Music Reports

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

Wagging Music Publishing’s Long Tail

Bill ColitreLast week’s announcement that the U.S. Copyright Office had successfully accepted a bulk submission of notices of intent (NOIs) for compulsory mechanical licenses in electronic form marked a major milestone, both for the Office and for Music Reports Inc., which delivered the NOIs on behalf of music streaming service Guvera.

Music Reports has been working with the Copyright Office for more than a decade as part of the Office’s fitful, and at times halfhearted, effort to upgrade the creaky, pre-digital process for submitting and accessing music publishing information to at least 20th century standards if not quite 21st. Last week’s successful test run on the Office’s new, electronic submission system, involving about 100 tracks, is believed to be the first such hand-off.

“We’re now ready to start doing this at scale. It’s a big, big step,” Music Report’s VP and general counsel Bill Colitre told RightsTech.com.

But it was only one step toward solving what Colitre says is a much bigger problem: the vast and fast-growing amount of music being released on digital platforms today for which publishing information is not available, if it was ever collected in the first place.

U.S. Copyright Office Clears Path for Digital Compulsory Licenses 

Until recently, NOIs had to be filed manually, by paper and under a prohibitive pricing structure. So if you started a service and had the publishing data for say 5 million songs, but did not have the information for another 500,000 songs, the service would need to file NOIs, saying it is licensing and using those songs with the Copyright Office. That process would cost $75 to register for the filing of all those songs, and $2 a song, or about $1 million. Also, the NOI for each song would need to be filed individually, although they could all be batch delivered to the Copyright Office.

But about two months ago, the Copyright Office revamped the way it is willing to accept NOIs and changed its pricing structure. Now, NOIs can be filed on excel spreadsheets, with something like 20 columns of relevant data needed to be completed for each song. This electronic filing still requires an upfront fee of $75 but it now only costs 10 cents a track. So now, filing NOIs for 500,00 songs will only cost $50,075, instead of $1.000075 million.

Source: U.S. Copyright Office Clears Path for Digital Compulsory Licenses | Billboard

Pandora looks to avoid Spotify’s royalty lawsuits with Music Reports deal 

Pandora, under new CEO Tim Westergren, has announced a new partnership with Music Reports, which it calls “the world’s most advanced rights administration platform”, to manage the mechanical licensing and royalty administration for its upcoming on-demand streaming service.

Spotify was hit by two $150m+ class action lawsuits last year over missing or inaccurate mechanical royalty payments to songwriters – since combined, and ongoing – and later offered a settlement to writers via the NMPA.

Source: Pandora looks to avoid Spotify’s royalty lawsuits with Music Reports deal – Music Business Worldwide

Music Reports Launches New Tool to Begin Solving ‘The Database Problem’

Music Reports has launched an unnamed rights administration platform aimed at clearing up publishing information for the millions of songs, largely from independent artists, that are digitally distributed through platforms like CD Baby and TuneCore.

Music Reports estimates 500,000-750,000 new recordings are released on streaming services every month; the company hopes to ensure that the publishing data on these songs is registered, up-to-date, and can be matched against commercially released master recordings.

Since most digital distributors don’t provide publishing information when placing music on streaming services, when the publishers and songwriters are not known those works are directed to a rights administration system, where songwriters or their publishers can claim those songs, allowing for publishing payments to be made.

Source: Billboard

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