There’s never a busier day on the publishing calendar than the day after a holiday, and the first working day after New Years is the mother of them all. Having had a nice two week break to sit and contemplate the future of music, the inadequacies of their present situation, the wealth of unexploited future classics sitting in their song catalogs, and the disturbing similarity between their circumstances this year and last, songwriters the world over wake up on the first day of the new working year with one single mission forefront in their minds:
I know this because I used to be a songwriter, and I did the same thing. Every year.
Of course, it’s only natural to want to reassess, re-organize, and restructure in order to get a fresh start on the new year. It’s what we should be doing, whether we’re songwriters or publishers. But often it’s too easy for songwriters to bring a list of complaints and goals to the conversation, without providing any ideas as to strategy. Likewise, too many publishers are prone to offer up a plan that’s amounts to more of the same—“keep writing, keep pitching and let’s hope we get that big break”. Both approaches leave a very good percentage chance that songwriter and publisher will be having the very same conversation next year. And no one needs that.
So what does it take to move things ahead in 2012? Of course, the detailed strategy will vary for every writer and publisher in every genre across every part of the world. Nevertheless, there are a few resolutions we can almost all agree to make, that will pay off regardless of our professional level or musical market.
In lieu of a champagne toast, I offer you a no-cost kickstarter for the new year:
12 Resolutions for 2012!
1. Get the paperwork right.
When I moved from being a songwriter to a music publisher, one of the great surprises was to see first-hand how much songwriter and publisher income vanishes every year due to paperwork errors, omissions and general sloppiness. Settle your split disputes, check your song registrations around the world, read your royalty statements, make sure your PRO (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, PRS, etc) has your correct address. There’s no excuse for a paperwork error in publishing. Paperwork is pretty much what publishing is.
2. Expand your territory.
When investment-backed companies like BMG Rights make billion dollar investments in the music-publishing sector, one of the key motivators is the anticipated expansion of the global music market. And yet many songwriters and publishers, particularly in genres like country, hip-hop, r&b, and even rock rarely think about the world outside their own borders. Beef up your sub-pub relationships, check out internet radio to familiarize yourself with markets outside of your own territory, use YouTube and other tools to find talent all over the world. There’s almost always more than one geographical market for any type of music.
3. Don’t demo.
Songwriters are the only ones left still using the word. Rough work tapes for reference are fine. But when you record, make masters. That way you can license them to film & television, commercials, video games and other venues.
4. Live the single life.
Please…. no more unknown artists making their “album”. At this point, superstars are struggling to sell albums. We live in a singles market, so make singles—one memorable “hit” song will move your career further than a thousand interesting album tracks. Unless you’re Radiohead or Adele, put your focus on making singles.
5. Tighten your belt.
The tragic truth is, there’s a lot of money that’s gone out of music publishing over the past five years, and it’s not coming back. Plummeting mechanical income, some ugly days at the bargaining table for ASCAP and BMI, the complete bungling of the negotiations for the rates on “streaming” services, and wild, cutthroat competition in the sync world all add up to one thing: less. Less money for everyone, so get used to it. We’re all going to have to cut waste, reduce overhead, and eat fewer lunches at Bice. Let’s start with the cutting waste and reducing overhead part.
6. Loosen your grip.
Publishers like control—it’s our nature. But with more and more of the entertainment universe being covered by blanket licenses, rather than specific song by song licenses, we’re going to have to be willing to put our music out there, with less and less control over how it will be used. Whether it’s a homemade YouTube video made by a stranger or a mix on turntable.fm, songs are being used all the time—we’re just not being asked for permission. Those uses are what keep songs alive, even if it’s not yet something remotely profitable. But squeeze those songs too tight and you’ll kill ‘em.
7. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
In a world in which the income for publishers and songwriters has been cut drastically, we cannot continue to waste time on meaningless matters. Does the split dispute get settled at 17.5 percent or 20 percent? Unless the record goes 4x platinum, it just doesn’t matter. Someone changed a line in the lyrics without permission? Just hope a listener is paying enough attention to notice. What matters is what makes money. All else can be ignored.
8. Put your head in the clouds.
For better or worse, the industry is embracing new cloud-based streaming services like Spotify, which means that iTunes will soon be going the way of Tower Records. Given that this technology didn’t exactly sneak up on us, one might have hoped that the same mistakes made with mp3s might have been avoided this time around. Incredibly, the record companies managed to get this one right, while the publisher’s income seems to be lost somewhere in the grey, murky ether. But publishers are going to have to figure out how to turn this technology into something profitable, or the only clouds we’ll be seeing will be those we pass as we plummet to our demise. This is the battleground for the next five years.
9. Don’t lose that syncing feeling.
Welcome to the only game in town. In the past ten years, the focus of publishing has shifted almost entirely, from records and radio, to film, television and advertising. At this point, the transition is complete, and the sync world is the one that every songwriter and publisher has to be a part of. Depending on the style of music you work with, it might be video games, advertisements, source music libraries, branding campaigns, television spots or web-based advertising programs. But your business has to have some strategy for licensing your music in sync uses.
10. Get the money in.
Easier said than done. It now seems that every record label uses songs without mechanical licenses in place, theater shows routinely drop songs into a revue without clearing the dramatic rights, advertisers sign sync licenses long after ads are on the air, and everyone pays late, if at all. It takes a new kind of tenacity to get paid, and only those who are the most persistent, the most unrelenting, and the nastiest will get their money. You can’t just put your registrations in place and wait for the payment to show up. Those who snooze will be abused.
11. Move your business beyond music.
Despite a slightly better year in 2011, the writing is on the wall: the music business is in an almost permanent state of contraction. It simply is no longer the singular cultural defining force that it was 30 years ago. The good news is, the entertainment business as a whole is growing constantly, from new cable channels to internet tv to virtual worlds to a myriad of different venues for live entertainment. The best news is, music remains a vital element in almost every entertainment form. Sometimes it’s okay to be the supporting actor. Music publishers who rely solely on the music business can’t survive. Better to be one small part of the larger industry of show business.
12. Move your music beyond business.
Clearly 2011 was the year of Adele. Coming out of an environment knee-deep in Dr. Luke sound-alike records and generic auto-tuned voices over a Euro dance track, “21” was a breath of fresh air that above all else, sounded honest. Public taste always swings like a pendulum and one can be sure that whatever is popular in 2011 will change to at least some degree in 2012. But Adele’s triumph signals a move away from things that sound blatantly contrived. Songwriters are going to have to be more subtle, more daring, and dig a little deeper. Music that sounds more like a marketing strategy than a song may be on its way out.
Everything always looks good at the start. I’m sure that for all of us, 2012 will have its high points and low points, and enough inspiration and frustration to keep us all battling for the next 12 months. Still, now is a moment to make some plans beyond just calling your publisher, or assuring your songwriter that this could be his or her big year. Here’s to making, not letting, things happen in 2012. Happy weaseling in the new year!