Ethical Props–How Streamers Can Empower Fans on the Path to Sustainability 

[This post first appeared in the MusicTechPolicy Monthly Newsletter, if you’d like future issues, subscribe to email updates for MusicTech.Solutions]

After the one-time pop of Spotify’s public stock offering cash-out, the new reality is going to be increasingly obvious–we’re stuck for at least a generation with trading high margin physical for low-to-no margin streaming royalties.  That stock-fueled sugar high created a near-total dependence on big minimum guarantees and non recoupable payments from streamers–if you could get those payments.  But the bad thing about non-recurring income is that it’s non-recurring. Spotify’s stock price is already testing lower lows near the $110 level, $7 above it’s 52 week low, but $80 below its 52 week high.

Now what?  I’ve heard a lot of discussion about my “Ethical Pool” approach to streaming royalties, but any “user-centric” model isn’t going to fix the low-to-no margin streaming royalty problem by itself.  The streaming hole is dug too deep.   
Strange as it may seem, streamer Tencent from the People’s Republic of China may have started a helpful social trend, and Apple is translating that trend into a business practice. Both companies present a teachable moment and an opportunity for the Ethical Pool’s mutual opt-in by fans and the artists they love in the form of micropayments I will call “Ethical Props”.

There’s three obvious things we know about streaming if we know nothing else:  Everyone who works for Spotify got even richer in their stock market cashout while the overwhelming majority of artists and songwriters on the service languish;  per-stream royalties are pitiful which matters if you don’t get minimum guarantees;  plus streamers lose money because they spend too much on overhead, especially salaries and rent.

There’s a less obvious problem we know but that doesn’t come up very often–streamers don’t empower fans to reward the artists they love, much less the songwriters who write the music it all starts with.  Imagine if fans could actually give money directly to their artists (and sign up for direct communications outside of the service).

But–thanks to inspiration from Tencent’s “virtual gift” feature, artists may have renewed negotiation leverage in actually getting streamers to empower fans to make direct contributions to the artists they love in the form of small “Ethical Prop” payments.  Of course, in order to be entitled to be “ethical” handle, the streaming services–including Tencent–will have to make some changes in their current business practice.

Which should be welcomed by all concerned.  As Sony Music as well as Taylor Swift and Universal Music Group recently demonstrated, ethical business is good business.  Both labels have agreed to pass through to artists a share of each label’s Spotify stock windfall on a non-recoupment basis–we’ll come back to that nonrecoupment part.

Simply put, 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 these 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” last week:
“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.
That sounds like these guys read the blog!

But–how to make “music-centric social entertainment services” into the Ethical Props? First, the streamer needs to take a smaller cut and they need to do some “Artist Services” work for their share.  If you want to get paid for artist services, then serve the artist for your payment (to get all antimetabole about it).

Spotify and Apple need to create the infrastructure that invests fans with the power to directly support the artists they love.  This empowerment will become increasingly important as more and more fans get woke with the main driver of the Ethical Pool–fans discovering that the very large lion’s share of the subscription fee they pay goes to music they don’t listen to performed by artists they’d never listen to. This ought to apply to both ad-supported and subscription services.

In addition to the Ethical Prop button, services need to empower fans to connect directly with the artists they love through an email list if the artist has one.  
In the background, the service may facilitate transactions like a “Fulfilled by Amazon” service that generates a 1099K (like Kickstarter) or an Apple in-app purchase.  In fact, the Chinese micropayments reportedly influenced Apple to change its in-app purchase policies, which make a good guideline for putting the “ethical” into an Ethical Prop:
Apps may enable individual users to give a monetary gift to another individual without using in-app purchase, provided that (a) the gift is a completely optional choice by the giver, and (b) 100% of the funds go to the receiver of the gift. However, a gift that is connected to or associated at any point in time with receiving digital content or services must use in-app purchase.

(That’s section 3.2.1(vii) in Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines for those reading along at home.)

Following Apple’s lead, Ethical Props should be given at the option of the fan and 100% of the funds should go to the artist directly (but not in lieu of a royalty).  Because the payment is optional for the fan, micropayments ought not to be taken into account in any rate setting hearing or negotiation.

And here’s where the “nonecoupable” issue returns–these monies should be paid directly each artist who opts-in to the feature.  Sony and Universal learned to leave some on the table–we’ll see how far that goes.  But certainly independent creators should get the benefit of 100% of any Ethical Prop.

On the songwriter side–now that lyrics are so prevalent and even Spotify is adding songwriter credits, it should be pretty simple for the discerning fan to give an Ethical Prop to a credited songwriter if the songwriter opts in to the Ethical Props.

So like the Ethical Pool, the Ethical Prop is bilateral–both fan and artist have to opt into the transaction.  If the streamer wants to provide a service to handle any required income or sales tax reporting (although it’s likely that none of these transactions will be significant enough to trigger a 1099), then that might justify a cut.  Maybe.


Ethical Props present a win-win opportunity for services and all artists that want to break the headlock of hyper-efficient market share distributions on streaming services.  As we all know and Tencent acknowledges, sustainability requires more than a per-stream royalty that starts 2, 3 or even 4 decimal places to the right.

As the Spotify sugar high starts to crash, Ethical Props may provide an important counterpart to the Ethical Pool.

Why Will Spotify’s Stock Price Tank?

Stocks go up, stocks go down, can’t pick a top and can’t pick a bottom.

However–Spotify is a particularly interesting stock for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with the nature of the initial offering.  Remember, Spotify did not offer shares in an “initial public offering,” they used an untried method called a “direct public offering.”

The difference is crucial.  In an IPO, or as it’s more precisely known, a “full commitment underwriting,” the company (or “issuer”) actually raises money through selling new shares of stock to a group of investors, usually banks.  These investors are often called “underwriters”.  In the case of a full commitment underwriting IPO, the company sells shares to an underwriting group (or “syndicate“) and the syndicate then sells those shares to the public after the syndicate decides the valuation of the company and the price of the shares of stock.

This is completely different from the direct public offering.  There are no new shares, there is no syndicate, and the price is set (or was for Spotify) by reference to the price of shares selling in the private market immediately before the public is able to buy–and my bet is that the DPO price was a lot higher than an IPO price would have been.  (Dropbox, for example, priced at $21 and closed at $28.48 on its first day of trading.  Facebook priced at $38, Google at $85, Alibaba $68, Amazon was $18.   All had different valuations, of course.  Spotify priced at $132 using a loophole from the SEC.  And what goes up, must come down.)

So, you may ask, if the issuer doesn’t sell shares to an underwriting syndicate, where do the shares come from?

The shares come from insiders at the company and any other shareholder, employee, record company, other investors already holding shares who want to get out.  All of these insiders have an incentive to keep the share price as high as they can before they get their shares sold to the bigger fool…sorry, I mean to other investors.

According to a puff piece that Spotify’s lawyers conveniently wrote and published at a Harvard Law School meeting (wonder who paid for that), Spotify identified three goals in their DPO:

  • Offer greater liquidity for its existing shareholders [translation: existing shareholders can cash out], without raising capital itself and without the restrictions imposed by standard lock-up agreements

  • Provide unfettered access to all buyers and sellers of its shares, allowing Spotify’s existing shareholders the ability to sell their shares immediately after listing at market prices [this essentially repeats benefit #1]

  • Conduct its listing process with maximum transparency and enable market-driven price discovery

That last one is utter gibberish as the SEC takes care of the transparency through Form S-1 (or F-1 in Spotify’s case as a foreign filer) and Regulation S-K. The first point is really two related but different goals:  lockup agreements bar employees and key holders from dumping their stock for a typical 180 day period.  This is to avoid high employee turnover after a public offering the way we’ve seen at companies like…you know…Spotify.  It’s generally thought that losing key employees is bad for shareholders, so that’s why every mother’s daughter has lock up agreements. It’s also hard to recruit replacements when the insiders are selling, especially if the stock is tanking.

And one can’t help noticing that building a sustainable business model for long-term shareholder value and artist longevity is not on the list.

Anyway…if you look at the following chart, you’ll see some interesting patterns developing over the short history of Spotify’s stock.  I don’t put a lot of trust in chart analysis, but some people do and it is one of the few things we have to rely on in this case because there is so much insider activity.

You’ll notice that there’s something of a “head and shoulders” pattern emerging when the stock reached its high on July 26, 2018 of $196.28.  This pattern is often associated with a move to the downside, sometimes a sharp move to the downside.

Spot 12-17-18

Sure enough, the stock went into a sputtering dive the next day and the dive has continued ever since.  Note that at the high, volume was rising.  The low volume of Spotify stock is another one of the untold stories and is another suggestion of price management in the background.

Once the downside move became apparent, which was about October 10, downward pressure accelerated on rising volume (relatively speaking since volume is low).  A couple weeks later, more sell signals confirmed the downside move.

Spot Projection 12-17-18

One signal that I found significant was the 50 and 100 day moving averages of the stock price crossed to the downside on October 22, which also happened to be the date that the stock traded and closed at $148.54–below $149.01, the closing price on the first day of trading.

Starting with the high at the head and shoulders formation, the stock has more or less collapsed on about a 45 degree downward angle ever since.  Why is that?  Possibly because the stock was priced too high to begin with.  Some people think that SPOT is just reacting to the overall market sell-off.  I don’t think that is true as SPOT has not moved in relation to the market since inception.  SPOT was higher on the market highs and lower on the market lows, so I don’t see the coupling argument at all.

Plus, Spotify announced a $1 billion stock buy back, so the price is rapidly declining in spite of the buyback.  Perhaps if Spotify had made a tender offer for shares at a fixed price, they could have supported the stock more successfully.

Based on the stock’s recent history, it would not be surprising to see SPOT retrace some of its collapse and rise to something in the $120-$130 range by the end of the year.  Then I suspect that it will decline to approximately $95 around the end of January.

After that, we shall see.  Obviously, this is not investment advice, just speculation based on some guesses derived from the chart.  But the chart is relevant because there’s unlikely to be any real change in the company’s financial position in the next six weeks.

Analyst Mark Hake has developed three different scenarios for where Spotify’s stock price will be in 2021:  $125.68, $61.42 and $38.39, but assigns a $114.89 price based on a probability analysis.  About where it is now, in other words.  His post in Seeking Alpha (“Spotify Has A Valuation Problem”) is a must read if you’re interested in financial analysis.

Spotify closed today at $116.50, down $2.17 in after hours trading.

More Evidence of DPO Conflicts: Is Spotify’s Stock Buyback Plan Taking it to the Shorts?

Spotify is experiencing the joys of being a public company–or at least a quasi public company if you count public companies as ones whose shares are actually held by the public as in Mrs. & Mr. America.  But both analysts and investors have to always remember that Spotify did not conduct an IPO in the traditional sense where an underwriting syndicate of bankers bought a block of shares from the company that the syndicate then resold to the public.  This is why Spotify’s recently announced $1 billion stock buy-back program bears closer scrutiny.

Instead they conducted a DPO, a direct public offering which is unusual and radically different than an IPO.  The DPO has an essential conflict–the sellers of shares are insiders in the issuer and have an incentive to keep the stock price high and to manipulate that stock price however they can.  Like through a stock buy back after less than a year of trading, for example.

From a financial markets point of view, that DPO makes almost everything about Spotify’s stock a different analysis than a market traded IPO–including Spotify’s recently announced stock buy back.  Stock buy backs happen all the time, particularly in declining markets.  But what is unusual is for a company that’s still in its first year of operating as a public company whose shares are largely traded by insiders and is a money losing company to take the odd step of using $1 billion of the shareholders money to buy back stock.

Or maybe not so unusual if the shareholders whose money it is are both the sellers of those shares and the beneficiaries of the stock buy back–as they try to find a bigger fool to sell the shares to in the retail market.  Another core problem with DPOs is that you don’t have an independent body setting the opening price as you would with an underwriting syndicate.  DPOs have to get an opening price from somewhere–so Spotify’s pricing problem started with the SEC and NYSE allowing Spotify to price at its last privately traded price (as some shares of Spotify traded in what used to be called a “Rule 4(a)(1)1/2” exemption for resale of restricted stock, now codified in Section 4(a)(7) of the Securities Act by the FAST [Breakfast at Buck’s] Act–a bit of a gloss but OK for our purposes here).

So by letting Spotify use the private market for restricted stock as a proxy for a market price, at a minimum the SEC and the NYSE assume that the rights, preferences and privileges of an unregistered share of Spotify stock are the same as a share of registered SPOT.  They’re not.  They also assume there are no price distortions from the relatively low number of unlegended restricted shares available in the private market.  They also assume that there’s nothing odd about a company like Spotify–staring down relatively slam dunk infringement lawsuits of significant value and in a money-losing business run from 10 floors of the World Trade Center like it was Apple or something–pricing way above the opening prices of Amazon, Facebook, Google and so on.

If that sounds cynical, it really isn’t once you understand the dynamics of a DPO compared to an IPO.  The DPO produces a market effect that is similar to the business model of Larry Ellison’s famous 1999 “HeyIdiot.com” parody of an Internet company:

HEYIDIOT.COM is tightly focused on selling just one product. Elegantly enough, that product is the stock of HEYIDIOT.COM, which will be offered to you for sale on-line at our web site of the same name. Buying the stock is simple, you can buy as much stock as you want with the only rule being that each new purchase must be executed at a successively higher price.  We call it a cash portal.

We’re seeing the result of the DPO come home to roost in Spotifyland which looks something like this:

 

Spotify 11-16-18 Basic
SPOT 11-6-18

After a run up in the stock price–on low volume and with no meaningful news–the stock retraces its steps and suggests its testing lower lows.  It’s hard to say what “price support” there is for a stock that’s had less then a year of trading, but let’s just say that if it broke through $100 to the downside, there would be rending of garments and closer examination of executive compensation unless Spotify executives could continue to blame artists for “high” royalties.

Also note that three out of four of Spotify’s biggest volume days were to the downside, and that the stock has been trading down, essentially, since August.Spotify 11-16-18 Volume

 

We can also assume that at these low trading volumes, the shares have gradually been accumulating in the trading accounts of Mrs. & Mr. America which also means that there are potentially more and more shares available to short sellers–the buy high sell low crowd that I discussed back in March.

short_sell_example

In fact, there are a few November 30 puts in the $115 range already.  Daniel Ek has announced he’ll be selling Spotify shares with a value of about $20 million on a monthly basis for a while.  You have to notice that those board-approved sales are overlapping with the board-approved Spotify stock buy back that will help to support the higher price point while insiders dump their shares.  This is another inherent conflict problem with the whoe DPO concept–but when you have the 1:10 voting power over your board as does Mr. Ek, many things are possible.

It’s nice work for a “cash portal.”

See SPOT Fall–Does the Decline of Spotify’s Stock Price Mean Anything?

Stocks go up, stocks go down, what does it all mean?  In the very recent declines of the stock price of credible companies, you saw them punished for good quarters but guiding lower.  Even “big tech” stocks like Google and Amazon were punished for revenue misses and cloudy guidance.

And then there’s China–is the US in a trade war or a new cold war?  (Read Mike Pillsbury for the answer.)  Spotify’s has double whammy exposure to China trade woes plus the Ten Cent investment (itself getting hammered by China’s President for Life’s concerns about videogame addiction).

What’s happening with the Spotify stock price?  I would argue the main downward driver for SPOT is much more straightforward–the market is simply catching up to the Spotify DPO and its insider-heavy stock sales.  We won’t really know the hard numbers on insider trades until the SEC starts making those insider Form 4 sales more easily available online.  That should should happen any day now (and none of the mainstream music industry publications seem to be interested enough in the the truth setting them free to actually dig through the SEC Form 4 filings at the source).

But–there could be enough shares out there in the marketplace that SPOT may be starting to trade like an IPO as opposed to an insider cash-out (or DPO).  And once the market really becomes part of the Spotify trading day and trading volume increases, a few things start happening.  One is that as more shares are held by the public, there are an increasing number of shares available to allow the “buy high, sell low” short trading that can cause big swings in a stock’s price due to short covering if nothing else.

SPOT also starts to become more susceptible to the other stocks in its cohort as more retail investors have to answer the question, what will I sell to buy Spotify?  The answer will be different for different people, but if there are more sellers than there are buyers, we know what happens.  That’s why the majors, Sony in particular, were very smart to start selling their holdings almost immediately.

What would you sell to buy Spotify?  Probably not its competitor Apple–whose shares trade almost opposite to Spotify on a relative basis.

 

SPOT Apple Moving averages
SPOT-APPL 11-1-18

 

If you’re looking at the performance of SPOT, you have to ask yourself what about this chart says “buy”?

 

Spot moving averages
SPOT 50 and 100 Day Moving Averages 10-31-18

 

You have a stock that’s broken through both its 100 and 50 day moving averages to the downside as of yesterday, and so far in today’s action is testing lower lows.  And not surprisingly sank like a stone following a “head and shoulders” top technical chart pattern indicating a potential bearish trend that has now been confirmed (as I began watching in June on Music Tech Policy before the stock gave up almost $50 of its share price).

I guess the MMA safe harbor is priced in.

Keep asking yourself that question:  What would I sell to buy SPOT?  If you’re not an insider, that question will eventually guide you (and the market) to the right share price. That will have nothing to do with Spotify’s royalty payouts, how many floors of World Trade Center it rents, or competition with YouTube or Apple.  Don’t let the analysts (or the company) fool you–although some analyists are starting to face the Spotify reality.

That will be–I would suggest–a problem with the insider-controlled Direct Public Offering structure and the SEC’s decision to allow Spotify to price at a meaninglessly high number.  What goes up on fantasy comes down hard on reality.

Buckle your chin strap.

Spotify IPO Watch: Buy High, Sell Low

Is Spotify’s unusual “DPO” approach and bizarre $132 selling price simply a way for insiders to short the stock? See SPOT run! Run SPOT run!

Here’s an interesting anecdote about that imminent Spotify stock offering.  Remember, Spotify is rumored to price at $132 per share based on private market trades (on a split adjusted basis, I guess).

If the Spotify “DPO” actually does trade at $132, it will probably be the highest valued IPO stock ever.  Dropbox, for example, priced at $21 and closed at $28.48 on its first day of trading.  Facebook priced at $38, Google at $85, Alibaba $68, Amazon was $18.  So Spotify will have to be pretty special to actually trade at $132 on the public market.

It’s good to remember that most of these comparisons had what’s called a “full commitment underwriting” where the company issues new shares that are purchased by an underwriting syndicate and then resold to the public.  Spotify will issue no new shares.  So–one would surmise that the only ones selling will be those who already hold Spotify shares that have been allowed to be sold on the public exchange.  That appears to mean the shares that will be trading will be the insiders (or mostly the insiders), with no restrictions on which of those insiders can sell on the first day of trading.  (Most IPOs have a restriction (called “lockup agreements”) on when employees can sell their shares to avoid a rush for the exits.)

I happened to be chatting with two sophisticated investors in recent days, one from a hedge fund and the other an entrepreneur who has taken a couple companies public.  Both of them had the same reaction after we talked through Spotify’s competitive position and some of the disclosures in Spotify’s SEC Form “F-1”.

Let’s start with Spotify’s description of who it counts as a subscriber:’

We define Premium Subscribers as Users that have completed registration with Spotify and have activated a payment method for Premium Service. Our Premium Subscribers include all registered accounts in our Family Plan. Our Family Plan consists of one primary subscriber and up to five additional sub-accounts, allowing up to six Premium Subscribers per Family Plan subscription. Premium Subscribers includes subscribers who are within a grace period of up to 30 days after failing to pay their subscription fee.

If you think that a paid subscriber means a subscriber who paid, you’re probably not wild about this definition, and both my friends thought it was not only a meaningless number but also was deceptive.  My guess is that it conservatively overstates “Premium Subscribers” by about 20% given the number of freebies that Spotify hands out.  We were all actually surprised that the Securities and Exchange Commission allowed Spotify to get away with this kind of disclosure as the definition is buried in a footnote.  Neither friend had noticed it, and these were people who are too smart to miss these things normally.

Then there was a discussion about that New York real estate–Pandora is certainly learning its lesson about sky high overhead and is migrating gradually to Atlanta.  I’ve always been mystified why money losing companies like Spotify get away with locating in some of the highest priced real estate in the world–San Francisco and Manhattan.  And also get away with complaining about royalties instead of rents.  Rather than the labels rewarding them based on subscribers, why not reward them based on subscribers if and only if they also lower their overhead (called SG&A) by a certain percentage.

Both conversations ended with a discussion of the 10 second MBA–buy low, sell high.  This is what you do with a long position in a stock.  In Spotify’s case, we were discussing another kind of position, a short position.  Short selling reverses the equation–buy high, sell low.

This is because the short seller is betting that the stock will trade lower, and usually considerably lower, than the price at the beginning of the short seller’s round trip.  In brief, what happens with short selling is that you borrow the shares from someone who holds them.  You get to borrow them for a fixed period of time.  You then sell those borrowed shares at the then-current market price.

short_sell_example

Because your bet with “directional” short selling is that the shares will decline in value over time after that initial sale of the borrowed shares, you then essentially use the proceeds from the sale of the borrowed stock to purchase the shares before your short period expires.  You then return the borrowed shares after you buy them back.

Sometimes you can make a fortune selling short (which doesn’t require shorting stocks, see George Soros shorting the UK pound stirling and The Big Short).  Of course, it can go the other way, too, and result in a short squeeze if the price of the shorted stock increases and short sellers have to “cover” at a higher price than they sold the borrowed shares so they can return the borrowed shares and not default.

“Short interest” is a published number and can be used as a measurement of market sentiment about a particular stock.  It’s the aggregated number of shares of a stock that have been sold short but haven’t been closed out or “covered.”  (Similar to the “put to call” ratio in options trading.)  So it was a bit remarkable to me that both these friends said they’d probably short Spotify as soon as they could.

That’s an interesting question–when could the Spotify stock be shorted.  In order to short, there must be some inventory of shares available to borrow and trade such as from a brokerage house (who can lend the shares from clients’ margin accounts, for example).  Typically, underwriters of an IPO are not allowed to short their IPO stock for 30 days or so.  However, there is no such restriction on retail investors–and Spotify has no underwriters.

Therefore, there may be no restriction on when the Spotify insiders can short Spotify stock.

And if my anecdotes are any guide, it certainly does look like there will be a market for short sellers.  One could even say that insiders seeking to short Spotify shares are simply acting prudently to protect their downside, not unlike a “collar” or other hedging transaction.  This will be particularly true if there is a real run on the exits and early investors or other holders (like the senior management team) start selling right away given they have none of the usual lockup agreements or restrictions on trading as far as I know.

In the words of one of the friends, the shorting will begin at 9:31 on the first day of trading.  As someone who knows the importance of a few seconds in the world of automated trading, I believe him.

 

 

Mass NOI Charts: An Update from Royalty Claim — MUSIC • TECHNOLOGY • POLICY

An update on the state of the Copyright Office debacle also known as mass filing of “address unknown” notices under Section 115 (you can see the largely unusable posting of these notices at this link on the Copyright Office site). Here’s some charts you won’t see in the trades or even on the Copyright Office site-Royalty Claim’s Address “Unknown” Mass NOI chart that Royalty Claim measured by number of filings January 1-June 30, 2017.

via Mass NOI Charts: An Update from Royalty Claim — MUSIC • TECHNOLOGY • POLICY

Holding the Line on Tradeoffs for Statutory Damages

It is very likely that we will hear about a move to make significant amendments to the Copyright Act at some point before the beginning of campaign season in 2018.  There are a significant number of copyright-related bills that have been introduced in the House of Representatives in the current session, so brace yourself for an “omnibus” copyright bill that would try to cobble them all together Frankenstein-style.

A Frankenstein omnibus bill would be a very bad idea in my view and will inevitably lead to horse trading of fake issues against a false deadline.  Omnibus bills are a bad idea for songwriters and artists, particularly independent songwriters and artists, because omnibus bills tend to bring together Corporate America in attack formation.

MIC Coaltion
The MIC Coalition

When you consider that Google and Facebook are part of Corporate America (not to mention Apple), the odds of the independent songwriter and artist, but really any songwriter and artist, just holding onto the few crumbs they currently have crash and burn.  The odds of actually righting wrongs or–God forbid–getting rid of the legacy consent decrees that protect Big Business vanish into the limit.

Of course, what certain elements of Big Tech would really like to do is push all licensing of music into one organization that they could then control through consent decrees or other government regulation and supervision by exercise of the massive lobbying and litigation muscle of the MIC Coalition and DIMA.  While I realize that may actually sound anti-competitive, it is typical of monopolists to use the antitrust law to destroy competition (as Professor Taplin has taught us).   That’s certainly what has happened with the PRO consent decrees–reduced competition and lower royalties.  Not to mention such a licensing organization would collapse under its own complexity.  This is probably why the Copyright Office envisioned a “Music Rights Organization” that would combine the PROs and mechanical rights licensing but provided the relief valve of an new opt-out right so that songwriters could escape the madness.  (“Under the Office’s proposal, except to the extent they chose to opt out of the blanket statutory system, publishers and songwriters would license their public performance and mechanical rights through MROs.”  Copyright Office Music Licensing Study at p. 9)

If you want some ideas about the kinds of property rights that Big Tech wants the government to take away from songwriters and artists, just read Spotify’s most recent filing in the songwriter litigation in Nashville where their lawyer tries to define away mechanical royalties (unsurprisingly, the lawyer is a long-time protege of Lessig).  Why?  Because they are being brought to a trial by their peers on statutory damages for copyright infringement and the potential for having to pay the songwriters’ lawyers due to a statutory right to recover attorneys fees.  (Statutory damages for copyright infringement has long been an attack point of Big Tech and we get a preview of where they want it to go in Pamela Samuelson’s “Copyright Principles Project”–essentially abolished.)

One way or another, the Big Tech cartel (which includes all the companies in the MIC Coalition and MIC Coalition member the Digital Media Association which itself has members like Spotify and, curiously, Apple) is very likely going to go after statutory damages and try to create yet another “safe harbor” for themselves with no burdens–a “friction free” way to infringe pretty much at will because the actual damages for streaming royalties will be pennies.

If the cartel succeeds in eliminating statutory damages and attorneys fees awards, this will truly make copyright infringement litigation toothless and entirely eliminate the one tool that independent songwriters and artists have to protect their rights.  It will neuter massive copyright infringement as alleged in all of the Spotify class actions, not to mention cases like Limewire.

Oh, you say–did you just switch from song copyrights to sound recording copyrights by referencing Limewire?  Yes, I did–because that’s exactly what I predict the DIMA and MIC Coalition have in mind.  Why do I say this?  Because that’s what these companies are backing in the radioactive Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership bill (HR 3350).  And if you blow up all the current separate bills into one omnibus copyright “reform” bill, the pieces may reconstitute in forms you didn’t expect.

But realize that in almost all the many copyright bills currently before the House of Representatives, the other side is trying to bootstrap unjust harm into a negotiation chip to shakedown creators.  And it’s not just pending legislation–the shakedown is especially observable with the millions of notices of intention to rely on statutory mechanical licenses for songs filed with the Copyright Office.  That’s a nice song you got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it.

Big Tech’s basic negotiation method is to rely on a loophole, bootstrap the loophole to build up the pressure on people who can’t fight back, then run the shakedown to get concessions that should never be made.  This is what Google has done with the DMCA and is the same shakedown tactic on mass NOIs taken by Google, Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, and others–but curiously not Apple.  Somehow Apple has made it work with the most successful digital music platform in history.

Let’s go down the issue list:

Bootstrapped Issue

Fix

Bill

Pandora and Sirius stopped paying artists for digital royalties on pre-72 recordings—because of loophole based on federal copyright protection for sound recordings Start paying artist royalties on classic recordings made before 1972 CLASSICS Act
Terrestrial radio created a loophole so they don’t have to pay performance royalties to artists on sound recordings; stop artists from opting out Start paying artist royalties for broadcast radio (with protection for noncommercial and small broadcasters) Fair Pay Fair Play Act, PROMOTE Act
Big tech suddenly started using a loophole to file millions of “address unknown” NOIs with Copyright Office after indie songwriters filed class actions Require Big Tech to use existing databases to look up copyright owners or don’t use the songs or recordings. None
No “central database” that has all songs (but no requirement to actually look up anything), requires double registration If songwriters and artists don’t register, then no statutory damages Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act

Blown up into parts:

–Avoid raising mechanical royalty rate or paying artist royalties on terrestrial at all

–How to use the lack of the mythical “central database” as a bright and shiny object to avoid paying royalties and shirk liability for not doing copyright research, an absurd position for companies that owe much of their wealth to their unprecedented ability to profile people around the world and “organize the world’s information”

–Avoid paying statutory damages

–How to avoid paying royalties that should have paid anyway (pre-72, terrestrial, mass NOI) through distorted interpretations of the law or even safer harbors

–Avoid an obligation to actually look up anything (new databases)

–Use any work they want if all they have to pay is actual damages and no attorneys fees

–Keep songwriters and artists from opting out

–Create biggest black box possible

It should be apparent which way Big Tech is trying to push the creative community.  It is important for creators to understand that any legislative concession that the MIC Coalition or DIMA win against songwriters or artists they will then turn around and try to extract in the next shakedown–authors, photographers, film makers, all the copyright categories.

It is in everyone’s interest to support a healthy creative community that will continue to engage fans and do enough commerce to create value for the tech monopolies.  But–it is crucial to understand that it doesn’t work the other way around.

The purpose of the creative community is not to create value for tech monopolies.  It is to support compelling artists and help them engage with fans, and sometimes it is art for art’s sake alone.  If those artists throw off some commercial gain that the tech monopolies can turn to profit themselves, fine.  But creating profit for these monopolists is not the goal of artists.

Instead of creating fake problems to try to extract concessions that further undermine creators like offering ice in winter, the tech monopolies like Google, Spotify, Amazon and Pandora should identify real problems and work with us toward real solutions–and not a loophole-driven shakedown.