@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.

 

Will DOJ Consent Decree Review Obviate Any Rationale for the Music Modernization Act?

Let’s be clear–one reason why there are problems with mechanical licensing in the US is the loophole created by the government consent decrees that block ASCAP and BMI from issuing a “unilicense” for both performances and streaming mechanicals.  I have argued for years that PROs should be allowed to administer existing statutory mechanical licenses for services that they already license on the performance side of the song.  Personally, I think it is the main reason for creating the situation (such as the mass address unknown NOIs) that gets abused by the services like other loopholes.

I’m not alone in making this argument for “bundling” rights to be administered by PROs: According to the Copyright Office Music Licensing Study (pp. 103-104):

“NSAI, for example, opined that ‘[t]he most efficient path to digital service providers obtaining necessary licenses would be to allow the PRO’s to license and collect mechanical royalties;’” “NMPA suggested that bundled rights could be sought directly from the music publishers that own and administer the song in question.   But the PROs suggested that their existing structures could be leveraged to facilitate bundled licensing on a blanket basis, if only the consent decrees were amended.”

My view is that bundling should occur at the pubisher level and also at the PRO level for all publishers who do not license directly.

Remember–streaming mechanicals track the exact same song, the exact same use, the exact same copyright owners, the exact same transactions and the exact same services as the PROs already license on the performances.  The PROs already have the most comprehensive ownership databases for songs and those databases are immediately accessible.  This is likely to remain true for a long time.

The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees have been in place for decades.  We accept them as a fact of life, something of an immovable object.  For example, the only part of the Music Modernization Act that affects ASCAP and BMI relates to changes that these PROs evidently would like to make to the consent decrees but cannot get the Justice Department to address.  (“Part” may be overstated–it’s about 1-1/2 pages out of the 151 page bill.)

But–what we were told at the outset of the MMA is that legislation to sunset the consent decrees would never pass due to the lobbying power of the digital media companies, the broadcasters, and the general business establishments.  The MIC Coalition, in other words.  And supposedly we can’t beat them, so we need to give up on that idea and take what we’re given and like it.  (Good thing that guy was not at the Alamo, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Thermopylae or the Battle of Britain.  Horatius he ain’t.)  This is, of course, entirely the wrong approach–if that thinking is not the ennui of learned helplessness, what is?  As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

No one considered what would happen if the consent decrees actually went away either entirely or substantially because the DOJ wanted them to.  If that happy event came to pass, I would suggest that there would be little to nothing in the Music Modernization Act of any value or relevance to ASCAP and BMI.  If anything, the collective established by the MMA is or could easily become a direct competitor of all the PROs which is likely why the broadcasters are “positively neutral” on the bill.  I seriously doubt that any of them anticipated the consent decrees might go away.

Makan Delrahim, the new head of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, may have just obviated any reason why the PROs should support the MMA or perhaps whether the MMA is even relevant.

During a speaking engagement on March 27 at Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Delrahim gave us some insights into his plans for the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees in a discussion with Professor Rebecca Allensworth.  As reported in Broadcasting & Cable he said:

“As public agencies we need to take a look and see if those consent decrees are still relevant in the marketplace,” which he was clearly signaling was up for debate. “If they have solved the competitive problem,” he said, “they could become anticompetitive tools over time[.   I]f they were not necessarily the best ideas at the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to stay.”

Mr. Delrahim has put his finger right on the problem.  In my view, the consent decrees have become weaponized–for example, the last head of the Antitrust Division was closely linked to Google and after an ostensible review of the consent decrees, suddenly launched into the absurd “100% licensing” episode to the great–albeit short lived–satisfaction of the MIC Coalition.

Not only is there serious competition in the PRO marketplace unlike it was in 1941 when the ASCAP consent decree started, the 2015 SESAC acquisition of the Harry Fox Agency actually demonstrates that if left alone, the marketplace will close the mechanical license loophole that the MMA purports to solve.   There is no longer a need for the consent decrees, rate courts, none of it.

This isn’t to say that the PROs should get an exemption from the antitrust laws, far from it.  But it does mean that the broadcasters, the MIC Coalition and the Digital Media Association should not be allowed to play with the “anticompetitive tools” of the entire consent decree apparatus.

hesse

So it appears that Mr. Delrahim thinks there’s actually a chance that the consent decrees could go away.  If that happens, the PROs will have a golden opportunity to close the mechanical licensing loophole without all of the apparatus of the MMA.  In that new world, the major publishers would possibly not have to continue to use pretzel logic to administer the rights in their catalogs and the PROs could provide coverage on everything else.

And unlike the MMA, that world would actually be getting the government further out of the lives of songwriters.  It would avoid songwriters being beholden to the DiMA fox that would at least financially control the collective’s chicken coop.

It would also put to rest the ridiculous premise that the biggest corporations in commercial history need the government to protect them from songwriters–corporations that are themselves subject to antitrust enforcement, at least in Europe.  And that may be the other shoe Mr. Delrahim could be dropping.

alice_par_john_tenniel_04

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Let’s Not Miss An Opportunity to Include Startups in the Music Modernization Act

Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised he’d do?
Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by folks like me and you

Kingfish, written by Randy Newman

If you’re one of the small group that has actually read the Music Modernization Act, I think you’d have to come away with the idea that this is legislation by the big boys for the big boys.  Nowhere is this unfortunate flaw more apparent than in the way that digital media companies “modernize” the way they treat themselves.  No wonder Digital Media Association (Amazon, Apple, Google, Pandora, Spotify) and the Internet Association (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pandora, Spotify) love it so much–it’s just the same old story from Standard Oil or United Fruit.  But is MMA really intended for the biggest corporations in commercial history playing footsie or is it for the innovative startups?

It is not surprising that startups were apparently excluded from the legislative process that created MMA and are themselves silent–or silenced–observers.  Given that Google, Amazon, Apple and Spotify are on the other side, startups know which side butters their bread and what will happen if they voice any criticisms.  Like the python in the chandelier, nothing really need be said; startups know what happens if they challenge the big boys, particularly Google and Amazon who probably host their companies, serve their advertising or drive traffic to them.

The MMA permits these massive and aggressive incumbents to ultimately decide how much startups pay for access to the blanket license that we are told will unleash innovation.  Yet–if startups can’t afford to buy in to the license, it won’t do them much good, and their competitors get to decide how much that buy-in will cost any startups.  This all before a startup has to pay royalties to the collective–and in addition to any royalties.

How can this be?  It’s easy when you write the rules.

The Congress delegates the government’s authority under the Music Modernization Act by creating two main bodies around the new government-mandated blanket license:  The “mechanical licensing collective” which is to represent those with songs to be licensed and the “digital licensee coordinator” which is to represent those wishing to license those songs under the new blanket mechanical license.  Startups will answer to the “digital licensee coordinator.”

Both these bodies are supposedly approved by the Register of Copyrights (the head of the U.S. Copyright Office), but the Register has the unenviable position of being constrained to appoint certain types of entities or people by statutory criteria in the MMA.

One of those criteria is very majoritarian, if not downright oligopolistic–and I would suggest that for both the collective and the digital licensee coordinator the math alone limits the Register’s choice to one entity.  Here’s the relevant language for how the Register selects the collective:

“[The Register must choose an entity that] is endorsed by and enjoys substantial support from copyright owners of musical works that together represent the greatest share of the licensor market for uses of such works in covered activities, as measured over the preceding 3 full calendar years;”

And here’s the mirror version of the relevant language for how the Register selects the “digital licensee coordinator” (or “DLC”):

“[The Register must choose an entity that] is endorsed by and enjoys substantial support from digital music providers and significant nonblanket licensees that together represent the greatest share of the licensee market for uses of musical works in covered activities, as measured over the preceding 3 full calendar years”

So one thing seems true for both the collective and the coordinator:  They can only be entities enjoying “substanial support” by at least a plurality if not a majority of their respective markets on either side of the same coin.  I’m not quite sure how that definition presents a choice to the Register–more like it allows the biggest players to dictate the Register’s choice.  (How can there be two pluralities much less two or more?)

I would submit that this structure is a long-term recipe for disaster.

Others have and are writing about the conflict-ridden aspects of the collective, so I will focus here on the digital licensee coordinator which is equally, if not more, conflict-ridden than the collective.

By definition then, startups–who are potential music users most in need of the blanket license without having to pay minimum guarantees–are evidently excluded from any possibility of becoming the digital licensee coordinator.

And don’t forget a main selling point of the MMA:  The music users (i.e., the “licensees”) pay an “administrative assessment” to cover the costs of running the mechanical licensing collective.  (An inherent conflict?)  The MMA authorizes the DLC to “equitably allocate the collective total costs across digital music providers…but shall include as a component a minimum fee for all digital music providers.”

Plus the MMA authorizes the DLC to “[e]ngage in efforts to enforce notice and payment obligations with respect to the administrative assessment….”  AND the DLC also gets to set the “dues” payment for each “member.”

So if a startup wants the blanket licence, they have to pay a share of the assessment apparently determined by a representative of their biggest competitors PLUS a membership fee.  And then they get to pay royalties to the collective.

If a startup fails to make all these payments, they can lose the blanket license even if they have paid all royalties on time.  No one can tell you what the minimum fee will be or the startup’s share of the assessment.  In fact, as new startups will likely enter the allocation “membership” all the time, a percentage allocation for each “member” of the DLC will likely change pretty much constantly.  Plus the collective can enforce the blanket license royalties and the DLC can enforce the assessment payments and membership “dues”.

“Modernization” legislation is an excellent opportunity to level the playing field for these companies that are no doubt afraid to challenge the incumbents like Google (known for being specially vindictive to any startup that challenges them–see Foundem and the European Union’s antitrust litigation against Google).

It’s also important to realize that there is an exponential difference between the group of companies that the Register takes instruction from on the MLC compared to the group instructing the Register for the DLC.  Candidates for the DLC include Amazon, Apple, Google and Spotify–three of the biggest companies in commercial history plus the streaming platform that is easily the dominant actor in its relevant market both in the U.S. and many other countries.  This basically assures that no startup will ever be included as the DLC.

The Music Modernization Act is a great opportunity to do something positive for the market rather than continue to reenforce the very, very dominant incumbents.

Here’s some free advice to Congress:  Go wild.  Require appointing a startup or two or three as the DLC.  And if you really want to go truly off the reservation, require one of those startups to be from some place like Austin, Athens, Northern Virginia or Salt Lake–anywhere but Silicon Valley.  Wouldn’t that be real modernization rather than real entrenchment?

As a wise old Member of the Texas Congressional delegation once told me, they get to climb the ladder to the American Dream like everyone else.  What they don’t get to do is pull the ladder up behind them once they get to the top.

By limiting the choices of who can be the DLC, the government is mandating control to only the biggest of the big.  And giving them an antitrust exemption as the cherry on top.

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.

Update on Increased Streaming Mechanical Rates and Frozen Physical/Download Rates

CRB Decision

For more information read here.

The CRJs have not issued a public version of their ruling as yet, but this notice gives the headline rates.

It appears that physical and permanent download mechanicals will continue to be frozen at no more than 9.1 cents minimum statutory.

This appears to mean that the mechanical for “physical phonorecords” and permanent downloads has been frozen since 2009 and will remain frozen until 2022.  “Physical phonorecords” are CDs and vinyl and permanent downloads is iTunes.  These configurations are not nothing and are still about $800 million industry wide in the US alone for the first half of 2017 alone.  And while its declining, that’s still a lot of songs.