In February 2014, 19 Recordings—a record label representing artists from the TV show “American Idol” like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood—sued Sony Music for allegedly withholding royalty payments totaling $7 million. In March of this year, U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Abrams issued a ruling allowing some of these claims to go to trial. The upshot is that, while some components of the case will move forward, the court decided that others don’t hold water. Even more recently, Sony swung back with allegations of fiduciary mismanagement at 19.
As expected, Apple announced its forthcoming music streaming service on Monday at its annual WorldWide Developers Conference. The service is scheduled to launch at the end of June, and naturally, our primary focus is on how the new offerings will impact musicians. The presentation was short on details, but here are some of the questions we’ve been wrestling with (and some partial answers)
Let’s say your metal band is playing a headlining club gig. At the end of the night, the promoter hands you an envelope containing $200. Is that a fair share?
Or say you’re a R&B singer with a CD released by an independent record company. Your label sends you quarterly royalty checks, but how do you know if the amount is correct?
Or imagine you’re the composer & lyricist of a popular country song that gets played on an on-demand streaming service. You get regular checks from your performing rights organization (PRO) for this use, but how do you know if the rate you’re getting is fair compared to what other songwriters get for plays of their songs?
Yesterday, on-demand music streaming service Spotifydid something pretty big by explaining in detail how it calculates and pays out royalties to rightsholders. With so many music industry pundits and practitioners in a tizzy about the economics of streaming, this move can be generally seen as positive. But as always, the devil is in the details.
It is certainly significant that Spotify took this step—probably long overdue—and we hope that it serves to increase the standard of transparency across the digital music sector. When a market leader like Spotify makes this kind of move, it can be a spur to other players to follow suit. However, it doesn’t really change much in terms of artist leverage on streaming on-demand services, nor does it impact most musicians and songwriters’ bottom lines. We spend a great deal of time considering this stuff—in fact, our own Kristin Thomson recently wrote a post for Music Think Tank about ways to make streaming music more viable for artists. (And if you need a primer on how the money flows on a variety of music platforms, check out these handy charts.)
Let’s say you’re approached by David Copperfield (it’s OK, don’t run!), and he asks you to be an audience plant for his next big televised spectacle. You’ll be privy to some behind-the-scenes secrets, and outing his magic as merely illusion could be a disaster for his career—other magicians will cop his tricks, his performances will lose their coveted mystique, etc. That’s no good. So to make sure you keep your lips zipped, he presents to you (pulled out of a hat, probably) a non-disclosure agreement. This is a contract that says your discussions regarding this particular event are strictly confidential, and if you go blabbing he can sue you for breach of contract.
Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in this context seem pretty straightforward, but what about all the NDAs that pervade the music industry? Why all the smoke and mirrors obfuscating the terms of agreement between streaming services and major record labels, or deals between aggregators/distributors and YouTube?
Last month, singer-songwriter James Taylor joined the long line of legacy acts that have sued their former record labels for withholding royalty payments, among other financial oversights. According to a 2007 audit, Warner Bros. Records underpaid Taylor by nearly $1,700,000 between the years of 2004 and 2007.
This kind of financial dispute is hardly new. The Temptations and Sister Sledge filed similar complaints (against Warner and Universal Music Group, respectively) earlier this year. The debate about whether artists should receive compensation as a “sale” or “license” for digital downloads has also garnered attention as a result of Eminem’s audit of his former label, Aftermath Records, wherein he argued that he should have been paid his licensing royalty rate of 50 percent — instead of his sales royalty rate of 12 percent — for digital downloads in the early days of iTunes.
The musicians that I represent aren’t being offered multi-million dollar record deals that land them on the cover of Rolling Stone or in a mansion atop the Hollywood hills. Quite frankly, I’m not sure those deals exist other than in an idealized memory of what the record industry looked like in its days of excessive hedonism. So where does that leave work-a-day musicians – the ones that actually make music for a living? read more
Big news for anyone who’s been following the termination of transfer issue: a California judge has ruled in favor of Victor Willis, original singer of the Village People, in his battle with the publishing companies that administer rights for the Village People’s catalog. Last year, Willis had filed to terminate rights to his share of “YMCA” and thirty-two other songs that he co-wrote, and publishers responded by claiming he lacked legal standing to do so without having his co-authors on board. Judge Barry Ted Moskovitz disagreed, writing: read more