2016 was a big year for the music industry, both in terms of lawsuits and lobbying, although whether these were to the industry's benefit is debatable. Here we look at major issues with the music business in desperate need of resolution in the coming year.
2016 saw a lot of lawsuits and lobbying in regards to changes in the music industry. Here are a few major issues that need to be resolved in 2017 and beyond to help sustain the music business.
Higher rates for streaming and YouTube views
The rates creators and rights owners earn from streaming and views are currently fractions of pennies. A songwriter or rights owner needs to see millions of streams/views to make any substantial income from this revenue stream. Streaming services and YouTube are the biggest platforms for consumers to listen to music, but those that make music are not able to make a sustainable living solely off income from those sources. The rates need to be higher so that those who create music for a living are actually able to earn a living.
Music publishers need to be paid more
In a similar vein, music publishers earn less than record labels from YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming and digital services. There is no music – and no recordings to be made of music -- without the creation of a musical composition first. When music publishers are paid less than record labels, not only are music publishers earning less, but the songwriters signed to those companies are earning less. If songwriters cannot make a living writing songs, then songwriting will become a hobby instead of a career.
Even though labels are making more than music publishers, the amount that the artists make is still substantially small due to the contractual terms with the labels. Again, the artists bringing songs to life are not making sufficient money based on their performances and interpretations of songs, and they will not be able to sustain a career that is financially inadequate. Creators need to be properly compensated and this should be recognized by anyone who values music in their life.
Support for fractional licensing within the music industry
The music industry has always operated on a fractional licensing basis where each writer or that writer’s representative controls the respective shares of the songs that writer has written. This model was threatened in 2016 by the Department of Justice that mandated performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI move to a 100% licensing model, thereby potentially making millions of songs unlicenseable. BMI sued the DOJ and won, but the DOJ has appealed the decision and the outcome is pending. An upheaval of the fractional licensing model would wreak havoc on the music industry and cause creators and creators’ representatives, both within the US and abroad, to be compensated even less than they are now, or make their works unlicensable. This is an unacceptable solution and would be a massive blow to not only creators, but to the music business as a whole.
Cooperation between the law and the internet
When the copyright law was last written in 1976, the internet was not used by the public let alone as a way to consume music. Therefore all user-generated content websites, including YouTube, etc. are operating in a way not contemplated by the law when it was first written. The law needs to be updated to address how works can be licensed in a way that cooperates with the digital world while fairly compensating those who create the works being used. There also needs to be a better way to deal with online infringements. Most online infringements are dealt with via DMCA (another area of law needing reform) takedown notices, although YouTube is now allowing content owners to share in revenue from infringing videos through their content management system. Again, the amount of money shared in this scenarios is so small that it is not a sustainable model and goes back to the need for increased rates.
Consumers need to learn to value music
On a daily basis I am confronted with people who want to use music but don't want to pay for it. They argue that they should be able to use the music for free because the writer or artist will make money on the backend from sales or promotion. However, that backend money is usually never earned as promised and results in the artist or writer allowing the use of his/her music for free. Companies want to pay less and keep the lion's share of income for themselves, which again creates a problem for creators trying to live off making music.
Internet companies and radio make millions and sometimes billions of dollars per year, and they continue to lobby to be able to use music freely or at least pay less for it, as well as to loosen copyright laws. Many of these platforms have built their business on using music as their main commodity; yet they don't want to pay for the music that is the central product of their business model. All of the performance rights organizations (most recently GMR) have been fighting with radio and other services to command higher rates for their members and affiliates, but they consistently get pushback from licensees that don't want to pay. This problem doesn’t stop at the digital realm, as film and television companies also regularly try to offer low fees to use music in their productions.
When one thinks back on their life, usually there are certain songs that evoke certain memories, that were important at a specific life event, or that got one through a hard time. Couples usually designate at least one song as “their song.” Certain scenes in films and television shows would not come to life without the use of a particular song being used in that scene. Certain artists and albums serve as the soundtracks of people’s lives. Imagine if all of those memories were taken away because artists and songwriters could no longer have careers making music because they were not paid enough to make a living. Most people wouldn’t go into a store a take a piece of clothing or a table without paying for it, yet those same people think it is okay to take music for free. Most people would not think to ask if they could pay their doctor fractions of his fee because they can, yet people keep offering lower payments for using music. Music has value. Those that use or consume music need to recognize that value, or watch the quality and prevalence of music disappear from their lives.
*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 catalogues, 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.