Arithmetic on the Internet: The Ethical Pool Solution to Streaming Royalty Allocation

“Sick of my money funding crap.”
A Fan’s Tweet

Subscription services are one of the few secular trends in the current economy that is not yet reactive to trade wars or interest rates.  Subscription services are found in many areas of the economy, but music drives some of the big ones like Spotify, Amazon and especially the razor-and-razorblades plays like Apple.  But per-stream royalties do not come close to making up for the CD and download royalties they cannibalize.   Not only do subscription retail rates need to increase, but it’s also time for a major change in the way artist’s streaming royalties are calculated from what is essentially a market share approach to one that is more fair.   (Listen to the Break the Business podcast discussion about the Ethical Pool that I had with Ryan Kairalla.)

Artists’ dismal streaming royalties on music subscription services are largely based on a simple calculation:  A per-stream payment derived from a share of the service’s revenue prorated by number of streams.  Artists get a portion of a service’s monthly revenue (at least the revenue the service discloses) based on a ratio of your plays to all the plays.  Your plays will always be a lot smaller than the total plays.  (This is essentially what Sharky Laguana referred to as the “Big Pool.”)

Sounds simple, but mixed with the near-payola of Spotify’s playlist culture and Pandora’s “steering” deals, it’s really not.  Negotiating leverage allows big stakeholders to tweak the basic calculation with floors, advances (aka breakage), nonrecoupable payments that help cover accounting costs, and other twists and turns to avoid a pure revenue share.

It also must be said that stock analysts and venture investors always—always—blame “high” royalties for loss-making in music services.  This misapprehension ignores high overhead such as Spotify’s 10 floors of 4 World Trade Center or high bonus payments such as Daniel Ek’s $1,000,000 bonus paid for failing to accomplish half of his incentive goals stated in the Spotify SEC documents (p. 133 “Executive Compensation Program Requirements”).

Of course all these machinations happen behind the scenes.  Fans are not aware that their subscription pays for music they don’t listen to and artists they never heard of or don’t care for.   Plus, it’s virtually impossible for any label or publisher to tell an artist or songwriter what their per-stream rate is or is going to be.

Fans Don’t Like It:  A New Wave of Cord Cutters?

So neither fans nor artists are happy with the current revenue share model. Given that the success of the subscription business model is keeping subscribers subscribing, the last thing the fledgling services need are cord cutters.

Many artists will tell you that the playlist culture and revenue share model are destructive.  Dedicated fans often don’t like it  either (after they understand it) because it gives the lie to supporting your favorite artist by streaming their music.  Artists don’t like it because unless you have a massive pop or hip hop hit, all you can aspire to is a royalty rate that starts in the third decimal place from the right if not the fourth.  This is compounded for songwriters.   (See Universal Music Publishing’s Jody Gerson on streaming royalties for songwriters.)

Simply put, if a fan pays their subscription and listens to 20 artists in a month, that fan likely believes that their subscription is shared by those 20 artists and not by 200,000 artists, 99.99% of whom that fan never listened to and probably never will, similar to Sharky’s “Subscriber Pool.”  (You can take a survey here.)

This is why some artists like Sharky Laguana (and their managers) have begun arguing for replacing the status quo with “user-centric” royalties that more directly correlate fan listening to artist payments.  I have a version of this idea I call the “Ethical Pool.”  

How Did We Get Here?

How in the world did we get to the status quo?  The revenue share concept started in the earliest days of commercial music platforms.  These services didn’t want to pay the customary “penny rate” (as is typical for compilation records, for example), because a fixed penny rate might result in the service owing more than they made–particularly if they wanted to give the music away for free to compete with massive advertising supported pirate sites.

Paying more than you make doesn’t fit very well with a pitch for a Web 2.0, advertising driven model:  All you can eat of all the world’s music for free or very little, or “Own Nothing, Have Everything,” for example.  It also works poorly if you think that artists should be grateful to make any money at all rather than be pirated.

Revenue share deals for big stakeholders have some bells and whistles that leverage can get you, like per-subscriber minimums, conversion goals, top up fees, limits on free trials, cutbacks on “off the top” revenue reductions, and the percentage of revenue in the pool (50%—60%-ish).  Even so,  the basic royalty calculation in a revenue share model is essentially this equation calculated on a monthly basis:

(Net Revenue * [Your Streams/All Streams])

Or ([Net Revenue/All Streams] * Your Streams)

In other words all the money is shared by all the artists.

Sounds fair, right?

Wrong.  First, all artists may be equal, but on streaming services, some are more equal than others.  Regardless of the downside protection like per-subscriber or per-stream minima, the revenue share model has an inherent bias for the most popular getting the most money out of the “Big Pool.”  (This is true without taking into account the unmatched.)

And of course it must be said that the more of those artists are signed to any one label, the bigger that label’s take is of the Big Pool.  So the bigger the label, the more they like streaming.

Conversely, the smaller the label the lower the take.  This is destructive for small labels or independent artists.  That’s why you see some artists complaining bitterly about a royalty rate that doesn’t have a positive integer until you get three or four decimal places to the right.  Why drive fans away from higher margin CDs, vinyl or permanent downloads to a revenue share disaster on streaming?  

Yet it increasingly seems that we are all stuck with the nonsensical streaming revenue share model.

Do Fans Think It’s Wrong?

There’s nothing particularly nefarious about this—them’s the rules and rev share deals have been in place for many years, mostly because the idea got started when the main business of the recorded music business was selling high margin goods like CDs or even downloads.  Low margin streaming didn’t matter much until the last couple years.

It was only a question of time until that high margin business died due to the industry’s willingness to accept fluctuating micropennies as compensation for the low-to-no margin streaming business.  (I say “no margin business” because the costs of accounting for streaming royalties may well exceed the margin—or even the payable royalty—on a per-stream basis when all transaction costs are considered as Professor Coase might observe.) 

So understand—the revenue share model is essentially a market share distribution.  Which is fine, except that in many cases, and I would argue a growing number of cases, when the fans find about about it, the fans don’t like it.  They pay their monthly subscription fee and they think their money goes to the artists they actually listen to during the month.  Which is not untrue, but it is not paid in the ratio that the fan might believe.  Fans could easily get confused about this and the Spotifys of this world are not rushing to correct that confusion.  

Here’s the other fact about that rev share equation: over time, the quotient is almost certain to produce an ever-declining per-stream royalty.  Why? 

Simple.  

If the month-over-month rate of change in revenue (the numerator) is less than the month-over-month rate of change in the total number of streams or sound recordings streamed on the service (the denominator), the per-stream rate will decline over those months.  This is because there will be more recordings in later months sharing a pot of money that hasn’t increased as rapidly as the number of streams.

As the number of recordings released will always increase over time for a service that licenses the total output of all major and indie labels (and independent artists), it is likely that the total number of recordings streamed will increase at a rate that exceeds the rate of change of the net revenue to be allocated.  If there are more recordings, it is also likely that there will be more streams.

So streaming royalties in the Big Pool model will likely (and some might say necessarily will) decline over time.  That’s demonstrated by declining royalties documented in The Trichordist’s “Streaming Price Bible” among other evidence.

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Thus the fan’s dissatisfaction with the use of their money is already rising and is likely to continue to rise further over time.

User-Centric Royalties and the Ethical Pool

How to fix this?  One idea would be to give fans what they want.  A first step would be to let fans tell the platform that they want their subscription fee to go to the artists that the fan listens to and no one else.  This is sometimes called “user-centric” royalties, but I call this the “Ethical Pool”. 

When the fan signs up for a service, let the fan check a box that says “Ethical Pool.”  That would inform the service that the fan wants their subscription fee to go solely to the artists they listen to.  This is a key point—allowing the fan to make the choice addresses how to comply with contracts that require “Big Pool” accountings or count Ethical Pool plays for allocation of the Big Pool.   Remember–the Ethical Pool exists along side the Big Pool, not to the exclusion of the Big Pool.  If the fan did not opt in to the Ethical Pool, the default would be the Big Pool.  Don’t miss this point, lots of people do.

Artists also would be able to opt into this method by checking a corresponding box indicating that they only want their recordings made available to fans electing the Ethical Pool.  The artist gets to make that decision.   Of course, the artist would then have to give up any claim to a share of the “Big Pool.”

Existing subscribers could be informed in track metadata that an artist they wanted to listen to had elected the Ethical Pool.  A fan who is already a subscriber could have to switch to the Ethical Pool method in order to listen to the track.  That election could be postponed for a few free listens which is much less of an issue for artists who are making less than a half cent per stream.

The basic revenue share calculation still gets made in the background, but the only streams that are included in the calculation are those that the fan actually listened to.  If the fan doesn’t check the box, then their subscription payment goes into the market share distribution as is the current practice, but their musical selection is limited to “Other than Ethical Pool” artists.

That’s really all there is to it.  The Ethical Pool lives side by side with the current Big Pool market share model.  If an Ethical Pool artist is signed, the label’s royalty payments would be made in the normal course.  The main difference is that when a subscriber checks the box for the Ethical Pool, that subscriber’s monthly fee would not go into the market share calculation and would only be paid to the artists who had also checked the box on their end.

One other thing—the subscription service could also offer a “pay what you feel” element that would allow a fan to pay more than the service subscription price as, for example, an in-app purchase, or—clasping pearls—allow artists to put a Patreon-type link to their tracks that would allow fans to communicate directly with the artist since the artist drove the fan to the service in the first place.  I’ve suggested this idea to senior executives at Apple and Spotify but got no interest in trying.

The Ethical Pool is real truth in advertising to fans and at least a hope of artists reaping the benefit of the fans they drive to a service.  There are potentially some significant legal hurdles in separating the royalty payouts, but there are ways around them.

I think the Ethical Pool is an idea worth trying.

UPDATE:  I want to emphasize a couple points that seem to keep coming up in discussions about Ethical Pool.

Ethical Pool exists as an option to the Big Pool. If a fan doesn’t select the Ethical Pool, the default is the Big Pool. The Ethical Pool is a different pot of money that the Big Pool and is divided among fewer artists.  Both exist at the same time.

If artists who are not rewarded by the Big Pool can offer their music at a higher margin somewhere other than the big platforms, they may just skip the Ethical Pool altogether and simply drive fans to the higher margin sites in more of a direct to fan relationship.

The two essential points of the Ethical Pool are (1) the Big Pool is a hyperefficient concentration of revenue to a small number of artists that trends toward a market share allocation and will always fail to reward niche and developing artists, and (2) that if the artist wants to be on the big platform, they may have a better shot at getting a higher royalty with the Ethical Pool than the Big Pool.

Is Tencent a Cautionary Tale for Spotify?

If you’ve ever asked yourself why Spotify has such a large market cap, I’d suggest there are a couple reasons.  (One we can eliminate right away is that the company is actually worth today’s $34,880,000,000 valuation.)

We can discount as a correctable market distortion the fact that Spotify manipulated the SEC into allowing the company to take its private market sale price as an indicator of what its public shares should trade at (discounting that most of the private stock was likely sold by insiders on the private market who had an interest in propping up the valuation).  We can also discount that the “direct public offering” resulted in shares being sold by insiders on the public market who had an interest in propping up the stock price and the implied valuation.

One cannot underestimate the role that Chinese darling Tencent played in the dance that was Spotify’s stock market valuation and resulted in Spotify and Tencent holding 10% of each other, Dot Bomb Style.

The only problem is that while the Peoples Republic of China can command a lot of stuff in their economy (if you can call it that), one thing Xi Jinping (who is General Secretary for Life of the Communist Party of China,  President for Life of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman for Life of the Central Military Commission) cannot control is the stock market.  And the stock market is sending a signal about Tencent that Spotify would do well to pay attention to given the chunk of Spotify owned by Tencent.  (Check quickly to see if any recordings of the Tibetan Freedom Concert are available on Spotify.)

Tencent is down 17% on the year and dropped a bunch yesterday from its first profit cut   in 13 years because “it did not know when it would get Chinese approval to make money from its most popular game” according to Reuters.

That’s a good reminder of the facts on the ground for Chinese companies–if President for Life Xi Xinping doesn’t want you to make money, it can ruin your whole day.  Read the Tencent earnings call transcript.  And a squeeze on Tencent can also create some international or regional index fund torque that affects other big Chinese companies.

But the tale of the tape tells us that the problems started for Tencent quite some time ago–in January Tencent had a $575 billion market cap compared to $403 billion today, a lopping of some $170 billion–that’s billion with a “B”–off of its market cap.  Which is indicative of the problems with the Chinese economy as a whole–not to mention that there’s a lot of domestic retail investing on margin in China and short selling.

And when the margin calls come in, that stuff is nasty no matter what geographical economy you live in (see The Big Short.)

Tencent 8-16-18

So at the moment, it looks as if Tencent’s shares of Spotify are doing better for Tencent than Spotify’s shares of Tencent are doing for Spotify.

The Music Modernization Act’s New Burdens for Labels Identifying Unmatched Songs

The Music Modernization Act is definitely the gift that keeps on giving.  It seems like every time I read it, a new toad jumps out from under a rock.

The latest one I found is a new burden the MMA places on all sound recording owners, large and small, to help the digital services comply with their obligation to locate song copyright owners in order for the services to keep the new “reachback” safe harbor also referred to as the “Limitation on Liability”.  This is the retroactive safe harbor given effect on January 1, 2018 regardless of when the bill actually is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

Here’s the relevant clause (at pages 100-101 of the House bill):

REQUIREMENTS FOR LIMITATION ON LIABILITY.—The following requirements shall apply on the enactment date and through the end of the period that expires 90 days after the license availability date to digital music providers seeking to avail themselves of the [reachback safe harbor]:

‘(i) No later than 30 calendar days after first making a particular sound recording of a musical work available through its service via one or more covered activities, or 30 calendar days after the enactment date, whichever occurs later, a digital music provider shall engage in good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to identify and locate each copyright owner of such musical work (or share thereof). Such required matching efforts shall include the following:

(I) Good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to obtain from the owner of the corresponding sound recording made available through the digital music provider’s service the following information:

(aa) Sound recording name, featured artist, sound recording copyright owner, producer, international standard recording code, and other information commonly used in the industry to identify sound recordings and match them to the musical works they embody.

(bb) Any available musical work ownership information, including each songwriter and publisher name, percentage ownership share, and international standard musical work code.

And yes, that is a double “good-faith, commercially reasonable” predicate–a drafting bugaboo of mine.  I guess it means really, really, really good faith and absolutely positively commercially reasonable since they said it twice.

So what this means is that labels are required to provide to digital services a lot of song ownership information that they may or may not have.  For example, if the label licenses in a sound recording and puts the publishing payments on the licensor (very common practice) the information might be “available” but it is just not available to them.

Note that despite the fact that “good faith” and “commercially reasonable” are repeated twice for emphasis, those concepts modify the efforts of the digital service and not the efforts of the label to respond.  (Not surprising, if you believe as I do that the MMA was largely written by the lobbyists for the services and not the publishers or songwriters.)

At a minimum, the clause should be revised to extend the “good faith” and “commercially reasonable” modifiers to the label’s efforts to provide song information.  Having said it twice, why not three times?

There’s also no procedure for how this request is to be made or responded to, nor is there reimbursement of the costs incurred by the label in complying.  There’s also no limitation on liability for the label if it provides the service what turns out to be incorrect information.

Of course, what should really happen is that the entire paragraph (bb) should simply be struck.  It has long been the practice of record companies to refuse to provide publisher information to digital services and it has long been the practice of digital services to not ask for it.

In all likelihood, the services will engage a third party to do their song research, which is covered in the very next clause:

(II) Employment of one or more bulk electronic matching processes that are available to the digital music provider through a third-party vendor on commercially reasonable terms, but a digital music provider may rely on its own bulk electronic matching process if it has capabilities comparable to or better than those available from a third-party vendor on commercially reasonable terms.

Taking a long look at the clause, it seems reasonable to simply strike the entire clause (I) and keep the labels out of it as has long been the practice, and require the services to either use their own systems or hire a vendor.  And that’s where there should be some criteria for what constitutes a proper vendor.  If there’s going to be any work done by the labels, then–as advertised–the digital services should pay the label’s cost of compliance as part of the assessment and the label should have no liability if they happen to not have the song information “available”–in a commercially reasonable manner.

We all want the MMA to work, but we also all want to avoid unfunded mandates imposed by the federal government that create unintended consequences.

@hypebot: @SoundExchange Launches Music Data Exchange To Connect Label, Publisher Metadata

SoundExchange’s new Music Data Exchange (MDX) is a promising idea that gets at a big part of the real problem with mass infringement of songs by digital services.  It also gives some hope of actually reducing the “pending and unmatched” (or “black box” in the vernacular) at the source–before the songs are infringed.

Regardless of what the Music Modernization Act’s proposed blanket license and new retroactive safe harbor for infringing services may do, if the song ownership data isn’t available pre-release, it is unlikely that the proposed Music Licensing Collective will result in more efficient payments to songwriters subject to the blanket license.

When I worked at A&M Records, I established a policy of enforcing requirements in producer and artist agreements that writer and publisher information (including splits) be delivered to A&R Administration along with every new recording as part of the larger label copy process.  A&R Administration then was able to send the full publisher and song metadata for the recording to the Copyright Department so that there was no need (or much less need) for them to chase down the information on new releases.  That’s not only extremely inefficient, it also makes their job exceptionally frustrating and Kafka-esque.

This required putting some sensitive English on the ball, so to speak, about enforcing our contracts with the most important people on the label–the artists and producers.  But it was a simple pitch–let’s get this right so that songwriters get paid properly.  That resonated.

This policy resulted in A&M having the lowest pending and unmatched in the industry–to the point that on audit some people thought we were hiding something.

On balance, the downside of denying the black box slush fund just didn’t compare to the upside of making sure our songwriters got paid (many of whom also were our artists).  While I’m glad that the plan worked for A&M at the time, what’s really needed in an era of massive infringement by digital services is an industry-wide solution that takes away that excuse.

Nobody likes litigation, but it has become a last resort when faced with people who just don’t seem to care and would rather buy themselves a new safe harbor than do the right thing.  MDX may offer that opportunity and solution.

Hypebot recently published an interview with SoundExchange’s Jonathan Bender that gives a clear explanation of the goals and functionality of the service.  I think it’s a solution that everyone should support.

And use.

…[I]t occurred to us that we were addressing a problem after it happened. We said, “Isn’t there a way to address the problem before it happens? Before you get to the point where you have settlements and lawsuits and unhappy writers and publishers?”

That was the core idea of Music Data Exchange – to create a centralized, rational process for labels to request publishing data and for the publishers to respond to those requests on a central site…

In one of my first meetings with one label’s copyright department I asked, “How do you get the publishing data?” They said they generate a report of all their new releases each week, typically hundreds of recordings, hand it to their copyright people, and then they commence to email publishers they know asking “is this your song?”

That’s just one label. Add hundreds of labels and hundreds of publishers to that, and thousands of recordings a week. It’s no surprise that it’s a mess.

Read the post on Hypebot.

 

How to Fix The Music Modernization Act’s Flawed “Audit” Clause

Доверяй, но проверяй

The famous old Russian proverb reminds us to trust but verify.  That’s been the story in the record business since the cylindrical disc.   All the “modernization” in the world will not soothe songwriter’s genetic suspicion of their accounting statements.

The collective to be established by the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) undertakes the obligation to handle other people’s money.  It quickly follows that those whose money the collective handles need to be able to verify their royalty payments from time to time.  This has been an absolutely standard part of every royalty-based agreement in the music business for a good 50 years if not longer.

But like every aspect of the MMA, one has to always remember that while all songwriters may be equal, some songwriters are more equal than others.  The MMA creates a two tier system–those who opt out of the compulsory blanket license by the mutual agreement of a rights owner and a digital service in the form of a voluntary agreement and those who do not.  Those who do not have this opt-out right appear to receive payment directly from the collective instead of directly from the service–adding another set of hands and transaction costs.  (It must be said that this group receiving payment under the compulsory blanket license will presumably also include those who currently have a voluntary license with digital services that is not renewed in future.)

The collective undertakes the responsibility of accounting should anticipate concerns of songwriters regarding verifying the accuracy of the statements and payments it renders.  However, the MMA provides no supervisory oversight and in my view has a rather punitive black box clause that allows “unmatched” royalties to be paid on a market share basis to publishers, and then on to their lucky songwriters pro rata.  This suggests that everyone who is in that lucky songwriter’s chain, like managers, business managers and lawyers working on a percentage basis may also get a share of these black box distributions in compensation.

So on the face of it, the MMA creates a relatively large category of people who have an economic interest in the black box.  You can be cynical and think that they have an interest in the black box being as large as possible (meaning the accounting controls are as weak as possible), or you can agree with five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider that if the “lucky” songwriters actually knew that they were being paid with money that belonged to the “unlucky” songwriters, they would be angry about that unfairness.  Emphasis on the “actually knew”.

Or you could say, let’s not go either direction–let’s set up transparency and controls so that the incentives are properly aligned to create the smallest black box possible.  No publisher needs the writer-relations headache of suspicious minds, and the collective should do what it can to be above reproach.  Here are a couple solutions to increase the trust level:  Add oversight of the collective by the Office of the Inspector General (as a quasi-governmental organand at least  designated by the Copyright Office and operating under the control of the Copyright Office, and also tighten up the audit clauses in the MMA to treat songwriters auditing the collective the same as the collective is treated by the digital services.

The Inspector General

One way to make sure that the collective–a quasi governmental organization in my view–is run honestly is to make it subject to oversight review by one of the U.S. Government’s many Inspectors General.  Rick Carnes of the Songwriters Guild of America suggested this to Rep. Doug Collins at the University of Georgia Artist Rights Symposium in a question from the floor.

For example, the Library of Congress (currently where the Copyright Office is housed) has an Inspector General.  Since the Copyright Office has a lot to do with the creation and periodic review of the collective, they could save themselves a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests from angry songwriters by having an Inspector General  review the collective annually (or better yet, in real time).

My understanding is that giving an IG jurisdiction over the collective will require some enabling legislation, but I think it’s something well worth looking into.  It would give the songwriters of the world a true-blue fiduciary to represent their interests as well as comfort that they had a line of appeal with some teeth short of expensive litigation.

Audits

The Inspector General is not in the current draft of the MMA, but audits are–both audits of the collective by songwriters and audits by the collective of digital music services.  We’ll focus on audits of the collective in this post.  It should be said that under the current compulsory license now in effect (i.e., pre-MMA), songwriters get no audit right, so the fact that there is an audit right at all is an incremental improvement.

Unfortunately, the MMA’s audit right still keeps songwriters away from auditing the right party–the digital services–and keeps that upstream data away from them.  Plus, all audits under MMA appear to be subject to confidential treatment.  I don’t think there’s a good reason to keep these secret.  If a smart auditor finds a flaw in the collective’s accounting systems, that flaw should be disclosed and there should be an automatic true up of everyone affected.

But first, let’s realize what an “audit” actually is.  It is a term of art in the music business and really means a “royalty compliance examination” which is solely focused on making sure that statements and payments rendered conform to the contract concerned, or in this case, the statutory requirements of the compulsory blanket license.

(It also must be said that as Maria notes, the MMA specifically exempts the collective from any responsibility for incompetent royalty accounting other than “gross negligence”, which usually means blatant indifference to a legal duty or something along those lines–assuming the collective’s board or employees actually have a legal duty to account correctly which it may not.)

The person conducting a royalty audit is typically not a certified public accountant as there is nothing about conducting this examination that requires a knowledge of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”), financial accounting, or Sarbannes Oxley compliance.  It is, in fact, quite rare for a royalty audit to be conducted by a CPA, and I’ve even had lawyers conduct an audit because the analysis involved is mostly that of contractual, or statutory, interpretation.  Analysis of music industry-specific contracts is typically not part of the training of CPAs.  So even if an auditor is a CPA, the skills needed to conduct the audit are typically learned through on the job training.

What is very common, however, is for someone on the receiving end of the audit to try to require the auditor be a CPA, arguably to increase the cost of the audit on the person owed money.  CPAs often bill at higher rates than do royalty auditors, which creates a disincentive for audits.  What is also common is for lawyers to think that every time they draft a clause about anyone conducting anything having to do with accounting, that they need to limit the person doing that examination to a CPA, because…well, because…  This is what I call stupid lawyer tricks, and the CPA requirement is something that is routinely negotiated away in record deals and publishing deals if you have an ounce of leverage.

Here’s the preamble of the MMA’s audit clause for audits of the collective:’

A copyright owner entitled to receive payments of royalties for covered activities from the mechanical licensing collective may, individually or with other copyright owners, conduct an audit of the mechanical licensing collective to verify the accuracy of royalty payments and distributions by the mechanical licensing collective to such copyright owner

Remember–copyright owners under the compulsory are not allowed to audit the service, although the collective may audit the service.  (And, of course, voluntary agreements are governed by their terms regarding audits and are not subject to the compulsory.)

Limiting the audit right to “copyright owners entitled to receive payments” means that if songwriters have an administration or co-publishing agreement, they will probably not be able to conduct an audit of the collective (even if their administrator or co-publisher is a board member of the collective).  Because the audit is limited to “verifying the accuracy” of prior payments, the audit of the collective will not be able to look “upstream” to the service making the payment and may not be able to look at payments made to the collective, just the payments by the collective.

The audit shall be conducted by a qualified auditor, who shall perform the audit during the ordinary course of business by examining the books, records and systems of the mechanical licensing collective, as well as underlying data, according to generally accepted auditing standards and subject to applicable confidentiality requirements prescribed by the Register of Copyrights…

Sounds good, right?  A “qualified auditor” is a defined term, however:

QUALIFIED AUDITOR.—The term ‘qualified auditor’ means an independent, certified public accountant with experience performing music royalty audits.

Again, I don’t think that the auditor needs to be both a CPA and have experience.  Experience is enough.  For example, if the auditor has performed audits for members of the collective’s board of directors, perhaps that would be enough.

The qualified auditor shall determine the accuracy of royalty payments, including whether an underpayment or overpayment of royalties was made by the mechanical licensing collective to the auditing copyright owner(s); provided, however, that before providing a final audit report to such copyright owner(s), the qualified auditor shall provide a tentative draft of the report to the mechanical licensing collective and allow the mechanical licensing collective a reasonable opportunity to respond to the findings, including by clarifying issues and correcting factual errors.

This clause is a problem.  First, the auditor is hired–and has a professional duty–to find underpayments of royalties.  That’s what they look for.  The auditor does not have a duty to do the collective’s work for it and find overpayments.  The auditor is not hired to find overpayments, they are hired to find underpayments.

The collective should hire its own accountants to review its royalty statements, and it surely will do so if it gets an audit notice.  Otherwise the US Government is placing a heavy burden on the auditor and the copyright owners to look for overpayments as though the auditor played the role of a public financial accounting firm looking for accuracy on behalf of stockholders.

Plus, the requirement to force that auditor to give the collective the audit report before giving it to the people who hired that auditor is a bit much.  Fair enough to meet and confer at the work paper stage to make sure there weren’t inaccuracies in the analysis, but that should not place any prohibition on whether the auditor’s own client can see the report first.

If this is really the role that the Government wants the auditor to play, then by all means let’s make any miscalculations by the collective available to the public and publish them in the Federal Register.  Let’s not have the auditor’s findings subject to any confidential treatment.  If that brings down a host of other audits or a need to restate millions of royalty payments, then so be it.  Because we are not just looking for underpayments we are searching for the truth, right?

I don’t think so.  And the next part of the audit clause shows why:

The auditing copyright owner(s) shall bear the cost of the audit. In case of an underpayment to the copyright owner(s), the mechanical licensing collective shall pay the amounts of any such underpayment to the auditing copyright owner(s), as appropriate. In case of an overpayment by the mechanical licensing collective, the mechanical licensing collective may debit the accounts of the auditing copyright owner(s) for such overpaid amounts, or such owner(s) shall refund overpaid amounts to the mechanical licensing collective, as appropriate.

Like so many other parts of the MMA, this is essentially an “ad terrorem” clause, or a right coupled with a penalty if it is exercised.  What I think this means is that regardless of how much the underpayment might be–including both a material and nonmaterial amount–the songwriter bears 100% of the cost of the audit.  The songwriter’s auditor has to look for overpayments (and bill their client for that extra review), and if the auditor finds any, the auditor has to report the overpayment.  The songwriter then not only has to repay that amount (whatever “as appropriate” means), but also pay for the expense of finding it.

Compare this to the rights of the collective when auditing a digital music service:

The mechanical licensing collective shall pay the cost of the audit, unless the qualified auditor determines that there was an underpayment by the digital music provider of 10 percent or more, in which case the digital music provider shall bear the reasonable costs of the audit, in addition to paying the amount of any underpayment to the mechanical licensing collective. In case of an overpayment by the digital music provider, the mechanical licensing collective shall provide a credit to the digital music provider.

So what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.  When the collective is auditing upstream, the collective gets the benefit of that standard underpayment penalty.  That means that the service has to pay for the cost of the audit if the underpayment exceeds a fixed percentage, in this case 10%.  If there is an overpayment, the collective never has to repay the overpayment, just credit the account with an offsetting amount.

There should be no obligation on the part of the songwriter to have to find overpayments and if an overpayment is found in the normal course, it should simply be credited (which is the effect of the collective’s audit clause on songwriters downstream).

Songwriters should get the same underpayment protection on audit costs that the collective enjoys.

Appointing an Inspector General and cleaning up the audit clause would certainly make the MMA more fair for songwriters than it currently is.

 

EU Songwriters Say Show Me the Plan on Music Modernization Act

The European Composer & Songwriter Alliance has raised an interesting question to Congressman Doug Collins in a recent letter regarding the Music Modernization Act:

A few other questions that are of concern to songwriters: Where is the business plan for the collective? A century of practice is to be changed without even a business plan that the governed have a chance to review?

This is, of course, an excellent point.  The controversial Music Modernization Act creates a new mechanical royalty collective in the U.S. that follows the curious approach of essentially codifying a chunk of what would normally be found in a combination of organizational formation documents, by-laws or a voting agreement.   The bill mandates a fixed number of governing boards and even designates the category of person who can fill board seats, both voting and nonvoting.  (And any change in those boards would literally require an Act of Congress.)

There is considerable detail in the bill about the new collective with two major exceptions:  No one is tasked with creating a business plan for the collective’s operation as the ECSA officers note in their letter to Rep. Collins.  Neither is there any hint at what the initial operating budget would be or what it would cover.

Good news–this is an easy fix.  I would worry that given that it’s government work, a business plan for the collective will come from one of the big consulting firms at a high cost–guaranteeing that no one who is both unconflicted and who has actually done work in the area will come within a county mile of the project.  I am not the right person to ask about the big consulting firms as I’ve found their work product to be consistently worthless over the years.  That brings the joy of consistency, but the disappointment of overpaying for useless work.

The budget should also be established for the first few years, if for no other reason than the digital services are supposed to pay for the collective under the MMA.  If the cost is $100,000,000, you don’t want to find out that the services will only pay $500,000 once the bill is passed and it’s too late.  If there is a meeting of the minds on the operating costs, it’s being kept pretty quiet inside the smoke filled rooms.  If there isn’t a meeting of the minds, DiMA could shut down the collective as fast as a stop payment.

But still, it’s better to have a plan than to have no plan at all which seems to be the current state of affairs–abandoning a “century of practice” as our European friends remind us.

The Core Flaw of Blockchain

The truth about blockchain is that at its core, it requires its regime to be enforced on rights owners in order to scale–and that is its essential flaw.

Call me a blockchain skeptic.  I agree with many of the conclusions reached by Alan Graham in his MusicTechPolicy interview, but I also think that at its core, blockchain as currently contemplated fails as an industry-wide rights registry.  Since I understand that its essential purpose is to be a reliable rights registry, it seems obvious to me that blockchain has limited application at best.

I spent a good deal of time helping some very smart people build an independent rights registry around 2005 and have thought about these issues for a long time.  (All the major labels and many indies participated in that registry.)

Based on that experience, I believe that the core value proposition of a rights registry is that it be easy to use; that the information in it be objectively verified and only changed with a proper showing of authority; that it be capable of making or directing the making of royalty payments (which means holding necessary tax information); and that it can be easily and timely updated with information for new releases.  I believe all these elements are essential and that blockchain accomplishes none of them well and some of them not at all.

A quote from Benji Rogers in MusicAlly lays out the core problem very effectively.  (Benji Rogers is a promoter of the blockchain technology and his own company Dot Blockchain–I think I have all the capitalizations in the right place, but forgive me if it’s actually dOt bLK.ch..n or something like that.)  Here’s his quotation (which I doubt that he viewed as a criticism of his product):

“Blockchains force action… If I were to make a statement about a work that I own in a blockchain, and I were to send it to you…you have three choices: yes it’s correct and I agree, no it’s not correct, or ignore it, which means it’s correct.”

What blockchain may bring to the table is something you cannot ignore, because ignoring it is the same as accepting what’s there in the table is truth… A blockchain-based system at scale could force people to work with it, in a way that exposes them to decentralisation and transparency, arguably whether they like it or not.” (emphasis in original)

In other words, organizing the world’s information whether the world likes it or not.  Sound familiar?

It is one thing if blockchain is a voluntary regime that artists and users can decide to participate in–and submit themselves to forced “decentralization and transparency” as Mr. Rogers articulates so well.  But it is entirely another thing altogether if blockchain is enforced by law.

I would not rule out that it is ultimately the goal of the blockchain investors to force songwriters and artists to submit to the blockchain as a matter of law.  This is certainly a familiar refrain if you have followed the various meltdowns over the desire of online retailers and search companies to force songwriters and artists to submit to their exploitation.  We have heard these ideas frequently over the years whether it is even safer harbors, orphan works or massive numbers of unauditable address unknown NOIs under the US compulsory mechanical license.

If you doubt that could happen, realize that two unmovable government agencies are currently allowing millions of songs to be exploited with unverified and dubious authority–the U.S. Copyright Office with mass NOIs and the Department of Justice with 100% licensing.  What’s to stop them taking the next step?

One person’s forced “decentralization and transparency” is another’s eminent domain.  So when you hear about blockchain, imagine if the blockchain bubble had the awesome power of the sovereign forcing someone else’s interpretation of truth on creators.

Especially when the time it takes to correct someone else’s interpretation of the truth as Mr. Rogers suggests their job would become will be even more uncompensated time for another free ride that will probably end the same way that DMCA notices do for the vast majority of independent artists.

They just give up because resistance really is futile.

Blackstone Acquires SESAC: Is it all about one-stop shopping or is it the data?

“[P]rivate equity funds affiliated with Blackstone” yesterday announced the purchase of SESAC from another private equity group, Rizvi Traverse Management.

We hold our breath to see what the monopolists in the MIC Coalition will do about the sale.  In light of the new administration, it will be an interesting test of both to see if the monopolists in the MIC Coalition run to the nanny state again to try to stop the sale on some grotesquely hypocritical antitrust theory and equally interesting to see if the new administration entertains that idea.  It is almost a certainty that there will be a new head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department, so we’ll see.

But assuming that the sale goes through, it’s worth noting the story that Blackstone is telling in its press release.  We probably think of SESAC as being all about songwriters and publishers.  Songwriters did not get mentioned until the last couple sentences of the third paragraph of Blackstone’s press release.

It seems pretty clear from the press release that what Blackstone is valuing is the licensing infrastructure and data in SESAC followed closely by SESAC’s ability to do one-stop shopping on music licenses after its acquisition of HFA.  (The MIC Coalition has already complained to the DOJ about that.)  Remember–one-stop shopping was one of the improvements in the job killing ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that songwriters were interested in seeing implemented to empower ASCAP and BMI.

It is also worth noting that part of this value is that SESAC is not under the job-crushing regulations from the Department of Justice that have set wage and price controls on songwriters for 75 years.  That means that SESAC can actually engage in free market negotiations–real ones, not the ASCAP and BMI rate court version where judges in a faraway Eastern city pretend to set free market rates in a performance rights market that has effectively never been entirely free.  No wonder MIC Coalition likes other people’s consent decrees.

So while we know that it’s really all about the songwriters and relationships, investors seem at least as interested if not more interested in organizations that can offer licenses that contribute to solutions for the complexities of music licensing–preferably outside of the government mandated compulsory or near compulsory legacy licensing structure that seems to lumber on.

This is good news both for SESAC and for its competitors, and in the end we hope it’s also good for songwriters, too.  DOJ please take note.

 

Original Sin and Obama’s Missed Opportunity: What’s Next for the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees?

Original sin–In Christian theology, the condition of sin that marks all humans as a result of Adam’s first act of disobedience to God.

It’s kind of an Old Testament thing.  The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees punish songwriters for a kind of original sin that most of them don’t know about and that happened some time before 1941–before most of them were born.  And yet all of them are held guilty in advance.

Sound familiar?

The Obama Justice Department just had a spectacular loss on its misguided and probably unconstitutional 100% licensing position in front of Judge Louis Stanton, the BMI rate court judge who has primary responsibility for interpreting the BMI consent decrees.  BMI asked for declaratory relief from Judge Stanton which was granted in a decisive opinion rejecting the government’s position.  So now what?

Not only did the Obama Justice Department go down the wrong rabbit hole with the consent decrees, they also managed to get themselves sued–by songwriters.  How in the world could that have happened?  Not just one, but two separate and distinct lawsuits.

The songwriters lawsuit is against the Justice Department, the Attorney General of the United States and the head of the Antitrust Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Renata B. Hesse.  (It appears that Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse is the prime mover in pushing the DOJ’s position on 100% licensing through the Justice Department, although it is hard to imagine that the Attorney General did not personally approve the position given the magnitude of the change in position.)

The songwriters’ lawsuit is not brought under the consent decrees.  The complaint alleges that the DOJ attorneys, starting with Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse, engaged in unconstitutional behavior by denying songwriters their due process rights as well as taking the economic value of private property without compensation (see Professor Richard Epstein).

The lawsuit also alleges that the process that Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse engaged in–secret phone calls, no public comment on proposed amendments to the consent decree, deceptive practices designed to encourage songwriters to leave their PROs–violated laws governing the behavior of federal administrative agencies.  The implication is that the DOJ intentionally engaged in deceptive practices lead by Hesse but also the recently departed Litigation III Section Chief David C. Kully.  (Mr. Kully was probably “just following orders”, but we all know where that can lead.)

What are the possible steps forward from here?

No Change for Music Users

Some of the less knowledgeable reporting on fractional licensing suggests that somehow music users are burdened by the decision.  Not true–most music users already have licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and increasingly from Global Music Rights.  SESAC and GMR are not subject to consent decrees because more PROs means more competition which means good things happen, right?  That was, after all, reason for the consent decrees in the first place–to encourage more competition, not less, in the public interest.

The choices afforded songwriters among competing licensing associations are no more burdensome for music users than having to deal with any other vendors in their business.  On the contrary, if the Justice Department had been successful in their stated goals of encouraging songwriters to leave ASCAP and BMI, the Justice Department would have mandated mind numbing complexity in the market place.

The Missed Opportunity

The real policy failure is that the Department of Justice failed to adopt any of the hundreds of policy proposals made by the public to amend the consent decrees–the longest running consent decrees in the history of the United States–after years of review, negotiation and discussion.

Not one.

Instead, the DOJ fixed on 100% licensing, which is something that nobody had asked for publicly as the Copyright Office noted (at p. 2, text accompanying note 8):

Despite the wide-ranging nature of the study and invitation to raise additional issues, none of the participants identified fractional licensing of musical works by the PROs as a practice that needed to be changed.

The Justice Department missed an historic opportunity to do something good for everyone.

This is tragic.

Possible Futures

DOJ Changes Position on 100% Licensing

The easiest thing would be for Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse to issue a statement acknowledging she got it wrong on 100% licensing and that the DOJ is abandoning the position.  I doubt this will happen.

DOJ Appeals Judge Stanton’s Ruling 

Given the general bull-headedness that produced the flawed 100% licensing statement in the first place, I think it is more likely than not that the DOJ appeals Judge Stanton’s ruling.  If you were able to suspend reality to the point that you would come up with the idea in the first place, then you are probably possessed of the kind of denial that would make you believe you will prevail on appeal.

As Judge Stanton is a U.S. District Judge sitting in the Southern District of New York, the appeal in this case would go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  It seems unlikely that the Second Circuit is going to rule against the subject matter expertise of the BMI Rate Court judge–expertise is the point of having rate court judges in the first place.  This is particularly true in a case requiring an interpretation of the consent decree.

Nevertheless, I will not be surprised to see an appeal, particularly one filed before the ASCAP rate court judge (Judge Cote) follows Judge Stanton’s which is likely.  An appeal of the BMI case would allow the DOJ to drag out the uncertainty which seems to be the plan for reasons no one outside the Justice Department can understand.

ASCAP Asks for Declaratory Relief

Given the many rulings against songwriters handed down by Judge Cote, caution may be the watchword for any request for declaratory relief by ASCAP.  However much I appreciate Judge Stanton’s ruling, it must be said that the conclusion is rather obvious.  Even so, I thought that the ASCAP members’  partial withdrawal from collective licensing of the bundle of rights was so obviously the law that it was axiomatic, and Judge Cote ruled against that rather obvious policy.

It may be better for ASCAP to simply wait it out until the issue arises before Judge Cote in a future proceeding.  Since the MIC Coalition seems to have its hand in the Justice Department’s positioning anyway, it would not surprise if the MIC Coalition went to Judge Cote for their own declaratory relief.

MIC Coalition
MIC Coalition Members

SONA Pursues Its Lawsuit

The most interesting part of the puzzle is the lawsuit brought by Songwriters of North America, Michelle Lewis, Thomas Kelly and Pamela Sheyne.  As a threshold matter, it reinforces the idea that ASCAP and BMI are comprised of songwriters bargaining collectively.  While it may be convenient for the broadcasters, Google and their MIC Coalition to heap condemnation on the PROs, when doing so they are actually shaming the individual songwriters who are members of ASCAP and BMI.  Those songwriters don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong.

The SONA lawsuit confirms this for all to see.  While it takes considerable courage to sue a defendant who comes with badges and guns and prints money to pay their legal bills, the DOJ is now faced with a process that reeks to high heaven, looks at least potentially fraught with corruption and which SONA will now put under a microscope–if they survive summary judgement.

Of course, it should not be lost on anyone that the DOJ’s position will be some version of “We lost, so no harm, no foul” as absurd as that may seem.  I’m not sure that “just kidding” is a good look for them.

Until the ASCAP judge rules on the issue and follows Judge Stanton’s reasoning and the DOJ agrees not to file an appeal, there’s no reason for SONA to change course.  If SONA survives summary judgement on one or both of its claims, then things may get interesting.

Governors Take Action

Texas Governor Greg Abbott was the first state governor to call on the Attorney General to back off of the 100% licensing rule, acting in defense of Texas songwriters.  It would not be surprising to see other governors write their own letters to the AG, particularly now that Judge Stanton has ruled.

Terminating the Consent Decrees

What this episode should teach everyone is that the consent decrees have run their course.  They are now being manipulated by crony capitalists for private commercial advantage.  Hesse’s connections to Google and the MIC Coalition are well known and only further undermine the public’s trust in government’s ability to operate fairly.

Abandoning the consent decrees does not mean that songwriters would get a free pass on antitrust prosecution, it just means that the true free market would operate outside of a little intellectual elite in a far away Eastern city that thinks it can plan the lives of songwriters better than songwriters can themselves.  Music users and the government would still be free to bring antitrust actions if the facts warranted it as has already happened to SESAC (which is not subject to a consent decree).

So for the moment, songwriters are in a holding pattern but with the wind at their backs.

I’m still looking forward to an explanation of why Google, Pandora, Clear Channel and a host of other giant multinational corporations with hundreds if not thousands of lobbyists need the awesome power of the U.S. Government to protect them from…songwriters.

Getting closure on this regrettable episode will be better for songwriters and for music users.  It’s hard enough without the Nanny State intervening.  Collective licensing is one of the few areas of the business that is working pretty well in the digital age.

Songwriters deserve the chance to live their commercial lives without paying for long-forgotten sins committed before most of them were born.