Big news in the world of mechanical royalties, the Copyright Royalty Board is opening up hearings to set a new mechanical royalty rate. The board will hear from both music creators and users as it makes a determination which will be in effect for the next five years.
When a song has millions of streams on Spotify and views on YouTube, most people think “Wow, that artist must be making a ton of money!” It’s easy to make that assumption when music superstars are seen on television wearing designer clothing and leaving the hottest nightclubs in town, only to drive away in their Bentley to charter a private plane to their yacht.
What most people don’t realize is that the above is 1) often an image, 2) accessible to only a small number of music creators within the music business, and 3) there are songwriters who wrote those hit songs and the music publishers that represent those songwriters who are earning a mere $10 per 1 million Pandora streams.
Here’s how the structure works. A songwriter writes a composition, which is usually owned or co-owned by a music publisher, a company that handles the management, exploitation and royalty collection for that composition. The music publisher and songwriter split the income from that composition. The main royalties paid for a composition are mechanical royalties for the reproduction of that composition on CDs and via digital means on iTunes and streaming services, and performance royalties paid when a composition is performed in public. Synchronization fees come into play when a composition is used in television or film, but that is a negotiated contract fee separate from a royalty.
While performance royalties have recently been in dispute, this article focuses on mechanical royalties. Mechanical rates are set by the United States government, specifically by a panel of judges called the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB). The CRB determines the royalty rates paid to songwriters and music publishers for every sale of a composition via CD or digital service like iTunes, as well as every time that composition is streamed on services like Spotify, Pandora, etc. The current mechanical rates are 9.1¢ for a sale (split by the music publisher and the songwriter), and streaming mechanicals are fractions of a cent per play.
This month, the CRB has opened hearings to set new mechanical royalty rates, which will be in effect from 2018 through 2022. The CRB will hear testimony from both music creators and music users and will make its decision in December 2017.
While this trial may not be hot news for anyone outside of the music industry, it will determine the amount of money music creators can earn for the next five years.
The music users’ side includes representatives from digital giants like Google, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon and Apple. These companies are lobbying to further decrease the royalties paid to music creators. For example, Apple wants to pay a flat fee of 9.1¢ per every 100 streams on Apple Music. Companies like Google, Amazon and Apple make billions of dollars per year, and Spotify and Pandora are not profitable but have billions invested in them, yet not one of these companies is willing to allocate more money towards the people that create the music on which they have built their businesses. It is also worth noting that not only have these companies built their business models on music but also are using music to promote their services, such as Amazon using free music streaming to sell Prime subscriptions.
The National Music Publisher’s Association (NMPA) and Nashville Songwriter’s Association (NSAI) are representing music publishers and songwriters at the CRB hearings. "[Tech companies are] creating new ways to distribute music [and] they are also fighting in this trial to pay as little to songwriters for the songs that drive their businesses," wrote David Israelite, president and CEO of NMPA in a letter to songwriters. "[A] rate structure that allows global tech companies to build their empires on the backs of songwriters, without providing those songwriters with fair compensation, is unsustainable.”
The NMPA has issued an open letter to the digital giant companies, urging them to work with songwriters and music publishers instead of fighting against them. The letter is accompanied by a petition, which has already received over 7,800 signatures.
As I have previously written, the music industry will continue to wither without fair compensation to its creators and those that represent them. Creators of music are not all rich superstars. They are regular people with amazing talents to create music that impacts lives around the world. They are people with families and mortgages and bills to pay. They may not work a 9-5 office job, but that doesn’t make them different than the average American earning a paycheck. Why shouldn’t songwriters and their representatives also earn a living from their skills?
*This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin M. Jacobson is a music attorney whose clients include Grammy and Emmy Award winners, legacy clients and catalogs, songwriters, music publishers, record labels, and independent artists and companies. She is based in Los Angeles where she handles a wide variety of music agreements and negotiations, in addition to owning and overseeing all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection.