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Spotify’s Troy Carter Talks Royalties, Songwriters, Streaming Business and More in Expansive Q&A

Variety logo Variety 6/8/2017 Jem Aswad
© Provided by Variety

This week was Troy Carter’s one-year anniversary as Spotify’s global head of creator services, and it dovetailed neatly with the company’s announcement of Secret Genius, a program to recognize and promote songwriters that involves awards, a songwriters’ camp called a Songshop led by hitmaking “Ambassadors” like Justin Tranter (who’s penned hits for DNCE, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez), and more. It’s a high-profile move for the company and one close the Carter’s heart, as the streaming royalty model is considered by many to be unfair to songwriters — including Carter, as he said during a Q&A at the Music Biz conference last month. During his years as a manager at his Atom Factory company, Carter played a huge role in the rise and success of Lady Gaga and Meghan Trainor — the latter of whom started out as a songwriter in Nashville — John Legend and others.

Carter stopped managing artists when he took the Spotify job — although his companies continue to work in branding and investment — and he’s dedicated a large percentage of his considerable energy to his role at the streaming service, as the following interview shows. Earlier this year, he also took on the role of special music advisor to the Prince estate — a job that was steeped in controversy almost as soon as he’d arrived, as questions over some of the deals struck by his predecessors, L. Londell McMillan and Charles Koppelman, have begun to play out in court. (Carter declined to discuss his work with the estate in this interview.)

On June 6, one year to the day after his move to Spotify was announced, Variety caught up with Carter as he was en route to LAX to catch yet another 11-hour flight to the company’s headquarters in Sweden — and he spoke at length not just about Secret Genius but also his first year at the company.

Many people feel that songwriters get the short end of the stick in the streaming model. Is Secret Genius a way to try to address that?

Songwriters have been greatly affected by the overall model shift in the business, but even in the past, for the most part it was only writers who were also artists who were celebrated. The whole idea around Secret Genius was about these people behind the scenes who play such a big role in some of the most important moments of our lives. When the general public hears a song, they automatically associate it with the artist who sings it, so we thought Secret Genius was an appropriate name. When I came in, this was one of the areas that I was excited to focus on, so I’m glad that we’re finally able to get this off the ground.

How will the winners of the Secret Genius awards be chosen? Are they the most-streamed songs?

We’ll have a more robust announcement around the awards, but there will be categories that put the spotlight around up-and-coming songwriters as well. We’re still working through the process, but the songwriting community will be involved in selecting who they are; it’ll be a peer-based voting system, definitely democratized. Songwriters know who the greats are and who the up-and-coming songwriters are. Other awards will be about who had the biggest songs. Some will be subjective and some will be objective.

When do the song camps start?

Justin [Tranter] has one coming up. We actually just finished one in London, just to pilot it, and it went pretty fantastic. The idea is to help [songwriters] with the process and also to bring people who wouldn’t traditionally collaborate into the same room. We purposely didn’t announce [the London session] because we wanted to see if it worked and if there were things we should tweak, but it went incredibly well. We’re doing 13 song camps around the world. 

You said at the Music Biz conference last month that you feel streaming royalties are unfair.

I think overall, and this isn’t specific to Spotify or any streaming service or any label… when you consider the overall value chain of the music industry and how important the songwriter is to the business — I think there needs to be another look at the value chain. There is no business without the song, just as there is no movie without the script.

What’s the solution to that problem?

There’s one pie, and it’s figuring out how that pie gets divided up. It’s math — addition, subtraction and division, right? And at Spotify, what we’re trying to help with right now is multiplication — how do we grow the pie even more? But we don’t control how that pie is split.

Does your perspective on this come from your years of managing artists and the 360-degree view that comes with it?

Definitely. My third hire when I came to Spotify was Tiffany Kumar, who came on as our global head of songwriter relations. The whole idea was to put our heads together and figure out how to build and contribute within the songwriting community. Certain things we’re not going to be able to fix overnight, but we can do a lot to help. So this was our way of planting some good-will seeds in the community. Tiffany worked for both [early Lady Gaga producer] RedOne and Kanye [West] and in publishing for Primary Wave, and she’s a former songwriter as well. Right now we have a team of six people across L.A., Nashville and London.

How big is your staff?

We have close to 70 people spread out around the world on my team, and I work in various areas of the company. I work with creative services [department], but I make myself available to the entire company because I’m there to help. I also make myself available to the entire music industry because I want to see it stay healthy and grow and become sustainable, so I work alongside managers, artists, publishers, record labels, booking agents. I’m there as their conduit to Spotify, and Spotify’s conduit to the rest of the industry.

What are some things you’ve done, or at least have your fingerprints on, over the past year that you’re particularly pleased with?

The things I’ve worked on have many fingerprints on them and I don’t want to take sole credit, because we have incredible team. But it’s everything from being able to bring in marketing initiatives, both inside and outside the company; being able to create audience-development programs with our shows and editorial team for developing artists like a Julia Michaels or even Harry Styles, who was entering the platform for the very first time as a solo artist. The idea is finding how we can help them discover an audience, and for artists like Drake or Ed Sheeran or The Weeknd, it’s how we can help them expand their audiences.

Without putting undue shine on anyone, who are the leaders on your team?

I think it’s very well-deserved shine! Dave Rocco was my first hire, he’s my global head of artist marketing. Rob Harvey [formerly of Universal] was my second hire as global head of artist and label services, and Tiffany was my third hire. Mark Williamson was one of the first guys I ever met at Spotify, about six years ago, he had run artist services and he came back on board to work alongside me on artist and industry partnerships.

What are some

changes you’ve made over the past year?

We put a big focus on indie labels. We brought on Jennifer Mathis, who was at a2im, to run our North American indie business and build a team that’s focused on it. Another thing we’ve done recently is breaking things down by genre. Where I think we had done a really good job at going across the music business horizontally from a label’s perspective, but all the labels have different types of artists. So we brought in people who have a deep cultural understanding of very specific genres of music, and when artists and managers and labels come in, they see that Spotify has a historical and first-hand knowledge of where that artist or indie label come from.

And you’ve broken down marketing in a similar way?

Marketing is very bespoke. People always want marketing plans quickly, and we want to be not just quick but bespoke and very specific to that artist, so the marketing team is very focused. Dave Rocco came over from Deutsch [advertising] and he worked at Z100 and MTV, so to [combine] a deep music background with an agency background and working with artists very intensely, he really knows how to launch campaigns.

Spotify was one of the main sponsors of the Prince birthday party Spike Jones threw in Brooklyn last weekend — there were Prince-themed banners and shirts and signs everywhere with relatively un-obnoxious Spotify branding on them. Obviously there was a connection from your work with Prince’s estate, but is that a good example of the kinds of projects you like to do?

Spike and Prince were very great friends and collaborators [on the “Girl 6” film and a Prince video in the 1990s]. This year he wanted the party to have more resources and be a bit more amplified, so it was perfect execution between Spike and our team. We’ve also been involved with backstage artist experiences at certain festivals and things along those lines. We typically don’t just put our logo on things — we like to be involved in the experience and help create and curate it, so it feels authentic to the brand. We like partners who are willing to collaborate and not just looking for a check from Spotify — then we step up. There’s a few things coming down the pipeline that we’ll be excited to talk about very soon. 

You’ve probably heard this question more than any other, but what’s your stance on exclusives?

Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.

Do you subscribe to the theory that once Spotify and other streaming services hit a certain number of subscribers, the music industry will be able to sustain artists better?

Artists are getting paid. We’ve paid out billions and billions of dollars so I think the streaming industry has debunked the argument that streaming doesn’t pay — it can pay incredibly well. I think as Spotify continues to grow, the streaming business will continue to grow overall and the industry will do better and better, and that myth [that streaming doesn’t pay] will hopefully go away for good. It’s a totally different model — and when you look at what the alternatives were pre-Spotify and pre-iTunes, music was actually free. It was all piracy. I think as an industry we should be supportive of a broad subscription model and not do anything to jeopardize the potential health of the music business — because we’re not out of the woods yet.

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