9 Dec 2015

Are the PROs fairly remunerating struggling songwriters?

Back in June of this year, at the UK's Music Publisher Association's AGM, the keynote interview was the Financial Times' pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney interviewing Wayne Hector. "Wayne Who?" you say? Well, I had no idea either, but apparently he is a songwriter who has (co-)written more than 30 Number One hits for artists such as One Direction and Westlife.

The MPA interview (and the whole AGM) was all about "celebrating British songwriting", and Ludovic was doing his best to help celebrate.

Then, in yesterday's FT, Ludovic wrote a column entitled "From Adele to Coldplay, ‘Hello’ to bland British pop" (Click here to read it). It's behind a paywall, but a key quote from the article is:
British pop is not only phenomenally successful - it is also dispiritingly bland.
I agree. I find commercial pop even worse than "bland". I find most of it extremely boring and highly irritating. I own a few thousand CDs, but none by One Direction or Westlife, nor any by Whitney Houston, Chris De Burgh, or even Adele.

Commercial pop may be a great export product for the UK, and it may generate a large chuck of the revenue of the global music industry, but people-wise it is only a tiny fraction of that industry. For every successful commerical-pop songwriter, there are thousands of artists who write and perform their own music. They don't write music to sell millions of copies. They write music as their way of expressing themselves artistically, and it is that kind of music that appeals to me much more.

A pure songwriter like Wayne Hector needs a publisher to get his music recorded by famous artists. Artists who write and perform their own music don't need a publisher for that purpose. But those artists still have their music played on radio and in clubs, and their music is being sold on download stores, and streamed on streaming services. Therefore, artists who write their own music still need to participate in the music publishing ecosystems to get the writer-part of the earnings generated by their music. The one and only way to do that successfully is to sign a publishing deal with a music publisher.

But their needs are very different from what traditional publishers offer. The main requirement from artists who write their own music, is for the publisher to accurately register their repertoire with all PROs worldwide, and collect all the royalties due to them for the use of their music. (Synchronisation licensing is another important function of a publisher, but any artist who sign a publishing deal solely for the purose of getting his music into big TV commercials, is highly likely to end up extremely disappointed)

Fortunately, there are many different publishing companies in the world, including ones such as my company Musiqware, whose primary focus is on getting the artist/writer his performance royalties and mechanical licensing fees out of the existing ecosystems. But none of them can guarantee to get every last penny out of the system, because the PROs passively discriminate against everything that is not commercial pop.

Over the past year, I have been getting increasingly annoyed with the MPA, and the NMPA, and ICMP, and most of the PROs. They seem to be stuck in the traditional songwriting model. They "celebrate the art of songwriting", and appear to believe that publishing is only about writing songs for others.

This attitude is reflected in the rules and regulations of the PROs, and the processes and procedures that implement those. PROs wish to collectively license as much music as possible, in order to maximise the collective revenue. But they then severely limit the spending on the administration of that revenue. When talking with PROs, I constantly hear phrases such as "activity-driven priorities", "threshold values", "manual processing", "black boxes" and "minor sums". The net effect of all these together is that the small number of big players who produce commercial pop get roughly the right amounts of money, whilst the vast majority of other PRO members do not receive all that they are entitled to.

Despite all their rhetoric about the need for "fair remuneration for struggling songwriters", the PROs themselves still have a long way to go in building a fairer ecosystem that caters for ALL people who create music.

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