It Takes an Army

Jun 20 2009

Okay, so let me start by saying that after watching “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Literal Video Version), I take back all the bad stuff I said about YouTube. Sure they steal from copyright holders (think about the fact that this literal video version has earned nothing for the songwriters or publishers of the song, despite millions of views). But I gotta be honest, this video is really, really funny.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XkD5sJwwrE

On a completely different note…

One of the more important events in the world of music publishing took place last week, and most songwriters probably didn’t even know it happened. The International Confederation of Authors and Composers (CISAC) held its second annual World Copyright Summit on June 9-10 in Washington, DC, with an invitation list that included representatives from across the entertainment and technology fields, including executives from the Motion Picture Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, Microsoft, my good friends at YouTube, as well as government officials and legislators. But the guest list was heavily weighted toward the music publishing community, with senior executives from a wide variety of publishers large and small, as well as collection societies from all over the world.

While I did not attend (someone’s gotta stay home and take care of business, after all), I understand that the discussions were comprehensive and thoughtful, and relatively free of vitriol, despite sizable differences amongst many of the parties involved.

The truth is, both sides are frustrated with the licensing systems that exist, which are admittedly far out of step with the realities of the digital, global world in which we live. Rights-holders feel utterly unprotected and incapable of mounting any defense against the endless and uncontrolled proliferation of copyright violators. On the flip side, many well-meaning entrepreneurs watch their business plans crash on the rocks of the licensing laws, where the use of even one song on a website can require the permissions from publishers and collection agencies around the world. Having recently completed a book that required lyric reprint permission from a number of sources, I can tell you first-hand that the licensing situation, as it exists today, is a slow-moving horse and buggy caught in the middle of a high-speed, worldwide Information Highway.

http://www.amazon.com/Billboard-Guide-Writing-Producing-Songs/dp/0823099547

From what I’ve heard, one of the most constructive ideas that emerged in the conference was the idea of a worldwide licensing database that would allow licensors to go to one stop to obtain permissions on a worldwide basis. Just the challenge of tracking down the rights-holders in each individual territory can often be overwhelming. I still remember working as an A&R person on the “Wild Thornberrys” soundtrack for Jive/Nickelodeon, and trying to license a beautiful African song called “Awa Awa”, a journey that took us from France to Africa to Brooklyn that almost resulted in a last minute change in the movie due to the difficulty of tracking down the rights holders. Multiply this by several thousand songs and you start to get some idea of the challenges faced by many start-up, music-based ventures who are trying to do the right thing by licensing the music they use.

The spirit of cooperation and thoughtful discourse that dominated the Copyright Summit is exactly what we need to begin to address the challenges of making music make money in 2009, and beyond. But the Summit is also a demonstration of the increasing advantages of being in business with a large publisher or collection society in this generation of copyright disputes and international piracy. I’ve been outspoken in my first book, Making Music Make Money, about the importance and viability of songwriters creating their own music publishing venture, and this blog has emphasized over and over an independent approach to the business of songwriting and music publishing. But, it has to be acknowledged that it is becoming increasingly difficult for small, independent publishers, especially those who are not affiliated with the major collection societies like Harry Fox Agency, to get paid, and more importantly, to protect their interests on a worldwide basis.

If you look at the attendees at the Copyright Summit, they were predominately representatives from the major publishers, large independents, the major collection societies like HFA, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and their international equivalents. By virtue of size and influence, these are the people who will be at the table when the decisions about the future of music publishing are made, and consequently, whatever new systems emerge will be designed primarily to serve these companies and organizations. Between the battles with the record labels, the digital music providers, the international licensing organizations and the governments of countries all over the world, it’s becoming more and more challenging for a lone songwriter/publisher to defend his or her rights, and also to actually collect the royalties that are due.

Having said that, I’m not telling anyone that they should give up their independence. But I am suggesting that songwriters and independent publishers are going to feel increasing pressure to find partnerships with larger entities, at least in the short term. We are living in a moment in which the rule-book is being drastically re-written. At least during that formative period, there are definite advantages to having one of the major players on your side. When you’re in a street fight, it’s good to have a big friend.

If your company is at the stage of earning consistent, measurable royalties, it may be time to consider striking at least an administration deal (an arrangement in which one publisher does not share the control of the copyright, but simply collects the income and distributes it, in exchange for a percentage fee) with a larger company or organization. Beyond the major publishers like EMI, SonyATV, Universal or Warner Chappell, there are numerous independent publishers that excel at these kinds of services. Check out:

Kobalt Music: www.kobaltmusic.com
Bug Music: www.bugmusic.com
Royalty Network: www.roynet.com
PEN Music: www.penmusic.com

You could also use a collection service like Harry Fox Agency, which is the largest collection organization for mechanical royalties in the US. Remember, these partnerships are not a matter of giving up any control over your copyrights. These partnerships are simply a means of issuing licenses and collecting your money. Just as importantly, they can offer some assurance that you will have a piece of the often haphazard payments being made by digital music companies or monies collected in lawsuits. At the very least, you need to become an active member of ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, as well as trade groups like the NMPA. Now is not the time for going one on one. The challenge of getting paid requires some teamwork.

http://www.harryfox.com

http://www.nmpa.org

If you want to learn more about administration deals and how they work, I’d encourage you to check out my online course, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic.com. The whole course is focused on helping you to create your own independent publishing company. Nevertheless, there is also ample discussion of how to build an effective team to support you in your independent venture, and that includes organizations that can help you get paid. The new semester is starting soon– so check it out today…

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