Decline in GDP Projection Increases the Importance of Inflation Adjustments in Government Song Pricing #IRespectMusic

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Remember the stagflation three point play? Supply contracts, prices go up due to those supply side shocks and real gross domestic product contracts. Stagflation also results in higher unemployment. Stagflation can take a long time to shake out of an economy once it sets in.

Stagflation’s three point play

We can learn from the economic history of stagflation, particularly in Japan and the U.S. Japan had a stagflationary period started by the economic shock of the collapse of Japan’s real estate market (not unlike what is happening in China with Evergrand and Sinic) and the follow on effect of a 60% decline in Japan’s stock market. The U.S. had a stagflationary period in the 1970s brought on by a dependence on foreign oil and predatory pricing largely by OPEC. That led to skyrocketing oil prices and gas lines. Both countries experienced a “Lost Decade” due to stagflation.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta announced this week that it projects real GDP grown in the third quarter of 2021 to fall to 0.5% with some caveats:

https://www.atlantafed.org/-/media/Documents/cqer/researchcq/gdpnow/RealGDPTrackingSlides.pdf

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis gives a longer term chart of GDPNow:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPNOW/

The point of these graphs is to emphasize that the US economy appears to be heading to a contraction and inflation brought on by a combination of supply side shocks (cost-push inflation) and demand caused in part by government actions (demand-pull inflation) combined with sharp increases in gasoline prices among other commodities. Gasoline prices ratchet through many products in the economy and have been sharply higher over the last 12 months as the U.S. became more dependent on OPEC production.

https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/gasoline

All the indications are that the U.S. may be headed into a prolonged period of stagflation which is inflation combined with a stagnating economy. It seems less and less likely that inflation is “transitory” and more likely that it will last well into 2023 and possibly 2024.

How does this affect songwriters? Remember that the mechanical rates set in the current Copyright Royalty Board rate proceeding will fix prices until 2027, so it appears that there will be considerable overlap between the inflation cycle and the royalty rates–all the more reason to seek the same inflation indexing for songs as the CRB recently granted for sound recordings.

The Creative Survival Index

I had such a positive response to the post Why Songwriters Should Care About Inflation Protection for Mechanical Licenses that I developed a number that we will use for reference. I call this the Creative Survival Index and I will update the index monthly as new data comes in for all the categories. I’ll also track the monthly change (“MOM Change %”).

Realize that this is just a reference point that adds together all the different inputs I cover in the post. It’s just a way to have a single number to refer to for easy reference. The number itself does not tell you anything about the underlying data and I’m happy to have any input on how to make it better.

Remember I discussed the potential for stagflation hitting the US economy–the International Monetary Fund announced today that it reduced the global Gross National Product projections to 5.9% from 6% one sign of stagflation.

Why Songwriters Should Care About Inflation Protection for Mechanical Licenses

In a word: Stagflation. Maybe. In more words, classic stagflation occurs when supply side shocks lead to the costs of goods increasing while the real economy declines. We certainly have had and continue to have supply side shocks and it’s hard to tell what the real economy is doing because of distortion. Due to the COVID pandemic, the global economy has been hit with a cascading series of supply side shocks. For example, one shock is due to supply chain disruptions which look something like this:

If you’ve ever been on one of the very large cargo ships, you will know that is a big mofo. (When a sailor looks at all those elephants churning up the water, you can’t rule out a collision which could have really big problems depending on where and how bad that collision is.)

There currently are something like 500,000 shipping containers sitting on ships off of the Port of Los Angeles that can’t unload. That means someone has ordered the goods in the containers, perhaps paid in advance all or part of the cost of those good, but can’t get the goods to sell. And that’s just Los Angeles. That’s also called a supply side shock.

A supply side shock may cause an increase in the prices of the goods that are available to sell which causes a shift in the aggregate prices in the economy as a whole.

Another supply side shock may occur when inflation causes the price of goods to increase over the level that a firm can eat to avoid passing on the cost to their customers. This causes earnings to decline and eventually share prices to decline. If the market does not re-establish equilibrium fairly quickly, right after earnings decline, the price may get passed on to the consumer which may cause demand to drop which will ultimately cause earnings to decline. This is cost-push inflation which is a bit different from what you normally hear about too many dollars chasing too few goods or demand-pull inflation.

So to recap: cost-push inflation is a decrease in the aggregate supply of goods and services caused by an increase in the cost of production, and demand-pull inflation is an increase in aggregate demand from one or more or all of households, business, governments, and foreign customers. 

Inflationary pressure is compounded by an increase in the money supply, especially a sharp increase in the money supply.

All this should be sounding familiar if you follow the news.

The Stagflation Three Point Play

Historical examples of stagflation events in the US are particularly related to energy cost shocks and OPEC’s use of oil embargos to influence US foreign policy and support for Israel. We’ll come back to this, but remember that the crippling stagflation of the 1970s was largely due to one input–energy. The gas lines of the 1970s and heating oil price increases were particularly profound and the resulting stagflation influenced the increase in interest rates to a prime rate of 21.5% in December of 1980 after President Jimmy Carter lost reelection. It may be hard to comprehend a prime rate of 21.5% in this low interest rate environment, but don’t feel bad–it wasn’t so easy to understand then, either. The shys were jealous.

Could it happen again? At this point, I think it’s hard for anyone to rule it out entirely, so the probability is a positive integer. What did songwriters do during the stagflation era of the 1970s? Unlike most of the rest of the peacetime economy, songwriters had mechanical royalties set by the government at a fixed price. Starting in 1909, the federal government set songwriter royalties at 2¢ per unit and never changed the price until 1978. Needless to say, the stagflation of the 1970s destroyed the government’s fixed songwriter royalties. By 1978 it’s not an overstatement to say that songwriters earned a negative royalty rate if you adjusted for inflation. This was all due to the government’s wage controls on songwriters. (You can argue that this is the primary reason songwriters get paid so little today.)

Why did this happen? Government mandated wage and price controls were common in wartime–during World War II, military expenditures exceeded 40% of gross domestic product (GDP) so the government had an interest in controlling labor and materials costs. They accomplished this through the War Labor Board and the Office of Price Administration. If that sounds positively Soviet, it was. Unlike songwriter royalties, the government mandate was temporary.

By the time the 1976 revision to the Copyright Act rolled around, songwriters lobbied effectively for their statutory mechanical rate to be increased. However, given the rampant inflation of the time, they needed protection because even with prices reset after five year periods, inflation could easily eat away any gains. That’s one reason why after the 1976 revision, mechanical rates gradually increased and eventually were increased based on the Consumer Price Index (called “indexing”) for many years.

If you followed the recent commentary opposing an extended freeze of the mechanical royalty rate for physical and downloads, the inflation issue is front and center once again. And if you observe the current state of the economy and the likely future, you’ll understand why indexing may be crucial to preserving the value of whatever mechanical royalty is set by the Copyright Royalty Board, the songwriter’s version of the WWII era Office of Price Administration. And who would bet against inflation?

Of course, the CRB heard absolutely no evidence on the inflation issue from the NMPA, NSAI and the major labels that essentially put their finger in the air and decided to freeze rates. That’s not the end of the story, though. The relevant information on inflation is readily available in the public domain and the CRB can take notice of it if they want.

Remember, the 1970s stagflation was a highly unusual economic condition caused by a supply side shock of one input–energy. Here’s a few examples of current supply side shocks from multiple inputs. I think it should give everyone pause before they rule out a need to index the statutory rates for songwriters.

Personal Consumption Expenditure Index (US Govt. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

The “PCE” and “Core PCE” are indexes that economists monitor (such as the economists at the Federal Reserve) to track inflation trends. So let’s see what these metrics tell us about the inflationary trends that would be an argument to support indexing mechanical royalties.

“Core PCE” is another look at consumer prices that excludes the cost of food and energy which doesn’t make much sense to you and me, but is another way to look at underlying inflation trends for economists. This is important because it can influence decisions about interest rates at the Federal Reserve.

For perspective, here’s a five-year look at PCE and at PCE excluding food and energy:

The data tell us that the five year inflationary trend is up and to the right with an increasing slope. It is the sharpness of that increasing slope that gives pause–the inflationary trend has been up since 1959 per the following chart, but the steepness over the last 12 months is unusual.

Overall US Inflation Rate

The PCE and Core PCE is confirmed by the overall U.S. inflation rate as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

You see the trend here. Inflation has sharply increased. Consider the last twelve months–inflation has tripled.

Do we think it will continue to increase or will it decline? Let’s consider the inputs that can cause that supply side shock we talked about above.

Residential Rent Prices

According to Zillow, “[t]ypical U.S. rents grew 9.2% year-over-year in July, according to the Zillow Observed Rent Index (ZORI) — the fastest recorded by Zillow records in data that reaches back through 2015 — to $1,843/month. Projecting forward historical ZORI values from February 2020 — the last full month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest — we estimate that the U.S. ZORI in July was 2.9% ($52) higher than where it would have been if the last roughly 18 months had been more ‘normal.’ “

And CBS news confirms the data:

After dipping last spring, rents around the U.S. have not only recovered but are now blasting past their pre-pandemic levels. In 44 of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, rents have surpassed where they were before the health crisis, according to data from Realtor.com. Nationwide, the median rent reached a record high of $1,575 in June, an increase of 8% from a year ago.

Cotton

Cotton is a commodity that finds its way into many goods. The Wall Street Journal reports that cotton prices have surged to their highest level in a decade, but that Levis won’t be passing on the cost increase to consumers–yet. Remember cost-push inflation?

Levi’s commentary on the cotton-pricing issue should soften some of those fears—at least in the near term. On its earnings call Wednesday evening, the apparel company said that much of its own cotton prices have already been negotiated for the first half of 2022 and that it expects its cost of goods sold to increase 1% in the first half of 2022 compared with 2021 levels. For the second half of 2022, the company said it might be able to negotiate prices that will lead to a mid-single-digit percentage increase in costs compared with 2021 levels. Cotton accounts for about a fifth of the cost of producing Levi’s jeans.

Food Inflation

If you’re going to just look at the core PCE without food and energy, you can’t just ignore those two key inputs if you want to know what is going on at the micro level. We’ll look at both food inflation as well as inflationary effects on a few key energy components, especially for touring bands. Consider this chart of food inflation in the US over the last twelve months which itself is slightly higher than the core PCE.

Propane

Propane–also known as heat–is a lot more relevant to consumers particularly as we head into winter. Propane generators are of particular interest to anyone who suffered a power outage during a polar vortex–ahem–and as you can see, propane prices are already through the roof.

Same story for natural gas and heating oil.

Gasoline

If you’re planning a ground tour, keep an eye on the price of gasoline, also up and to the right.

10 Year US Treasury Bonds

You may not be aware of it, but practically everything in your financial life is affected by the 10 Year US Treasury bond. The “10 Year” is used as a reference point for a multitude of financial instruments and interest rates around the world. This includes mortgage rates and credit card rates. As you can see, over the past 12 months, the yield on the 10 Year treasury note has increased or nearly doubled. And remember that the bond market is orders of magnitude larger than the stock market. The bond market is also run by sophisticated traders–I’ve never heard of day traders in the bond market.

You want to keep a good eye on the 10 year because the Federal Reserve plans to “taper” which is one of those fancy names like “quantitative easing” that sounds like a caramel macchiato but is actually not. What that means in a nutshell is that the Federal Reserve plans on buying fewer treasury bonds than they have done–sopping up however much debt that Congress wants to take on. (Some people say this is a lot like printing money–remember that increasing the money supply is one of the causes of inflation, particularly sharp increases in the money supply.)

A cynic–certainly not me–might say that the Federal Reserve keeps the interest rates low because if the U.S. government ever had to pay anything like a market interest rate, the country would go under. But this cannot go on forever, hence “tapering”.

People may disagree with this “printing money” analogy, but the money supply has substantially increased in the last 12 months and it came from somewhere.

Conclusion

If you stayed with me this far, thank you. I hope I’ve persuaded you that it in the current environment it is highly dubious that songwriters should ever agree to a fixed mechanical rate for any configuration that is not indexed to inflation. Even if you don’t think that stagflation is around the corner, we are certainly seeing considerable inflation in a number of inputs–the supply side shock that is the hallmark of a period of stagflation may not come solely from energy this time. Just because energy was the culprit before doesn’t mean that the economy will not succumb to stagflation by a thousand cuts in the future.

I once had a cat that would run to the closet when unknown visitors arrived. I said he was guarding the closet because they could be coming that way. If you’re going to be forced to take the government cheese, maybe songwriters should build in an indexed escalator like the CRB did in the webcasting rates to at least allow you to keep your head above the inflation or stagflation waters.

How to Register to Comment at the Copyright Royalty Board on the Frozen Mechanicals Rate Hearing

If you’ve been following the heated controversy around the frozen mechanicals crisis, you’ll know that the Copyright Royalty Board has received a proposal from the NMPA, NSAI and the major labels to freeze the statutory rate for songwriter mechanical royalties on physical (like CDs and vinyl) and permanent downloads (like iTunes) for another five years. That proposal mentions a settlement to establish the frozen rates (which extends the rates that were first frozen in 2006 for another 5 years) and a memorandum of understanding between the NMPA and the major labels for something, we’re not quite sure what.

There’s quite a bit of material about the problem that was posted on the Trichordist, so you can check there to read up on the background. You can also subscribe to the Artist Rights Watch podcast and listen to our first episode about frozen mechanicals. This post today assumes you already know the background and are ready to file your comment.

Filing comments with the CRB is not quite as simple as filing comments with the Copyright Office and it takes a bit of time–comments close on July 26, so do not leave setting up your account until July 26, or even July 25. I would do it today. You can set up your account before you file your comments so that the account part is all ready to go.

Here are some steps you will probably go through to set up your account:

  1. Go to app.crb.gov. Look for “Register for an account” (the one in small print at the bottom of the list)


2. “Register for an account” will take you to a sign up page. Scroll down to “User Information”. You only need to complete the required fields with a red star (so ignore the bar number, etc.)

There is a pull down menu under “Register as” with a few different roles listed. The one you want is “Commenter”

Then complete the form completing only the required fields.

3. The CRB will then authenticate your account and send you and email confirmation. That part goes pretty quickly. However, once your account is authenticated, make sure you log on. You should be taken to a dashboard, but the question is whether your dashboard looks like this:

Note that the dashboard does not have a button to “File a comment”. If this is what you see when you log into your account, you are not done. Contact the CRB support people ecrbsupport@egov.com and tell them that your account has not been activated to comment.

4. Your account should look like this:

The comment you want to file is for Phonorecords IV. You can ignore the other dockets. It took me several trips to the support desk to get the correct filing tabs on my account, hopefully you won’t have that problem. But–just in case, don’t be running around crazy on July 26 trying to file the comment you slaved over because you left the account to the last minute.

The Sound and the Fury: The Copyright Office Unmatched Report’s Confused Thesis

One of the first world problems with the Copyright Office unmatched report (and frankly the legislative history) is that the Office seems to confound matching transitory royalty payments with building a permanent asset. There is an inherent tension in utilizing a cost benefit analysis to decide which songs are “worth” identifying and paying compared to which songs are “worth” identifying to build the Congressionally mandated core asset of the Mechanical Licensing Collective–the public’s musical works database.

These are two entirely different projects. The unmatched report misses the opportunity to properly distinguish them and emphasize the priority that must be given to building the gold standard musical works database–for which the services pay and in consideration for which the services received a Congressionally mandated retroactive safe harbor for the legion of past infringements. It now becomes apparent that the services were not really serious about doing the hard work and wanted to do just enough to be able to get their safe harbor.

But what about the $424 million in black box, you say? Didn’t they pay beaucoup bucks to settle up with songwriters? Yes, it’s true–the services paid songwriters with what services said was the amount of the songwriters own money that the services owed them due to extraordinarily sloppy licensing practices. Hopefully when the accounting data is made public, we will have a better idea of whether this $424 million makes sense as the semi-accurate number. If, however, it turns out that the vast bulk of the retroactive payment of $424 million accrued over the last few years, that is, since the passing of the MMA Title I safe harbor to benefit those who need it least, it will become apparent that the “historic” retroactive payment was neither historic nor particularly retroactive. Watch the Eight Mile Style case in Tennessee for some answers on this where both Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency are being sued by Eminem’s publishers.

Yet this confusion over the difference between complying with the Congressional mandate to build an authoritative musical works database and some line in the legislative history that the lobbyists inserted about “play your part” is another reason why using a cost benefit analysis for identifying long tail royalty payments makes no sense.

The MLC is charged by Congress with creating the public musical works database–an asset. The MLC is also charged with accounting for royalties–a payment. The report says “The MLC should take reasonable steps to ensure that its data is of the highest possible quality, meaning, among other things, that it is as complete, accurate, up-to-date, and de-conflicted as possible, and is obtained from authoritative sources.” But not if the cost of quality data exceeds the royalties payable in a particular month?

Payments change, assets do not. The MLC are either building a “highest possible quality asset” or they are doing the usual 80/20 “industry standard” slop that is already becoming the MLC’s go-to excuse for failure. Because rest assured–it will always be someone else’s fault. Who do you think caused that “industry standard” to exist? One of the MLC’s principal vendors, mebbbie?

The services like the Title I safe harbor just fine, but obviously no one is interested in actually building an asset of the “highest quality” which is a different enterprise than royalty accounting.

Which is it going to be? I think we all know the answer. If we let it, it will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Healing with Sunlight: A Rate Based Solution for the Frozen Mechanicals Dilemma

Well, it’s been quite a week for the frozen mechanicals issue on The Trichordist (once again cementing its leadership role in providing a platform for the voice of the people).  Many songwriter groups, publishers, lawyers and academics stepped forward with well-reasoned commentary to demand a better rate on physical and downloads and full disclosure of the secret deals between NMPA and the major label affiliates of their biggest members.  Even the mainstream press had to cover it.  So much for physical and downloads being unimportant configurations.

Readers should now better understand the century of sad history for U.S. mechanical royalties that cast a long commercial shadow around the world.  This history explains why extending the freeze on these mechanical rates in the current CRB proceeding (“Phonorecords IV”) actually undermines the credibility of the Copyright Royalty Board if not the entire rate setting process.  The CRB’s future is a detailed topic for another day that will come soon, but there are many concrete action points raised this week for argument in Phonorecords IV today–if the parties and the judges are motivated to reach out to songwriters.

Let’s synthesize some of these points and then consider what the new royalty rates on physical and downloads ought to be.

            1.  Full Disclosure of Side Deals:  Commenters were united on disclosure.  Note that all we have to go on is a proposed settlement motion about two side deals and a draft regulation, not copies of the actual deals.  The motion acknowledges both a settlement agreement and a side deal of some kind that is additional consideration for the frozen rates and mentions late fees (which can be substantial payments).  The terms of the side deal are unknown; however, the insider motion makes it clear that the side deal is additional consideration for the frozen rate. 

            It would not be the first time that a single or small group negotiated a nonrecoupable payment or other form of special payment to step up the nominal royalty rate to the insiders in consideration for a low actual royalty rate that could be applied to non-parties.  The rate—but not the side deal–would apply to all.  (See DMX.)

            In other words, if I ask you to take a frozen rate that I will apply to everyone but you, and I pay you an additional $100 plus the frozen rate, then your nominal rate is the frozen per unit rate plus the $100, not the frozen rate alone.  Others get the frozen rate only.  I benefit because I pay others less, and you benefit because I pay you more.  Secret deals compound the anomaly.

            This is another reason why the CRJs should both require public disclosure of the actual settlement agreement plus the side deal without redactions and either cabin the effects of the rate to the parties or require the payment of any additional consideration to everyone affected by the frozen rate.  Or just increase the rate and nullify the application of the side deal.

            It is within the discretion of the Copyright Royalty Judges to open the insider’s frozen mechanical private settlement to public comment.  That discretion should be exercised liberally so that the CRJs don’t just authorize comments by the insider participants in public, but also authorize public comments by the general public on the insiders work product. Benefits should flow to the public–the CRB doesn’t administer loyalty points for membership affinity programs, they set mechanical royalty rates for all songwriters in the world.

            2.  Streaming Royalty Backfire:   If you want to argue that there is an inherent value in songs as I do, I don’t think freezing any rates for 20 years gets you there.  Because there is no logical explanation for why the industry negotiators freeze the rates at 9.1¢ for another five years, the entire process for setting streaming mechanical rates starts to look transactional.  In the transactional model, increased streaming mechanicals is ultimately justified by who is paying.  When the labels are paying, they want the rate frozen, so why wouldn’t the services use the same argument on the streaming rates, gooses and ganders being what they are?  If a song has inherent value—which I firmly believe—it has that value for everyone. Given the billions that are being made from music, songwriters deserve a bigger piece of that cash and an equal say about how it is divided.

            3.  Controlled Compositions Canard:  Controlled comp clauses are a freeze; they don’t justify another freeze.  The typical controlled compositions clause in a record deal ties control over an artist’s recordings to control over the price of an artist’s songwriting (and often ties control over recordings to control over the price for the artist’s non-controlled co-writers). This business practice started when rates began to increase after the 1976 revision to the U.S. Copyright Act.  These provisions do not set rates and expressly refer to a statutory rate outside of the contract which was anticipated to increase over time—as it did up until 2006.  Controlled comp reduces the rate for artist songwriters but many publishers of non-controlled writers will not accept these terms.  So songwriters who are subject to controlled comp want their statutory rate to be as high as possible so that after discounts they make more.  

            Because controlled comp clauses are hated, negotiations usually result in mechanical escalations, no configuration reductions, later or no rate fixing dates, payment on free goods and 100% of net sales, a host of issues that drag the controlled comp rates back to the pure statutory rate.  Failing to increase the statutory rate is like freezing rate reductions into the law on top of the other controlled comp rate freezes—a double whammy.

            It must be said that controlled compositions clauses are increasingly disfavored and typically don’t apply to downloads at all.  If controlled comp is such an important downward trend, then why not join BMG’s campaign against the practice?  If you are going to compel songwriters to take a freeze, then the exchange should be relief from controlled compositions altogether, not to double down.

            4.  Physical and Downloads are Meaningful Revenue:  Let it not be said that these are not important revenue streams.  As we heard repeatedly from actual songwriters and independent publishers, the revenue streams at issue in the insider motion are meaningful to them. Even so, there are still roughly 344.8 million units of physical and downloads in 2020 accounting for approximately $1,741.5 billion of label revenue on an industry-wide basis.  And that’s just the U.S. Remember—units “made and distributed” are what matter for physical and download mechanicals, not “stream share”.  If you don’t think the publishing revenue is “meaningful” isn’t that an argument for raising the rates?

U.S. Recorded Music Sales Volumes and Revenue by Format (Physical and Downloads) 2020 UnitsRevenue
LP/EP  22.9 million$619.6 million
Download Single257.2 million$312.8 million
Download Album  33.1 million$319.5 million
CD  31.6 million$483.3 million
Vinyl Single  0.4 million$    6.3 million

Source: RIAA https://www.riaa.com/u-s-sales-database/

            5.  Inflation is Killing Songwriters:  The frozen mechanical is not adjusted for increases in the cost of living, therefore the buying power of 9.1¢ in 2006 when that rate was first established is about 75% of 9.1¢ in 2021 dollars.

            6.  Willing Buyer/Willing Seller Standard Needs Correction:  When the willing buyer and the willing seller are the same person (at the group level), the concept does not properly approximate a free market rate under Section 115. Because both buyers and sellers at one end of the market are overrepresented in the proposed settlement, the frozen rates do not properly reflect the entire market.  At a minimum, the CRJs should not apply the frozen rate to anyone other than parties to the private settlement.  The CRJs are free to set higher rates for non-parties.

            7.  Proper Rates:  While the frozen rate is unacceptable, grossing up the frozen rate for inflation at this late date is an easily anticipated huge jump in royalty costs. That jump, frankly, is brought on solely because of the long-term freeze in the rate when cost of living adjustments were not built in.  The inflation adjusted rate would be approximately 12¢ (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).  

            Even though entirely justified, there will be a great wringing of hands and rending of garments from the labels if the inflation adjustment is recognized.  In fairness, just like the value of physical and downloads differ for independent publishers, the impact of an industry-wide true-up type rate change would also likely affect independent labels differently, too. So fight that urge to say cry me a river.

            Therefore, it seems that songwriters may have to get comfortable with the concept of a rate change that is less than an inflation true up, but more than 9.1¢.  That rate could of course increase in the out-years of Phonorecords IV.  Otherwise, 9.1¢ will become the new 2¢–it’s already nearly halfway there.  The only thing inherent in extending the frozen mechanicals approach is that it inherently devalues the song just at the tipping point.

            Let’s not do this again, shall we not?

What Would @TaylorSwift13 and Eddie @cue Do? One solution to the frozen mechanical problem

Who can forget how Taylor Swift stood up for songwriters, producers and artists against Apple’s bizarre decision to impose a royalty-free three month trial period on the launch of Apple Music. (Of course, songwriters, producers and artists weren’t the only ones involved, but that’s a story for another day.)

What is equally memorable is how fast Apple changed course and all the goodwill that came to Apple as a result. Faster than you can say “Arsenal”, Eddie Cue announced that Apple would scale it back. Lemonade out of lemons. Of course, the issue should have been obvious, but sometimes smart people miss the point like everyone does sometimes. (Rolling Stone has a good short post on the backstory.)

The point of the story is that when you make a mistake, it’s better to fix it quickly than let it fester. So it is with the “frozen mechanical” problem that has become all the rage in recent days. The good news is the problem can be solved with the payment of money. It won’t be easy, but as a great man once said, this is the business we’ve chosen.

The Copyright Royalty Board decides on the statutory rate that’s paid under compulsory content licenses in the United States. For mechanical royalties, the CRB makes that decision every five years which means that if there isn’t a CRB hearing going on at any given moment, wait a little while and there will be one. (Needless to say, the volume of CRB hearings varies directly with full employment for lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, DC.) The “frozen mechanical” issue dates back to 2006 (or 2009 depending on how you count it) when the CRB allowed the end of rising mechanical royalty rates on physical and permanent downloads (and a couple others). However, the sour memories of frozen mechanicals dates to 1909–also a story for another day.

Instead, the CRB has allowed a private agreement among the biggest players to become the law. This has happened at least one other time and it appears that it is about to happen again according to public documents filed with the CRB on March 2, 2021 (read it here). Contrast that private agreement to the bitter struggle against the streaming services over streaming mechanicals that is still in the appeal process. Different people paying, same songwriters getting paid.

If you haven’t heard about the tentative settlement by private agreement at the CRB, it admittedly was not well socialized.

The inescapable problem is that any fixed or “frozen” rate determined at one point in time but paid over relatively long periods of time is at the mercy of inflation in the economy that may rise in that intervening time period. The Congress and the industry recognized this harsh truth in the 1976 revision to the Copyright Act and eventually indexed mechanical rates, meaning that they floated upward with the Consumer Price Index. (CPI has its own problems, but it’s a bogey that lots of people use so it’s easier than reinventing the wheel with a bespoke factor.)

Given what has been happening in the economy, it was inevitable that inflation was about to come back strong in the U.S. and global economy. Sure enough, the Department of Labor announced yesterday:

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.8 percent in April on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.6 percent in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 4.2 percent before seasonal adjustment. This is the largest 12-month increase since a 4.9-percent increase for the period ending September 2008.

Yes, the CPI ignored the Fed and increased like the pesky little devil it is. There’s no reason to think that this is going to stop any time soon. (If you were born after 1960 or so, you may not remember that inflation and stagflation resulted in the prime interest rate peaking at 21.5% in December of 1980. That drove mortgage rates to 13.41% in 1981 (often plus points). And then there were the credit cards. That’s where inflation can lead. Personally, my money is on stagflation in the form of high inflation and high unemployment due to what Secretary Yellen called the scarring effects of the pandemic which the music business is experiencing in spades.)

April 2021 DOL Inflation

It just wouldn’t be prudent to enter into a long term contract at a fixed rate that does not take into account inflation. Yet that is exactly what the tentative settlement wants to do with the mechanical rate for physical, downloads, and a couple other categories. Yet, we must acknowledge that it is very difficult to herd the cats to get them to agree to anything. But having gotten everyone to agree to freezing mechanicals and having gotten the CRB to agree to adopt that agreement in the past, it may be the case that the parties can get the CRB to let them increase mechanicals going forward.

In other words, take a lesson from Taylor Swift and Eddie Cue and do a quick course correction before the final settlement gets announced on May 18.

So what would that look like? Precedent suggests that the CRB (and its predecessors) have accepted two principal methods of increasing the rate, which is phased in over time: fixed penny-rate increases and CPI indexing. My suggestion would be to employ both methods in a greater of formula (so popular with streaming).

If phased in over 5 years like other rates, it seems that there could be an immediate step up to compensate songwriters for a rate was frozen starting at the time that physical was still a very significant percentage of sales back in 2006. That stepped up rate could then gradually increase with a greater of a fixed penny increase or CPI. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone what that step up should be, but if you apply the CPI index, it should probably be about 4¢, bringing the minimum rate to 13¢ from 9.1¢. Given that big–albeit entirely justified–jump, increases over the out years might be more modest.

Now that we know that there’s a strong possibility that inflation will be in our lives for the foreseeable future, the good news is there’s still time to do something about it. The CRB has shown us that they are willing to accept radical changes in the mechanical royalty rate by adopting private settlements, so there seems to be no impediment. I’m not aware of a rule that says the CRB only adopts rules that freeze songwriters in place, so it should work to the songwriters betterment and not just to their detriment.

We should ask, what would Taylor and Eddie do?

What the MLC Can Learn from Orphan Works

As you may be aware, The MLC recently received $424 million as payment of the “inception to date” unmatched mechanical royalties held at a number of streaming platforms, sometimes called the “black box.” Why do we have a black box at all? For the same reason you have “pending and unmatched” at record companies–somebody decided to exploit the recording without clearing the song.

Streaming services will, no doubt, try to blame the labels for this missing data, but that dog don’t hunt. First, the streaming service has an independent obligation to obtain a license and therefore to know who they are licensing from. Just because the labels do, too, doesn’t diminish the service’s obligation. It must also be said that for years, services did not accept delivery of publishing metadata even if a label wanted to give it to them. So that helps explain how we get to $424 million. Although the money was paid around mid-February, it’s clearly grown because The MLC is to hold the funds in an interest bearing account. Although The MLC has yet to disclose the current balance. Maybe someday.

This payment is, rough justice, a quid pro quo for the new “reach back” safe harbor that the drafters of Title I came up with that denies songwriters the right to sue for statutory damages if a platform complies with their rules including paying this money. That’s correct–songwriters gave up a valuable right to get paid with their own money.

The MLC has not released details about these funds as yet, but one would expect that the vast majority of the unmatched would be for accounting periods prior to the enactment of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (Oct. 11, 2018). One reason that expectation would be justified is that Title I requires services to try hard(er) to match song royalties with song owners. The statute states “…a digital music provider shall engage in good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to identify and locate each copyright owner of such musical work (or share thereof)” as a condition of being granted the safe harbor.

The statute then goes on to list some examples of “good faith commercially reasonable efforts”. This search, or lack thereof, is at the heart of Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated’s lawsuit against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency. (As the amended complaint states, “Nowhere does the MMA limitation of liability section suggest that it lets a DMP off the hook for copyright infringement liability for matched works where the DMP simply committed copyright infringement. The same should also be true where the DMP had the information, or the means, to match, but simply ignored all remedies and requirements and committed copyright infringement instead. Spotify does not therefore meet the requirements for the liability limitations of the MMA with respect to Eight Mile for this reason alone.”)

The MMA language is similar to “reasonably diligent search” obligations for orphan works, which are typically works of copyright where the owner cannot be identified by the user after trying to find them. This may be the only aspect of orphan works practice that is relevant to the black box under MMA. Since considerable effort has been put into coming up with what constitutes a proper search particularly in Europe it might be a good idea to review those standards.

We may be able to learn somethng about what we expect the services to have already done before transferring the matching problem to the MLC and what we can expect the MLC to do now that they have the hot potato. The MMA provides non-exclusive examples of what would comprise a good search, so it is relevant what other best practices may be out there.

Establishing reference points for what constitutes “good faith commercially reasonable efforts” under MMA is important to answer the threshold question: Is the $424 million payment really all there is? How did the services arrive at this number? While we are impressed by the size of the payment, that’s exactly the reason why we should inquire further about how it was arrived at, what periods it is for and whether any deductions were made. Otherwise it’s a bit like buying the proverbial pig in the proverbial poke.

One method lawmakers have arrived at for determining reasonableness is whether the work could be identified by consulting readily available databases identified by experts (or common sense). For example, if a songwriter has all their metadata correct with the PROs, it’s going to be a bit hard to stomach that either the service or the MLC can’t find them.

Fortunately, we have the Memorandum of Understanding from the European Digital Libraries initiative which brought together a number of working groups to develop best practices to search for different copyright categories of orphan works. The Music/Sound Working Group was represented by Véronique Desbrosses of GESAC and Shira Perlmutter, then of IFPI and now Register of Copyrights (head of the U.S. Copyright Office). The Music/Sound Working Group established these reasonable search guidelines:

DUE DILIGENCE GUIDELINES

The [Music/Sound] Working Group further discussed what constituted appropriate due diligence in dealing with the interests of the groups represented at the table—i.e., what a responsible [user] should, and does, do to find the relevant right holders. We agreed that at least the following searches should be undertaken:

1. Check credits and other information appearing on the work’s packaging (including names, titles, date and place of recording) and follow up through those leads to find additional right holders (e.g., contacting a record [company] to find the performers).

2. Check the databases/membership lists of relevant associations or institutions representing the relevant category of right holder (including collecting societies, unions, and membership or trade associations). In the area of music/sound, such resources are extensive although not always exhaustive.

3. Utilise public search engines to locate right holders by following up on whatever names and facts are available.

4. Review online copyright registration lists maintained by government agencies, such as the U.S. Copyright Office.

Perhaps when the MLC audits the inception to date payments we’ll have some idea of whether the services complied with these simple guidelines.

SoundCloud Throws Down With Fan Powered Royalties and User-Centric

SoundCloud is the first music service to adopt a version of the ethical pool principles in a user-centric royalty model and I have to applaud the effort. It’s a really good first step. “Fan Powered” royalties tries to connect the dots between what fans actually listen to and what fans actually pay for.

SC Fan Powered

Remember, the point of the ethical pool was to do something right now to remedy the hyper efficient marketshare distributions of the “big pool” or “market-centric” royalty allocation model that is pretty much the rule with digital music services (and to one degree or another with streaming mechanicals, too, although that’s a topic for another day). I acknowledged the transaction cost involved of truly changing the model which would require renegotiating all the big pool catalog licenses. The workaround in ethical pool is to allow those who want out to opt in to a user-centric model that would be separate from the big pool. This is a way to avoid the significant transaction costs of trying to change a system that is working well for some but not all artists on the service.

SoundCloud appears to have done something very similar. This accomplishes another goal of ethical pool which is to not upset the big pool model entirely as it is working for a lot of people and there’s a benefit to the entire industry that flows from that success. By adopting this middle-ground user centric model, SoundCloud is actually able to promote its user centric method as a competitive advantage to attract independent artists to sign up with the service.

When you consider that the real choice of independent artists is to stream or not to stream because the revenues are microscopic but the cannibalization is gigantic, it is competition that is going to get the market forces aligned to produce real organic change. If services understand that offering at least some version of user centric is actually a competitive advantage, we may find that there’s greater uptake than anyone imagined.

It must also be said that fans will feel a lot better about SoundCloud’s model than the market-centric approach. It comes as abrupt news to fans that their royalty is being paid for music they don’t listen to–it’s only a matter of time until someone brings a false advertising claim against the services for failing to educate consumers about that one. And this is really the underlying issue with whatever flavor of user-centric you like: It’s better for the fans. As the erudite Martin Goldschmidt said in MusicAlly:

The bottom line, for me, is that user-centric is obviously a big win for the consumer. Long term, this will be a big win for artists, labels, distributors and DSPs. And we will all make more money.

Or as one fan said to me, I’m tired of my money funding crap. This is an isolated anecdote, but imagine what will happen if a million fans (or even 1,000) had this same reaction. All while the services are literally printing money.

As you can see from this comparison of Spotify share price to the FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), Spotify has far, far outpaced the FAANG stocks in its relative growth rate. You can also see that the COVID pandemic that has decimated the artist community has been rocket fuel for Spotify’s riches and has made Daniel Ek a multi-multi billionaire all why paying out fractions of a penny to artists.

Spot 3-3-21

You can find the SoundCloud user centric royalty terms here. And bear in mind–we’re all better off if artists don’t feel they have to opt out of the entire streaming business in order to make a living.

Good News for Music Tech Startups: DLC Changes Fee Structure for Using Blanket Compulsory License

Title I of the Music Modernization Act established a blanket mechanical royalty license, the mechanical licensing collective to create the musical works database and collect royalties, the Digital Licensee Coordinator (which represents the music users under the blanket license) and a system where the services pay for the millions evidently required to operate the MLC and create the musical works database (which may happen eventually but which currently is the Harry Fox Agency accessed via API).

Title I also established another first (to my knowledge):  The United States became the first country in the world to charge music users a fee for availing themselves of a compulsory license.  The way that works is that all users of the blanket license have to bear a share of the costs of operating the MLC and eventually establishing the musical works database (and whatever else is in the MLC’s budget like legal fees, executive pension contributions, bonuses, etc.).  This is called the “administrative assessment” and is established by the Copyright Royalty Judges through a hearing that only the DLC and the MLC were (and probably are) allowed to attend, yet sets the rates for music users not present.

The initial administrative assessment is divided into two parts: The startup costs for developing the HFA API and the operating costs of the MLC.  The startup costs for the API, vendor payments, etc., were assessed to be $33,500,000; that’s a pricey API.  The first year MLC operating costs were assessed to be $28,500,000.  Because it’s always groundhog day when it comes to music publishing proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Judges, the method of allocating these costs are a mind-numbing calculation that will require lawyers to interpret.  With all respect, the poor CRJs must wonder how anything ever actually happens in the music business based on the distorted view that parades before them.  You do have to ask yourself is this really the best we can do?  Imagine that the industry elected to solve its startup problems by single combat with one songwriter and one entrepreneur staying in a room until they made a deal.  Do you think that the best they could come up with is the system of compulsory licensing as it exists in the US?  Maybe.  Or maybe they’d come up with something simpler and less costly to administer in the absence of experts , lobbyists and lawyers.

My feeling is that the entire administrative assessment process is fraught with conflicts of interest, a view I made known in an op-ed and to the Senate Judiciary Committee staff at their request when the MMA was being drafted.  The staff actually agreed, but said their hands were tied because of “the parties”–which of course means “the lobbyists” because the MMA looked like what they call a “Two Lexus” lobbying contract.  Not for songwriters, of course.

Yet, the DLC appears to have reconsidered some of this tom foolery and should be praised for doing so.  The good news is that the market’s gravitational pull has caused the allocation of the assessment on startups to come back to earth in a much more realistic methodology.  Markets are funny that way, even markets for compulsory licenses.  While still out of step with the rest of the world, at least the US precedent appears much less likely to have the counterproductive effects that were obvious before MMA was signed into law due to the statute’s anticompetitive lock in.  And the DLC should be commended for having the courage and the energy to make the fairness-making changes.  That’s a wow moment.

Hats off to the DLC for getting out ahead of the issue.  I recommend reading the DLC filing supporting the revisions (technically a joint filing with MLC but it reads like it came from DLC with MLC signing off).  It’s clearly written and I think the narrative will be understandable and informative to a layperson (once you get past the bizarre structure of the entire thing).  The DLC tells us the reasons for revisiting the allocation:

Since the Judges adopted the initial administrative assessment regulations, the Parties [i.e., the DLC and MLC since no one else was allowed to participate even if they had a stake in the outcome] have gained a better understanding of the overall usage of sound recordings within the digital audio service industry, as well as the relative usage of various categories of services. This information has led the Parties to conclude that the allocation methodology could have significant impacts on smaller Licensees, and that the allocation methodology should be modified to better accommodate these Licensees, and that such is reasonable and appropriate. This is particularly the case as these Licensees transition to the new mechanical licensing system set forth in the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) and navigate new reporting requirements, and further as the country continues to generally struggle through the economic and health effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the cost, reporting requirements, and impacts of the pandemic are experienced by all Licensees, the Parties believe that it is reasonable and appropriate to modify the administrative assessment to better address the situations of smaller Licensees.

The “old” allocation resulted in this payment structure for services buying into the blanket license (setting aside download stores for the moment):

Old Assessment Alloction

It was that $60,000 plus an indeterminate share of operating costs that was the killer.  The new allocation is more precise applicable to other than download stores:

New Assessment Alloction

This makes a lot more sense and one can believe that some startups actually were asked what they think. Remember, David Lowery sent an open letter to the CRJs in 2019 raising this exact point reacting to the bizarre initial administrative assessment hearings:

The Judges should take into account that no startup has been present or able to negotiate the many burdens placed on them by this settlement. In particular, they have not been able to be heard by the Judges on the scope of these financial burdens that their competitors—some of the richest multinational corporations in history—have unilaterally decided to place on them with no push back.

This isn’t to say that any would be brave enough to come forward and challenge their betters if given a chance. But they should at least be given a chance.

There are some twists and turns to the new rule which was adopted by the CRJs as a final rule on January 8, 2021, and any startup should obviously get smart about the rules. But–these latest amendments have established two really great things: First, the DLC is paying attention. That is very good for the reasons David raises. The other is that the DLC is apparently actually talking to someone other than Google and Spotify and coming up with reasonable compromises. This is very, very good. Let’s hope it continues.

We’ll be watching.