If you follow economics, you probably have heard the expressions “real wages” or “nominal wages” or “real” versus “nominal” wages. This isn’t a Cartesian metaphysical discussion–it’s about the effect of inflation on what they tell you you’re getting paid. Nowhere is this truer than with the statutory mechanical royalty rate. The rate will inevitably decline over time due to the rot and decay of inflation. Inflation is like having a cavity in your tooth that you don’t fix. It doesn’t go away. It may not hurt yet but it’s going to.
The effects of inflation are hardly a secret. Because of the effect of inflation on interest rates set by the Federal Reserve (who is charged with keeping inflation under control), vast numbers of people around the world keep watch on U.S. inflation rates as well as inflation rates in other countries.
For example, an hourly worker might be paid $12 an hour by her employer. That’s her “nominal wage” or “money wage.” But the issue is not what the worker is told they are getting paid, it’s what the worker can buy with her wages. What her nominal wage buys her is her “real wage” or her nominal wage adjusted by inflation during the same time period. Real wages are always less than nominal wages. This is why workers commonly get annual cost of living adjustments to nominal wages that increase their nominal wages based on inflation in addition to nominal performance-based increases. The same is true of entitlement payments like Social Security which just announced its biggest inflation adjustment in many years.
This is particularly important when understanding nominal and real statutory mechanical rates set by the government’s Copyright Royalty Board every five years. With a nominal wage (as opposed to a government rate freeze like a price control), there are a number of different countermeasures you can take in response to a wage freeze and take quickly. You can always try to negotiate a higher hourly or annual wage if you are falling short of inflation. You can also try to quit and find another job that pays more money. Perhaps even get an annual raise built into your salary.
However, with the statutory mechanical royalty, there is no escape. Songwriters are at the mercy of both the government (in the form of the Copyright Royalty Board) and the people who are supposed to be negotiating for them who seem to have decided that millions of songwriters don’t need a cost of living adjustment. Without “indexing” the statutory mechanical to inflation (meaning a CRB ruling requiring automatic cost of living increases based on increases of inflation), songwriters’ buying power actually decreases over time. That’s the difference between the nominal mechanical royalty and the real rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the “frozen mechanical” that you’ve probably heard a lot about if you’re a regular reader. It’s called “frozen” because the rate for physical and vinyl was set by the CRB in 2006 and has not been raised since–apparently at the request or acquiescence of those negotiating in the songwriters’ interest. Think about that–remember what happened in 2008 (just a couple years after the rate was frozen)? The Great Recession aka The Big Short.
It may not be obvious to you but most of the laws in the US are not passed in Congress and they are not signed by the President. The overwhelming majority of these laws are created by administrative agencies, often located in the Executive Branch, but not always. When it comes to songwriters there is a federal agency that has almost total control over certain aspects of your life.
That agency is the Copyright Royalty Board which has three “judges” that are appointed by the Librarian of Congress (therefore are in the Legislative Branch of government along with Congress). While these members of the Copyright Royalty Board are styled “judges” they are not “all purpose” judges appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate (under Article III of the Constitution for those reading along at home). (This CRB appointment issue is a matter of some debate but we will talk about the appointment issue some other time (attention Justice Kavanaugh).)
Whether you know it or not or like it or not you have delegated your personal agency to the CRB and you have also delegated your agency to the people who can afford to appear before the CRB. This is the classic case of the merger of the little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol who think they can plan your life better than you can. If you have no idea about the CRB, there’s an easy answer–you’re very unlikely to ever wander into a CRB hearing because the hearings take place in the Library of Congress which is not someplace that songwriters typically are found. Even so, you have delegated your authority whether you know it or not and whether you like it or not to certain representatives of the music publishing community who act on your behalf and probably without your direct authorization. There’s plenty of blame to go around. To paraphrase Lord Byron, if you want a friend in Washington get a dog. Preferably a big one with teeth.
Here’s an example. According to government data, 9.1¢ in 2006 is worth approximately 13¢ today, or approximately a 33% inflation rate. That means that the frozen 9.1¢ rate in 2006 has the buying power of approximately 6¢ in 2021. In other words, the real mechanical rate has actually declined although the nominal rate has stayed the same. Why? Because like King Canute commanding the ocean, the nominal rate was not increased to at least stay even with inflation and inflation rotted it from the inside out.
So you can see that when you’re considering the mechanical rate that is set every five years by Copyright Royalty Board, the rate that matters is the real rate. However, the CRB only set a nominal rate for songwriters in 2006 even though they could have increased that nominal rate based on increases in the consumer price index. They could also have increased the rate in Phonorecords II or Phonorecords III but did not.
And now 15 years later, the frozen mechanicals crisis has been engaged by a revolt of the songwriters in Phonorecords IV, currently before the CRB. The struggle is all about real vs. nominal mechanical rates.
I was brought up and trained in the Internet Age by people who really believed that nation states were on the verge of crumbling…and we could geek around it. We could avoid it. These people [and their nation states] were irrelevant.
Ms. Crawford had a key tech role in the Obama Administration and is now a law professor. She crystalized the wistful disappointment of technocrats when the Internet is confronted with generational expectations of non-technocrats (i.e., you and me). The disappointment that ownership means something, privacy means something and that permission defines a self-identity boundary that is not something to “geek around” in a quest for “permissionless innovation.”
Seeking permission recognizes humanity. Failing to do so takes these rights away from the humans and gives them to the people who own the machines–at least until the arrival of general artificial intelligence which may find us working for the machines.
These core concepts of civil society are not “irrelevant”. They define humanity. What assurance do we have that empowered AI machines won’t capture these rights?
All these concepts are at issue in the “metaverse” plan announced by Mark Zuckerberg, who has a supermajority of Facebook voting shares and has decided to devote an initial investment of $10 billion (that we know of) to expanding the metaverse. Given the addictive properties of social media and the scoring potential of social credit it is increasingly important that we acknowledge that the AI behind the metaverse (and soon almost everything else) is itself a hyper efficient implementation of the biases of those who program that AI.
AI bias and the ethics of AI are all the rage. Harvard Business Review tells us that “AI can help identify and reduce the impact of human biases, but it can also make the problem worse by baking in and deploying biases at scale in sensitive application areas.” Cathy O’Neill’s 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction is a deep dive into how databases discriminate and exhibit the biases of those who create them.
We can all agree that insurance redlining, gender stereotyping and comparable social biases need to be dealt with. But concerns about bias don’t end there. An even deeper dive needs to be done into the more abstract biases required to geek around the nation state and fundamental human rights corrupted by the “permissionless innovation” bias that is built into major platforms like Facebook and from which its employees and kingpin enjoy unparalleled riches.
That bias will be incorporated into the Zuckerberg version of the metaverse and the AI that will power it.
Here’s an example. We know that Facebook’s architecture never contemplated a music or movie licensing process. Zuckerberg built it that way on purpose–the architecture reflected his bias against respecting copyright, user data and really any private property rights not his own. Not only does Zuckerberg take copyright and data for his own purposes, he has convinced billions of people to create free content for him and then to pay him to advertise that content to Facebook users and elsewhere. He takes great care to be sure that there is extraordinarily complex programming to maximize his profit from selling other people’s property, but he refuses to do the same when it comes to paying the people who create the content, and by extension the data he then repackages and sells.
He does this for a reason–he was allowed to get away with it. The music and movie industries failed to stop him and let him get away with it year after year until he finally agreed to make a token payment to a handful of large companies. That cash arrives with no really accurate reporting because reporting would require reversing the bias against licensing and reporting that was built into the Facebook systems to begin with.
A bias that is almost certainly going to be extended into the Facebook metaverse.
The metaverse is likely going to be a place where everything is for sale and product placements abound. The level of data collection on individuals will likely increase exponentially. Consider this Techcrunch description of “Project Cambria” the Metaverse replacement for the standard VR headset:
Cambria will include capabilities that currently aren’t possible on other VR headsets. New sensors in the device will allow your virtual avatar to maintain eye contact and reflect your facial expressions. The company says that’s something that will allow people you’re interacting with virtually to get a better sense of how you’re feeling. Another focus of the headset will be mixed-reality experiences. With the help of new sensors and reconstruction algorithms, Facebook claims Cambria will have the capability to represent objects in the physical world with a sense of depth and perspective.
If past is prologue, the Metaverse will exhibit an even greater disregard for human rights and the laws that protect us than Facebook. That anti-human bias will be baked into the architecture and the AI that supports it. The machines don’t look kindly on those pesky humans and all their petty little rights that stand in the way of the AI getting what it wants.
If you don’t think that’s true, try reading the terms of service for these platforms. Or considering why the technocrats are so interested in safe harbors where their machines can run free of liability for collateral damage. The terms of service should make clear that AI has greater rights than you. We are way beyond pronouns now.
If the only concern of AI ethics is protection against stereotypes or insurance redlining (a version of the social credit score), we will be missing huge fundamental parts of the bias problem. Should we be content if AI is allowing its owner (for so long as it has an owner) to otherwise rob you blind by taking your property or selling your data while using the right pronoun as it geeks around the nation state?
Please take a few minutes (4 or so) to help us understand how the Mechanical Licensing Collective and the Copyright Office is doing getting the word out about signing up with the MLC and getting paid royalties (including your share of the $424 million black box/unmatched payment that has been sitting at MLC for months).
Your response are anonymous and we’ll post the results when we get a threshold number of responses. We’d really appreciate your help!
No one needs to be told that inflation is on the rise. We all see the evidence everywhere we go: gasoline prices, groceries, rent, health care, you name it. Inflation may not have increased prices to the point that large numbers of consumers are substituting away from particular goods because they can’t afford to buy, but it’s getting there.
This is important for songwriters who are paid on a statutory rate set by the government’s Copyright Royalty Board that tries to approximate what a willing songwriter would charge a willing music user in five year tranches. It is this five year bet that causes heartburn–one solution that the CRB recently applied to webcasting is to index their government royalty to inflation so that the royalty actually retains its value and increases as inflation increases, called “indexing”.
For whatever reason, the rates for physical configurations and downloads has not contain inflation indexing since it was put in place in 2006 and still does not in the current proposed settlement. Songwriters across the board are resisting this and demanding indexing as part of the “frozen mechanicals” debate as part of the current Copyright Royalty Board rate setting proceeding (styled as “Phonorecords IV“).
Personal spending in the US increased 0.6% mom in September, following an upwardly revised 1% rise in August and above market forecasts of 0.5%. Spending on health care, food services and accommodations, foods and beverages, pharmaceutical products and gasoline offset lower sales of motor vehicles. Personal income on the other hand fell 1%, the first decline in 4 months and much more than expectations of a 0.2% drop.
Even if you don’t go as far as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s assessment that “hyperinflation” is coming soon, it’s pretty easy to see that if the Copyright Royalty Judges fail to add indexing to the mechanical rate (frozen or not) as they had so many times in the past, songwriters will find their government royalty eaten away by inflation. (“Hyperinflation” is a rise in prices of 50% a month.)
It’s also becoming clear that inflationary pressures will continue well into 2022 and 2023–the rate set in Phonorecords IV is theoretically to begin in 2022.
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.
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:
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis gives a longer term chart of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’ “
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 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.
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–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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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”
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 email@example.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.
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.
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
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.