The Effect of Unfrozen Mechanicals on Controlled Compositions

Nice post by Ed Christman in Billboard explaining the continuing crisis on frozen mechanicals. Ed comes up with a rough justice quantification of the impact on songwriter and music publisher revenues in light of controlled compositions clauses in recording contracts that apply to (a) songs written and recorded by artists, or (b) songs by “outside writers” if and only if the artist can get the outside writer to accept the controlled compositions terms and rates.

For those reading along at home, one theory (aside from sheer leverage) that gets used in this context is that the artist/writer can agree on behalf of all co-writers to accept the terms of the license granted by the artist to the label in the controlled compositions clause because they are co-owners of an undivided interest in the song copyright and can grant nonexclusive licenses in the whole subject to a duty to account provided the license is not economic waste or self-dealing. Let’s just leave all that where it lays for now, but that story has never really been properly challenged–particularly the economic waste part given the rate fixing date issue and even the frozen mechanicals crisis itself. We’ll come back to that bit some other time.

The rate fixing date is a key part of the discussion for understanding the impact of unfreezing mechanicals. So what is that rate fixing provision?

Remember, the controlled compositions clause starts with reducing the minimum statutory mechanical rate in the US (and in theory in Canada subject to MLA) in effect at a point in time. That point in time is either commencement of recording (booo!), delivery, release or sale of a unit embodying the song at issue. Remember that the labels only pay mechanical royalties on physical and downloads (the rates at issue in the frozen mechanicals crisis)–streaming services pay for the interactive streaming mechanicals (and there is no mechanical for webcasting, a whole other beef).

You say, wait–isn’t the mechanical rate 9.1¢? Why does it matter when the record was recorded, delivered, released or sold? Won’t the rates all be the same? And you’d be right if you were asking about a record recorded and released in 2006 or after, or a record recorded and released between 1909 and 1978, like, say some titles by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Otis Redding or Miles Davis.

But–it wasn’t always this way. The mechanical royalty rate was set at 2¢ by Congress with the first statutory license, i.e., compulsory license, in 1909 and did not change until the 1976 revision of the US Copyright Act effective 1978. The rate then began to incrementally increase over the years until it reached 9.1¢ in 2006, a phased increase that was to compensate for Congress failing to increase the rate for 70 years, aka “the Ice Age”. The Congress really screwed up songwriters’ lives by freezing the rate at 2¢ during the Ice Age and songwriters and their heirs have been paying for it ever since, right up to the 2006-2022 period, aka “the Second Ice Age” or the Return of the Neanderthals.

In an effort to help songwriters shovel out from the Ice Age, The Congress also authorized indexing the minimum rate to inflation from 1988 to 1995. Indexing is again on the mind of the Copyright Royalty Board right now–bearing in mind that an increase in rates due to inflation has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the song copyrights so there’s no confusion. Indexing simply applies any increase in the consumer price index to the statutory rate and preserves buying power. In a way, it is the opposite of a case about value. Indexing assumes that the value issue was already decided (in this case in 2006) and simply preserves buying power so that the “nominal” rate of 9.1¢ in 2006 can still buy the same amount of goods or services in 2022 (or 2023 in the case of the CRB rate period). Otherwise the “real” rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate, is not 9.1¢ it is about 6¢.

Remember–the proposed rate increase to 12¢ by the CRB is not about value, it’s about buying power because it’s solely focused on inflation.

So back to controlled compositions. It is no coincidence that at the same time as the 1978 increases were phased in, the labels established controlled compositions clauses that knocked songwriters back down. They would probably not have gotten away with freezing by contract at 2¢ so they let the rate float up but much more slowly and with several caps. The first cap is the maximum number of songs, usually 10 or 11. The next cap is the infamous 3/4 rate, where the label pays based on 75% of the minimum statutory rate. But the third cap is the rate fixing date and that’s the one we want to focus on in the unfrozen mechanicals context.

In simple form, it looks something like this contract language:

If the copyright law of the United States provides for a minimum compulsory rate: The rate equal to seventy-five percent (75%) of the minimum compulsory license rate applicable to the use of musical compositions on audio Records under the United States copyright law (hereinafter referred to as the “U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate”) at the time of the commencement of the recording of the Master concerned but in no event later than the last date for timely Delivery of such Master (the applicable date is hereinafter referred to as the “Copyright Fixing Date”). (The U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate is $.091 per Composition as of January 1, 2006); 

The way that the statutory rate increases come into the controlled compositions clause is because from 1978-2006 the statutory rates increased across albums delivered across album cycles. If you consider that the rates used to increase about every two years and that an album cycle can be two years, it’s likely that LP 1 would have a lower rate than LP2, LP 2 than LP3 and so on right up to 2006.

Also remember that the increases in rates are prospective, meaning that the controlled compositions rate on recordings delivered in the future will, of course, get the higher rate, even if the past rates don’t change which they don’t, at least not yet. Also consider that permanent downloads often are excluded from controlled comp treatment and are paid at full rate, probably on the rate fixing date in the artist’s agreement. Sometimes the download rates “float” or increase in line with increases in the statutory rate, but that’s part of individual negotiations.

If there is an outside songwriter who does not agree to accept the artist’s controlled composition rate (and there are plenty of these) what happens? Typically the label will account to the outside writer at their full minimum statutory rate but will deduct that payment from the maximum aggregate mechanical royalty payable to the artist (i.e., the 10 song cap). There’s some twists and turns to this involving rates on different units “made and distributed”, but for our purposes there is one clear thing to understand:

Because of the rate fixing date which is frozen by contract (the Mini Ice Age) the artist/songwriter will be paying a higher mechanical to the outside writer from a frozen royalty “pool”.

This is why you should always, always demand “protection” for at least one outside song in your contract and then review each album to determine if that needs to be increased. This is particularly true for records made in places like Nashville where the record company will demand you work with “A” list songwriters (assume none of whom will take 3/4 rate) and then try to deduct the difference between the uncontrolled rate and the controlled rate from you (and if it gets big enough, cross it to your record royalties). (Not only will A list writers not take the 3/4 rate, they’re pissed because they can’t charge you double stat like they do double scale for sessions.)

Example: You have a 10 x 3/4 rate cap on mechanicals, the “cap rate”. That’s the 68.25¢ album rate you hear about (10 x .75 x 9.1¢). Say you have 10 songs on your album and you wrote all of them. You get the entire 68.25¢. If you had two outside songs whose writers get 9.1¢ under current rates, you deduct 18.2¢ from the cap rate, and that leaves 50.05¢ as the “controlled pool” or the total mechanical royalty payable to the artist/songwriter (actually all controlled writers, but leave aside that wrinkle).

So you can see, that’s no longer a 75% rate, it’s actually more like a 55% rate.

Now let’s assume that the new rate is 12¢. Same calculation, two outside songs now get 24¢, but the cap rate stays the same because of the rate fixing date. During the Mini Ice Age, i.e., while that cap rate is fixed at 9.1¢ x 10 x .75, the controlled pool now is expressed as 68.25¢ – 24¢ = 44.25¢, or about 48% (44.25 ÷ 91). The artist’s publisher is not going to be wild about that; the outside writer’s publishers will be thrilled.

This will start to true up on the next LP that takes a rate fixing date after the 12¢ rates go into effect. In that situation you’d be increasing both sides of the equation, so the cap rate would increase to 90¢ (10 x .12 x .75). The outside writers still get 12¢ each for two songs (or 24¢) which is deducted from the cap rate to get a controlled pool of 66¢. The true controlled comp rate is then back to about 55%.

These effects will be less pronounced if you have protection for one or more songs (or fractions of songs) or you have a higher cap, say 11 or 12 instead of 10 (with corresponding increases on other configurations). But you see the trend line.

I think this leads to the conclusion that increasing the statutory rate is a huge step forward and we should all be grateful to the Judges. The rate fixing dates for catalog titles (really the entire rate fixing date concept) must also be considered and any new effort to tweak the controlled compositions clause to effectively nullify the Judges’ rate increase will no doubt cause further conflict.

One day Congress will again act to reduce the effects of the controlled compositions clause and especially the rate fixing date, but in the meantime the Judges may well visit the issue to the extent they are able before we see the Return of the Neanderthals.

Unfrozen: What will the new physical mechanical rates do to or do for valuations?

There are some decades in which nothing happens and some weeks in which decades happen. This was one of those weeks.

You no doubt have seen that the Copyright Royalty Judges offered a breath of fresh air in the contentious and labyrinthine Phonorecords III and IV proceedings by refusing to accept the insider “settlement” worked out by the powers that be. I’ve had a couple interesting calls this week from smart people asking what effect the ruling will have on catalog valuations.

These were people who believed the party line that the mechanical royalties from physical were unimportant but never asked why–now they discover that the physical income stream was not low but was understated because it was frozen. So the answer the Judges rejected was “let’s freeze it some more.”

The Judges note that merely adjusting the 9.1¢ frozen rate for inflation “would yield a 2021 royalty rate of $ 0.12 (an upward 31.9% inflation adjustment over the sixteen-year period).” Understating a revenue stream by 30% or so is not insignificant. When you consider that publishing catalogs have to offer a 20x multiple to make it worth getting out of bed, understating a revenue stream by 30% to just keep pace on buying power will ratchet through the transaction.

It also must be said that if you consider the entire period of the freeze, it will cover years where physical was a higher percentage of the product mix, so by freezing the rates any catalogs sold during that time would arguably have had their selling price understated.

This is an inexact science, but it does seem that valuations need to be adjusted upward.

Is MLC Getting it Right in a Post-MMA World?

It’s becoming more obvious that the Mechanical Licensing Collective is not succeeding in its Congressional mandate to build the definitive music rights database so that all songwriters get paid. We often hear about MLC match rates being consistent with the “industry standard,” but this is pre-MMA thinking and is no longer relevant in a post-MMA world. (Not to mention the fact that it was these very “industry standards” that produced gigantic levels of unmatched payments that the MLC is mandated to fix.) As we will see, any match rate less than 100% is inconsistent with the MLC’s Congressional mandate which will be relevant when those in control of the MLC’s operations are reviewed by Congress in the not too distant future. Remember, The MLC, Inc. may be a private company in the traditional sense, but the MLC (different than The MLC, Inc.) is a statutory creation whose functionality is awarded to the current operators if they do a good job giving effect to the Congressional mandate. Congress can take that deal away and essentially “fire” The MLC, Inc.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that the Copyright Office has no stomach for its Congressionally mandated oversight role as they have been silent as the tomb so far no matter how absurd the results coming from MLC. The difference in post-MMA planning is that every royalty audit of MLC should be accompanied by a FOIA request to the Copyright Office regarding what they knew and when they knew it. Neither of those remedies were available in combination to songwriters in a pre-MMA environment. (If you took the king’s shilling and signed up for HFA you got a piece of an audit recovery of unknown providence for the most part often based on projections.)

Thankfully, due to the services paying for MLC operations as well as cost-shifting combinations of direct licensing, modified compulsory and service-supported blanket (and significant non-blanket) licensing, cost will never be a factor for The MLC, so the only consideration should be the benefit to all songwriters from getting it right

Not everyone sees it that way. I raised this point on a Copyright Office roundtable about the MLC and was immediately jumped on by both the Head of Government Relations for Spotify and the head of the Digital Media Association (neither of whom have rendered a royalty statement in their lives in all likelihood). They rejected my position that the MMA requires that there should be no cost benefit analysis in matching–remember, the services are supposed to pay for that matching functionality as part of their deal for the MMA safe harbor giveaway.

Now I’m sure that these DIMA companies are perfectly capable of getting a match rate that’s in the limit. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t ever do it. They just need a little guidance.

Fortunately we have Congressional guidance on this issue in the legislative history of Title I of the Music Modernization Act which states:

Testimony provided by Jim Griffin at the June 10, 2014 Committee hearing highlighted the need for more robust metadata to accompany the payment and distribution of music royalties….In an era in which Americans can buy millions of products via an app on their phone based upon the UPC code on the product, the failure of the music industry to develop and maintain a master database has led to significant litigation and underpaid royalties for decades. The Committee believes that this must end so that all artists are paid for their creations and that so-called ‘‘black box’’ revenue is not a drain on the success of the entire industry.

H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 8. (my emphasis)

I realize that the Head of Government Relations for Spotify would want to protect her employer as would the head of DIMA and immediately try to kill the idea that the MLC had to set new industry standards and that the services would pay for it. And that’s a reasonable deal in exchange for the safe harbor giveaway.

But that wasn’t the deal they made. Now you can well say that the services are not required to give a blank check, that the costs should be reasonable, and that the services have something to say about how the money is spent particularly given their expertise with supporting the world’s intelligence agencies in finding things and people, or so says Mr. Snowden. But we already see that the services got a rube deal for their tens of millions in MLC costs if the match rate is simply as bad as it was before MMA (or worse). That wasn’t their deal, either.

The deal they made was to see to it that “all artists are paid for their creations”. No qualifiers.

All means all.


The Vinyl Resurgence is Understated

If you’ve tried to get a vinyl record pressed in the last few years, one thing is very obvious: There is no capacity in the current manufacturing base to accommodate all the orders–unless your name is Adele or Taylor Swift, of course. If that’s your name, as if by magic you get your vinyl orders filled and shipped on time.

Jack White spotted the vinyl trend early on–in 2009–and is filling the gap through his Third Man pressing operations. But Jack is calling on the major labels to please compete with him–rather unusual–because it’s the right thing to do in order to meet the demand for the benefit of the consumer. And the elephant in the room of this discussion is that we don’t really have any idea what the vinyl sales would be because demand is not being met by supply.

Not even close.

When a major label abandons a configuration, it’s not really abandoned. It gets outsourced to an independent and as long as there are manufacturing capacity in the system, that independent still takes orders and fulfills those orders by using that manufacturing capacity. The titles still appear in the sales book, orders get taken and returns accommodated.

Major labels also hand off vinyl manufacturing to their “special markets” divisions. For example, if you have ever tried to get vinyl manufactured in a limited run for venue sales on a major label artist (or former major label artist) you will get put through the bureaucratic torture gauntlet for the privilege of paying top dollar on a product that the label will have nothing to do with selling.

But even so, at some point that manufacturing capacity begins to shrink because the majors are getting out of the configuration and they will eventually get out of the manufacturing business altogether. And that creates a great sucking sound as capacity tanks.

I raised this problem in comments to the Copyright Royalty Board about the frozen mechanicals debacle where the smart people have tried to extend the 2006 songwriter rates on vinyl and CDs without regard to rampant inflation and simply the value of songs to sell millions of units. Why? Because vinyl and CDs don’t matter according to the lobbyists. This is, of course, bunk.

The fact is–and Jack White’s plea illuminates the issue–we don’t know what the sales would be if the capacity increased to meet demand. But we do know that sales would be higher. Probably much higher.

You do see entrepreneurs entering the space using new technology. Gold Rush Vinyl in Austin is a prime example of that phenomenon. The majors need to reconsider how to meet demand and keep the consumer happy. They also need to clean up the sales and distribution channel so that it’s easy for record stores to actually get stock, which, frankly is a joke.

Why anyone wants to substitute away from high margin physical goods to low margin streaming goods with a “rich get richer” financial model is a head scratcher. Although maybe I answered my own question.

Scoop Would Find a Way

Kira Rudik is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a leader of one their political parties. Today she made a speech to the Henry Jackson Society in the UK asking for a no-fly zone over her country. Not the blood of our treasures on the ground, just a little American air power. And I promise you that if anyone asked for volunteers to step across a line in the sand, you’d have enough pilots to blanket the airspace from the Ukraine to the UK.

If you recall Churchill’s asks of Franklin Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor, Kira Rudik’s ask should sound familiar. That’s how we got lend/lease before America entered WWII: Roosevelt found a way to do the right thing, and his December 29, 1940 fireside chat is where we got the phrase “arsenal of democracy.” And this passage:

The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.

But what may not be obvious to a contemporary audience is that the venue where Kira Rudik spoke is the Henry Jackson Society, named after the great American Congressman Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Scoop was a major influence in building Congressional support for the Polish Solidarity movement and a host of other freedom fighters in the Cold War.

I knew Scoop, and I can also promise you that if he were with us today there would already be a no-fly zone over Ukraine or he’d know the reason why.

20 Questions: An artist’s checklist for an NFT pitch

If you’ve been pitched to lend your name to an NFT platform or promotion, or if you are an NFT promoter who wants to attract artists to your program, there are some issues that should get addressed. Obviously, discuss all this with your lawyers since this isn’t legal advice, but the following are some issues that you may want to consider before you commit to anything.

1.  What artist rights are being granted and to whom?

2.  Does grant of rights match the project summary and are license agreement, smart contract, marketplace/auction TOS and cryptocurrency rules all consistent?  Has a subject matter expert been engaged to produce a report stating and certifying that the smart contract code implements the actual deal or needs to be revised?

3.  What royalty is paid and to whom and when?  Does artist, previous owner or charity participate in resale revenue after initial sale? Are any state or federal relevant tax rules implicated? What have you done to keep NFT revenue as far away from MLC as possible?

4.  Are there exploitation or marketing restrictions on the NFT that would prevent the NFT and artist name being used in ways that are offensive to the artist, at least during the artist’s lifetime? Could heirs enforce these rights?

5. Are there any third party payments involved like producer payments, production company overrides, or any third party rights involved, re-recording restrictions. Will any letter of direction be required, e.g., for producers?

6. Are you being asked to clear publishing? If someone is telling you that they have cleared publishing, has the publisher confirmed the license and are individual songwriters actually receiving a share of revenue? The tendency is that the major publishers “settle” these kinds of cases for a lump sum and prospective royalty, which may or may not be received by individual songwriters after multiple commissions being siphoned off the top.

7.  When does NFT terminate?  (On resale, transfer by owner, term of years)

8.  What is the governing law and venue?  (And how to enforce)

9.  Who maintains the blockchain and who is responsible for policing it? What happens if they fail to do so? (See my post with Alan Graham on this subject.)

10.  Is artist asked to make representations, warranties and indemnity?  Can the artist make such reps and warranties?

11.  Is indemnity capped?  

12.  Are there any active disputes among anyone in the chain on the NFT promoters’ side? (“Disputes” is any disagreements, including, but not limited to, litigation or threatened litigation.) Who will cover artist’s costs of defense?

13.  Is there insurance on chain of title, failure to enforce the smart contract, nonpayment, business risk?

14.  Can license agreement or smart contract be revised unilaterally?

15.  Is the NFT or NFT collection comprised of “generative art” or artwork created by machines, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and related technologies (i.e., potentially not capable of copyright protection)? What are implications for name and likeness rights.

16.  What assurances have been given to identify purchasers of NFTs to enforce terms or prosecute breaches for first or subsequent sales?

17.  Are any union rules implicated (e.g., SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement Par. 22A)? See my post on NFT union payments.

18. Is NFT or any NFT cash flows implicated in any sanctions placed on persons related to the Russian Federation?

19.  Has NFT seller or marketplace obtained legal opinion regarding whether the NFT constitutes a “security” that would require sale by a registered securities broker-dealer or other regulatory oversight?

20. Are any state securities laws, tax laws or regulations, or “doing business” laws implicated or reporting obligations triggered?

Each NFT raises its own questions, so this checklist is just a starting point.  

Spotify ESG fail: Governance

[This is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment and Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Finkat Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal.]

Spotify has one big governance problem that permeates its governance like a putrid miasma in the abattoir: “Dual-class stock” sometimes referred to as “supervoting” stock. If you’ve never heard the term, buckle up. I wrote an extensive post on this subject for the New York Daily News that you may find interesting.

Dual class stock allows the holders of those shares–invariably the founders of the public company when it was a private company–to control all votes and control all board seats. Frequently this is accomplished by giving the founders a special class of stock that provides 10 votes for every share or something along those lines. The intention is to give the founders dead hand control over their startup in a kind of corporate reproductive right so that no one can interfere with their vision as envoys of innovation sent by the Gods of the Transhuman Singularity. You know, because technology.

Google was one of the first Silicon Valley startups to adopt this capitalization structure and it is consistent with the Silicon Valley venture capital investor belief in infitilism and the Peter Pan syndrome so that the little children may guide us. The problem is that supervoting stock is forever, well after the founders are bald and porky despite their at-home beach volleyball courts and warmed bidets.

Spotify, Facebook and Google each have a problem with “dual class” stock capitalizations.  Because regulators allow these companies to operate with this structure favoring insiders, the already concentrated streaming music industry is largely controlled by Daniel Ek, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg.  (While Amazon and Apple lack the dual class stock structure, Jeff Bezos has an outsized influence over both streaming and physical carriers.  Apple’s influence is far more muted given their refusal to implement payola-driven algorithmic enterprise playlist placement for selection and rotation of music and their concentration on music playback hardware.)

The voting power of Ek, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg in their respective companies makes shareholder votes candidates for the least suspenseful events in commercial history.  However, based on market share, Spotify essentially controls the music streaming business.  Let’s consider some of the  implications for competition of this disfavored capitalization technique.

Commissioner Robert Jackson, formerly of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, summed up the problem:

“[D]ual class” voting typically involves capitalization structures that contain two or more classes of shares—one of which has significantly more voting power than the other. That’s distinct from the more common single-class structure, which gives shareholders equal equity and voting power. In a dual-class structure, public shareholders receive shares with one vote per share, while insiders receive shares that empower them with multiple votes. And some firms [Snap, Inc. and Google Class B shares] have recently issued shares that give ordinary public investors no vote at all.

For most of the modern history of American equity markets, the New York Stock Exchange did not list companies with dual-class voting. That’s because the Exchange’s commitment to corporate democracy and accountability dates back to before the Great Depression. But in the midst of the takeover battles of the 1980s, corporate insiders “who saw their firms as being vulnerable to takeovers began lobbying [the exchanges] to liberalize their rules on shareholder voting rights.”  Facing pressure from corporate management and fellow exchanges, the NYSE reversed course, and today permits firms to go public with structures that were once prohibited.

Spotify is the dominant streaming firm and the voting power of Spotify stockholders is concentrated in two men:  Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon.  Transitively, those two men literally control the music streaming sector through their voting shares, are extending their horizontal reach into the rapidly consolidating podcasting business and aspire soon to enter the audiobooks vertical.  Where do they get the money is a question on every artists lips after hearing the Spotify poormouthing and seeing their royalty statements.

The effects of that control may be subtle; for example, Spotify engages in multi-billion dollar stock buybacks and debt offerings, but has yet makes ever more spectacular losses while refusing to exercise pricing power.  

So yes, Spotify is starting to look like the kind of Potemkin Village that investment bankers love because they see oodles of the one thing that matters: Fees.

On the political side, let’s see what the company’s campaign contributions tell us:

Spotify has also made a habit out of hiring away government regulators like Regan Smith, the former General Counsel and Associate Register of the US Copyright Office who joined Spotify as head of US public policy (a euphemism for bag person) after drafting all of the regulations for the Mechanical Licensing Collective;

Whether this is enough to trip Spotify up on the abuse of political contributions I don’t know, but the revolving door part certainly does call into question Spotify’s ethics.

It does seem that these are the kinds of facts that should be taken into account when determining Spotify’s ESG score.

Songwriter Inflation Adjustments Must be Mandatory

Both the consumer price index and the producer price index increased this month and the Federal Reserve is making noises like it intends to increase interest rates and reduce what is called the Fed’s “balance sheet”. Once again, the freeze on mechanical royalties for physical records like CDs and vinyl and failure to index to the consumer price index looks increasingly irresponsible if not downright antagonistic. If you agree that songwriters need to have a cost of living adjustment permanently built into all statutory rates, we have to also recognize that may be a heavy lift and needs to be supported by evidence. Here’s a few ideas.

Consumer Price Index

US Inflation Rate Jan 2020-Jan 2022
The Consumer Price Index tracked a 7.5% increase in inflation, and even excluding energy and food prices the CPI rose 6% (which applies to all those who don’t drive and don’t eat).

The next chart shows increases in the categories of goods that make up the CPI.

The January inflation rate is the highest since February 1982. If you don’t remember what was happening in February 1982, it was the end of the 1970s stagflation with supply side “exogenous” shocks to a number of sectors including energy. The other hallmark of the 1970s and early 1980s corresponding to the staglation is a black swan (we hope) increase in the prime rate of lending. The prime rate exceeded 20%.

One could say that the only reason that the prime rate is not much higher today is because the Federal Reserve adopted a zero interest rate policy (or “ZIRP”) in response to the 2008 financial crisis as did other central banks in other countries. The idea was that cheap money would encourage banks to make loans to borrowers as well as other banks and more debt would stimulate the economy. That’s why interest rates have been at or near zero for so long. (Not everyone thought this was a good idea, including me.) The truth is we don’t really know what interest rates would be absent the central banks’ distortion of the credit markets–perhaps for all the right reasons, but distortions nonetheless.

Increases in the 1970s prime rate caused all interest rates to increase, including credit card rates and mortgage rates. We are accustomed to seeing mortgage rates around 5% partly due to ZIRP, but mortgage rates were much higher in the 1970s. This caused a contraction in the number of people who could qualify for a mortgage and extremely high mortgage payments for those who could (not to mention “points” paid to compensate for the credit risk).

Remember the Federal Reserve’s mission is to use monetary policy to keep inflation under control and unemployment low. There are two policy “weapons” the Fed has to accomplish its mission: interest rates and the money supply. When the Fed adopts a ZIRP, what happens if those low rates don’t have the desired stimulus? That just leaves the money supply when zero interest rates lead to a “liquidity trap.”

With interest rates at their lower range (or “lower bound”) the Fed stimulated the money supply in a particular way called “quantitative easing” which involved increasing the money supply by creating money to buy treasury notes in a special way (not exactly printing money, but effectively similar) and also buying mortgage backed securities and other bonds in the open market. This was especially true in “busted offerings” when the government financed deficits with Treasury notes purchased by the Federal Reserve. And yes, that does sound rather hinky.

We’ll come back to that ZIRP policy and quantitative easing in another post, but let’s just say for now that the Federal Reserve provided more money to certain kinds of banks than they’d ever seen before in an effort to stimulate the economy without raising inflation. Yet they must have always known that an easy money policy was inflationary and due to ZIRP they had limited options–to kick the can down the road. Like a balloon payment in a mortgage, the devil would come for his due at some point. That time may be now.

Whenever inflation goes up, there is an assumption–fueled by those who wish to avoid blame–that inflation is just transitory and will recede if the central banks take anti-inflation steps, such as raising interest rates by targeting even higher interest rates on Federal Funds (currently 0.25%) on top of an already higher 10 Year Treasury Bond.

If the Fed raises rates by .25% five times this year as projected by banks like Goldman Sachs, that will essentially double the interest payment on government bonds which fuels both federal spending and the national debt. The problem with that is the higher interest rates proposed by the central bank also affect government borrowing to service the $30 odd trillion dollar national debt. Maybe you can withstand your credit card rate increasing by five percent, but the government cannot.

As you can see from the charts above, some of this inflation is increasing at an increasing rate. It is going to take time to recede. Energy markets are fluid, for example, but rents are not. The conventional wisdom is that mortgage rates and home prices vary inversely to each other. Mortgage rates can also have an effect on rental prices, too; the harder it is to qualify for a mortgage, the more people have to rent, so rental prices go up. Rental prices are also sticky, meaning that once they go up, they don’t decline very rapidly or at all. Ask yourself the last time a landlord cut your rent?

Speaking of the government’s credit card, it is important to look at the effect that inflation has on interest rates for another reason: many people have been dealing with the cost of inflation is by putting it on the credit card. Not everyone has a seven figure base salary.

Credit card interest rates are currently averaging around 14.5%, which means that if you don’t have a good credit score, you’ll probably pay closer to 20%. Bear in mind that the Federal Reserve has announced its intention to hike interest rates multiple times this year, so if that happens those in the riskier tier will be paying closer to 25% by December and people with “good” credit will be paying closer to 20%. Both of which are loan shark rates.

Bands are prone to maxing out credit cards in the best of economic times so are likely to be especially hard hit just with increased interest payments on existing balances. This multiplier effect is important because on top of everything else the cost of inflation for people who have been putting it on the credit card is going to be many times worse than it is for people who have been paying cash. This is not something that you really wanna mess with, so if there’s any possible way and I mean any possible way you can either stop making it worse or start paying down that credit card do it because this is going to get very weird.

Producer Price Index

The Producer Price Index rose 1.9% in January to 9.7%. Remember, the PPI is a leading indicator of future inflation because producer prices foreshadow increases in future goods as lower priced inventories decline and price increases are in part passed through to consumers (or are in part absorbed by firms to sustain demand).

Inflation Expectations

Should songwriters expect inflation rates will effect the statutory rates in the coming years? Remember that inflation expectations can have a direct effect on actual inflation because those expectations determine wages–if you think inflation will rise, you ask for higher wages. You see this on the interactive streaming mechanical rates (which recently were amended to include a cost of living adjustment), but for some reason not on the physical.

Determining inflation expectation requires survey data, and the benchmark surveys of consumer sentiment and inflation expectations are conducted by the University of Michigan. US inflation expectations for the next 12 months rose to 5% in February of 2022 from 4.9% in January. That is the highest level of 1-year Inflation expectations since July of 2008.

Conclusion

All this confirms again that inflation for the foreseeable future is not and will not be “transitory.” Statutory rates should be indexed to inflation for the foreseeable future. This should not even be a question (and was the rule in the latter half of the 1970s, and all of 80s and 90s). If the Copyright Royalty Board will not include a cost of living adjustment in all statutory rates, perhaps it should be imposed on them.

Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social

Investopedia ESG criteria

[This is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment]

I started to write this post in the pre-Neil Young era and I almost feel like I could stop with the title. But there’s a lot more to it, so let’s look at the many ways Spotify is a fail on the Social part of ESG.

Before Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem, Spotify had both an ethical supply chain problem and a “fair wage” problem on the music side of its business, which for this post we will limit to fair compensation to its ultimate vendors being artists and songwriters. In fact, Spotify is an example to music-tech entrepreneurs of how not to conduct their business.

Treatment of Songwriters

On the songwriter side of the house, let’s not fall into the mudslinging that is going on over the appeal by Spotify (among others) of the Copyright Royalty Board’s ruling in the mechanical royalty rate setting proceeding known as Phonorecords III. Yes, it’s true that streaming screws songwriters even worse that artists, but not only because Spotify exercised its right of appeal of the Phonorecords III case that was pending during the extensive negotiations of Title I of the Music Modernization Act. (Title I is the whole debacle of the Mechanical Licensing Collective and the retroactive copyright infringement safe harbor currently being litigated on Constitutional grounds.)

The main reason that Spotify had the right to appeal available to it after passing the MMA was because the negotiators of Title I didn’t get all of the services to give up their appeal right (called a “waiver”) as a condition of getting the substantial giveaways in the MMA. A waiver would have been entirely appropriate given all the goodies that songwriters gave away in the MMA. When did Noah build the Ark? Before the rain. The negotiators might have gotten that message if they had opened the negotiations to a broader group, but they didn’t so now they’ve got the hot potato no matter how much whinging they do.

Having said that, you will notice that Apple took pity on this egregious oversight and did not appeal the Phonorecords III ruling. You don’t always have to take advantage of your vendor’s negotiating failures, particularly when you are printing money and when being generous would help your vendor keep providing songs. And Mom always told me not to mock the afflicted. Plus it’s good business–take Walmart as an example. Walmart drives a hard bargain, but they leave the vendor enough margin to keep making goods, otherwise the vendor will go under soon or run a business solely to service debt only to go under later. And realize that the decision to be generous is pretty much entirely up to Walmart. Spotify could do the same.

Is being cheap unethical? Is leveraging stupidity unethical? Is trying to recover the costs of the MLC by heavily litigating streaming mechanicals unethical (or unexpected)? Maybe. A great man once said failing to be generous is the most expensive mistake you’ll ever make. So yes, I do think it is unethical although that’s a debatable point. Spotify has not made themselves many friends by taking that course. But what is not debatable is Spotify’s unethical treatment of artists.

Treatment of Artists

The entire streaming royalty model confirms what I call “Ek’s Law” which is related to “Moore’s Law”. Instead of chip speed doubling every 18 months in Moore’s Law, royalties are cut in half every 18 months with Ek’s Law. This reduction over time is an inherent part of the algebra of the streaming business model as I’ve discussed in detail in Arithmetic on the Internet as well as the study I co-authored with Dr. Claudio Feijoo for the World Intellectual Property Organization. These writings have caused a good deal of discussion along with the work of Sharky Laguana about the “Big Pool” or what’s come to be called the “market centric” royalty model.

Dissatisfaction with the market centric model has led to a discussion of the “user-centric” model as an alternative so that fans don’t pay for music they don’t listen to. But it’s also possible that there is no solution to the streaming model because everybody whose getting rich (essentially all Spotify employees and owners of big catalogs) has no intention of changing anything voluntarily.

It would be easy to say “fair is where we end up” and write off Ek’s Law as just a function of the free market. But the market centric model was designed to reward a small number of artists and big catalog owners without letting consumers know what was happening to the money they thought they spent to support the music they loved. As Glenn Peoples wrote last year (Fare Play: Could SoundCloud’s User-Centric Streaming Payouts Catch On?,

When Spotify first negotiated its initial licensing deals with labels in the late 2000s, both sides focused more on how much money the service would take in than the best way to divide it. The idea they settled on, which divides artist payouts based on the overall popularity of recordings, regardless of how they map to individuals’ listening habits, was ‘the simplest system to put together at the time,’ recalls Thomas Hesse, a former Sony Music executive who was involved in those conversations.

In other words, the market centric model was designed behind closed doors and then presented to the world’s artists and musicians as a take it or leave it with an overhyped helping of FOMO.

As we wrote in the WIPO study, the market centric model excludes nonfeatured musicians altogether. These studio musicians and vocalists are cut out of the Spotify streaming riches made off their backs except in two countries and then only because their unions fought like dogs to enforce national laws that require streaming platforms to pay nonfeatured performers.

The other Spotify problem is its global dominance and imposition of largely Anglo-American repertoire in other countries. The company does this for one big reason–they tell a growth story to Wall Street to juice their stock price. In fact, Daniel Ek just did this last week on his Groundhog Day earnings call with stock analysts. For example he said:

The number one thing that we’re stretched for at the moment is more inventory. And that’s why you see us introducing things such as fan and other things. And then long-term with a little bit more horizon, it’s obviously international.

Both user-centric and market-centric are focused on allocating a theoretical revenue “pie” which is so tiny for any one artist (or songwriter) who is not in the top 1 or 5 percent this week that it’s obvious the entire model is bankrupt until it includes the value that makes Daniel Ek into a digital munitions investor–the stock.

Debt and Stock Buybacks

Spotify has taken on substantial levels of debt for a company that makes a profit so infrequently you can say Spotify is unprofitable–which it is on a fully diluted basis in any event. According to its most recent balance sheet, Spotify owes approximately $1.3 billion in long term–secured–debt.

You might ask how a company that has never made a profit qualifies to borrow $1.3 billion and you’d have a point there. But understand this: If Spotify should ever go bankrupt, which in their case would probably be a reorganization bankruptcy, those lenders are going to stand in the secured creditors line and they will get paid in full or nearly in full well before Spotify meets any of its obligations to artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers, aka unsecured creditors.

Did Title I of the Music Modernization Act take care of this exposure for songwriters who are forced to license but have virtually no recourse if the licensee fails to pay and goes bankrupt? Apparently not–but then the lobbyists would say if they’d insisted on actual protection and reform there would have been no bill (pka no bonus).

Right. Because “modernization” (whatever that means).

But to our question here–is it ethical for a company that is totally dependent on creator output to be able to take on debt that pushes the royalties owed to those creators to the back of the bankruptcy lines? I think the answer is no.

Spotify has also engaged in a practice that has become increasingly popular in the era of zero interest rates (or lower bound rates anyway) and quantitative easing: stock buy backs.

Stock buy backs were illegal until the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the law in 1982 with the safe harbor Rule 10b-18. (A prime example of unelected bureaucrats creating major changes in the economy, but that’s a story for another day.)

Stock buy backs are when a company uses the shareholders money to buy outstanding shares of their company and reduce the number of shares trading (aka “the float”). Stock buy backs can be accomplished a few ways such as through a tender offer (a public announcement that the company will buy back x shares at $y for z period of time); open market purchases on the exchange; or buying the shares through direct negotiations, usually with holders of larger blocks of stock.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:

A stock buyback is basically a secondary offering in reverse — instead of selling new shares of stock to the public to put more cash on the corporate balance sheet, a cash-rich company expends some of its own funds on buying shares of stock from the public.

Why do companies buy back their own stock? To juice their financials by artificially increasing earnings per share.

Spotify has announced two different repurchase programs since going public according to their annual report for 12/31/21:

Share Repurchase Program On August 20, 2021, [Spotify] announced that the board of directors [controlled by Daniel Ek] had approved a program to repurchase up to $1.0 billion of the Company’s ordinary shares. Repurchases of up to 10,000,000 of the Company’s ordinary shares were authorized at the Company’s general meeting of shareholders on April 21, 2021. The repurchase program will expire on April 21, 2026. The timing and actual number of shares repurchased depends on a variety of factors, including price, general business and market conditions, and alternative investment opportunities. The repurchase program is executed consistent with the Company’s capital allocation strategy of prioritizing investment to grow the business over the long term. The repurchase program does not obligate the Company to acquire any particular amount of ordinary shares, and the repurchase program may be suspended or discontinued at any time at the Company’s discretion. The Company uses current cash and cash equivalents and the cash flow it generates from operations to fund the share repurchase program.

The authorization of the previous share repurchase program, announced on November 5, 2018, expired on April 21, 2021. The total aggregate amount of repurchased shares under that program was 4,366,427 for a total of approximately $572 million.

Is it ethical to take a billion dollars and buy back shares to juice the stock price while fighting over royalties every chance they get and crying poor? I think not.

Spotify’s ESG Problem: Environment Fail

Spotify has an ESG problem, and a closer look may offer insights into a wider problem in the tech industry as a whole. If a decade of destroying artist and songwriter revenues isn’t enough to get your attention, maybe the Neil Young and Joe Rogan imbroglio will. But a minute’s analysis shows you that Spotify was already an ESG fail well before Neil Young’s ultimatum.

Streaming is an Environmental Fail

I first began posting about streaming as an environmental fail years ago in the YouTube and Google world. Like so many other ways that the BIg Tech PR machine glosses over their dependence on cheap energy right through their supply chain from electric cars to cat videos, YouTube did not want to discuss the company as a climate disaster zone. To hear them tell it, YouTube, and indeed the entire Google megalopolis right down to the Google Street View surveillance team was powered by magic elves running on appropriate golden flywheels with suitable work rules. Or other culturally appropriate spin from Google’s ham handed PR teams.

Greenpeace first wrote about “dirty data” in 2011–the year Spotify launched in the US. Too bad Spotify ignored the warnings. Harvard Business Review also tells us that 2011 was a demarcation point for environmental issues at Microsoft following that Greenpeace report:

In 2011, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive, Rob Bernard, asked the company’s risk-assessment team to evaluate the firm’s exposure. It soon concluded that evolving carbon regulations and fluctuating energy costs and availability were significant sources of risk. In response, Microsoft formed a centralized senior energy team to address this newly elevated strategic issue and develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate risk. The team, comprising 14 experts in electricity markets, renewable energy, battery storage, and local generation (or “distributed energy”), was charged by corporate senior leadership with developing and executing the firm’s energy strategy. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Bernard says. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”

If environment is a C-suite issue at Spotify, there’s no real evidence of it in Spotify’s annual report (but then there isn’t at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, either). “Environment” word search reveals that at Spotify, the environment is “economic”, “credit”, and above all “rapidly changing.” Not “dirty”–or “clean” for that matter.

The fact appears to be that Spotify isn’t doing anything special and nobody seems to want to talk about it. But wait, you say–what about the sainted Music Climate Pact? Guess who hasn’t signed up to the MCP? Any streaming service. There is a “Standard Commitment Letter” that participants are supposed to sign up to but I wasn’t able to read it. Want to guess why?

That’s right. You know who wants to know what you’re up to.

Next: Spotify’s “Social” Fail: Rogan, Royalties and The Uyghurs