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.

Making Sense of the New Blanket Mechanical License and the Mechanical Licensing Collective

This is a recording of a webinar about the Mechanical Licensing Collective that I did with Abby North and Gwen Seale, sponsored by Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, Austin Texas Musicians and Austin Music Foundation.  

The webinar is from the point of view of self-published songwriters who are trying to make sense of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (currently, “The MLC, Inc.”) and what is going to happen to their mechanical licensing revenue now that the blanket license is available to digital music providers (or “DMPs”).  

Here’s a couple basic concepts:  

A “mechanical” royalty must be licensed by a DMP for the “mechanical” reproduction of the song, and a separate royalty paid for uses under that “mechanical license.”  The mechanical license also covers distribution of the copies permitted.  See the Copyright Office Circulars on the digital side and the physical side (somewhat different rules apply to each configuration).

Up until January 1, 2021, mechanical licenses were issued on a song-by-song basis in the United States under a compulsory license.  There was no blanket compulsory license.  The Music Modernization Act established both the blanket compulsory license for permanent downloads, limited downloads, and interactive streaming (available after January 1, 2021) and a mechanical licensing collective which can be run by different non-profit corporations at different times.  The head of the Copyright Office “designates” or “approves” the non-profit corporation to be the mechanical licensing collective and reviews the performance of the designated company every five years.  The Copyright Office approved a non-profit corporation that styles itself “The MLC, Inc.” or “The MLC” so it gets confusing as to whether you are talking about “the mlc” or the organization described in the Music Modernization Act or The MLC, Inc., the corporation approved by the Copyright Office with the backing of the National Music Publishers Association among others.

So it is the usual government alphabet soup, but be clear about one thing–unless you know with certainty that your song catalog is being paid under voluntary licenses outside of the blanket license, you will stop being paid however you have been paid and you will start being paid by The MLC if you can be matched to revenue.  

That means that your songs must be registered with The MLC correctly, including your banking information.  Do not count on that happening by itself.

Here are a few links as a companion to the webinar:

Please take the MLC Awareness Questionnaire, 10 questions, responses and responders are anonymous.

The MLC, Inc.

When Do I Get Paid By the MLC?

Most recent Copyright Office rules for payments by DMPs to the MLC of your money

Rules for when MLC must pay copyright owners (including copyright owners who are self-published songwriters)

The Economics of Recoupment Forgiveness

Can Forgiveness Be Compulsory?

There is a drumbeat starting in some quarters, particularly in the UK, for the government to inject itself into private contracts and cause a forgiveness of unrecouped balances in artist agreements after a date certain–as if by magic.  Adopting such a law would focus Government action to essentially cause a compulsory “sale” by the government of the amount of every artist’s unrecouped balance due to the passing of time for what is arguably a private benefit.

Writing off the unrecouped balance for the artist’s private benefit would essentially cause the transfer to the artist of the value of the unrecouped balance to be measured at zero–which raises a question as to the other side of the double-entry if the government also allows a financial accounting write off for the record company investor  but values that risk capital at zero.  Government action of this type raises Constitutional questions in the U.S., and I suspect will also raise those same types of questions in any jurisdiction where the common law obtains.  We’ll come back to this.  It also raises questions as to why anyone would risk the investment in new artists’ recordings if the time frame for recovery of that risk capital is foreshortened. We’ll come back to this, too.

What’s Wrong with Being Unrecouped?

Remember—being unrecouped is not a “debt” or a “loan”.  It’s just a prepayment of royalties by contract that is conditioned on certain events happening before it is ever “repaid.”   There is no guarantee that the prepaid royalties will ever be earned.

One of the all-time great artist managers told me once that if his artist was recouped under the artist’s record deal, the manager was not doing his job.  The whole point was to be as unrecouped as humanly possible at all times.  Why?  Because it was free money money bet that may never be called.  Plus he would do his best to make the label or publisher bet too high and he was never going to let them bet too low.

Another great artist manager who was representing a new artist who went on to do well before breaking up said that once he realized he was never going to be recouped with the record company it was a wonderfully liberating experience.  He’d talk them into loads of recoupable off-contract payments like tour support, promotion and marketing that made his band successful and that he didn’t share with the label.  Tour support is only 50% recoupable?  How much will you spend if it’s 100% recoupable?

Get the idea?  We’re starting to hear some rumblings about a statutory cutoff for recoupment of a term of years.  First of all, I would bet such a rule in the U.S. if applied retroactively would be unconstitutional taking in violation of due process under the 5th Amendment.  Regardless, whichever country adopts such a rule will in short order find themselves with either no record companies or with vastly different deal points in artist recording agreements subject to their national law.  (See the “$50,000 a year” controversy from 1994 over California Civ. Code §3423 when California-based labels were contemplating leaving the State.  We’re way beyond runaway production now.)

Record Company as Banker

Let’s imagine two scenarios:  One is an unsigned artist trying to finance a recording, the other is a catalog artist with an inactive royalty account.  They each illustrate different issues regarding recoupment.

Imagine you went to a bank to finance your recordings.  You told the banker I do some livestreams, here’s my Venmo account statements and I have all this Spotify data on my 200,000 streams that made me $500 but cost me $10,000 in marketing.  Most importantly of all, your assistant thinks I am really cool, if you catch my drift.

I want to make a better record and I think I could get some gigs if clubs ever reopen.  My songs are really cool.  I need you to lend me $50,000 to make my record and another $50,000 to market it.  (Probably way more.)  I don’t want a maturity date on the loan, I don’t want events of default (meaning it is “non recourse”), you can’t charge me interest, I don’t want to make payments, but you can recoup the principal from the earnings I make for licensing or selling copies of the recordings you pay for.  I’ll market those recordings unless my band breaks up which you have no control over.  As I recoup the principal, I’ll pay you in current dollars for the historical unrecouped balance.  I keep all the publishing, merch and live.  And oh, if you want you can own the recordings, but understand that I will be doing everything I can to try to get you (or guilt you or force you) to give me the recordings back regardless of whether you have recouped your “loan” which isn’t a loan at all.

Deal?

Catalog Fairness

Then consider a catalog artist.  The catalog artist was signed 25 years ago to a term recording artist agreement with $500,000 per LP on a three firm agreement that didn’t pan out.  After tour support, promotion, additional advances to cover income tax payments, the artist got dropped from their label and broke up with a $1,000,000 unrecouped balance.   In the intervening years, the artists went on to individual careers as songwriters and film composers, but none of those subsequent earnings were recoupable as they got dropped and were under separate contracts.  Another thing that happened in the intervening years was the label went from selling CDs at a $10 wholesale price through their wholly owned branch distribution system to selling streams at $0.003 each through a third party platform with probably triple the marketing costs.

The old recordings eventually dwindled below 1,500 CD units a year for a few years, and in 2005 the label cut them out, but continued to service their digital accounts with the recordings as deep and ever deeper catalog.  After a few sync placements, earnings reached zero for a couple years and the royalty account was archived, i.e., taken off line.  Streaming happened and now the recordings are making about $100 a year until one track got onto a Spotify “Gen Z Afternoon Safe Space Tummy Rub” playlist and scored 1,000,000 streams or about $600 give or take.  When the royalty account was archived, it had an unrecouped balance of $800,000 in 1995 dollars.  So the $600 gets accrued in case the catalog ever earns enough to justify the cost of reactivating the account—which means the artist doesn’t get paid for the recordings because they are unrecouped but they also don’t get a statement because they’ve had an earnings drought.  Like most per-stream payments, it would cost more to account for the $600 on a statement than the royalties payable.

Bear in mind that adjusted for inflation—and we’ll come back to that—the $800,000 in 1995 dollars would be worth $1,366,866.14 today.  But because the record company does not charge either overhead, interest, or any inflation charge, the historical $800,000 from 1995 is paid off in ever-inflated current dollars.

As the artist managers said, the artists long ago got the benefit of getting essentially a no-risk lifetime royalty pre-payment (it’s not really correct to call it a “loan” when there’s no recourse, maturity date, payments, interest rate or repayment schedule) and long ago spent the money on a variety of business and personal expenses.  Which potentially enhanced their careers so they could get that film work later down the line.  Or more simply, a bird in the hand.

Do You Really Want Monkey Points?

If you want to see what would happen if this apple cart were rocked, take a good look at a good corollary, the “net profits” definition in the film business, or what Eddy Murphy famously called “monkey points.”  Without getting into the gory details, studios will typically play a game with gross receipts that involves exclusions, deductions, subdistributor receipts, advances, ancillary rights, income from physical properties (from memorabilia like Dorothy’s slippers), distribution fees, distribution and marketing expenses, deferments, gross participation, negative costs, interest on the negative cost, overbudget deductions, overhead on negative cost and marketing costs (and interest on overhead)…shall I go on?  And then there’s the accounting.

The movie industry also has a concept called “turnaround”.  Turnaround happens when Studio A decides (usually for commercial reasons) it is not going forward with a script that it has developed and offers it to other studios for a price that allows it to recover some or all of its development costs usually with an override royalty.  Sometimes it works out well–after a very long time, the project may become “ET.”  Would artists prefer getting dropped or having their contracts put into turnaround?

The point is that while it may sound good to make unrecouped balances vanish after a date certain, people who say that seem to think that all the other deal terms will stay constant or even improve for the artists after that substantial risk shifting.  I seriously doubt that, just like I doubt that venture capitalists who fund the startups that bag on record companies would give up their 2 or 3x liquidation preference, full ratchet anti-dilution protection, registration rights or co-sale agreements.

Should 5% Appear Too Small

But did the unrecouped balance actually vanish?  Not really.  The value was transferred to the artist in the form of forgiveness of an obligation for the artist’s private benefit, however contingent.  That value may be measured in an amount greater than the historic unrecouped balance.  Is this value transfer a separate taxable event?  Must the artist declare the forgiveness as income?  Can the record company write off the value transferred as a loss?  If not, why not?  I can’t think of a good reason.  If anything, valuing the “taking” in current dollars would only correct the valuation issue and could amplify the tax liability of the transfer.

As you can see, wiping out unrecouped balances sounds easy until you think about it.  It is actually a rather complex transaction which immediately raises another question as to when it stops.  Why just signed artists?  Why not all artists?  Songwriters?  Profit participants in motion pictures or television?  Authors?  All of this will be taken into account.

King John and the Barons: Don’t Tread On Me

Setting aside the tax implication, were such government action to take the form of a law to be enacted in the United States, it would prohibit a fundamental right previously enjoyed under the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (one of the Amendments known as the “Bill of Rights”).  The “takings” clause of the 5th Amendment states “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  In fact, such government action would implicate the fundamental rights expressed in the 5th Amendment and applied against the states in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  The 5th Amendment derives from Section 39 of Magna Carta, the seminal constitutional documents in the United Kingdom (dating from 1215 for those reading along at home) and was central to the thinking of Coke, Blackstone and Locke who were central to the thinking of the Founders.

In the U.S., such a law would likely be given a once over and strictly scrutinized by the courts (including The Court) to determine if taking unrecouped balances from a select group of artists, i.e., those signed to record companies, is the only way to get at a compelling government interest in promoting culture even though the taking would be pretty obviously for the private benefit of the artists concerned and only benefiting the public in a very attenuated manner. In other words, will treating a select group of pretty elite artists (at a minimum those signed vs. those unsigned) satisfy the strict scrutiny standard applied to a government taking of private property with no compensation.  (This distinction also smacks of a due process violation which is a whole other rabbit hole.)  I suspect the government loses the strict scrutiny microbial scrub and will be required to compensate the record company for the taking at the fair market value of the unrecouped balances.

Because I think this is pretty clearly a total regulatory taking that is a per se violation of the 5th Amendment, I suspect that a court (or the Supreme Court) would be inclined to hold the law invalid on Constitutional grounds and simply stop any enforcement.

Failing that strict scrutiny standard, a court could ask if the zeroing of unrecouped balances with no compensation is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  I still think that the taking would fail in this case as there a many other ways for the government to promote culture and even to encourage labels to voluntarily wipe out the unrecouped balances at some point such as through a quid pro quo of favorable tax treatment, changing the accounting rules or offsets of one kind or another on the sale of a catalog.

Running for the Exits

If anything, I think that government acting to cut off the ability to recoup at a date certain with no compensation (which sure sounds like an unconstitutional taking in the US) would necessarily make labels start thinking about compensating for that taking by moving out of those territories where it is given effect (or at least not signing artists from those countries).  Such moves might make artists start thinking about moving to where they could get signed.

Or worse yet, it would make labels re-think their financial terms and re-recording restrictions.  Overhead charges and interest on recording costs would be two changes I would expect to see almost immediately.  And that would be a poor trade off.

Iterative Government Choices

The choice that artists make is whether to sign up to an investor like a record company who wants a long-term recoupment relationship against pre-paid royalties.  If you don’t like a place, don’t go there and if you don’t like the deal, don’t sign.

Any government that contemplates taking unrecouped balances must necessarily also contemplate offering artists grants to make up the shortfall due to signing contractions.  This could include for example the host of grant funding sources available in Canada such as FACTOR and the many provincial music grants.  And those grants should not come from the black box thank you very much.

On the other hand, I do see a lot of fairness in requiring on-demand services to pay featured and nonfeatured artists a kind of equitable remuneration like webcasters and satellite radio do, which is paid through on a nonrecoupment basis directly to the artists in the US.  While they may criticize the system that produced the recordings that have made them rich beyond the wildest dreams of artists, songwriters or music executives (except the ones the services hire away), that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t pay over to creators some of the valuation transfer that made Daniel Ek a multibillionaire while artists get less than ½¢ per stream.

So the takeaways here are:

  1. Wiping out unrecouped balances with no compensation is likely illegal.
  1. Creating a meaningful and attractive tax incentive for record companies to wipe out an unrecouped balance conditioned on that benefit being passed through to artists is worth exploring.  (Why wait 15 years to give that effect?)  This may be particularly attractive in a time of rising taxable income at labels.
  1. Requiring the services to pay a royalty in the nature of equitable remuneration on a nonrecoupment basis is a way to grow the pie and get some relief to both featured and nonfeatured artists.  This new stream is also worth exploring.

Guest Post: The Music Modernization Act is Stifling Innovation in the Music Industry

[The chickens are coming home to roost.  As I warned before the Music Modernization Act was passed, Title I has big problems.  Remember that Title I established the Mechanical Licensing Collective (publishers and songwriters) and the Digital Licensee Coordinator (digital music platforms). It was sold to songwriters on the basis that “the services pay for everything”.  We will see how true that ends up being (as the copyright owners have to pay their costs to populate or correct the HFA database which is a massive undertaking).  Nobody talked to any DMP startups when the legislation was drafted or when the “administrative assessment” was litigated before the Copyright Royalty Judges.  But now startups are getting the bill and they’re not too happy, particularly 115 services that never had to pay for a license other than royalties.  I addressed some of this in a 2018 post on MusicTech Solutions that was reposted on Newsmax Finance.]

From: Max Fergus
Date: Tue, Nov 10, 2020 at 11:06 AM
Subject:
To: LUM Team

A Letter to the Music Industry,  

Beware, the future of music is in jeopardy.

The Music Licensing Collective (“MLC”) recently announced that it will begin to regulate the largest major music streaming platforms in 2021. However, this agency, formed behind closed doors between the major labels and streaming services themselves, will only hurt those of us who are actively fighting the unjust practices of the platforms that are being regulated in the first place.

The Music Modernization Act is a “competition killer” set out to destroy the platforms that are trying to create a new tomorrow for independent musicians and stifling current and future innovation within the industry.

We are not alone and it’s time to fight. 
Please find our LinkedIn Article here as well as a link to our post
Please share and repost if possible in our fight against the MMA.

___________________________________________
Article Preview
We were told when we started our company that the institutions within the music industry were always going to be against us. In fact, many people told us these institutions would do everything in their power to curb innovation to make sure the money stayed where it always has – in the pockets of the major labels and the major music streaming services.

Finally, after 10 years of archaic practices in the music streaming industry, which widened the financial gap between the one percent of the music industry stakeholders and the rest of the starving artists, the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) was created. At its most basic level, the goal was to take the onus off of major streaming platforms to track and remit royalties generated from these major platforms into the pockets of the right artists/labels in a more timely fashion through a new government-subsidized organization known as the Mechanical Licensing Collective (“MLC”).

Sounds great, right? Wrong. This will set back the music industry for years to come.

Imagine starting a process to MODERNIZE MUSIC and how music is monetized for all artists, yet the only stakeholders the MLC brought in to discuss how the MMA and the MLC would operate are the major streaming platforms and major labels themselves. So, what did they do? They structured the MLC in a way that will save these major corporations millions of dollars while completely neglecting the reason why the law was written in the first place – to oversee the music streaming platforms that have consistently, purposefully and negligently not paid the creators – whose content drives their service – their fair share in a transparent and efficient way.

The MMA was designed to regulate and modernize the practices of “royalty-bearing” music streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple. Next year, the MLC will open its doors and, as part of its first year of operations, it requires the companies included within the MLC to help pay for “start-up fees.” Companies outside of the largest music streaming companies, such as smaller DSPs and smaller royalty-bearing music streaming platforms, must also share unproportionally in these expenses. Essentially, the MLC and the largest streaming platforms want smaller services to pay more than their fair share for the MLC to oversee and audit the largest players in the music streaming industry…even those services who operate to fix the same problems as the new entity itself.

It gets worse.

LÜM was created to serve a similar foundational mission to these entities – to help guide an industry that needs to better support its creators through innovation. Because of that, we made a choice to not be a part of the traditional recorded music industry. We pay NO royalties and instead have proven that there is a better future. Instead of royalties, LÜM created the first virtual gifting system in a music discovery platform that allows fans to help directly support their favorite independent artists. The result?

Artists on LÜM earn an average of ~6x more per stream than every single other music streaming platform in the U.S.

Just like so many other companies that are trying to advance the music industry, LÜM is now facing an uphill battle against an organization (MLC) that was developed in conjunction with the same stakeholders who put the music industry in this position in the first place. The fees LÜM and other innovative companies are facing, to help fund the MLC, are substantial. Every new innovative company will face them and will provide a financial hurdle that will leave the majority of current and future innovative music startups dead in the water. No new entrants and no new competition mean the industry will stay exactly where it has for the last 15 years – putting money in the pockets of the rich and neglecting those that are trying to change the industry for the better.

We cannot let this happen. Innovation must continue or we face a scary reality for the music industry and the majority of artists and innovators that have been neglected by it.

— 
Max Fergus | Chief Executive Officer

Check out my favorite song on LÜM Here!

The World is not Flat: @CISACNews and BIEM Focus on Vendor Lock-in at the MLC

One of the many U.S.-centric shortcomings of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (that created the Mechanical Licensing Collective, the safe harbor giveaway and the blanket license) is that it pretty much ignores the entire complex system of content management organizations outside the U.S. As they describe themselves, “CISAC and BIEM are international organisations representing Collective Management Organisations (“CMOs”) worldwide that are entrusted with the management of creators’ rights and, as such, have a direct interest in the Regulations governing the functioning of the Database and the transparency of MLC’s operations. CISAC and BIEM would like to thank the Office for highlighting the existence and particularity of entities such as CMOs that are not referred to in the MMA.”

I have to say at the outset that as someone who lived outside the U.S. for a big chunk of time, it’s rather embarrassing but sadly unsurprising that so little attention has been paid to the global system of CMOs and the cold fact that we are now weeks away from the January 1, 2021 deadline.

You would not be aware of this unless you read the many comments to the Copyright Office on the MLC oversight rule makings. Aside from the fact that these organizations have decades of experience with blanket mechanical licensing (which the MLC might benefit from), CISAC and BIEM should have been included in the MLC itself, particularly since the MLC promoters appear to have been handing out non-voting directorships to themselves. It is embarrassing, kind of like those Americans who think the best way to speak French is to speak English louder.

CISAC and BIEM raise excellent issues in their comments, which often are accompanied by gentle hint language indicating the points have been raised before and ignored, or at least not responded to. According to a recently posted “ex parte” letter, CISAC and BIEM have focused in on a critical issue–where is the MLC’s statutorily required database and what benefits accrue to its vendor–principally HFA which was recently reunited in the MLC with its former owners.

You can read the CISAC and BIEM ex parte letter here. (Ex parte letters essentially document private discussions by the Copyright Office on matters they are currently regulating. Ex parte letters help to build a full record on matters placed before the Copyright Office by interested parties that may or may not be addressed in regulations.)

Here’s a key excerpt that I think deserves more attention (and is not going to be covered by the trade press until the system collapses in all likelihood).

CISAC/BIEM also raised further concerns regarding potential competitive advantages that The MLC or its vendors’ access to information may have and risks that such information could potentially be used for purposes outside of Section 115 mechanicals. The USCO assured the CMOs that they were perfectly aware of this issue, which had also been raised by other parties, and considered that these concerns were being addressed in the Confidentiality Rulemaking, and that the Statute requires Regulations to prevent the disclosure or improper use of information or MLC records. The proposed Rule establishes that MLC vendors cannot use the data obtained for processing for other purposes. The USCO further confirmed that it was very much aware of the need to ensure the necessary balance and that it was still contemplating how best to resolve this, including whether there should be more regulation.

I have to say that this is not the impression I got from the first panel of “MLC week” rather that the panel seemed to think that at least any member of the public could use the data provided to the MLC for any purpose. Since the MLC’s vendors would also be members of the public ostensibly, it does seem that disconnect needs to be cleared up.

The ex parte letter continues:

The CMOs CISAC/BIEM considered that some of these concerns were based on the January 1 deadline and whether The MLC would be operating with HFA’s database or with its’ own DQI processed separate database.

This depends on the antecedent of “its” in the last clause. If you take The MLC as the antecedent, the meaning would be “or with The MLC’s own DQI processed separate database.” If you take HFA as the antecedent, the meaning would be “whether The MLC would be operating with HFA’s database or with HFA’s own DQI processed separate database.”

While I think that CISAC and BIEM meant the former, the reality appears to be the latter however nonsensical it may seem. This is because there do not appear to be two separate databases, just the HFA database that The MLC accesses through an API. The DQI operation is designed to improve the data quality of the HFA database which benefits both The MLC and HFA.

There seems to be more than a little confusion about this:


USCO noted that there are still open questions regarding this issue, as it seemed that the HFA database would be used as a starting point, but through programmes like DQI data was being updated, so it did not seem as if both databases were identical.

I would argue with this (and have). This idea that DQI was updating a database other than the HFA database sounds like there is a stand-alone musical works database as required by the statute. If so, where is it? Why does the DQI produce search results like this:

HFA DQI

The USCO reiterated that the proposed Confidentiality Rulemaking specifies the limitations imposed on proposed vendors and that The MLC had in writing acknowledged that neither The MLC nor its vendor owned the data. The USCO acknowledged that there was a lot of concern expressed about this issue and ensured the CMOs it was going to address this issue.

Ownership alone is not the only issue and misdirects attention. On the one hand, The MLC says it does not own the database (another example of drafting oversights in Title I of the MMA–ownership is one of those issues you would think would be clearly spelled out but was only referenced indirectly).

I come away from reading the ex parte letter more concerned than ever that the core issue that The MLC was tasked with by the Congress is simply not being addressed–where is the Congress’s musical works database? Remember the words of the legislative history:

“Music metadata has more often been seen as a competitive advantage for the party that controls the database, rather than as a resource for building an industry on.”

The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong: Universal Invests in the Future with UMUSIC Hotels Venture

According to some good news in Fast Company, Universal Music Group has announced that “the first three locations for the music-focused hotel partnership with Dakia U-Ventures are Atlanta, Orlando, and Biloxi, Mississippi.”

These locations will be pretty massive music-themed hotels under the UMUSIC hotel brand and at least one casino built around live music venues and integrated into the local music culture in Atlanta, Orlando, and Biloxi, Mississippi.

At first blush, the venture may look like the Hard Rock chain, but as someone who remembers the Hard Rock when it was a kind of cheesy bar in Mayfair where the lads went to make new friends, the project is well above that rather low bar so to speak.  Frankly, the Hard Rock franchise was never a place that seemed more welcoming to music than it was to tourists (or perhaps the AVN Awards).   (“Look, mommy, there’s a musician! Can we feed him?”)  The Universal venture looks far more sophisticated with a far more thoughtful integration of music into the brand and the local music economy.  And, of course, with a much, much bigger on-site investment.

You may be asking why would anyone invest in hotels during a pandemic and that is exactly the question.  It takes a certain fearlessness and optimism to undertake this venture.  Another good thing about the project is that it will be in a different end of the market than typical local venues.  If anything, once we get to the other side of the lock down the UMUSIC hotels will complement and even drive business to the local venues if typical festival economics is a guide.

Given the scale of the plans, it will take years to complete the project and open for business.  Right away, this tells you that these are patient investors who are making a very big bet on the future of live events and especially the future of live music.  

Of course, what I like most about the project is that the venues are not being built in New York, Nashville or Los Angeles and are locating in areas that have rich music cultures away from the “centers”.  I don’t know that this was part of the planning, but after the lockdown it will take a while for fans to be willing to travel long distances to experience live music, so why not bring it to the fans.  (You could make the argument that all three of the proposed locations are within driving distance of a major megaregion.)  

The Universal project should also be a big message to Congress that the Save Our Stages movement is not a bunch of hippies they can ignore.  It should also be a message to people like the Mayor of Austin that you cannot just shut down an event like SXSW that contributes over $300 million in economic impact to your city with no plan to make up the vast amount of harm they inflict from a single government action–other than turning independent venue spaces into Uber Eats.  Eight months later, they still have no plan, and frankly I don’t see any other “music city” stepping up either.  Which is no excuse for any of them, but makes the UMUSIC hotel project even more important.

Live music is as deserving of strategic industrial planning as is competing for an Amazon facility or a Tesla plant, and we should thank Universal for their leadership in putting together the optimistic partnership that highlights that reality–even for the dim lights in the Live Music Capitol of the World.  

A long term commitment to live events and the infrastructure that supports a live music culture is desperately needed now.  It’s fitting that a music company puts together the private investment to show the rest of the public and private sectors the good news that we are coming back and that the bad news is wrong.  And guess what?  It’s not digital.

 

Pandemic: Livestreaming is Silicon Valley’s Great Step Forward to the Venue DNR

Livestreaming was intended to be temporary.  It was a bridge between a pre and post COVID reality.  But it’s not.  The biggest of Big Tech companies intend it to be permanent and they mean to control it.  And you have to believe that a very high percentage of venues may not be coming back.

Live music venues are closing permanently at a rapid clip.  Cities like Austin and festivals like SXSW and ACL Fest are changed forever.  We know that the real estate developers are licking their chops at the idea of dumping those live music venues and onboarding Uber Eats, Google, Facebook or something really important.  (See “I Don’t Need Another Email Whining About COVID“)  But they are not the only ones who have no intention of helping live music recover in a venue-free future.

Facebook/Instagram is probably leading the way on this Great Step Forward, followed closely by TikTok and of course YouTube.  Facebook in particular is adopting policies to limit DJ-type listening parties on the platform.  (This very well may backfire.)  The elephant in the room is that Facebook seems to have gotten religion on music licensing after a 17 years growth binge of shredding artist rights.  While asserting “You are responsible for the content you post” Facebook also tells us “Unauthorized content may be removed.”  Why not track it and monetize it?  Because they can’t be bothered.  It does seem that Facebook intents to permit artist-branded live-streaming events which is nice of them, but it also seems like the new policy clears the way for Facebook to monetize live streaming events and take their cut.

It has become obvious that whenever audiences decide to come out of the lock down, there may not be any venues for them to go to.  (Or restaurants for that matter.)  As I have said almost from the beginning of the pandemic, Austin is about to become another college town with a Google/Facebook campus and the City government itself is just thrilled about that expanded tax base.  Cynical?  Not really.  Spend a little time getting condescended to by the City of Austin and you will get the idea that they would just as soon that live music was in the rear view mirror.  If that happens to Austin, which had styled itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World” to the great gnashing of teeth by almost every other sector starting with tech, it will happen in a host of cities around the world.

Of course Big Tech cannot be seen to be leading the charge to live music oblivion.  That would be quite impolitic (if not actionable).  But the vibe from governments in the erstwhile “music cities” like Austin, Denver, Seattle,  and even San Francisco is similar to the efforts of Spotify, Facebook, Google & Co. to support the venues that create the value and the fan base that drives traffic to the live streams they think are the future.  These politicians and Big Tech companies want to be seen to be helping, but not too much.  They don’t want to help so much that most of the venues might actually recover.

Evidence?  Talk to anyone at Facebook who has contact with artists and labels.  (And if you ever wondered who doesn’t click “Skip Ads”, it’s them.)

Facebook certainly is building its “Stars” tip jar model that is in closed beta but will be rolled out soon.   That’s partly because Facebook views live streaming as a permanent part of the data mining ecosystem that Facebook is uniquely positioned to control.  Facebook Stars will prove to be a key component of the venue free future after the COVID and Facebook duo deliver the venue DNR.  And in case you didn’t quite get how Facebook values music, a Star is worth 1¢.  That’s right–one penny.  (Which will make it easier to switch Stars scrip to Facebook Bucks aka Libra.)

Don’t forget, Tencent led the way on this “gifting” concept.  Tencent allows users (all users, subscription or ad-supported service) to make virtual gifts in the form of micropayments directly to artists they love.  (The feature is actually broader than cash and applies to all content creators, but let’s stay with socially-driven micropayments to artists or songwriters.)

Tencent, of course, makes serious bank on these system-wide micropayments.  As Jim Cramer noted in “Mad Money” :
“Tencent Music is a major part of the micropayment ecosystem because they let you give virtual gifts,” Cramer said. “If you want to tip your favorite blogger with a song, you do it through Tencent Music. In the latest quarter we have numbers for, 9.5 million users spent money on virtual gifts, and these purchases accounted for more than 70 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue.”
And that’s real money.  Tencent actually made this into a selling point in their IPO prospectus:
We are pioneering the way people enjoy online music and music-centric social entertainment services. We have demonstrated that users will pay for personalized, engaging and interactive music experiences. Just as we value our users, we also respect those who create music. This is why we champion copyright protection-because unless content creators are rewarded for their creative work, there won’t be a sustainable music entertainment industry in the long run. Our scale, technology and commitment to copyright protection make us a partner of choice for artists and content owners.

So in case you were wondering why we haven’t seen Big Tech really step up to contributing money to support venues in line with the value of the data they scrape from all the fans driven to live streaming, it’s because they don’t want live music venues to be sustainable.  They’ve been trying to break down live music for a decade and the pandemic presented the disruption opportunity for them to actually do it.

Facebook and their counterparts are getting all kinds of free content (and the corollary free data) from desperate bands in the latest example of pandemic price gouging.  Those desperate artists are now forced to consider the option of the Data Lords coin of the realm–advertising and brand integration.  The effect may well be that the only artists who survive the venue DNR are those willing to take the King’s shilling.  Welcome to the company store.

The Data Lords have finally found a way–fear of death–to get fans to substitute away from live music.  There’s nothing quite as disruptive as the threat of dying.  If you ever thought that the live experience was the last stronghold of authenticity against the onslaught of Silicon Valley disruption, you probably never thought that fear of mortality would drive the nail in the coffin of the backstage pass or burn the velvet rope.  Stars in every pot and a drone-delivered Big Box on every doorstep.

But you’d be wrong.  As we slip into the twilight days of live music and festivals, Facebook stands ready with their venue DNR orders.  And live-streaming will be driven by desperation to be the Data Lords’ venue free meal ticket.

Why is this bad?  Because if you talk to any of the label relations types at Facebook, Google or TikTok it is a name droppers paradise.  They don’t really understand how to do the careful spadework that is necessary to break an artist to have an actual career.  They have major artists handed to them after that work has already been done, and done long ago in many cases.  There may be the odd “influencer” who gets a movie or a commercial, but the jury is out on whether these platforms can build careers.  (Or whether there will be many movies for influencers to get a role in.)

Not so of venues.  We know what they do and they’ve been doing it for a long, long time.  But we have to face the harsh reality that unless something changes very quickly, the Data Lords may have just piggybacked the massive income transfer of their DMCA and 230 safe harbors into another takeover of our business.  And they’ll do it in a way that could leave the entire live music economy and workers flopping like fish on a beach.

TikTok’s Buyer Just Got Another Problem: Child Facial Recognition Class Action

There is a long line of copyright infringement cases that demonstrate how hard it is to right a situation that starts out wrong. In addition to TikTok’s copyright problems which it is frantically trying to buy its way out of, TikTok also has a problem with how it treats children.  This isn’t the first time around for TikTok’s exploitation of children–they also were fined by the FTC as the plaintiffs note in their complaint.  A group of child advocates have complained to the FTC that TikTok is ignoring the FTC’s orders.

As any TikTok buyer will soon discover, TikTok is the gift that keeps on giving.  TikTok has been sued in a multi district class action for violating the privacy rights of children and the biometric privacy laws of several states (TikTok’s parent company Bytedance is also named). In their complaint (now In re TikTok, Inc., Consumer Privacy Litigation, Case No. 1:20-cv-04699, Master Docket No. 20 C 4699, U.S.D.C. N. Dist. Ill. East. Div.)  the children state:

Part of the reason for TikTok’s popularity, particularly with younger users such as Plaintiff, are the filters and other effects users can apply to their own videos, as well as those uploaded by others. In order to utilize many of these effects, Defendants scan users’ faces and “face geometry” to capture their biometric data, as well as to determine the user’s age using an algorithm.

In collecting and utilizing Plaintiff’s and the Class’ biometric identifiers4 and biometric information5 (referred to collectively at times as “biometrics”), Defendants fail to: (1) warn users that the app captures, collects, and stores their biometric data; (2) inform users of the purpose or length of time that they collect, store, and use biometric data; (3) obtain users’ written consent to capture their biometric data; and (4) implement and/or make publicly available a written policy disclosing to users its practices concerning the collection, use, and destruction of their biometric information in violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”), 740 ILCS 14/1, et seq….

Many of the features and effects require scanning the user’s face geometry in order to place effects over the user’s face, swap the user’s face for an emoji or other individual’s faces, or enhance aspects of their facial features.

But Plaintiff and similarly situated users place themselves at risk when they utilize TikTok features that require access to users’ biometric identifiers and/or information. TikTok acknowledges that it shares personal information that it collects from users with third parties, including entities in China. Multiple U.S. military branches and the Transportation Security Administration have banned use of TikTok due to privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

TikTok, and its predecessor musical.ly, also have a long history of exploiting the millions of minors that make up the lion’s share of TikTok’s user base. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission settled a case against TikTok and musical.ly for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by improperly collecting personal information from children under 13 years old without their parents’ consent.8 The FTC fined Defendants $5.7 million, the largest COPPA fine in the FTC’s history.

In response to complaints regarding children under 13 years old using the app, TikTok implemented a feature that scans the user’s face to determine if he or she appears to be 13 years old or younger. TikTok compares the geometry and features of the individual’s face to an algorithm to determine his or her age.

In other words, TikTok violates the law by capturing child biometric data, then they capture child biometric data to use in an algorithm to catch themselves violating the law.

The case has progressed to the settlement stage.  In response to the reported allegations that TikTok was attempting to fix the outcome of the settlement by cherry picking which attorneys participate in the settlement mediation, the court issued this statement in a case management order dated yesterday (9/1/20) (my emphasis):

[T]he Court is informed by certain Plaintiffs’ counsel that progress has been made in settlement discussions with Defendants. Certain other Plaintiffs’ counsel take umbrage with the manner in which those settlement discussions have taken place, stating that they were not allowed to participate in the settlement discussions (for one reason or another) and have not been informed of the terms of any potential settlement. It goes without saying that, before this Court can approve a class-wide settlement of any kind, it must consider the factors set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a), (b), and (e). Those factors include, without limitation, whether the settling class representatives and class counsel have adequately represented the class, whether the proposal was negotiated at arm’s length, whether the relief provided for the class is adequate, and whether the proposed settlement treats class members equitably relative to one another.

In the Court’s experience, it often is advisable for the settling plaintiffs to encourage the participation in the settlement process of attorneys who represent other plaintiffs who have brought similar claims in other venues. After all, those attorneys may represent potential class members, possible objectors, or others who may opt out of any settlement class altogether.

So the Court is basically not having it when it comes to TikTok’s tactics.  It may be shocking that TikTok even wound up in this situation of getting sued for strong arming children and then strong arming children in its attempt to escape liability (and potential criminal prosecution).

All of this occurs in the shadow of the US government’s order requiring that Bytedance divest itself of TikTok.  And that leads to the most interesting part of the court’s case management order:

[T]he attorneys for certain Plaintiffs have raised the concern that any upcoming sale of TikTok, Inc., or its assets by its current owner to a domestic company may result in the destruction of relevant documents as that term is used in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court wants to make it clear that, in the event that such a sale takes place, any successor-in-interest shall be bound by Paragraph of CMO No. 1 (just as the Defendants are now) and must make all reasonable efforts to preserve any and all evidence in the possession, custody, or control of TikTok, Inc., that is relevant to the claims and defenses raised in this action.

Of course, I’m sure it’s not lost on the Court that much of this evidence may be located outside of the Court’s jurisdiction and would be subject to China’s National Intelligence Law.  

Who wants to bet that preservation ship has already sailed?

 

 

Pandemic: Abacus Shines a Light on the COVID Gap with New Poll of Musician Attitudes on Touring

It could be called the revenge of the middleman.  In one of the greatest wealth transfers of all time, the value of recorded music has been largely transferred to the new middlemen at companies like Spotify, YouTube, Apple and Amazon.  Record companies with large market shares are doing well with streaming, but those returns are also below where the market should be.

The running dogs of Big Tech have for years told artists that what the solution to their problem with DMCA whack-a-mole was to get out on the road and sell those t-shirts.  The artists didn’t have much choice–we saw Levon Helm essentially die on the bandstand because he couldn’t stop touring.

The forced choice made by artists under DMCA duress allowed the “value gap” to spread into what could be called the “COVID Gap.”  The sudden constriction of touring income to zero or near zero acts like a reality superspreader—the streaming deal is both grotesquely unfair and supremely enlightening.

We know why it’s unfair: Fans pay for music they don’t listen to.  But its enlightening because the tale of the tape demonstrates that recorded music does have tremendous value and that value is being captured by the middlemen, especially Spotify and more particularly Spotify’s President for Life Daniel Ek’s personal fortune.  There’s no rational reason why Spotify should have a market cap that is 300% of the Warner Music market cap.

SPOT Comparison Covid

Canadian polling company Abacus has completed a study that everyone in live music should read very carefully.  The poll tells us a lot about artist attitudes toward the recovery of live music and it is the only one of its kind that I know of.  Why we don’t have something similar in the U.S. or in the U.K. is a mystery, but I doubt that it would tell you anything different.

It highlights the main factor that seems to get overlooked a lot—great that people want to open up venues, great that there is some bit of money being thrown at venues (although nowhere near enough), but even if the venues manage to survive and even if they manage to attract fans to come back, who exactly do people think they are going to get to perform?

Artists are presented with a patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that show a rather hair raising maze to drive through (because nobody’s going to be flying).  Artists have families just like anyone else, so before you even get to the economics, you have to protect the children.

I strongly recommend that everyone read carefully the Crowded Out study and think hard about what it means.  As an Austinite, I can tell you that I fully expect that Big Tech will be granted its fondest wish–Austin will become just another college town with a Google campus and they can finally jettison this “Live Music Capitol of the World” moniker.

If you don’t want that to happen to New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis and Atlanta, or a host of other cities, then you need to have some answers to the Crowded Out research.

You also need to have the fortitude to renegotiate those streaming deals to eliminate both the Value Gap and the COVID Gap.