Good News for Music Tech Startups: DLC Changes Fee Structure for Using Blanket Compulsory License

Title I of the Music Modernization Act established a blanket mechanical royalty license, the mechanical licensing collective to create the musical works database and collect royalties, the Digital Licensee Coordinator (which represents the music users under the blanket license) and a system where the services pay for the millions evidently required to operate the MLC and create the musical works database (which may happen eventually but which currently is the Harry Fox Agency accessed via API).

Title I also established another first (to my knowledge):  The United States became the first country in the world to charge music users a fee for availing themselves of a compulsory license.  The way that works is that all users of the blanket license have to bear a share of the costs of operating the MLC and eventually establishing the musical works database (and whatever else is in the MLC’s budget like legal fees, executive pension contributions, bonuses, etc.).  This is called the “administrative assessment” and is established by the Copyright Royalty Judges through a hearing that only the DLC and the MLC were (and probably are) allowed to attend, yet sets the rates for music users not present.

The initial administrative assessment is divided into two parts: The startup costs for developing the HFA API and the operating costs of the MLC.  The startup costs for the API, vendor payments, etc., were assessed to be $33,500,000; that’s a pricey API.  The first year MLC operating costs were assessed to be $28,500,000.  Because it’s always groundhog day when it comes to music publishing proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Judges, the method of allocating these costs are a mind-numbing calculation that will require lawyers to interpret.  With all respect, the poor CRJs must wonder how anything ever actually happens in the music business based on the distorted view that parades before them.  You do have to ask yourself is this really the best we can do?  Imagine that the industry elected to solve its startup problems by single combat with one songwriter and one entrepreneur staying in a room until they made a deal.  Do you think that the best they could come up with is the system of compulsory licensing as it exists in the US?  Maybe.  Or maybe they’d come up with something simpler and less costly to administer in the absence of experts , lobbyists and lawyers.

My feeling is that the entire administrative assessment process is fraught with conflicts of interest, a view I made known in an op-ed and to the Senate Judiciary Committee staff at their request when the MMA was being drafted.  The staff actually agreed, but said their hands were tied because of “the parties”–which of course means “the lobbyists” because the MMA looked like what they call a “Two Lexus” lobbying contract.  Not for songwriters, of course.

Yet, the DLC appears to have reconsidered some of this tom foolery and should be praised for doing so.  The good news is that the market’s gravitational pull has caused the allocation of the assessment on startups to come back to earth in a much more realistic methodology.  Markets are funny that way, even markets for compulsory licenses.  While still out of step with the rest of the world, at least the US precedent appears much less likely to have the counterproductive effects that were obvious before MMA was signed into law due to the statute’s anticompetitive lock in.  And the DLC should be commended for having the courage and the energy to make the fairness-making changes.  That’s a wow moment.

Hats off to the DLC for getting out ahead of the issue.  I recommend reading the DLC filing supporting the revisions (technically a joint filing with MLC but it reads like it came from DLC with MLC signing off).  It’s clearly written and I think the narrative will be understandable and informative to a layperson (once you get past the bizarre structure of the entire thing).  The DLC tells us the reasons for revisiting the allocation:

Since the Judges adopted the initial administrative assessment regulations, the Parties [i.e., the DLC and MLC since no one else was allowed to participate even if they had a stake in the outcome] have gained a better understanding of the overall usage of sound recordings within the digital audio service industry, as well as the relative usage of various categories of services. This information has led the Parties to conclude that the allocation methodology could have significant impacts on smaller Licensees, and that the allocation methodology should be modified to better accommodate these Licensees, and that such is reasonable and appropriate. This is particularly the case as these Licensees transition to the new mechanical licensing system set forth in the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) and navigate new reporting requirements, and further as the country continues to generally struggle through the economic and health effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the cost, reporting requirements, and impacts of the pandemic are experienced by all Licensees, the Parties believe that it is reasonable and appropriate to modify the administrative assessment to better address the situations of smaller Licensees.

The “old” allocation resulted in this payment structure for services buying into the blanket license (setting aside download stores for the moment):

Old Assessment Alloction

It was that $60,000 plus an indeterminate share of operating costs that was the killer.  The new allocation is more precise applicable to other than download stores:

New Assessment Alloction

This makes a lot more sense and one can believe that some startups actually were asked what they think. Remember, David Lowery sent an open letter to the CRJs in 2019 raising this exact point reacting to the bizarre initial administrative assessment hearings:

The Judges should take into account that no startup has been present or able to negotiate the many burdens placed on them by this settlement. In particular, they have not been able to be heard by the Judges on the scope of these financial burdens that their competitors—some of the richest multinational corporations in history—have unilaterally decided to place on them with no push back.

This isn’t to say that any would be brave enough to come forward and challenge their betters if given a chance. But they should at least be given a chance.

There are some twists and turns to the new rule which was adopted by the CRJs as a final rule on January 8, 2021, and any startup should obviously get smart about the rules. But–these latest amendments have established two really great things: First, the DLC is paying attention. That is very good for the reasons David raises. The other is that the DLC is apparently actually talking to someone other than Google and Spotify and coming up with reasonable compromises. This is very, very good. Let’s hope it continues.

We’ll be watching.

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

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

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

A Letter to the Music Industry,  

Beware, the future of music is in jeopardy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gets worse.

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

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

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

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

— 
Max Fergus | Chief Executive Officer

Check out my favorite song on LÜM Here!

What Does the New MLC Candidate Mean for the Copyright Office?

Nate Rau reports in The Tennessean that there is a new group competing to be the “Mechanical Licensing Collective” under the Music Modernization Act.  I would expect there will be at least one more group come forward in the coming weeks.  This competition was easy to expect, but it does call to account the short time frames for setting up the MLC in the Music Modernization Act.  Those time frames fail to take into account the potential delaying effects of competition.

Multiple competitors also suggests that whoever wins the designation of the Copyright Office should be looking over their shoulder before the 5 year review of the MLC’s performance by the Copyright Office.  It’s likely that whoever is the runner-up in that designation pageant will still be around and may be critical of the winner when that 5 year review comes around.

It’s also worth noting that no one seems to be very interested in the music services’ counterpart to the MLC, being the “Digital Licensee Coordinator” or the “DLC”.  Whoever ends up getting to be the DLC is also going to be subject to a 5 year review, likely to be side by side with the MLC’s review.

As it now seems like there may be hard feelings on the part of the runner up for the MLC, this would be a good time for the Copyright Office to come up with objective criteria for both the selection of a winner and the definition of success when the 5 year review comes up.  It appears from the statutory language that Congress intends for the Copyright Office to come up with these criteria, and the clearer and more transparent the criteria, the less likely it will be for hard feelings to result in a meltdown.

The review of both the MLC and the DLC are governed by the same language in the Music Modernization Act:

Following the initial designation of the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], the Register shall, every 5 years, beginning with the fifth full calendar year to commence after the initial designation, publish notice in the Federal Register in the month of January soliciting information concerning whether the existing designation should be continued, or a different entity meeting the criteria described in clauses (i) through (iii) of subparagraph (A) shall be designated. Following publication of such notice, the Register shall—

“(I) after reviewing the information submitted and conducting additional proceedings as appropriate, publish notice in the Federal Register of a continuing designation or new designation of the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], as the case may be, and the reasons for such a designation, with any new designation to be effective as of the first day of a month that is not less than 6 months and not longer than 9 months after the date on which the Register publishes the notice, as specified by the Register; and

“(II) if a new entity is designated as the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the new entity.

The Congressional mandate to the Copyright Office is very broad–“soliciting information” could mean just about anything even remotely germane.  Given that the Copyright Office is to designate each of these crucially important offices empowered by Congress and to then measure their competency five years from now, it does seem that the Copyright Office would do well to give both the MLC and the DLC notice of what’s expected of each of them, and to do so before the designation is made.

For example, record keeping regarding customer service responsiveness, accuracy of the ownership database, overbudget or underbudget spending, complaints by songwriters, matching rates, number of audits of services undertaken, audit recoveries and distributions and executive compensation might all be relevant in the case of the MLC.

Some of these same criteria might be relevant for the DLC, although the DLC would have its own issues not common to the MLC.  These might include responsiveness of the DLC to potential blanket licensees, confidential treatment of competitive information, fair allocation of the assessment and communication with all licensees, especially the significant nonblanket licensees.

The Copyright Office would do well to recall the “seven anonymous amici” from the Microsoft antitrust litigation who were so dependent on Microsoft and so afraid of retaliation that they could not even use their own names to file an amicus brief in the case.  If the Copyright Office intends to have a candid assessment of either the MLC or the DLC, it might be a good idea to make an anonymous comment process available to competitors who fear retaliation.

If the Copyright Office makes a nonexhaustive list of qualities that constitute a successful completion of the five year trial period at the beginning of that period rather than the end, it might make succesful completion more likely.