Tuning Up: Tackling the Ever-Growing Complexity of Music Rights

The fragmented and often opaque ownership of musical works and sound recordings has confounded industry participants and would-be licensees for decades. But according to a recent study by rights administration services provider Music Reports, Inc., the most decade has seen a rapid acceleration in that fragmentation, as new genres, new formats, and new distribution channels have spurred new modes of songwriting and opened new avenues for artists. We asked Music Report’s vice president and general counsel Bill Colitre to share his insights into what’s behind the recent spike in the complexity of music rights.

Bill Colitre

Music Reports recently performed an analysis of Billboard’s top 10 hits from the 1960s through to the present using the Songdex® database, and published a press release about the project. The analysis revealed a marked increase in the number of both composers and publishers involved in hit songs over time, especially since the 1990s.  Notably, the number of publishers associated with these hit songs increased faster than the number of composers, such that the average song now has about six publishers and four composers.

The release sparked some interesting discussion on various comment boards. Some commenters made note of often repeated anecdotes about ‘non-songwriters’ being granted songwriting credit undeservingly. Although there is undoubtedly truth to some of these anecdotes, there are also a number of more common explanations for the increase, many resulting from the evolution of popular music genres and business practices in the last three decades.

The 1990s, for example, saw at least two significant developments that contributed to the complexity of modern song credits. First, hip hop became a mainstream genre—one in which musical works often incorporated samples from earlier works.

Commonly in these cases, the publishers of the sampled works have agreed with the creators of the newer songs on shared ownership of the resulting works. When this happens, the rights structure incorporates the composers and publishers of the sampled song along with those of the newer work.

The other important development in the ‘90s was a resurgence of pop, after two decades dominated by artists who largely performed their own works.

Pop music has a long and celebrated tradition of collaborative songwriting. But whereas in earlier eras it tended to be practiced by famous duos (from Gilbert & Sullivan down through Goffin & King), who tended to work for a single publisher, from the 1990s onward it has been practiced by an increasingly cross-pollinated group of professional songwriters working in various combinations, often with contributions from the superstar performing artists with whom they work regularly.

Moreover, regardless of genre, recent decades have also seen an increase in the prevalence of “co-publishing” agreements. In these arrangements, a songwriter may be represented by a large publishing administrator who owns a portion of the writer’s work, while the writer also owns a piece of her work through her own music publishing entity.

This second entity is typically also administered by, but legally separate from, the first publishing administrator, which manages both catalogs together. All of these entities add to the number of “publishers” who may be associated with a single song.

To add to the complexity, those distinct entities may share a common licensing administrator (i.e., the person responsible for granting the license), yet have separate arrangements for where to account (e.g., in the publishing administrator’s case to the administrator, while in the songwriter’s case, to her own publishing company). And each entity may have a different “care of” address for payment (e.g., the specific address for the administrator, on the one hand, and the address of the writer’s business manager, on the other hand).

To this common arrangement we can also add similar arrangements resulting from 360 label deals, so-called “creative joint venture” arrangements, and of course producer deals involving songwriting credit.

Infinite Variety

As if all of these horizontal sharing arrangements didn’t create enough fragmentation, the so-called “bundle of copyrights” is almost infinitely divisible by law, such that different territories may be managed by different publishers or “sub publishers” and different rights types may also have alternative administrative arrangements.

For example, print rights may be administered by one party, while performance rights are managed by another, and mechanical rights by a third. Just emerging now is an even narrower fragmentation of specific rights types.

For example, whereas ‘mechanical rights’ might have historically been handled by one administrator as a class, now we are beginning to see one administrator claiming ‘traditional mechanical rights’, while a second administrator claims those mechanical rights associated with ‘internet streaming and limited downloads’.

A similar fault line is appearing between ‘traditional synchronization rights’ and so-called “UGC streaming” synchronization rights.

In short, the music publishing business has evolved a truly phenomenal degree of complexity, and the reasons for this complexity are widely varied (some better than others).

It is easy to be frustrated by this Gordian Knot of a problem.  But while newer (and perhaps simpler) solutions are sought for future works, there is no responsible way to slice through the world’s great repertoire as it currently exists.

The efficient licensing of, and accounting for, the music being enjoyed by listeners today can only be accomplished by honoring the choices made by today’s rights owners through careful attention to the rights structures they have agreed among themselves.  At the same time, care must be taken to vet the reported claims of those rights owners, which sometimes conflict (and more often by mistake than from fraudulent intent).

As difficult as all this may be, happily there are already common sense solutions in the market.  Modern relational database systems like Songdex, curated by teams of dedicated musicologists and technologists, are able to manage all of the dimensions of complexity called for by this music industry, and do so at scale.

Rapidly ingesting direct, electronic feeds from every publisher able to deliver them, accepting any file format for letters of direction and related repertoire updates from those who cannot, and making available the world’s most effective online song registry and claiming system for unmatched sound recordings, Songdex is at the forefront of this effort.

As a comprehensive, neutral registry combined with a licensing transaction and payment settlement platform, Music Reports currently manages the task of tracking billions of transactions a day across more than a hundred million sound recordings embodying tens of millions of compositions, through the coordinated efforts of at least six organizational departments of humans, and a dozen supporting IT systems. As we often say here, it’s not the database, but the organization that meets the challenge.

To conclude, the modern profession of songwriting and the administration of musical composition rights are growing in complexity. There are more composers contributing to compositions (both together and across time, through sampling). Their publishers are creating new and more intricate methodologies for maximizing returns across an increasingly global marketplace that is adding wholly new channels of distribution almost every year.

One day the business may return to a less fragmented state through technology. Until then it should be no surprise that a complex business requires complex data management solutions.

Music Reports is a member of the RightsTech Project. Both Colitre and vice president of IT business development Michael Shanely are scheduled to speak at the RightsTech Summit on September 27th in New York. Click here for information on registration

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