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Where Do We Go From Here
The Case for a New Streaming Royalty
It’s been a little over a year since UMAW launched its Justice at Spotify campaign, and maybe the most fundamental lesson I’ve learned is that advocacy and organizing are a long game. One year is nothing to the effort it takes to build a movement, shift opinion, galvanize support, and realize change. I look with awe at those who have done and are doing this kind of work effectively.
That said, it’s been a huge year for the campaign, and on the UMAW website you can catch up with a summary of everything we’ve already seen start to change. Still, what hasn’t budged at all – at least not upwards - are streaming royalties.
Where do we go from here? There are a number of interesting proposals out there for ways to fix streaming for artists, like Henderson Cole’s American Streaming Library; cooperatives like Resonate and Ampled; and even I suppose from those who are sincerely trying to develop NFTs for good (though my own feelings about that more or less mirror Brian Eno’s).
But there’s one proposal which has struck me and many others above all, and I hope this coming year it will attract more attention and generate more discussion. Last June, the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published a lengthy report with a decidedly unsexy and even ungrammatical title: “STUDY ON THE ARTISTS IN THE DIGITAL MUSIC MARKETPLACE: ECONOMIC AND LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS.” Poor marketing aside, this report is dynamite and my UMAW comrades and I found it such important reading that we “translated” it into more readable English. The effort took us weeks.
Here’s the payoff, from UMAW’s summary:
“The UN report argues that we need to create a new type of streaming royalty that is paid directly to artists, including non-featured performers. The authors note that streaming does not fall neatly into any existing royalty schemes, and so we must create an entirely new system in order to properly compensate artists and preserve cultural diversity.”
Paid directly to artists is the key concept there. As everyone in the music business knows, payments to labels don’t always reach artists, for one reason or another – not even those on the cover with a big contract, much less “non-featured” players like studio musicians who create the groove for countless hits without any royalty agreement at all.
How could this work? The report sketches that out, too – but again I’ll quote our summary rather than the original:
“This royalty would be paid in addition to all existing royalties paid to songwriters, labels, artists, etc., and would therefore not reduce anyone’s payments, and would not interfere with existing contracts… The royalties would be paid out through Copyright Management Organizations, or CMOs, such as SoundExchange.”
SoundExchange, if you’re not familiar, is a US non-profit created in 2000 to collect royalties from satellite radio and distribute them directly to artists – including non-featured performers. It works. And there are CMOs like SoundExchange all around the world (in other countries they typically collect more kinds of royalties). They represent an established global network for accomplishing exactly what we are missing from streaming.
It’s a clever use of an existing system – or as the WIPO report explains in its own summary of the “pros” for this plan:
“Does not require additional transaction cost as matching and payment information already exists at CMOs; does not require renegotiation of licensing agreements or disrupt current licensing practices; platforms are already paying similar royalties in certain territories; recognizes value transfer from all performers to platforms; helps to preserve local culture by compensating both featured and non-featured performers.”
The concept of a new streaming royalty distributed direct to artists seems neat, clean, and simple. All that remains is to determine how much the platforms should pay through this system. And then force them to do it.
We’ve got work to do in 2022.
Listening to: The newly remixed Cahoots, but only once (how could anyone fool with Levon’s drum sound?)
Cooking: I need a shot of bourbon after hearing all that reverb added to Levon’s drums