pool as the biggest superstar.
User-centric royalties turn a big pool into smaller silos by splitting a listener’s subscription or advertising revenue based on only the tracks they streamed. If a listener streams only independent artists, most or all of the user’s subscription or advertising revenue will go to those artists. Since SoundCloud first announced fan-powered royalties in 2021, Warner Music Group and Merlin have agreed to use the calculation approach for their artists.
SoundCloud singles out an artist’s biggest fans and gives artists the tools to engage with those supporters through person-to-person messaging. With the help of tools that help artists engage directly with their fans on the SoundCloud platform, a small number of what SoundCloud calls “true fans” will provide an “outsize” share of an artist’s royalties. (Page did not define “true fan” or explain the threshold that separates them from less passionate ones.) The combination of the engagement tools and the fan-powered royalties “make this true fan game the most desirable to play,” wrote Page.
The promise of fan-powered royalties is a more sustainable business model for up-and-coming and working-class musicians. For SoundCloud, a well-known springboard for young musicians’ entry into the big leagues, a model that benefits independent artists over major-label superstars would help cement that platform’s credentials in the creator community.
So, Page offered three case studies that examined artists in different stages of their careers. In 2022, Rapper Lil Uzi Vert opted into fan-powered royalties and gave SoundCloud an exclusive on the track “Space Cadet” from his Red & White EP. As a result, according to Page, “more of Uzi’s listeners became true fans, and those true fans made up an even greater proportion of the overall revenue.” With fan-powered royalties and insights from the platform, true fans accounted for 6.5% of the rapper’s audience in July 2022, up from 5.2% in the previous month, as well as 71.8% of his revenue, up from 54.6%. The audience he gained was engaged: 6% of them were true fans, 69% were classified as engaged and only 9% were passive listeners.
To show that fan-powered royalties can help a mid-tier, independent artist, Page offers the example of Kelow LaTesha, a rapper with about 14,000 SoundCloud followers. LaTesha used fan-powered royalties to reach more listeners. True fans’ share of her revenue jumped to 45.7% in July 2022 from 32.2% in June 2022. The number of true fans increased, but because she gained a greater share of passive listeners, LaTesha’s true fans accounted for 1.4% of her listeners, down from 1.7%.
The do-it-yourself case study, focusing on EDM producer/DJ ShortRound, improved both his true fans and his revenue from those fans. From June to July 2022, true fans’ share of DJ ShortRound’s SoundCloud audience climbed from 3% to 4.4% and their share of his revenue jumped from 77.7% to 82%.
SoundCloud’s adoption of fan-powered royalties pre-dated a larger effort to make streaming more financially viable for labels and artists. Universal Music Group partnered with streaming service Deezer in 2023 to improve payouts to professional musicians while reducing payouts to background noise and other types of audio content that arguably provide less value to listeners. In Europe, politicians are calling for “fairer models of streaming revenue allocation” for artists.
SoundCloud’s approach might not be the best approach for all streaming platforms, but the handful of case studies is evidence that the approach works for SoundCloud. The combination of fan-powered royalties and creator tools “opens a new path to prosperity that the entire music industry should understand,” wrote Page.