Music Publishing

Music Streaming Services Want to Deny Songwriters a Raise

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Note: This piece was originally a guest editorial for DJBooth.

Spotify, Pandora, Google, and Amazon announced last week that they would appeal the Copyright Royalty Board’s (CRB) recent decision to increase the streaming royalty rate paid to songwriters. Their announcement is a stark reminder of the difficulties songwritersface in getting paid and was immediately slammed by the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), the industry trade group representing music publishers.

In a joint statement about their intent to appeal, Spotify, Google, and Pandora said:

“If left to stand, the CRB’s decision harms both music licensees and copyright owners. Accordingly, we are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review the decision.”

The basis of the streaming services’ claims is not yet clear, but what is clear is their disingenuousness. They are claiming that harm will be done to copyright holders, but the real victims will be songwriters and music publishers. By appealing, the streaming services show that they don’t care about creators, and only intend to protect their profits.

NMPA President and CEO David Israelite issued a statement in response to the streaming services:

“When the Music Modernization Act became law, there was hope it signaled a new day of improved relations between digital music services and songwriters. That hope was snuffed out today when Spotify and Amazon decided to sue songwriters in a shameful attempt to cut their payments by nearly one-third.”

The constant grumbling about low payouts from streaming services usually centers on the rates that performing artists receive in connection with their masters. While acknowledging that those rates could be higher, the conversation typically leaves out the rates paid to songwriters for the use of their material, and those rates are lower.

This is a common blind spot, as consumers tend to notice the recording artist and not the songwriter. Recording artists can be seen and heard, but songwriters work in the background and are often overlooked. It was only last year that Spotify first began to display songwriting and production credits on their desktop app.

The issue for songwriters can be traced all the way back to 1909, when Congress first passed a federal copyright law. At the time, the music business was essentially just music publishing, and Congress wanted to prevent a monopoly. To do so, they created a compulsory license that allowed anyone to use a song, as long as the songwriter was paid a set rate.

This was a well-meaning attempt by Congress to constrain a music publishing monopoly, but it actually took away songwriters’ and publishers’ ability to negotiate rates based on fair market value. That 1909 decision still impacts modern-day songwriters in two ways: 

  1. The glacial pace by which songwriting royalties have changed since then means that songwriters’ compensation lags far behind that of recording artists.

  2. Songwriters don't get to negotiate rates whenever a new technology appears, putting them at a major disadvantage to streaming services.

The NMPA statement continues:

“The CRB’s final determination gave songwriters only their second meaningful rate increase in 110 years. Instead of accepting the CRB’s decision which still values songs less than their fair market value, Spotify and Amazon have declared war on the songwriting community by appealing that decision.”

Ironically, the music industry had recently found peace. When the Music Modernization Act (MMA) was passed into law late last year, the industry celebrated a hard-fought legislative victory that introduced a sweeping set of changes. The legislation covered a variety of issues and affected a wide cross-section of the industry. Songwriters, record companies, featured artists and owners of master recordings made prior to 1972, producers, mixers, and engineers all saw benefits from the law.

While not among the specific changes made by the Music Modernization Act, the CRB rate decision came at the same time and signaled a willingness on the part of the federal government to continue the reforms to copyright law that were embodied by the MMA. Most importantly, the CRB announced that the rate paid to songwriters/publishers in connection with streaming revenue would increase from 10.5 percent to 15.1 percent over the next five years.

This 44 percent increase represents the biggest change in songwriter royalty rates since 1981 when the statutory mechanical rate was increased by 45 percent from 2.75 cents to four cents. Prior to 1978, the rate was two cents—unchanged since US copyright law was first written in 1909!

By appealing the CRB ruling, the streaming services are jeopardizing that 44 percent increase, saying that:

“The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), in a split decision, recently issued the U.S. mechanical statutory rates in a manner that raises serious procedural and substantive concerns.”

It’s surprising that anyone would suggest that there are “procedural and substantive” concerns when the CRB issued preliminary rates in January 2018. The Copyright Office subsequently confirmed those rates in February 2019 after reviewing thousands of pages of documents, testimony from multiple witnesses, and listened to public comment on the issue.

The pushback from the streaming services shows the extent to which they will fight to prevent higher rates for songwriters. Their flimsy statements about “process” suggest their desperation at having to pay what songwriters deserve.

The rates that songwriters and publishers receive have always lagged behind the rates paid to recording artists and master owners. Due to the nature of copyright law, songwriters can’t negotiate their rates as easily and have traditionally had to wait for the government to catch up. 

The CRB’s new rates go a long way toward solving those problems, and it is shameful that the streaming services now want to take away the money that songwriters and publishers have rightfully earned.

For insider tips about the music business, subscribe to my newsletter and get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.

How Kanye West's Lawsuit Against EMI Could Change the Music Industry Forever

Photo by: Joshua Sobel

Photo by: Joshua Sobel

Note: This piece was originally a guest editorial for DJBooth.

Kanye West can’t retire. His music publisher says so.

Buried in the language of an extension to his music publishing deal with EMI is this clause:

“At no time during the Term will you seek to retire as a songwriter, recording artist or producer or take any extended hiatus during which you are not actively pursuing Your musical career in the same basic manner as You have pursued such career to date.”

From the publisher’s perspective, the situation is simple: they don’t make money when West isn't working, so they had him sign a contract that says he can’t stop.

From any other perspective, this clause is outrageous, and West is using that language, together with a decades-old California law, in a pair of lawsuits that could completely change the music business.

In January, West filed suit against Roc-a-Fella Records (and affiliated labels and businesses owned by Universal Music Group), and music publisher EMI (owned by SONY/ATV Music Publishing). Both lawsuits were heavily redacted, making it difficult to understand them in detail, but it was clear there was a dispute over his rights.

We learned more about one this past Friday when text of the EMI lawsuit became public in an exhibit to a document filed with the court.

West’s lawsuit against EMI seeks to end enforcement of their rights, return copyright ownership to West, and compensate him retroactively for the money EMI earned as a result.

This is a huge case that could significantly alter how music publishers and record companies treat their songwriters and performing artists.

If there’s anything that strikes fear into the hearts of media company executives, it’s California Labor Code Section 2855. This provision limits personal services contracts under California law to seven years and is often used by actors and/or performing artists to get out of their contracts. The law is so potentially damaging that record companies and music publishers routinely include language that specifically states their agreements cannot be construed as personal services contracts under California law. Some go even further, demanding the songwriter or artist warrant and represent not only that they don’t live in California, but that they don’t intend to move there in the future.

The law results from a fight that Academy Award-winning actor Olivia de Havilland won against the Hollywood studio system that kept her under contract in the 1940s. At the time, movie studios did not hire actors on a picture-by-picture basis but signed them to long-term contracts. The studios then automatically extended the term of those contracts whenever the actor turned down a role, ensuring that they remained signed even when they weren’t working on a film. Most actors tacitly accepted the practice, but De Havilland—best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—fought against Warner Bros., and won, creating the “Seven Year Rule.”

That Seven Year Rule governs personal services, but not copyright ownership, and what is significant—and so potentially damaging about West’s lawsuit—is that he appears to be using the rule as a way to force the return of his copyrights.

Under Federal Law, the duration of copyright is either the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years from publication. Under the terms of a songwriting deal, a music publisher acquires the rights to an author’s compositions (just as under a recording agreement, a record company acquires the rights to a performing artist’s master recordings). Ownership of those copyrights is vital to the publisher or label; they make their money by exploiting those rights, and their value is in part tied to the lengthy duration of copyright.

While disputes over personal services contracts can be ugly, the question of ownership rarely comes up. At issue is whether the contract remains in effect, not whether the company continues to own the artist’s creative product. The artist typically seeks only to get out of the deal, and while the company may be forced to release them, the company still keeps the copyrights.

West’s lawsuit is significant because he’s putting copyright ownership on the table. By doing so, he’s not just saying that California law means his contract ended after seven years (in 2010), but that EMI must also return his copyrights to him. 

This is an existential threat to music publishers (and record companies). If Kanye (read: Kanye's legal team) can convince the court that his argument is valid, artists could be able to use the Seven Year Rule not just to end their contracts, but to reclaim their masters and publishing. This is only the beginning of the fight, as we still don’t know about the lawsuit against his label, or how any of this will play out, but a win would be an incredible victory for songwriters and performing artists, and catastrophic for music publishers and record companies.

Kanye West doesn't shy from controversy, and by suing his label and his publisher, he’s created another. West owes his impact to that audacity and is known as one of the most important artists and producers of his generation because of it. He does things nobody else will, and if he wins this case, he’ll be known not just for changing the music, but for changing the business as well.

For insider tips about the music business, subscribe to my newsletter and get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.