Whether you follow the music industry or not, it has been hard to avoid the ongoing saga that is Taylor Swift. There are hundreds of articles out there about all of the particulars and specifics of Taylor’s ongoing fight with Big Machine, the Carlyle Group and, most publicly, Scooter Braun. (Here’s one.). While relating to a super star who has a catalog worth $300,000,000.00 may be difficult, ownership of your art is infinitely relatable to musicians.
Let’s start with the basics. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on a traditional label recording agreement. When you sign a recording agreement you are agreeing to sell your recordings (the “masters”) to a label. They label will require you to deliver a certain number of records or albums over a certain period of time. In exchange they may pay you an advance (a loan against the money that is earned from those records) and will agree to pay you a certain percentage of the revenue that is earned from the exploitation (sales, streams, licenses etc.) of those records. That percentage will only be paid after they recoup all of the money that they have previously paid to you as an advance as well as amounts paid to record that music and oftentimes, to promote or market the records.
So that is how the money part of a recording typically works (more or less). The term of a recording agreement is a whole other animal.
Let’s use Ms. Swift as an example. Her original deal with Big Machine was to deliver 6 albums. She completed that delivery at some point in 2018. She recouped shortly thereafter (obviously). So she was free to go explore the market as a free-agent. But here is where it gets interesting and where many of our clients get confused. Just because the term of the recording agreement expired does not mean that the label gives up ownership of the records that were already delivered. That ownership is perpetual (aka forever). On top of owning the masters forever, Taylor’s recording agreement (as with most of them) had a restriction on re-recording of the masters. That means that for an extended period of time, Taylor cannot re-record any of the songs from the albums that are owned by the label. This restriction has led to the current and very public dispute with Scooter over whether Taylor can actually perform any of the songs owned by Big Machine/Scooter/Carlyle at the American Music Awards where Taylor is being honored for her legacy as a recording artist. Why would she be prohibited from performing these songs? Scooter and his squad were making the argument that the AMA’s will be recorded so that the re-recording restriction contained in her contract prohibits the performance. This has since been resolved and Taylor will be able to sing her heart out on all of her past hits at the award show.
Again, Taylor’s struggle is not exactly one that most musicians face. Most musicians do not experience a major venture capital firm (Carlyle) headed by one of the most public and powerful music industry moguls (Scooter, who also happens to be sworn enemy of Taylor’s), purchasing their legacy of master recordings for hundreds of millions of dollars. However, anyone entering into a recording agreement should know that they are selling, assigning and transferring the copyright and ownership of her recorded music to a third party. Accordingly, they will not own and certainly will not be in control of their past art.
For some, selling their art is not an issue. It is a centuries old practice that extends beyond music (think paintings, sculptures, movies etc.). However, for others it can be a tough pill to swallow. For those musicians who are aware and informed of the current financial model for the music industry, they know that owning their masters is not just artistically important but financially significant as well. So what is an artist to do?
First off and most importantly, know what you are signing. Find someone who has experience dealing with this fact pattern. Whether that is a lawyer or manager or just a musician friend, consult with them and ask questions. Further to that point, ask the people that you are considering signing with what their intention is. If the language of the agreement doesn’t match that intention, you should probably run away; quickly. Second, know that there is no longer just one type of recording agreement. The days of standard completely one-sided recording agreements are dead. While labels will always try to get the most out of any signing, musicians have options. There are license deals where you essentially license your masters to a label for a set amount of time. Once that time is over, the master revert back to you. There are deals to be struck with distributors. Distributors of music will fund artist projects without taking any ownership and simply recoup off of the streaming revenue that they are earning by distributing your music. There are a lot of carve outs and exceptions that can be drafted into a recording agreement that can solve for the situation that Ms. Swift has found herself.
If you are Taylor Swift today versus Taylor Swift at 15 you not only are ridiculously successful and rich but you are operating without a tremendous amount of leverage. Her new deal with Universal/Republic undoubtedly contains language that allows her to share in the ownership of her new masters or at the very least allots her the ability to buy them back at the end of her term. So while you may not have her catalog and leverage, you can at least arm yourself with knowledge, understanding and a team to help you navigate your way to Swift-like stardom!
There is a key distinction in the law that differentiates between an employee and an independent contractor. Employees are entitled to certain benefits and protections that contractors are not; chief amongst them, wage protection (minimum wage requirements and overtime benefits etc.), health insurance and paid time off. Contractors, on the other hand, are viewed as hired guns that can be paid lump sums, do not qualify for overtime and are not eligible for insurance coverage offered to employees. The music industry is dominated by contractor relationships. Think of studio musicians, managers, dancers, producers, writers, roadies, back up singers etc. All of which, until recently, fell squarely in the independent contractor category.
California, the largest hub for the entertainment industry in the world, took a different take on the employee versus contractor feud. In recent legislation signed by Governor Newsom, CA AB5, Californians will be considered employees unless and until their employer can show that the work that they perform falls under a specific set of criteria. Specifically, a worker is an employee under AB5 if his or her job forms part of a company’s core business, if the bosses direct the way the work is done or if the worker has not established an independent trade or business.
While the law was a direct result of the so-called “app” industry (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Postmates etc.), the repercussions could clearly spread across other industries. So what does this mean for musicians and the industry as a whole in California?
As written, AB5 would arguably classify a recording artist as an employer and her manager, tour manager, guest artists, choreographer etc. would all be her employees. This would require the artist to set up a payroll system, withhold taxes, set hourly wages, pay for overtime, potentially offer insurance and everything else that a normal company would provide to an employee. Anyone in this industry knows that this shift would be a monumental change and frankly, is just not practical.
Unlike other industries, music industry organizations (RIAA, A2IM and others) lobbied to ban the legislation altogether rather than seek an exemption. Doctors, accountants, travel agents, real estate agents, cosmetologists and other sought and achieved carve outs so as to not fall under the new qualifications of AB5. Alleged in-fighting amongst music industry leaders resulted in full inclusion under the law rather than a potentially helpful exemption.
The fear that AB5 will gut the entertainment industry in California is real. Other states are already looking to capitalize by attempting to lure “contractors” to within their borders. Still other states are looking to model their own laws after the California law and touting their own version of employee protection.
The law does not go into effect until January 1, 2010. Until then there will most likely be litigation that may delay its start date. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates.
As we have explained we work with clients in every segment of the industry from musicians to managers to labels to distributors and more. Because of our diverse client base and years of experience, we are able to recognize certain trends, hot topics, common misconceptions, and red flags while working within the music world. Each month we are going to look to highlight one of these areas that, to us, have a deep impact on an artist’s career as a musician.
Seems like everyone has a podcast these days. Not wanting to be left out, we are pleased to announce the launching of our affiliated podcast: The Industry Standard. Perhaps a little late to the game, we are trying to bring L4M to the masses by any and all media available to us!
Eddie Sanders and Josh Kaplan will be bringing this site to life (and then to the cloud) a couple of times a month. We will host the broadcast here but it will be available wherever you find podcasts. Hope you tune in and enjoy!
Sometimes speaking out works.
@SoundCloud listened and modified its new artist contract.
Thanks to some solid journalism (take that #fakenews), and the power of artists and their representatives (like yours truly), SoundCloud revised its new artist monetization agreement. The program introduced by SoundCloud four years ago allowed select artists to earn a share of ad revenue and subscription fees by monetizing the use of their music. Finally ready to go to the masses (and keep up with competitors), SoundCloud announced the ability for all Premier Members to monetize. With the announcement came a long form, click-through, agreement. That agreement left quite a bit to be desired.
The biggest outcry from the artist community was over a “Covenant Not to Sue”. Basically this means that if SoundCloud screwed you in some way, you would have no right to seek retribution in court. We were less concerned with that clause as we were with the completely ambiguous payment schedule, the improper method for notifying artists of changes to payment terms and the extremely short amount of time to review statements (if and when the statements were ever delivered). While the Covenant Not to Sue is concerning, there was arbitration language included which offered artists the ability to challenge any issues with SoundCloud through the arbitration process rather than in court. There is a definite difference between a law suit progressing in court versus a matter in arbitration, but it is not extremely unusual to have this type of clause in this type of agreement.
The ambiguity was far more concerning to us. How can anyone agree to enter into a business relationship where the party who is owed money has no idea when or how they are going to get paid? How could you agree to enter into an agreement when you aren’t sure if the agreement has been modified and you could actually be earning less than what you originally agreed to? To us, these types of unclear and unfair terms were the main issues with the SoundCloud artist monetization program.
With the help of @verge and others, SoundCloud, took heed and modified its agreement. Unlike our current government, when the people are outraged and nothing gets done, SoundCloud reexamined its agreement, agreed there were fundamental flaws and took the necessary steps to make the needed changes. Kudos to a company who caters to musicians for actually listening to musicians. I hope this trend continues.
It seems to be a constant battle for songwriters to economically receive what is rightfully theirs. First, fighting with labels over rights and royalties, then finding a publisher (big enough) to collect those royalties, now going after digital service providers to payout those royalties, and the government for providing an obnoxiously low rate for reproductions rights and an outdated statute that can’t seem to keep up with the technological age. Yes, it has been a rough one as these factors are often working together in perpetuating this curse more commonly known as the compulsory license.
A compulsory license for sound recordings was created by Section 115 of the Copyright Act and allows anyone to reproduce and distribute a composition that has been released to the public either by digital or physical means with the copyright owners permission. (sounds good). Most of the time an artist records the composition, the label sends the created recording to its distributor and the distributor sends it to the digital service providers or DSPs (Spotify, Amazon, Google, iHeart, you name it) who in exchange receive dollars through subscriptions, ads and downloads. It seems like DSPs should be giving songwriters a call right? (Because they are reproducing the composition and saving it to their platforms to be streamed or downloaded.) Shockingly, they don’t call. In fact, if you are an independent songwriter (not represented by a major publisher), it is unlikely that you are paid mechanical royalties from any of the DSPs. Why? Because of the compulsory license and these evil excel spreadsheets called “author unknown” NOIs.
If you want a compulsory license, Section 115(a)(2)(b) of the Copyright Act requires you to serve the copyright owner of the composition with a notice of intention (or an NOI). However, IF there is no registration or public record filed with the Copyright Office of your ownership of that composition with an address where the licensee can serve you the NOI then you are considered an “author unknown”! (insert evil laugh). Basically, did you file and pay the Copyright Office to register your copyright that you already own (even though under no law are you required to register your copyright to validate your ownership) for the purpose of getting paid a royalty that, by statute, you are rightfully entitled to? That’s some hardcore bs, right? In fact, instead we are going to give DSPs and whoever else, an out to not pay you. Just submit an “unknown author” NOI to the Copyright Office, which is basically an excel spreadsheet with the title of the song, the DSP info, and unavailable written across the columns for any type of songwriter info. It doesn’t matter if the song is registered with a PRO, if you submitted the metadata to the label to give to the DSP, it probably doesn’t even matter if you call Spotify up and say “hey I’m your missing songwriter!” Nope, after a copyright search you are done. Also to add more bad news, if you file for your copyright tomorrow Spotify, Google and Amazon are not required to back pay on any of those royalties as long as they submitted an NOI to the Copyright Office.
Although a bummer, we will end on a positive note that this curse has not gone unnoticed and some are choosing to do their part to help. Insert Sound Exchange NOI database! (Superhero sound!) A simple system that organized the unknown author NOIs submitted to the Copyright Office so that you can easily discover who is not paying you and for which song. Although its not exactly putting the money you are owed into your pocket, it is getting us a step closer considering the Copyright Office database for NOIs is next to impossible to navigate. It consists of huge excel spreadsheets submitted by DSPs that often are not even downloadable without a zip compressor. If you are able to download the excel sheets, you will see DSPs list hundreds sometimes thousands of songs in no particular order that are submitted daily! It is an absurd waste of time. So thank you Sound Exchange for making it easier for the songwriters out there. I encourage all songwriters to sign up (its free) and search for any NOIs here. We at L4M are going to do our best to keep on this fight and find best practices to get these royalties paid out for our clients. We will keep you posted, but feel free to comment with suggestions and success stories as we want to keep songwriters informed on how to avoid those unknown author NOIs!
Wait a second…What just happened? Did the United States government actually try to address a problem that has effected millions of Americans for years by introducing a Bill before Congress? Did those blowhards in Washington D.C. stop fighting and tweeting and actually do the job that they were sent there to do?
Here is a draft of H.R. 4706, The Music Modernization Act of 2017.
For years now the streaming revolution has completely disrupted the way consumers listen to music, the way musicians release music and the way rights holders (musicians, publishers, labels etc.) get paid. With the recent onslaught of litigation against giants like Spotify and Apple Music, lobbyists in D.C. seem to have been effective in getting our legislative branch to try to address an over decade old issue.
With the goal of ensuring that streaming platforms (a) don’t get sued, (b) mechanical royalty rates are set as independently as possible and (c) theoretically, getting money to the right people in a faster way, the MMA sets up several new processes for the music industry.
In typical Washingtonian fashion, the Bill introduces yet another bureaucratic body to oversee and administer digital licenses and pay all copyright owners (so long as your works are registered correctly). While, in theory, this sounds like an intelligent move, there are numerous questions about the efficiency of yet another “agency” involved in paying monies to the correct rights holders. We think it is definitely a move in the right direction by centralizing all digital blanket licenses and the decision makers for mechanical royalty rates (without a commission or overhead cost put on the backs of rights holders), but the move begs the question of how effective other government led regulatory bodies have been in the past (Government Shutdown ring a bell?). Lobbyists have touted this move as a departure from the tenured “judges” that rule over the PRO’s (ASCAP and BMI) and allows for a more impartial method in determining amounts paid for performance royalties to songwriters.
Since the inception of streaming services, platforms have avoided paying mechanicals because after filing the required Notice of Intent (or NOI) there is no further requirement to determine the actual right holder of a particular song. So if your information isn’t found or hasn’t been registered, Spotify, Apple, Amazon etc. haven’t had to pay you for streaming your license. The MMA attempts to do away with this giant loop hole. The new oversight/governing body will attempt to collect all data (by working with Content ID/Google and other data aggregators) and theoretically make sure that every song is registered so that every right holder is paid (some minuscule amount) for every stream.
The Bill then sets up a more “free-market” system for determining what mechanical royalty is actually paid to the rights holders (now that they will all be contained within this database). The rights holders and the platforms will have the ability to negotiate and set rates rather than relying strictly on government set rates.
The Bill was introduced to the House Judiciary Committee before the end of 2017 and there it sits. We will be watching carefully, along with millions of musicians and industry folks, to see how it progresses, what changes are made and how much pork is added to it.