The five-month long Hollywood strike just ended for writers. The union that represents actors and performers (SAG-AFTRA) is expected to enter similar negotiations with producers and studios in the coming weeks. And while we don't yet have all the details of the agreement between the WGA and studios, one thing is clear: data is at the heart of the issue.
How Streaming Services Affected Creator Opinions On Data In The Early Days
Both audio and video streaming services really saw their initial booms around the same time. The success of Netflix and Spotify launched a mad dash among companies to create competing products — Apple with Apple Music and TV, Amazon with Amazon Music Unlimited and Prime Video, and a host of other platforms from both major companies and independent upstarts.
And in many ways, both were initially seen as "fixing" a fairly serious issue in their respective fields. Or at the very least, providing alternatives to the status quo.
The early days of Netflix saw a lot of writers and showrunners excited about working with a partner that was more concerned with producing critically acclaimed, watch-in-a-weekend-worthy content than something that ticked boxes on outdated Nielsen Ratings systems. Likewise, Spotify created a lane for independent artists to go directly to fans and "blow up" without the overbearing influence (and often predatory contract terms) of major labels.
Sure, there were plenty of serious conversations around who got paid what and why. But for the most part, the meteoric rise in streaming content came because fans were eager to consume and creators were quick to create. Data wasn't at the heart of the conversation. At the time, Spotify didn't even have a platform like Spotify for Artists. But not having access to data was par for the course. And if Netflix said a movie was really popular, we just had to believe them, because they don't have to release their metrics or methodologies on determining consumption.
The Big Paradigm Shift
A few big things started to happen around 2015 and 2016. For starters, Spotify made major improvements to its backend platform Spotify for Artists. The company started allowing creators to see more granular data and control more of their presence online. But the biggest conversation started revolving around a few stats that Spotify essentially invented. The big one?
Acts were signing deals with booking agencies, labels, and managers all based off this number. And the fact that anybody can see an artist's monthly listeners helped provide weight to the stat in the form of comparison. However unscientific that number may be — or better yet, how unrepresentative of an actual fan base it is — monthly listeners were leading the conversation. In some respects, they still are.
But at the same time, artists started making more noise about just how little they were getting paid, often in comparison to those big monthly listener numbers. The conversation around "per stream" rate really picked up steam, and both legacy label acts and new indies alike had some major questions. Especially as Spotify started dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into acquiring controversial podcasts and paying for sponsorships.
Likewise, video streaming services started getting pretty brutal about what shows made the cut or not. Critically acclaimed shows started getting cut left and right with little explanation. Likewise, lots of catalog shows are being removed simply so the streaming services don't have to pay residuals on them. There's no real indicator of performance available to creators.
By and large, the biggest players in creating streaming content still have very little insight into how much they get paid or why. More transparency and fairness around video streaming residuals is at the heart of the Hollywood strike.
An article in The Hollywood Reporter summed it up nicely. "Even as prominent a name as Steven Soderbergh, who has made several projects for Warner Bros. Discovery's Max streamer, said he only gets 'adjectives' — as in, 'We feel good about the numbers' — from the company in describing how his work has performed. 'There are two potential reasons that we're not getting all of the information,' the filmmaker said in an interview with Defector. 'One is that they're all making a lot more money than anybody knows and that they're willing to tell us. The other is they're making a lot less money than anybody knows. And they don't want Wall Street to look under the hood of this thing in any significant way because there'll be a reckoning that will be quite unpleasant.'"
Where The Data Availability Stands Now
So where are we with data availability for creators now? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side, More content creators than ever are paying attention to how they get paid and why when it comes to their digital content. They're also demanding more transparency across the board, from social media to streaming services to even old systems like music publishing. After all, the MLC only exists because of a massive push from creators.
Similarly, most major platforms now have fairly robust data backends. Companies really leading the way in this space include YouTube and Twitch. Others like TikTok, Meta, and Spotify have also made big strides to be at least somewhat more transparent about creator data.
If the WGA's positive attitude around the strike resolution is any indication, writers are making big strides in protecting themselves and their value, too. Whether or not that includes more data transparency from the big streamers remains to be seen.
But on the other hand, data is still incredibly siloed among companies. Each can do whatever they like — something musicians were reminded of when Spotify unceremoniously erased pre-2020 data from the Spotify for Artists backend. Why? No official reason, but apparently they wanted to create more uniformity around new, custom metrics that apply specifically to Spotify performance.
Creator data doesn't have the same unified parameters around it like other industries. It's incredibly time consuming and difficult to make aggregated views of your performance across multiple platforms. Plus, every platform deals with data differently.
While we've made serious strides in mindset and availability of content creator data, there's a long way to go before creators get the full transparency and reliability they deserve.