To Do List 2012

Jan 12 2012

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:

CALL PUBLISHER!

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!

 

 

 

 

Recently had an opportunity to spend a very impressive evening at Berklee College of Music’s “Perfect Pitch” event, which matched student songwriters with student vocalists for a concert that gave hope to any of us planning to stick around the pop music business for the next five years. Out of a dozen or so songs, there were at least three or four songs with real radio potential, and a couple of potential stars among the performers. That’s a percentage that would satisfy any A&R person or publisher.

However, what was even more satisfying was the acknowledgement implicit in the structure of the event itself, which was that pitching songs is no longer a business of sending out mp3 files or cold-calling A&R execs.  A perfect pitch is now about artist development, finding performance opportunities, building a story and measuring results.  I took onthe same subject in my own “Perfect Pitch” event, at the New York Songwriters Collective, in October.             Songwriters sending out demos to record execs or managers because they “have a song that’s perfect for your artist” are missing the point. No one’s looking for songs.

In the new music eco-system, there are 3 things the music industry needs, and the success or failure of any songwriter’s pitch can be predicted almost entirely on the basis of how many of those 3 things are in place.  If you can provide a clean sweep of 3 out of 3, you’ll likely be signing a deal memo before leaving the building. If you’ve got 2 out of 3, you will probably get an offer, though it might not be exactly the deal you were hoping for. Bring only one out of three and the best you can hope for is a polite invitation to come back sometime in the distant future.  Here are the three things that every weasel wants and will pay for—the essential components to a “Perfect Pitch”:

1.  Product

This just means ready-made artists and productions—records that are ready to go. In case you didn’t get the memo, major music companies are no longer in the business of developing artists or “making records”. A&R staffs have been slashed, and frankly, the track records of most A&R people were abysmal anyway.  Record labels and even publishers today are looking for people who have product in hand—artists who they’ve developed, records they’re releasing, shows they’re producing. Don’t bring demos. No one in the record business even knows what those are. Bring product.

2.  Platforms.

Every artist needs a platform—or three. A platform is a stage, but not in the obvious way. It just means a venue for exposure, a way of reaching an audience.  For about eight decades now, radio has been the dominant “platform” for breaking new artists, and while it remains important, it’s certainly no longer the only game in town. In most cases, radio is simply too limited, too expensive and too difficult to control to be the sole platform for an artist. You need some other ways to expose the artist to the public: mixtapes, club play, a television talent show, a spot on Glee, a touring spot, a YouTube video. Needless to say, songwriters and artists that can bring with them a platform, whether it’s a writer/producer like David Guetta, who also can use his status as a superstar DJ to give an artist and record exposure, or an actress/singer with a Disney show, or a band with a guest spot on a prominent tour, are bringing their labels and publishers a big head start.

3.  Proof

Not only has the internet brought a vast array of potential new platforms, it has also brought the ability to measure results in a very precise and visible way. The blather of a manager hyping the band’s live show (“you gotta see the crowd reaction—the girls go nuts for these kids…”) is now just so much white noise—much of the proof is plain to see:  How many YouTube views? Facebook friends? What are the sales figures like? How many Twitter followers?

Of course there are varying degrees of proof. As many labels have learned the hard way, 500, 000 Facebook friends, signing up free of charge, will not necessarily put gold records on the walls. Ticket sales and downloads speak much louder than YouTube views. Nevertheless, an artist or producer with a platform that delivers proven results, whether it’s a Top Ten Nielsen rating or a buzz on the key blogs, has the kind of story that A&R people want to hear, and to believe.

At the risk of raising songwriter cynicism to new levels, it’s worth noting that the actual quality of the music itself is not necessarily a predominating factor in any of these three elements.  Presumably, a badly made recording of a meaningless song performed by an uninteresting artist will not find many readily available platforms, and even if it does, it will not gather the kind of reaction that proves its suitability to the market. On the other hand, stranger stuff has happened.

The truth is, most modern music execs are neither qualified or interested in being Simon Cowell-like judges of talent. If there is a proven audience for a particular piece of product, and there is a way of getting that product to the audience, that’s enough to greenlight  a project at any record company or publisher still left in business. Whether it’s an artist like Drake, who brought a story of success from platforms like mixtapes and Degrassi, or Karmin, who signed their deal at Epic on the strength of a YouTube buzz, the contemporary songwriter needs more to their business model than just a bag full of demos, regardless of the quality of them. If the business is now about product, platforms and proof, then a songwriter has to be:

1.    Producer

Producers make product. They are talent magnets; they are people that develop talent.

This does not necessarily mean that you have to be a “producer” in the sense of being able to create records. If you’re a lyricist or a topline writer, or someone who can write but doesn’t really know anything about record making, then you’ll need to team with someone who can do those things. Your role will be to write songs that define the artist and give them a reason for existing.  Just as not every songwriter is a record-maker, not everyone who can program and mix is a producer in the sense of having a vision, drawing out and developing an artist, and giving a project a unique identity.  But however you and/or your team go about accomplishing it, the business now requires both elements, the song and the record, in order to create a product that anyone actually needs or wants.

2.   Partner

You can make product by yourself. But no one develops a platform by themselves. Syco can make records all day, but they can’t develop a TV show like X-Factor on their own. Drake can write songs and sing them, but he can’t break on a mixtape without featuring Lil Wayne, or Trey Songz, or others.  DJs need singers, singers need television talent shows, rappers need guest spots, bands need opening slots on tours. As Dean Martin put it, everybody needs somebody sometimes. If you want a platform, you have to build it by working with others.

In a larger sense, this means that songwriters need to be in the entertainment business, not in the music business. The entertainment business is growing, in areas including TV, cable, internet TV, film, games, internet content, books, fashion, and clubs.  Songs are a part of almost every entertainment form, and opportunities for music will continue to grow. But you cannot live in a music business vacuum. First, you have to create product. Then you must learn to partner, in order to build a platform. And if you want to be able to provide proof that your product and platform work, you’re going to have to be a:

3.  Promoter

In the big sense of the word.  You, or your partners, are going to have to take the initial steps to get your product into the world, at least in some limited way. Maybe it’s a local release, or a test market, or a pilot, or small tour, or a mixtape. But YOU will have to be the catalyst to make something happen and to show that what you’re doing connects with people. You can’t just write the songs, you’re going to have to pitch them and place a few—at least enough to show that they’re placeable. You will have to put your artist in a place where they can develop a following, whether it’s YouTube or a residency or a foreign release.

That’s what I liked best about Berklee’s “Perfect Pitch”. Here was a group of songwriters happily embracing each of the challenges in the creative process. Not just the challenge of writing a great song, but finding an artist to present the song, putting together a performance venue to create a platform for the music, and soliciting the reaction of a live audience and industry judges to gather some proof that the product was hitting its mark.

Even better, it showed a creative community networking amongst each other to find the singers, producers, arrangers, background vocalists, organizers and musicians needed to put the whole show together. More than any of the talent on display that night, and there was a considerable amount, that willingness to partner and collaborate will be the key to these students’ future success.  Compliments to Berklee’s Songwriting club, and to the faculty that supported them, in putting together an exciting look at what the next generation has in store for the music business…

Happy Holidays everyone!  Thanks for all your support for this blog, and I look forward to catching up with you in 2012.   Keep weaseling…

Buggin’ Out

Oct 09 2011

It’s a perfect defining moment, encapsulating the state of music publishing in 2011:

In the middle of negotiating a multi-million dollar sale to BMG Rights (who else?), Bug Music overlooks one small thing on the to-do list and fails to pick up a contract option for superstar Bruno Mars. This petty oversight causes them to lose the services of the biggest contemporary pop star the company has ever had.  Nice one.

It would be funny if it weren’t so familiar—not in its specifics (as most companies don’t necessarily make this particular mistake) but in its substance. While the deal-makers at the top occupy themselves with acquisitions, mergers, funding schemes and due diligence (or does anyone do that anymore?), the demoralized and depleted staff, those employees who actually do the work of music publishing, are either too disinterested, distracted or disgusted to manage even the basics—registering songs, collecting money, paying the money, or yes, picking up contract options on the people who actually generate income.  From the outside, one looks on and thinks “How could this possibly happen?” Those of us on the inside wonder how it could not.

Underneath the usual legalese of the court filing, the actual issues at stake here are simple, rooted in the fundamentals of music publishing that have been discussed often in this blog. It’s a matter of minimum delivery commitments (this stipulates the number of songs that the writer must submit during the contract period), minimum release commitments (this  identifies the number of “commercially released” songs that must be part of the minimum delivery), and the contract period and subsequent options, which constitute the “term” of the deal. Judging from the filing, which you can check out below, there is not a great deal of complexity here.  But as with most matters contractual, there are a few different angles that have to be considered.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/63616763/Bruno-Mars-vs-Bug-Music-Inc

As with most writers signed to exclusive co-publishing agreements, Mars was bound for an initial contract period, and Bug had options to continue the deal for several additional periods. In each contract period, there was a specific minimum delivery commitment that set the number of songs that Mars would need to submit before Bug was required to initiate the next option (and pay the advance associated with that option).

Nothing is more important for songwriters to understand: most co-publishing contracts do not build their term around calendar years, but rather the completion of contract periods.  Conversely, most publishing administration deals are based on calendar years (usually 3-5 years, then automatically renewing until termination). It’s vital that songwriters understand what constitutes a contract period under their particular deal.  It’s good for publishing companies to have a grasp of it as well.

One of the elements that frequently adds confusion to the minimum delivery commitment is the clause that usually follows it in the contract, which is the minimum release commitment. This provision outlines the number of songs within the minimum delivery that must be “commercially released” during the contract period. For example, if Bruno Mars had a 12 song minimum commitment (the actual numbers on this have not been revealed) , the minimum release commitment  might stipulate that at least 4 of those songs had to be released for commercial sale to the public.  Together, the minimum delivery and release commitment is usually identified as the MDRC.  That’s the easy part.

In reality, the minimum release commitment inevitably raises all sorts of questions:

  • Is a song put out on the writer’s own label, or simply made available on iTunes  “a release”?
  • Should a song released only in one small territory (Canada for instance) count as a full “release”?
  • Is something commercially released when it appears in the stores or online, or when the record company completes the mechanical licensing of the song?  Split disputes between songwriters can often delay licensing for months or even years after the record is in the stores.
  • Is a song that’s licensed for synchronization (in a movie or game) “commercially released”, or does it need to generate a mechanical license?
  • Should the same song, recorded and released by two different artists, count only once toward the minimum release?

That’s all before we even start talking about song splits. The other key factor to understand about an MDRC  is that only the percentage of the song that a songwriter controls counts toward his or her commitment.  So if Bruno Mars co-writes every song, and receives 50% of the ownership on each one (in fact, he probably often received less than that), he would need to write 24 songs, and 8 of those would need to be commercially released, in order to satisfy the 12 song, 4 release MDRC. If you are part of a three-person writing team that always splits songs evenly, you would need to write 30 songs to hit a 10 song MDRC, complete your contract period and trigger your next advance.

I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that some or all of these issues will come into play in the upcoming court case between Bruno Mars and Bug. In reports I’ve seen, Bug asserts that Mars did not complete the MDRC when he claimed to, and therefore the publisher was not legally required to pick up the option at that time. On the other side, Mars alleges that Bug confirmed that the MDRC had been met, and only changed their position once he notified them that the contract was terminated.  Keep in mind that any changes in the copyright ownership on a song, even after a commercial release (because of a sample issue or a dispute between writers, for instance), could change the amount that a song would count toward the MDRC.  There are a lot of gray areas, and in this particular case, Bug is probably glad of it.

What does seem clear is that Bruno Mars notified Bug in October of 2010 that he had fulfilled his minimum release requirement; in February 2011, he notified them that he had completed the full delivery requirement.  According to the filing, Bug acknowledged at each point that the commitments had been met. Of course, this will likely be a highly contentious issue as the case moves ahead.  But after receiving notification that Mars had completed the MDRC in February, Bug had 30 days in which to exercise the next option, which simply meant sending him a letter and inevitably cutting a fairly hefty check.

When Mars did not receive any notice that Bug was exercising the option, he was required to send the company an Option Warning letter, which alerted them to the fact that the contract was on the verge of being terminated, and gave the company 10 days in which to act.  Again, this is a fairly standard “notice to cure” clause, that allows a company to cure a breach (like the failure to issue a royalty statement ) or pick up an option within a prescribed window of time.

One surprising thing here is that Bug’s window was quite small—most such clauses allow for 30 days.  The other surprise is that even with the warning, Bug failed yet again to exercise the option for their Grammy-winning, chart-topping songwriter. Companies frequently miss option periods, but most are jolted into action by the warning notice. On May 24 and again on May 31, Mars notified the company that the contract had been terminated. Only on June 6 did Bug get around to sending a letter exercising the option, paying the advance, and claiming that the MDRC had not been met in February, but rather several months later.

For most casual, non-industry observers, the operative acronym here will not be MDRC, but rather WTF.  Why would a company allow the relationship with their superstar songwriter and artist to deteriorate to the point of niggling over song percentages , release dates and delivery requirements? It would seem that Mars was doing a pretty good job—handing in satisfactory songs, staying reasonably active, making some hits, winning a Grammy, and doing what most publishers would like their writers to do. Wouldn’t it have made sense to pick up the option in advance, or at least when the minimum release requirement was fulfilled?  In fact, most publishers concern themselves much more with the minimum release commitment than the larger delivery requirement. And why would a company not at least respond to the option warning within the 10-day period, rather than risk losing an extremely valuable asset?  If this were a criminal trial, Bug might do better to plead insanity.

In fact, insanity is exactly what it is. Even after losing Mars and making a public show of flunking Music Pub 101, Bug was purchased by BMG Rights for more than $300 million (according to reports).  That’s a pretty high price, especially for a catalogue largely built on administration deals, most of which can be terminated on very short notice. The music publishing business has been reduced to an endless series of catalog swaps, but the people making the deals have no understanding that the assets in the company are the staff and the songwriters themselves. Sooner or later, that staff needs some leadership and vision at the top. And those songwriters require a certain level of attention and service.

This insanity is not limited to any one company.  You can find it at Warner Chappell, where months after a purchase, employees are still wondering what the go-forward plan actually is. Having lost Chairman and CEO David Renzer back in April, Universal is still waiting to find out who the new boss will be, and what that will mean for the future. For now, it runs on auto-pilot.  At EMI, the guillotine has been hanging over everyone’s head for months, which can’t help anyone focus on business. The company’s recent royalty fiasco was just one more passing scene in a long downward slide.

Is anyone running these companies? Is anyone actually taking care of the business of music publishing? The lesson here for songwriters is three-fold:

  1. Read your contract. Know how your contract period is defined, and understand your MDRC.
  2. Notify the company in writing promptly upon meeting each MDRC requirement, and get written confirmation that the commitment has been fulfilled.
  3. Keep a calendar handy. You might be the only one who has one and actually knows how to use it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Together

Sep 28 2011

During the travails of the past decade, when record label turned against downloader and publisher turned against record label and streaming service turned against publisher, the sage music industry commentators have been crying in the wilderness:

“Hold up guys! Remember: we’re all in this together”.

Yea. Right.

I think I might have even said it once or twice myself. But now, it turns out to be true—truer than any of us imagined at the time. As the giant merger wheel gains speed and grinds over anything and everything in its path, it seems we truly are in it together, all destined to be owned by the same uber-corporation, tools of an anonymous international venture capital fund. In a world where everyone is “strategically linked” (i.e. owned), every deal is a 360. Welcome to the new model music industry.

It’s not even the end of September, and already we’ve seen BMG Rights, the giant German elephant in the room, purchase Bug Music—rumors are that EMI will be the next to fall to Hartwig and his gang. Within days, Billboard blared the news of the recently struck “strategic alliance” (it would take a UN sub-committee to define what that actually entails) between Universal Music Group (the world’s largest record label) and Live Nation (the world’s largest concert promoter, artist management firm and ticketing company, albeit with the world’s smallest chairman). Then we also had the unveiling of the most unfortunately named venture of the year, Primary Violator, a merger of Primary Wave Music’s management company and Chris Lighty’s powerhouse Violator Management. If Violator had merged with Universal, would it be a Universal Violator?  I thought the guys at Primary Wave were supposed to be marketers. Name-check, please.

While the relative merits of each deal can and will be chewed over for weeks at Brooklyn Diner, the motivations are relatively clear. BMG is on a buying spree, and they’re doing what any savvy new player with several billion dollars to burn would do—they’re buying up classic catalog as fast as someone will sell it. Contemporary hits come and go, but when you’re investing money, there’s nothing like classic, proven songs to provide a steady cash flow and the musical depth you need for the big ticket sync placements. In that respect, Cherry Lane (Elvis, John Denver) was good, Bug (Johnny Cash, Duane Allman) is better, and EMI (Motown, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) is the Holy Grail. It’s a hard strategy to argue with, at least until everyone gets their accounting statements and we see if these guys had any clue whatsoever as to how they’re going to integrate all these separate companies.

The Universal-Live Nation deal was in some ways the most impressive. Lucian Grainge seems to be alone among the major label chiefs in being serious about constructing a comprehensive music company.  The Universal labels are so far out in front of their competitors in this respect that they seem almost to be engaged in a different business altogether. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that EMI (which will be sold by the time I blog again) ,Warner (which still can’t seem to figure out who bought it and why), and Sony (overburdened with the usual 550 corporate bloodletting and X-Factor auditions) are engaged in much at all. Interestingly, the alliance with Live Nation seemed to implicitly acknowledge that the 360 model had not yet become effective for Uni, and that a fierce, fire-breathing dragon might be necessary to bring Universal’s artist management companies, Trinifold, Twenty First Artists, 5B, and Sanctuary into some kind of orderly place within the larger organization.

With Live Nation heading up the management side, Universal has the leadership it needs. At the same time, it’s an impressive land-grab for Irving, without much firm commitment from him for any real cooperation. (As is his custom). Front Line invests nothing, gets a 50% stake in UMG’s management companies, and agrees to discuss bringing the Madonna album to Universal, but only if Guy and Madonna want to.  Next time, can we please send Irving Azoff in to negotiate the federal budget with the House Republicans ?

By comparison, the Primary Violator deal is a genuine merger, or maybe even a “buy-out”, depending on who you talk with. As such, it may reflect a timely move by Chris Lighty to cash in on an aging artist roster. After all, it’s been awhile since Mariah, P Diddy, and LL Cool J were at the top of the game. It could also reflect that a management roster consisting only of Cee Lo Green and Eric Benet wasn’t exactly the A-list that Larry Mestel had in mind. But most importantly, it is a bold statement by a music publishing company of what a lot of music publishers are starting to see, especially as the real payments from streaming services like Spotify start to come in and they’re missing at least three zeroes on the checks:

Music publishing is not going to be enough anymore.

The numbers are getting smaller and smaller, and even as uses of music climb, the payments are not sufficient to cover the tidal wave of paperwork that goes into collecting and accounting for them. In some ways, it was better when people were stealing. At least we didn’t have to keep track of it. Music publishers are going to have to diversify into other areas, and kudos to Primary Wave for making a bold move in that direction.

Of course, what makes sense for Universal Music, Live Nation, BMG Rights, and the afore mentioned Primary Violator (I love writing that) does not necessarily make cents for artists and songwriters. Not much surprise there.  It’s easy to see the upside for most of the parties involved in the past week’s festivities.  But the creative community would be wise to approach their new adopted family with the wariness of an orphan. Grab the bread if you’re hungry and someone’s offering, but keep one eye on the giver, and make sure there’s an exit nearby. And don’t get attached. Most of these families won’t be together very long.

For songwriters, artists, and independent publishers trying to make sense of it all, here are four quick things to keep in mind:

Music companies are becoming entertainment companies.  This is an inevitable thing.

Lucian Grainge and Larry Mestel are right—no one thing is enough anymore. As I’ve been preaching in this space for several years: publishers, record labels, managers, and booking agents have to see themselves not as part of the music industry, but rather as part of show business.   Not only is the value of music falling, but the intertwining of music with all other entertainment forms, from theater to video games to sports to television talent shows is increasing tenfold. In this sense, music creators are going to have to take some cues from the corporate decision-makers and begin building a network that includes not simply other musicians or songwriters, but game designers, film directors, music supervisors and visual artists. Diversification is not so much a business strategy as a survival mechanism.

Not all companies from one sector of music are competent in other sectors of music. Some are not competent in any facet of the music industry. This is an inescapable thing.

Here’s where creators are going to have to turn up the noise filter to “high” in the next few years. The fact that a company is a proven, known entity in one field, like music publishing, does not mean that they have a transferable expertise in the management business. Simply controlling the best record label does not guarantee having the best management company. If it did, Universal wouldn’t have sought out Live Nation at all.  The merger of two giant messes (Warner & EMI) guarantees very little except one really big mess.

When I was at a major publisher, I heard a similar argument made to songwriters every day—extolling the virtues of a worldwide publishing behemoth with offices in every territory, a film division, a record label, and an electronics arm. It was all true. But it didn’t mention that the UK office hated the New York office, and the country division wouldn’t speak to the Christian division, and no one had any contacts with the film company, and the electronics arm (I kid you not) didn’t even know they had an associated publishing company.  Bigger just means bigger.

The interests of all parties in the music equation do not necessarily align simply because they are all part of the same corporation. This is a proven thing.

Of course, this is the inherent problem within the 360 structure.  A manager is not always an ally of the record label—sometimes he or she is the person to put the screws to the company, albeit with the best of intentions.  A record label may not wish to pay the tour support that a manager demands or that a concert promoter would like. A publisher may not wish to send their artist to their affiliated record division(ask EMI), and a label A&R person is definitely not going to cut every song the publishing division sends over (ask any songwriter).  We are not in fact one big happy family.  We’re in it together, but not in it for each other.

The only person who will take care of you is you. This is a historical fact.

In light of the above, don’t take any advice from a manager, publisher, lawyer or record exec about where to sign, or who to engage until you consider: what’s in it for them?  Are they sending you to their business partner because it’s a perfect fit for you, or for them?

This is not to say that there are not real advantages that can be realized by keeping things “in house”.  I used to work at Zomba Music and Jive Records, the music industry’s best example of that particular approach over the last two decades.  But not all of these new alliances are going to work out. You can’t afford to let your career be the experiment in which two new corporate partners learn, or don’t learn to work together. Lots of people who believe in public schools as a concept send their kids to private ones—because you only get one chance.

Be assured that in a year from now, when your trusted manager tells you that he’s leaving that joint venture that he assured you would be “an incredible opportunity for all of us”, he will regale you with tales of how his new partners “just never got it”.  He’ll be gone, but you’ll still be in that publishing deal for the next three years.

Not only are we not really family, often we’re not even friends.  Whatever anyone tells you, it’s never all for one (except when it comes to BMG’s acquisition strategy). It’s one on one, everyone for him or herself.  Choose your partners carefully, each on their own merits. Not every match is made in heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reach Out and Touch

Sep 16 2011

Hope everyone had a great summer. I wound it up with a nice break at the end of August, and am just now starting to get back in touch with that Music Weasel lurking deep inside of me. Have to say though, it was a rough end to the summer for the songwriting community, who lost two giant figures in the month of August with the deaths of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford.

I’ve never before used this space to pay tribute to a particular songwriter or executive, but sometimes this business is so focused on tomorrow’s hits that we pay only momentary attention to the passing of people who quite literally created the industry of which we’re a part. The lyrics of Jerry Leiber, equalled only by Chuck Berry, established the mythical, iconic imagery of rock ‘n’ roll– they captured teen spirit long before Kurt Cobain, with humor and energy and an attitude of rebellion that runs through all of popular music from the Fifties onward. Nick Ashford, along with his wife and collaborator Valerie Simpson, brought the passion and power, and also the innovative chord progressions, of gospel music to Motown, and carried it all the way through the modern r&b era, from Ray Charles (“Lets Get Stoned”) to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”) to Diana Ross to Chaka Khan to Mary J. Blige. Ashford & Simpson’s music is a common thread that runs from soul to disco to R&B to house music to hip-hop and ties it all together as one type of music– the kind that inspires you, lifts you up and makes you move.

Beyond momentary introductions at industry events, I never had the opportunity to know personally either Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford. That’s actually okay. The beauty of music is that I didn’t really need to. Some of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar were the classic Leiber & Stoller Elvis hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  In college, one of my first arrangements to be performed (I was an arranging major, back when that was an actual job) was of Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need (To Get By)”. One of my biggest hits as a songwriter, Martha Wash’s “Carry  On”, was very much inspired by “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.  I danced at Sound Factory to Danny D’s remix of “I’m Every Woman” (the greatest dance song ever) when Junior Vasquez played it for twenty minutes at 6 in the morning. Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber felt like friends to me– as they do to millions of other people around the world.

Interestingly, both men were innovators not only in their music, but also in the music business. Leiber and Stoller were some of the first songwriters to become producers and publishers as well. They were the original modern writing/production team, and also co-publishers of their work, a rarity in those days. In fact, they essentially pioneered the “production deal” with a label (they had a long and successful relationship with Atlantic Records), working as freelancers, rather than employees of the company.  Ashford & Simpson were writers and producers as well, but broke new ground by then parlaying their success behind the scenes into long careers as performing artists, with hits like “Solid” and “Found a Cure”. Where most songwriters seem to start as artists and then move into writing songs for others, Ashford and Simpson flipped the script and went the other way, not unlike what writer/artists like Sean Garrett and others have done today.

It’s always risky to try to divine lessons from careers like Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford–  the creative genius of songwriters at that level is not particularly transferable.  If you’re as talented as those two, you can do a lot of things that might not work for other people. Nevertheless, there are a couple of obvious truths that are common to both men, even though they came from different backgrounds and eras, and had very different musical gifts. It’s worth noting:

1. There’s strength in numbers. And two is a very good number.

Granted, everyone has their own way of working. But you can’t argue with certain patterns, and one of those is that songwriting just seems to work better in two-person teams. Leiber & Stoller followed Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Fields and McHugh, Waller & Razaf and the list goes on. Leiber and Stoller were followed by Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Bacharach & David, Elton John & Bernie Taupin and of course, Ashford and Simpson.  Certainly there are dozens of legendary songwriters who worked entirely on their own. And while I’m not a big fan of today’s “song by committee” writing method, with five or six writers all chipping in bits and pieces, I can’t deny that it has yielded some successful records. But in the end,  the songwriting duo seems to be the most consistent hit-producing machine ever devised. If you’re working solo and not getting to where you want to be, either professionally or creatively, it might mean that you need to find your other half.

2. The best American popular songs are almost inevitably rooted in black music forms.

If there’s one enduring formula in American popular music, it’s this: trends and forms originate in the culture of black America, and then are developed, refined, sometimes diluted and often homogenized into mainstream pop music. Jazz became show tunes and popular standards; funk became disco; hip-hop became urban pop. Thanks largely to Leiber & Stoller, the blues became rock ‘n’ roll, leading not only to Elvis, but to The Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King, and ultimately everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Zeppelin. At the same time, the music of the black church was transformed into soul music, and Ashford and Simpson turned it into Motown, into disco, into pop.  It doesn’t matter what race the creators come from– they’re all drawing water from the same well.  Even today, we see forms like dub-step reshaping pop music once again. The musical tradition that is an integral part of black culture is a seemingly unending source of inspiration and innovation.

3. Songwriting is not merely expression. It’s communication.

At a meeting not too long ago, a songwriter matter-of-factly informed me that she wrote music primarily for herself– to express her feelings and ideas.  It’s something I seem to hear increasingly often, usually as an explanation of why the song has no chorus, why the lyric makes no sense, why the song appears to fit no known sector of the market. To Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford, I’m sure the idea of music solely as a means of personal expression would have been inconceivable.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford’s personality in their music. It’s rather to say that they aimed to communicate their point of view to the listener. They weren’t aiming at something personal and introspective, but rather something celebratory, engaging and compelling. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Stand By Me” are about connecting with the audience. That’s why they’re hits for generation after generation.

This is the legacy of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. They built a business around entertainment in the best sense of the word, finding a raw emotional connection, an  interaction, a shared, visceral energy between writer, performer and audience. Too often now, it’s become a business of cool detachment, of artistic statements, “vibe”, and marketing concepts. Listening instead of dancing. The distant wave of a hand, rather than a human touch. Every songwriter reaches inward to some degree or another. But the greatest songwriters also reach out.

 

When I first designed Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic almost ten years ago, music publishing was a side of the music business about which even many major record label executives knew embarrassingly little. Today, the music publishing model is in many ways the foundation of the music business—an industry built on licensing rights, rather than selling physical product. Every band wants their song in a commercial or a video game; every investment company wants to own a collection of classic songs. To enter the music business today without a knowledge of music publishing is to be missing an essential source of income. More importantly, it’s means that you’re missing a source of income that continues to grow, even as the record business continues to contract.

As we head into September, there’s no better time to take the plunge and enter into the world of music publishing. Music Publishing 101 is a step by step walk through the process of starting your own publishing venture—it’s designed so that by the end of the course, you’ll be positioned to hit the ground running in the music publishing biz. Best of all, you’ll be learning from people who are industry veterans—not only myself, but people like my buddy Jon Bonci, who teach the course.

Jon Bonci started out as a songwriter and eventually went on to work in some of the top companies in the music industry. As a young songwriter, after building a recording studio in his parents’ house, Jon decided he wanted to be more involved in the music business.  This led him to get a job at a record company answering phones. From there, a music business weasel was born–  he went on to work at Warner Chappell Music as an archivist and tape room manager, and later worked at BMG Music Publishing and Shapiro Bernstein & Co., Inc. He is currently working in music supervising for ESPN and teaching the Music Publishing 101 class.  In this blog, Jorge Oliveres, my Berklee College of Music intern, asks Jon  for his insight about the course.

 

What are the main things students will learn about in Music Publishing 101?

 It’s different for each student. Certain students don’t know a thing about music publishing, others are in a band and they want to learn more about it. Then there are those who have known about it and want to learn as much as they can and use it to the best of their advantage.  Having a variety of students is nice because we get different viewpoints when we discuss things on the chats.

Last semester I had someone doing artist management. I told him that the more he knows about music publishing, the better. If you are an artist manager, or if you’re managing a house and band comes in, you can actually cherry pick bands and manage them, get them a record deal, and if you know enough about music publishing, possibly act as their publisher as well. Knowledge is power. If you want to work in artist management, you’re going to have to know everything: not just on the record label side, but also on the music publishing side. For people in all different parts of the music world, this class will come in very handy.

I was going to ask you if there is a typical Music Publishing 101 student but  from what you are telling me, it sounds like the students are pretty diverse.

I’ll have a kid who is 21 years old, at the same time that I have people who are in their 60’s. That’s what’s great about teaching online. Anyone can access what Berklee has to offer, anywhere they are in the world. As a publisher, one of the biggest kicks I have is setting up collaborations. If I can put people together who like each other enough to be friends the rest of their life, even if they never write a song, then I think it’s a big success. A lot of times things come from collaboration–songwriters might end up enjoying each other’s company or helping each other out with their music. You never know where it can lead. If students in the class write similarly to each other, I tell them they should get together and work over the phone or the computer. We do quite a bit with an online class.

Often, songwriters take the class because they want to know about music publishing. Having been a music publisher myself, I know that a publisher is supposed to be more like the businessperson who is a step away from the songs. When you’re a songwriter,  you think that every song you just wrote is the best song in the world… until you write the next one. It’s interesting to teach students to be as objective as they can about their music, to see how it holds up against what’s out there.

If you’re going to pitch a song to a music supervisor or to an A&R person, you only get one shot. Those people learn right away whether or not you have ears. If they let you come back again and you keep giving them what they don’t want, they’ll say, “This guy is a songwriter, he is too close the music, and he doesn’t really know what’s what.” You have to be objective about your music because you only get one shot to make a first impression.

So students will really get an idea of what publishers look for when they listen to songs…

 You get placed on both sides of the desk: the writer’s side and the publisher’s side.

It’s a great class, it’s well mapped out, and when you read Eric’s writing he almost has the same voice as I do: he’s got a really good sense of humor, he’s frank, he’s upfront, he’s candid, he tells it like it is. It’s been a real pleasure dealing with the class. And Berklee has just been fantastic. Berklee is the kind of school that you just say the word and it opens doors for people. I tell that to my students as well: if the first thing you mention when you are trying to get a job somewhere is that you are a student at Berklee, it’s going to help you. It’s prestigious.

Because the class is online and you can have people from all over the world, does it deal with music publishing at an international level?

Yes. Eric has worked hard to give the class a strong international perspective. For example, in some countries the society that handles performing rights also handles mechanical royalty income, whereas in the United States everything is separated out. Also, we have three societies here for performance rights whereas most countries just have one. This leaves people there with no choice; they have to go with what they have. I actually had a student in the Middle East from a country where they don’t have a performance rights society set up. She wanted to know how she could set something like that up herself.

Now is a time of constant change for the music industry. How does the class help students keep up with those changes?

Since we really don’t know where the music business is going, having an online class is good because it can constantly be updated. For example, when the ruling came down on the new royalty rates for streaming and digital downloads, Eric put that within the course work as well.  You get the best of both worlds in the class; you get a class that is constantly being tweaked by people who are in the industry every day.

 

Follow me on twitter @EricBeall

When it comes to holding onto a spirit of optimism in the midst of the music business jungle, no one compares to Peter Bliss. He is perhaps the most aptly named songwriter ever (with the possible exception of Denise Rich).

Peter Bliss

Peter has been making music, and helping others make music for a lifetime—he signed his first publishing deal straight out of high school, and released his self-titled debut album shortly thereafter. He went on to write songs for Barbara Streisand, Menudo, Paula Abdul, *NSYNC, and many more, as well as composing music for film, TV and advertising. Over the last several years, Peter has expanded his outreach, from inspiring, challenging, and (always) educating his co-writers (I know, ‘cause I’ve been one), to touching the whole New York songwriting community. Most recently, he was the Professional Activities Coordinator for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Now, he is working on a new and very exciting project:

The New York Songwriters Collective

As I’ve said so many times in this blog, as well as in my classes and books: there is no way for a songwriter to make it solely on his or her own. There is not even a single example of such a phenomenon. Everyone is lifted to success by others more established in the industry.

If we are to bring the music business back to prosperity, it will inevitably be through bolstering and supporting the network of musicians, songwriters and producers that make up our local music communities. That’s what Peter is doing with his new organization, and I’m proud to be a part of it as well.

In light of that, I asked Berklee’s Jorge Oliveres to quiz Peter about his plans for the New York Songwriters Collective:

What is the New York Songwriters Collective going to be?

The New York Songwriters Collective is essentially a place where songwriters can come to work on their craft in a collective workshop environment, as well as attend networking meetings, meet and greets, and weekend workshops. For example, weekend workshops will be six or seven hours long all over the course of one day. Eric Beall has done them for us in the past and will be doing a special workshop again for us in November.

The whole idea is to have a community for the New York and East Coast songwriters. In the workshops I did at the SongHall, I found a significant number of people who were searching for a way to work on their craft and jump into the New York music scene. There really wasn’t a great deal out there. Other organizations provided showcase opportunities in the city but the workshops with the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) weren’t a consistent presence. When there’s something missing, you try to create something to fill the void.

Will the New York Songwriter Collective attract seasoned writers or songwriters who are just starting out?

There may be more than one level of workshop. In the city, there are certain organizations open to all, where you can just sign up for either an intensive one-day or ongoing beginner classes. In the case of the Collective, I will probably have people submit music, so that we can put an effective group together. By listening to people’s material before we pick the groups, I can gauge everybody’s ability. By listening to a song or two, I know what the strengths and weaknesses of the person’s particular craft are.

The idea is to put people together who can help each other. Over the course of eight weeks, it’s very interesting to see how people gravitate toward each other just by listening to one another’s music. We want to create an environment where creativity is maxed and where songwriters spend their energy on the songs that really matter. That means focusing in on exactly what people’s strengths and weaknesses are. We have to show them how to maximize their strengths, and compensate for their weaknesses through collaboration with other writers or producers.

The first workshop is going to be for people who have already attended workshops in the past or show a certain merit or skill in their writing up front. Because we will be putting these people together with A&R and publishers, it’s important that these songwriters are professionally ready to have their music presented to the industry.

Is being in touch with A&R people and publishers an opportunity to learn from their expertise or is it also an opportunity to show them music?

If we bring industry professionals in as guests from the A&R, music publishing, and music licensing world; immediately we are breaking down the barrier between the artistic and the business side. As a songwriter, you can hear straight from the horse’s mouth what kind of songs people are looking for.

Everybody talks about how no one accepts unsolicited material. What we all need is an opportunity for songwriters and publishers to meet, so that executives can put a face and a personality to the music that they hear. In workshops where eight or ten writers are in a room with an A&R or a music licensing person, there’s an immediate contact and impression that is made. In some cases, I can act as an agent in between the writer and the industry person, to make sure that material gets heard, without the industry person feeling inundated.

I read that some big names, like Lady Gaga, were involved with the Songwriters Hall of Fame before they were famous.

Well Lady Gaga had been involved with the Songwriters Hall of Fame very early on. I’m not sure if she actually attended workshops. But, back in the day, Stefani Germanotta–that’s her real name–was an 18 year old kid who was looking for open mikes and places to play. The Songwriters Hall of Fame was active in sponsoring open mikes and showcases and she was part of that whole process. There are videos of her performances, and it’s interesting to see her progression. It’s very heartening to see that talent emerge over the years.

It’s also kind of nice to think that a superstar like her was like everyone else; an unknown songwriter just trying to be heard.

Songwriters are a strange breed. Songwriters tend to sit in their rooms by themselves or walk down the street singing to themselves. In the old days they might have put you in an institution for doing that.

Everything that was a hit started in a room with a single person or a bunch of people shooting ideas back and forth and seeing what flies. Every song that Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, or Beyonce sings starts out with somebody coming up with an idea that just sticks against the wall and I think that’s the beauty of it.

Whether you spend a few dollars in a workshop or hundreds of thousands of dollars at university levels, nobody can guarantee that you’ll be a hit songwriter but everybody has the potential to gain the skills of the craft. We make no promises. Nevertheless, we’re certainly there to help you along the way.

If people want to find out more about the New York Songwriters Collective or are interested in signing up, where should they go?

I think it’s important for them to go to my website www.peterbliss.com so that they understand who I am and what I bring to the table. There will be a website coming very shortly at www.newyorksongwriterscollective.com and if they’re interested they can send an email to newyorksongwriterscollective@gmail.com. The New York Songwriters Collective is very young, but by the last week of August, we hope to have a set of workshops already scheduled and we’re going to start by doing a bunch of free meetings.

Many people are announcing the death of the music industry–I am not at all on board with that sentiment. I’ve never felt more optimistic about the music industry’s future now that everyone is embracing the changes that are coming with streaming and digital sales. There are so many more channels on TV and more outlets where original music is needed.

Songwriters need to avail themselves of these new opportunities. You’re not going to find much old school thinking at the New York Songwriters Collective. It’s all about new school. But the song is still key. Everybody is still looking for something that they can listen to and love. That’s what songwriters do, and they’re always going to do it.

Follow me on twitter @EricBeall

Tomorrow's Forecast

Jun 22 2011

Today was a strange day in NYC —not quite sunny, but not giving in to rain either. The skies were in constant motion, drifting from lightly overcast to grey and ominous to hazy and hopeful in a constant cycle that never seemed to reach a culmination.

It’s not unlike the music business these days. No doubt there are some dark and weighty issues hanging over us, including the massive restructuring (or lack thereof) of the major music corporations, the budding crisis at the PROs and HFA, and our continuing inability to sell music, except when we essentially give it away at 80% off. Still, the mood among the weasels is noticeably brighter these days, and it’s not only due to the promise of a summer weekend with Lyor in the Hamptons. It’s as if those dark grey clouds have lifted a bit, and have been replaced by clouds of the whiter, puffier sort. Clouds that look a lot like an iCloud.

Negotiating season is over, and for once a new music technology is being brought to consumers with the blessing of the music industry—we’ve not been blindsided, ignored, or misled. Or at least we don’t know it yet. In fact, for the first time in decades, the music industry and the publishing business in particular acquitted themselves quite nicely at the bargaining table, not sticking in the fork to gouge a promising innovation but not settling for table scraps either. Maybe ten years of trouble has taught us something. No one wants to mess up what might be the last great hope for the music business.

Of course, at the moment, it is indeed a matter of hope. On the positive side, a partner like Apple certainly instills some confidence. Since the inception of iTunes, they’ve managed to consistently comprehend the way the modern consumer wants to listen to music, and to provide the best, most stylish, and most iconic technology to meet that need, in a way that music companies, including technology giants like Sony, have not.

At the same time, it remains to be seen how much of that genius stemmed directly from Steve Jobs, and how much will endure now that he is no longer an active presence in the company. I’m sure I’m not the only one to at least ponder why someone who refuses to pay even 99 cents for a legal download will pay $25 a year for a music locker, in which to store the contraband. But like the rest of the publishers, labels, artists and songwriters that have suffered through a decade of downloading and file-sharing, I sure hope they do.

In fact, one of the best aspects of the new licensing agreements between labels, publishers, and Apple is the chance to actually monetize, in retrospect, much of the music that has been pilfered in the past. With iCloud, Apple is charging $25 a year to scan and match a user’s existing music collection for songs not purchased from iTunes against the iTunes library—users will then be able to redownload up to 25,000 tracks to those same devices. With labels and pubs actually getting significant share of that $25 fee, this is a chance to recover at least part of what we missed the first time around. Life does not offer many such second chances.

Even better, the technology of the cloud allows true, verifiable accountings of what is being purchased, using iTunes Match to monitor what each individual consumer is putting into their locker. Unlike radio monitoring at the PROs, which is an error-ridden exercise inevitably weighted toward the mainstream pop playlists and the major publishers who represent the bulk of those writers, or the questionable system of divvying up the pots of gold netted in settlements with YouTube, Napster and the like, the accounting practices of iCloud should allow for a reasonably transparent system. While Apple has yet to lock in deals with the indie record companies and independent publishers, they have said that they will offer independent publishers the same percentage as is received by the major publishers who have signed on. Happily, the deal structure that’s in place would seem to be capable of getting everyone a piece of the pie.

Most importantly, unlike previous deals with companies like YouTube, we might be getting a share of a pie that’s actually large enough to mean something. Under the current agreement, the revenue from iCloud will be split with 30% going to Apple, 58% to record companies, and 12% to the publishers (and songwriters). For publishers and songwriters, that’s a big raise from the .091 cent per unit statutory mechanical rate—and most of us haven’t been seeing full stat rate on a consistent basis for a long, long time.

David Israelite

On the songwriter and publishing side, much of the credit for wrangling a more equitable split of the money goes to David Israelite, the president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association. Easily the savviest of those trade group lobbyist/media spokesperson/diplomat/enforcers who’ve become the real champions of the music industry while the label presidents and publishing chiefs have been busy moving offices, schmoozing with hedge fund managers, and judging TV talent shows, Israelite was not directly a part of the iCloud negotiations. But according to Greg Sandoval’s insightful article in CNET News, Israelite was key in encouraging the publishing community to put some steel in their all too flexible spines. It’s a little like telling Charlie Brown, the perpetual loser, to man up and kick the ball. But lo and behold, it seems to have worked.

http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20071823-261/apple-google-music-clouds-can’t-snub-publishers/

Now, we can only hope that the publishing powers that be will also listen to Israelite’s advice about the essential need to streamline the process of licensing. Tech services have been demanding this for years, and every person that labors in the publishing community on a daily basis knows that the system as it currently exists is entirely dysfunctional. It doesn’t work for the new technology services, it doesn’t work for the old ones, it doesn’t work for the publishers themselves, and it certainly doesn’t work for the songwriters. If you want a peek at how bad it is, check out my blog “Life In The Slow Lane”:

http://ericbeall.berkleemusicblogs.com/2010/08/12/life-in-the-slow-lane/

But with the prospect of clouds on the horizon, publishers are going to have to sacrifice a certain level of independence in order to make sure that this new technology can be successful. The ability to access all music all the time without restrictions is a key factor in winning over the public to a format that could be the miracle cure for our business. We simply can’t afford to cling to our old system of clearing songs writer by co-writer, publisher by co-publisher, territory by territory around the world. No one has been a more outspoken advocate for the rights of publishers and writers than Israelite. But even he realizes that now is the moment to seize the initiative.

For the first time in a very long while, music publishers are in the drivers seat, but we have to keep the motor running. As we’ve already seen with YouTube, technology will move ahead with or without us. If people can’t get what they want legally, they will simply find another way. It’s up to us to create a centralized, global, uniform licensing system. If we can provide that, we are in a position to leave behind a mechanical royalty rate that even at its best was wildly weighted in favor of the record labels.

The current deal with Apple is a good one, and any competing service is going to have to match or better it in order to get in the game. Moreover, no one can win this game unless they have access to all our songs—old, new, hits, misses, and obscure album cuts.

All we have to do is go back to making music that matters to an audience, and figure out a quick way to make it available to them. The opportunity is there. As any kid who’s ever stared into the sky could tell us, clouds are what you make of them. If we make the necessary changes in the licensing process, they could bring an end to the longest drought of our lives. But there has to be something to put inside them. The cloud without our music is just that – an empty, substance-less piece of dead air. It’s up to us to make it rain.

Follow me on Twitter @EricBeall

This Year's Model

Jun 14 2011

It’s all about songwriters and publishers in NYC this week, with the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) annual lunch on Wednesday, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) annual meeting that afternoon—then if all that wasn’t quite exciting enough, some real star power with the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner on Thursday evening. But amidst the rubber chicken meals, the cocktail chatter and the endless self-congratulation, it’s probably worth taking a minute to try and tackle the tougher questions, like considering what lies ahead for those who want to be in the business of making music.

Clearly, this is not the same business as it was for many of the writers being inducted on Thursday into the Hall of Fame. That’s not to say it’s harder— it’s never been an easy road, after all. But at a time when the role of the record company is evolving (or perhaps evaporating), sales are plummeting, and at least two of the four major publishers are laying on the “For Sale” shelf like tchotchkes at a bargain garage sale, there’s no reason to plod blindly down a career path with a detour sign set in the middle of the road.

I had a couple of A&R meetings at the major labels this week, and it was clear that regardless of who stays and who goes—which is the only real topic of discussion at any of the four major companies these days—the needs of a music company in the 21st century are pretty much the same across the industry. Falling revenues, reduced A&R staff, a singles-oriented market, and an audience with an attention span barely sufficient for a twitter posting are the realities that everybody has to face. Across the board, the companies that sell music on a national or global level are all looking for the same three things:

1. Ready-made artists
Record labels are no more in the business of developing artists than Wal-mart is in the business of growing apples or raising cattle. The A&R people who once brought some amount of expertise (meager as it may have been) to making records, choosing songs, or helping an artist define his or her sound have either been downsized into the role of an occasional consultant, or upsized into being label presidents, which of course means they don’t have the time to spend making records, choosing songs, or helping define an artist’s sound. Labels need a product that is ready to sell, but they are no longer in the business of making that product. That’s someone else’s job.

2. Marketing platforms
Even with allowances made for the impact of file-sharing and free YouTube music videos, it’s hard to deny that music, by itself, no longer packs the entertainment punch that it once did for the general public. Today, music competes with video games, social networking, and homemade movies of someone’s funny cat—and at the moment, we’re losing the game. As one A&R veteran bluntly told me, it’s simply not enough to try to get a song on the radio and hope that it will cut through the pop cultural clutter. This is why Columbia has just done a deal with the upcoming TV show “Smash”, that they hope will be the next “Glee” (another Sony Music project). It’s why Universal signed on for not one, but two, talent contests, with “American Idol” and “The Voice”. It’s why Bono and the Edge are spending endless hours reworking “Spiderman”. To be effective in the present entertainment economy, music needs to be teamed with some other entertainment or marketing element, whether it’s theater, live performance, television, brands, video games, books, or nightclubs. Music is becoming like sugar—it’s part of everything on the plate, but it’s not really a meal in and of itself.

3. Machines that are already up and running
They don’t have to be Big Machine’s, like Taylor Swift’s. But in the same way that a record label’s A&R department is not looking to develop an artist, a marketing department is not looking to create a marketing plan from scratch. Everyone wants to be part of something that is already happening. A marketing plan is a theory, which often looks good on paper, but doesn’t play out quite as expected. A marketing campaign, even on a very small, local scale, is already generating a response, showing what strategies work, which ones don’t, and whether or not there is an active audience passionate about the artist. Whether it’s artists selling their own downloads, YouTube videos getting seven figure responses, hot mixtapes generating a buzz, or high-profile guest spots with established stars, music companies are looking for artists with a story—and they’re looking to enter that story on page 50, not on page 1.

In an environment like this, it’s interesting to see that the Songwriters Hall of Fame has chosen to give this year’s Hal David Starlight Award (usually handed out to relatively young talent—young being anyone under the age of Hal David himself) to Drake. Here’s an artist who was already on the charts before locking in his label deal, who used marketing platforms from “Degrassi” to mixtapes to features with artists like Lil Wayne to launch a career that seemed almost a fait accompli from the moment he first emerged onto the scene. Whether Drake’s actual music warrants a Songwriters Hall of Fame award is arguable. But there’s no question that his business model is, quite literally, state of the art.

Drake


Where does this leave the isolated songwriter who spends his day making demos to send out to the strangers listed on tipsheets, hoping for that one big cover? Or the singer/songwriter recording her own album with the hopes of finding someone to distribute it? Most likely, it leaves them endlessly behind—forever chasing an industry that has changed, one which demands new skills to play a new kind of game.

Producers have to be talent magnets—finding artists, defining their sound, and making records that break through the white noise of a thousand other entertainment options. Lyricists have to be able to capture, or in many cases, give an artist an identity, with a provocative, reactive message. Artists need to be multi-faceted—singers, dancers, actors, DJs, fashion or lifestyle icons, or all of the above.

Every music creator has to be in the entertainment business, not just the music biz. Producer/writers like David Guetta, Will.i.am, or Dr. Dre, artists like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, and topliners like Kara DioGuardi are not simply songwriters. They’re entertainers on multiple different levels. And in many cases, successful songwriters have to be catalysts—capable of getting something started on their own. It’s not enough to put together great songs, or even great records. In order to build that initial momentum, songwriters have to be able to pull together the right team, network to find the key relationships, strategize a street-level marketing campaign and invest the effort to get the whole thing started.

To hear a hit on the radio and blithely announce “I could have written that song” is to miss the big picture. Could you have found the artist? Developed the artist and defined their musical, visual and lyrical persona? Identified the other marketing platforms that could be the initial springboard to launch their career? Welcome to the big leagues, kid. There’s more to it than meets the ear. With the understanding that no one can do everything well, and it’s not only advisable, but essential to bring others into the process, here are five things you can do to be a songwriter for the here and now:

1. Start looking for artists to develop. Or start looking at yourself.
Remember, you’re not the only one out there searching for stars. You’d better be looking as hard or harder than any A&R person. On the other hand, if you are an artist/writer, then put yourself to the A&R test. Do you have the look? If you’re an urban/pop artist, can you dance, act or rap, as well as sing? If you’re a singer/songwriter, are you a musician and performer at the level of a John Mayer or Alicia Keys? If you’re investing your songwriting in your artist career, you have to be realistic about that investment.

2. Write singles
You’ll never break an artist, whether it’s yourself or someone you found, with a collection of album cuts. So don’t bother writing them. Focus on songs that are mid to up-tempo, fit into a radio format, and have a lyrical idea exciting or provocative enough to cut through the clutter and define the artist.

3. Know your audience
Who are the people who will buy this music? What do they look like? Where do they live? Why do they listen to music? What are they doing when they listen? What’s important in their lives? If you don’t know who will like this music, then neither will a record company, or a radio station, or the press. Successful songwriters hit the target consistently because they aim.

4. Find the platforms
Once you know your audience, it’s not that hard to find the other marketing platforms that might reach them. Classical crossover acts appeal to an older, somewhat sophisticated audience—consequently, you look to land a special on PBS. With a dance artist, you look for a song placement in a video game or Jersey Shore.

5. Do something. Don’t wait until you can do everything. Just do what you can.
Now that you have your artist, your single, a clear picture of your audience and the marketing platforms that can be used to reach them, what will it take to get something started? What could you do on a local level? What can you do for nothing on the internet? Who do you need on your team?

Not many of us are strictly songwriters. Think about your other skills and how you can use them to support your project. If you’re a great musician, can you put together a band for the artist? If you’re a DJ, can you get the artist a few track dates or play the record in your club? If you’re a studio owner, can you shoot a great YouTube video? If you write jingles, can you introduce the artist to some of the advertising agencies you work with?

Perhaps there once was a time when you could make a living writing songs in the secluded privacy of your living room and sending them out to artists around the world to cover. I don’t know—I wasn’t there. I’m old, but not that old. But just as a contemporary author has to be a media personality, talk show guest, and public speaker, or a modern soldier is expected to fill roles ranging from technician to policeman to community organizer, the job requirements for songwriters have expanded. Times change. The good news is, this new model songwriter has a lot more power and influence in the industry than his or her counterpart from even a decade before. At least if you build the machine, you control it.

So what better way to celebrate the end of a week spent celebrating songwriters and publishers than New York Songwriting Day 2011, a songwriting clinic aimed at jump-starting your songwriting in one day! Put together by well-known songwriter and producer Tony Connif, and with a variety of speakers that includes Berklee professor John Stevens, my buddy Alex Forbes, and myself, this should be a great educational and networking opportunity. It’s held on Saturday, June 18 from 12-6pm, at The Collective School of Music Performance Space, 123 West 18th Street. Contact tonysmusic@earthlink.net for more info.

Hope to see you there!

Looking Out For #1

May 08 2011

It’s remarkable how quick that warm and fuzzy feeling fades. Just last week the music weasels were gathered together at the ASCAP Awards, toasting EMI’s continued reign as Publisher of the Year. Well, okay… actually everyone was grumbling and sniping behind their back, and of course, chortling over their imminent sale. It’s a music awards dinner after all. You can only expect so much goodwill.

EMI Wins ASCAP's Publisher of the Year

Still, not too many foresaw that Publisher #1 would turn around a week later and publicly give the finger to ASCAP, and the songwriter and publisher community they represent. I suspect Marty Bandier at Sony ATV might get the front and center table next year, rather than Roger Faxon. Not that much of EMI will necessarily be around to see it.

Earlier this week, EMI Music Publishing made news by announcing that EMI would be taking back from ASCAP the responsibility for licensing digital rights in North America– EMI will now be able to “bundle” their rights together (mechanical, performance, and synchronization) and license them all directly, negotiating their own rates and terms, to digital services, rather than allowing ASCAP to negotiate and licensing the performing rights. In one sense, it’s a step closer to the “one-stop” licensing long-sought by digital services and many in the music community.

Roger Faxon

“The digital world demands a new way of licensing rights in musical compositions”, said EMI Music Publishing Chairman & CEO Roger Faxon. “We are reunifying the rights in many of the songs that we represent. By bringing these rights back together our aim is to reduce the burden of licensing, to create greater efficiency and importantly to reduce the barriers to the development of innovative new services.” Oh. And I thought it was just one more attempt to undercut the competition and cut out the middleman.

Of course, it might be some of that as well. While the ASCAP contract with publishers generally grants the PRO an exclusive right to represent the performance rights of the member’s catalog, even ASCAP CEO John LoFrumento acknowledges that “our members have always had the right under our Consent Decree to license their works directly”. Historically, most publishers have not chosen to do so– believing that the collective power of ASCAP (and BMI) allows them to negotiate more favorable licensing terms with radio, television, nightclubs and the rest of the music users than any one publisher could achieve on their own. Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

You heard it here first– this topic was brought up several months ago in this blog-space, in “With Friends Like These”. That missive explored the policy of DMX, the custom music service, which encourages music owners to license to them directly, rather than through the PROs. Of course, the money at stake from Muzak-type uses with companies like DMX is dwarfed by the monetary potential of digital rights. A publisher licensing DMX directly is someone breaking off a piece of crust from the pie that is PRO performance income. Taking away digital rights is like someone sticking their grubby hand in and walking off with a fistful of PRO pie.

http://www.ericbeall.com/with-friends-like-these/

ASCAP quickly sought to put a good face on the whole matter, even sending out a letter to members several days after the announcement– most likely to quell a quiet panic spreading among other publishers. Emphasizing that EMI continued to use ASCAP to license and collect on uses at traditional media, like radio and television, LoFrumento explained:

“A changing licensing environment has led certain members to experiment with licensing defined categories of music directly. This only involves the performing rights for those online music users who are not currently licensed or do not have licenses in effect with ASCAP. The online dollars represented by this licensing alternative could amount to less than 1% of ASCAP’s total current revenue.”

John LoFrumento

A generous statement from the little guy who just got sand kicked in his face by the big bully. But it purposely evades the point. As the undeniable industry leader in the publishing world, EMI’s decision to go it alone has an impact much beyond the actual dollar value of what it will be taking out of ASCAP coffers. Most importantly, it undermines the entire “strength in numbers” principle that justifies the existence of the PROs. If ASCAP can no longer speak for EMI, which has a larger share of the most popular songs than any other publisher (hence their status as Publisher of the Year), how effective can the PRO be at negotiating licensing terms with the digital community.

It also potentially weakens ASCAP in relation to BMI– strangely, no announcement was made as to whether or not EMI would also be taking digital rights away from BMI. It would seem very odd if EMI did not take the same action at BMI and SESAC. If the goal is to bundle rights, then certainly you want to bundle all of the catalog, not just a portion. I suspect that if BMI manages to hold on to what ASCAP has lost, it will have been by making a massive, unmentioned cash advance to bolster EMI’s shaky financial picture. This highlights the other big problem of the moment at ASCAP, which is BMI’s willingness to dole out mega- advances to major writers and publishers– a game in which ASCAP is hard-pressed to compete.

Needless to say, it all comes down to money. Despite Faxon’s media-ready press statement, this action has very little to do with easing the licensing process or encouraging new services. In fact, the licensing process would seem to have just gotten a whole lot more confusing, given that almost no current contemporary hits are entirely controlled by EMI April Music. Instead, most could easily have seven or eight different writers and publishers, all represented by some combination of ASCAP, BMI or SESAC– except for EMI April Music, which will be off on its own. That should be very simple. This EMI move is really about:

1. Eliminating the middle man.
On the most straightforward level, this move is not much different from the whole DMX idea– one less organization taking a cut of the money. While ASCAP’s fees are relatively low, they add up, especially when your company is bankrupt and up for sale. While ASCAP and most of its supporters would not paint the organization as a “middleman”, but rather an advocate and a representative in the collective bargaining process, the portrait of the unnecessary, fee-grabbing, intermediary is one that the technology community has been painting for the PROs over the past ten years. According to many in the digital community, there would be more uses of music, they could pay higher rates, and we’d all be making more money without these outdated organizations. Hmm. And the auto workers would do better without the UAW. We’ll see soon enough, I expect.

2. Screwing your buddy.
Unity in the face of opposition has never been standard operating procedure in the music biz. From the vantage point of the giant companies that dominate the landscape of music publishing, the downside of the PROs is that they even the playing field. Small publishers benefit from the clout of huge catalogs like EMI, while those same huge catalogs pay most of the cost of maintaining the organization. Being free of ASCAP allows EMI to negotiate rates on its own. In fact, it may have been the dismal state of the current negotiations at the CRB (Copyright Royalty Board) that prompted this move by Faxon. EMI could feel it can negotiate more effectively alone. At the very least, it can use the new independence to undercut the competition when it’s advantageous to do so, and to over-charge where it sees an opportunity. And what about the small independent companies? Well, they can always sell their companies to EMI.

3. Being the first rat off the sinking ship.
The real reason that the EMI move has resonated so heavily in the pub world is that it’s the first undeniable evidence of the elephant who has been lurking in the room for several years. Virtually all of the licensing and collection organizations around the world are houses of cards that will have to withstand some very big approaching storms. Dwindling mechanical royalties and exploding paperwork demands have left HFA in a very precarious position. Performance income has remained stronger, but now that looks poised to take a significant dip as well. Couple that with the pressure to make imprudently aggressive advances to top new writers and you’ve got the recipe for disaster at the PROs. All it will take is for one or two more major companies to follow EMI’s lead before that sinking feeling begins. The big guys will swim for shore and the little companies will be left behind with less influence, lower income and rapidly escalating fees.

According to ASCAP, this step by EMI is no big deal. And indeed, it may not last very long, given that the management team of EMI can measure their future with a stopwatch. It’s perfectly likely that ASCAP will be holding its awards show next year without Roger Faxon, who may be floating around outside the Renaissance from a golden parachute. But the first shot of the battle has been fired, everyone’s seen it, and everyone will react to it. There’s no taking it back.

Despite all the accolades and warm words at last week’s Awards, the truth is that the creative community that ASCAP has represented for 100 years barely exists anymore. It’s just a ballroom full of independent contractors of A&R services, speculators, investors, and hedge fund managers all in it for a quick buck before the final buzzer sounds.

Can’t wait until the BMI Awards in May.