Zoe Keating: ‘Unrepresented songwriters deserve to be heard’

image from miro.medium.comA battle is brewing on the songwriter front. Two organizations, the NMPA backed Music Licencing Collective (MLC) and the independent non-profit American Music Licensing Collective (ALMC) are vying to become the conduit for songwriter and publishing royalties from streamers like Spotify, as mandated by the new Music Modernization Act. Music and artist advocate Zoe Keating is firmly in the ALMC camp and explains why others should join her.


By musician and artist advocate Zoe Keating

I took a few years away from artist advocacy (after my husband died of cancer) but recently I feel called to get involved again and I’ve joined the board of the American Mechanical Licensing Collective.

I’m not being paid to do this and I’m not on anyone’s payroll — I’m a single mom who makes a living as a recording artist and I hardly even have time to even write this — but I feel compelled to speak out because time is short and I don’t see anyone else doing it. I’ve always advocated for under-represented artists and done what I can to shine a light on the friction and roadblocks that we face in earning a living from our music. My interest in joining the AMLC is to get royalties to the people who earned them, as transparently and efficiently as possible.

This is wonky stuff but bear with me

The AMLC is one of two groups that submitted a bid to run the Mechanical Licensing Collective (the MLC) as laid out by the passage of the Music Modernization Act. The other group is the National Music Publisher Association (NMPA). The bids to run the MLC were submitted on March 22 and the Copyright Office is accepting feedback from songwriters until April 22.

The NMPA did a lot of work to draft and help pass the MMA and I think everyone is grateful for their efforts but as I’ve gotten deeper into this, I’ve started to wonder about something. Is the NMPA obfuscating the issues in an effort to suppress public discussion during the Copyright Office public comment period? I realize that’s a big accusation to make but I wonder this because they stand to gain so much by controlling the MLC…at the expense of artists like me.

It’s not easy for unaffiliated artists to collect mechanical royalties

Mechanical royalties are confusing and I think many free-range songwriters don’t know they have to register to collect them. Where do you register? This new law is supposed to give unaffiliated songwriters a place to do that in the form of the MLC I’m talking about here.

In the past, if you were a free-agent and wanted to collect your mechanical royatlies you had to register your songs with both Harry Fox and Music Reports (they each collect domestic mechanical royalties from different music services). However, this wasn’t easy. I like to think of myself as pretty savvy but I haven’t collected all my mechanicals.

The Harry Fox Agency was setup long ago in 1927 by the NMPA. While the NMPA ran Harry Fox they didn’t allow self-published artists in. I was only able to sign up after Harry Fox was sold to SESAC, who worked with a company called TuneRegistry to develop an interface that let indies like me into the system in 2017 (to add to the confusion, thanks to infighting during the drafting of the MMA, Harry Fox and other administrative companies can continue to operate and issue direct licenses with streaming services separate from the MLC).

I knew there were royalties to be collected. Between the years of 2004 and 2016, before I was allowed into Harry Fox, I had already been making a living off the sale of my music, had an album that was on the billboard charts for 54 weeks, sold 30,000 albums, had millions of Pandora streams and steady terrestrial performing and digital performance royalties. What happened to my mechanical royalties during that period? I have no idea. Were they liquidated? Were they distributed to major publishers? As for international mechanicals, I’ve never collected them and will probably continue not to since they are outside the scope of the MMA. In short, if the NMPA goes on to run the MLC — and they actively kept self-published artists out of their sandbox in the past — do I trust them to deliver my mechanicals going forward? No I don’t.

Matching the unmatched

There is a pot of unclaimed royalties that have already been paid by music services that is estimated to be between $1.5 and $2.5 billion. A major task of the new MLC will be to apply some clever technology to match that money to its rightful owners. I’ve already explained the difficulty of collecting when you’re unrepresented. Without question, a large portion of these unclaimed royalties belong to self-published songwriters.

The new law says that after three years the board of the MLC can decide to liquidate that pot of unclaimed royalties and distribute it to themselves by market share. This strikes me as a huge conflict of interest. Does the NMPA even have any incentive to do what it takes to match the royalties to whomever earned them? Are the unclaimed royalties of unrepresented songwriters just going to keep getting distributed to Sony, Universal etc now and forever going forward?

The whole collection of royalty systems is complex because sometimes a song is written by, performed by, recorded by and published by entirely different entities. In my case, as is true for many other self-published artists, I do it all myself. The MLC will serve everyone who doesn’t have a direct deal with a music service. Meanwhile, the major publisher members of the of the NMPA have direct deals with the streaming services and do not need the services of the MLC…so why do they want to run it?

These are not the royalties you are looking for

The NMPA very cleverly named their proposed group the “MLC” and continually refer to it as the “industry consensus” group. David Israelite in his sworn testimony to congress said the NMPA “is the trade association representing all American music publishers and their songwriting partners.” That’s not quite true. The NMPA does not represent songwriters like me.

Again, there is so much confusion on the street about mechanical royalties. I’ve been talking to all the songwriters I can the last couple weeks. So many are confused about what these royalties are and how to collect them. Some songwriters have tried to educate themselves and have read up about it only then to be confused by the NMPA’s naming confusion and as a result, think that the NMPA’s MLC is already The MLC or that it is the same as the AMLC or that everyone is on the same page. In short, there is confusion. That confusion benefits the NMPA.

Intentional or not, it is absolutely in the interest of the NMPA to suppress public debate. Their members will make their comments to the Copyright Office and it’s in the NMPA’s interest to keep things quiet until after the public comment period ends. Also, I haven’t personally experienced this because I’m a free agent, but several people I know have spoken off the record about being pressured by their publishing admins or the companies they work for to refrain from volunteering for the AMLC board or publicly supporting the AMLC.

If the NMPA is awarded this contract by the Copyright Office they will control billions of dollars in royalties without oversight (unlike the AMLC, the NMPA proposal says the Copyright Office will not oversee their entity) and with a conflict of interest that gives them incentive to liquidate and distribute unclaimed royalties to their members rather than to the songwriters who actually earned them.

Extend the comment period

The education issues here are huge. All the songwriters, large and small, that I’ve talked to have asked why they haven’t heard about any of this controversy when so much money is at stake. “If it was a big deal, why haven’t I heard about it?”. I can’t believe the deadline is as soon as April 22. We need more time to educate songwriters on this issue so they can choose which entity will administer their mechanical royalties.

I call on the Registrar of Copyrights to extend the comment period.

Meanwhile, I call on all songwriters to submit comments to the Registrar of Copyrights.

Ironically, a lot of the obstacles in the early stages of my career came not from file-sharing/piracy sites but from the established music industry and their gate-keeping. I understand that the NMPA is trying to protect its members from an industry that most often tries to siphon off as much of their member’s earnings as possible, but they should not protect themselves at the expense of unrepresented songwriters. Lets not bake the mistakes of the past into future systems.

I thank the NMPA for all their hard work getting the MMA passed but I would like to hear from them regarding these issues. I fully expect to be dismissed or ignored as uninformed or insignificant, as is my usual experience when I speak up on matters of this kind. Songwriters like myself might not represent financial market share but we do represent the majority of songwriters out there (last figures I heard: of the estimated 500,000 songs published every month, perhaps 90% are from self-published writers). Our voices deserve to be heard.

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