Digital Disruption and Music Economics With Former Spotify Chief Economist Will Page

Will Page, Chief Economist at Spotify from 2012 to 2019, talks to Chartmetric about digital disruption and music economics on this episode of How Music Charts.

Digital Disruption and Music Economics With Former Spotify Chief Economist Will Page
Jason Joven
Jason Joven
July 6, 20206 min read
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Will Page is an economist, a DJ, and most importantly, the biggest supporter of Tynecastle Park’s Heart of Midlothian Football Club. A graduate of Scotland’s University of Strathclyde and University of Edinburgh, he began his career as an economist with the Government of Scotland while moonlighting as a music journalist for the Straight No Chaser Magazine.

Soon thereafter, Page became the Chief Economist for the United Kingdom’s largest collection society, PRS for Music. After that, he assumed the same title for Stockholm-based streaming platform Spotify.

Currently, Page is now a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts in London, a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, and a non-Executive Director at music licensing company SoundVault. In what little spare time he has, he’s busy at work on his upcoming book Pivot, which is about digital disruption and the economics behind it.

Page as DJ and Music Journalist

His whirlwind career has brought him to many places, but we began the talk with Page's passion for soul music and DJing:

It came really from a lyric from a hip-hop band called the Jungle Brothers.... I just remember hearing that lyric and thinking, "This is what I want to do." And the lyric said: "It’s about getting the message across, without crossing over...." And I never forget the purpose of the DJ is how you get music across without diluting its integrity.... "Do what you love, love what you do," quote Jazzy Jeff.
Will Page's musical inspiration comes from pioneering Hip-Hop group The Jungle Brothers. Though from New York City, most of their current Spotify Monthly Listeners come from London, Amsterdam, and Sydney, showing the breadth of the act's legacy. Currently on playlists, you can find their work on Amazon Music's "100 Greatest New York Hip-Hop Songs," Apple Music's "'80s Hip-Hop Essentials," and Spotify's "I Love My '90s Hip-Hop." (Data from Chartmetric)

While his time at Spotify really brought Will's profile to an even higher level, some may not be aware of his days moonlighting as a music journalist whilst working for the Scottish government after university:

My sister used to call me Batman.... By day, black suit, blue shirt, red tie doing some of the most tedious government economic work you could imagine, and by night, the patch I carved out for Straight No Chaser was Philadelphia hip-hop.... So, from a bedroom in Edinburgh, Scotland, I was covering all of these amazing Hip-Hop artists from Philadelphia and giving them profile they couldn’t get in their own city.... I was so honored to be covering all these people from Bahamadia to ?uestlove, and they were like, "Well, no one else is interviewing us!"

It was during this period where he formed his career philosophy, which is fitting for anybody seeking their place in the professional world:

All that time, I was trying to merge those two passions. All that time I was saying, "Why is there no economist in the music industry?" I couldn’t find one, and I wanted to be the first.... I always say, "Create your job description, don’t wait for your job description."

Music Economics Isn't Just About Dollars; It's About Decisions

Page's worldview is, and has always been, progressive, even in the dark ages of the 2000s post-Napster era:

My belief was to build something better than piracy, and that people would come across. They’re not stealing cause they want to steal, they’re stealing because it’s easier than buying. Make it easier to access music, and they’ll stop stealing.

It's what's allowed him to look at the gargantuan IFPI Global Music Report for 2019, and then tease out insights that some may have overlooked. In his Billboard feature, Peak Streaming: Are We There Yet?, Page explains why the United States pulling even further ahead as the No. 1 recorded music market in the past year isn't necessarily about "American exceptionalism":

But what I think is underlying that amazing observation of a business more global ... and more American, is globalization within countries.... America is a very globalized market: If you think about Latinos living in America, people from Southeast Asia living in America, people from Africa living in America, all engaging in streaming, all engaging with repertoire from their home country. What you’ve got is the biggest market is also the most globalized market, which then makes it best able to benefit from globalization.
In May 2019, we looked at 1.5+ million artists and added up their total YouTube views, according to the cities where they were coming from. With four of the Top 10 cities coming from India, it corroborates Will Page's prediction of how big a role India will continue to play for not only YouTube, but music itself. (Data from Chartmetric)

India and China, the world's most populous nations, continue to be a topic of discussion for all businesses, and Page notes how YouTube's role in providing music to Indian fans will be of utmost importance:

If you measure the global streaming charts by volume.... That is, forget the per stream calculations, forget the payments through to artists — just how many clicks did you get? I guarantee the No. 1 song on every chart would be Indian, and it’d all be driven by YouTube. The numbers matter. Within a year of YouTube really exploding in India, as data costs fell, they announced well over 240 million users of music on their platform. 240 million. That was more than 12 years of blood, sweat, and tears at Spotify, and that was in 78 countries.... The potential for India is really going to be a YouTube-driven phenomenon.
Will Page on Travis Scott's April 2020 Fortnite concert: “But what was clear to me, there was a huge spike in streaming during the event ... then it fell back to a higher plateau after.... Travis Scott today is streaming higher numbers post-Fortnite experiment....

This was not just a sugar-high experience. He was able to engage, immerse himself in the attention that games are winning, and coming out better for it. That’s fascinating for me.” (Data from Travis Scott's page on Chartmetric)

How Digital Disruption Affects Music, Gaming, and Beyond

Now that Page is working on his new book, Pivot, he's taking his lessons learned at PRS for Music and Spotify, and looking even harder into how other industries are fully grabbing the attention of precious eyes and ears:

One thing that was clearly happening before the [COVID-19] crisis was gaming was on a roll.... The numbers are simply jaw-dropping. Let’s kick you a few: In the month of March, the gaming industry globally did $10.4 billion dollars [USD] in turnover. That’s more than global paid streaming did in the entire calendar year 2019. Two: IFPI’s there celebrating that we finally got 341 million subscribers to music services ... since Rhapsody launched in 2002. Well, congratulations, but Fortnite’s got 350 million users, and they weren’t around two years ago. Three, let’s get into attention: Animal Crossing. The average dwell time on a streaming service ... is probably about one hour, 40 minutes per day.... The duration spent playing Animal Crossing, the mean, was nine hours. That’s a lot of attention, and where the attention goes, the money follows.

While gaming continues to be a case study in forward-thinking engagement, Page sees the current $9.99/month subscription model for music streaming services to be completely outdated, as he discusses in another Billboard feature, Is the Music Copyright Business Worth More Than Ever?:

All we did in 2002 was say, "Well, it cost $9.99 to rent videos from Blockbuster, that’s what it’s gonna cost to rent music from Rhapsody. Period. Conversation over, let’s go to the bar".... Now how surreal that in June 2020, you’re still asked to pay $9.99 for Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon....

In Pivot, Page will continue to be a thought leader, well-worn in the battle scars of the mp3 era and hopefully preventing repeat mistakes:

Music matters because it got there first.... We had a 20-year start, we were the first to suffer and first to recover from disruption.... It’s to get the transferable lessons from music’s journey that everyone else can draw from and apply to their lives.... If you know there’s a problem and you turn a blind eye to it, and you think it’s going to go away, it only gets worse and worse. And that’s what music spent 10 years doing.... It’s just how to adapt to disruption. There’s got to be something you can learn from music’s journey, and I want to teach you that something across 200 pages.

Listen to Digital Disruption and Music Economics With Former Spotify Chief Economist Will Page on your favorite podcast listening platform here.