Universal Music’s Pandora Policy Change Is a Matter of $135M in Annual Artist Royalties

The company is the only major label so far to change accounting for Pandora royalties since it introduced on-demand streaming.

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In this photo illustration a Pandora logo of a music streaming service is seen on a smartphone.

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A year ago, Matt Najdowski, like many business managers for top artists, was routinely going over royalty statements when he discovered an unusual plunge in revenue.

For years, Pandora, the internet-radio streaming service, had paid 50% of song royalties to the artists through a collection agency called SoundExchange. But suddenly, artists signed to Universal Music Group were receiving a much lower percentage, similar to what they received from on-demand streaming services like Spotify or YouTube. And the payments were now arriving directly from UMG instead.

Najdowski researched further and learned UMG was able to change the way it reported Pandora revenue because Pandora itself had changed. In 2016, the streaming service began evolving from webcasting to a Spotify-style “search and play what you want” model. Because Pandora now offers an interactive service, rather than a non-interactive webcaster, it needed to make new deals with labels rather than relying on a government-mandated compulsory license at a standardized rate.

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As such, UMG and other labels were able to change the flow of royalties so they collected and paid them directly — rather than SoundExchange distributing to artists, as law mandates under these compulsory licenses. With UMG’s change in policy last year it became the first and only label so far, according to sources, to take advantage of this change. With that, the royalty splits for artists changed, too, from a 50% split through SoundExchange to whatever, often smaller, percentage their record deals dictated for on-demand streaming revenues. That’s significant as the world’s biggest record label contributed $135 million to SoundExchange as part of its Pandora share for artists, according to Billboard estimates based on financial reports and other public information.

“That specific royalty stream can range from a couple hundred dollars per month to a couple thousand. It can be a significant amount of money,” says Najdowski, royalty manager for Farris, Self & Moore. This change in accounting, he adds, “is more or less taking money out of [artist’s] pockets.”

Perhaps most notably, Najdowski discovered that the many UMG artists who are unrecouped – meaning they have yet to earn back the money the label spent on recording, marketing and other costs – were receiving a worrisome amount: zero. These acts were previously being paid directly by SoundExchange, so their unrecouped status with UMG was not an issue for these royalties. “A lot is being withheld, and it feels like a grab for money from the labels,” says Heather Gruber, royalty manager for Fineman West, a business-management firm that represents artists.

Although Pandora has struggled in recent years – monthly users have dropped from 81.5 million in 2014 to 46 million in 2023 – it remains a potent outlet for hitmakers such as SZA, Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Durk, as well as bubbling-under singles like contemporary-Christian singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle’s “These Are the Days.” Newer artists rely on the exposure, too, and Pandora royalties have provided crucial revenue while they absorb touring and merch expenses. “If you’re making millions of dollars, this isn’t going to have a big impact on you,” says Harold Papineau, associate lawyer for King, Holmes, Paterno and Soriano, which represents Metallica and others. “But if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then this is a significant problem. Now you’ve lost money that you may have relied on to pay your bills.”

In a statement, a UMG representative responded by explaining the difference between interactive (like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music) and non-interactive streaming services (like internet radio). For the former, recording royalties are “subject to direct negotiation between an individual rights owner and the service,” the rep said, adding that Pandora “has substantially changed its functionality such that it has evolved into an interactive service, where users can select tracks on demand.” In other words: The label has every right to make this change.

Still, UMG didn’t fully change the way it reported the royalties to artists until 2022, and it caught many business managers and music attorneys by surprise. “It kind of happened in the dead of night,” says Mike Merriman, a business manager for the firm PARR3 who represents DJ Alison Wonderland, singer 6lack and producer Louis Bell, among others. “It does create some ambiguity and lack of transparency.”

When the Pandora change first kicked in, business managers were confused about the streaming service’s identity. “We’re still running analysis on it,” says Erica Rosa, owner/vp of royalties and contract compliance at FBMM, a business management firm that represents top artists. “I’ve asked a lot of questions to attorneys and various industry figures: ‘How would you define Pandora? Would you consider it to be an interactive or non-interactive stream? I don’t know that anyone has given a clear definitive answer yet.”

Additional reporting by Glenn Peoples.

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