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Jon Webster, President, MMF, hopes to see all parties in the industry work together in 2016 to solve the ongoing data issues



This article first appeared in the Record of the Day weekly magazine. Subscribers can access the archive here.

History tells us that the recorded music industry was very slow to react to the challenges of digitisation and the internet. Technological innovation came from outside. iTunes showed us how to sell downloads. Spotify led the way with streaming. Ten years too late we embraced On Air On Sale on a worldwide basis to finally rid the pirates of their one valid excuse in a worldwide market.

It’s 2016 and we are still pointing the finger at those outside our industry as the cause and solution of our woes rather than taking some responsibility. Two years ago the MMF adopted Jeff Bezos’s line  “Complaining is not a strategy” as its slogan for 2014 and I would like to look forward in the same way to 2016.

“Safe Harbours” was the phrase on everyone’s lips at the beginning of 2015 and by the end of year it was everyone’s villain though how many understood it and the ramifications of redefinition. I was first exposed to the term “Safe Harbours” whilst working at the BPI in 2006 after YouTube was bought by Google for $1.65bn. The major labels were bought off from legal action with shares which they then sold to Google. The BBC reported it thus:

Universal Music Group has signed a distribution deal with YouTube, which will protect the rights of the music firm's artists.

Google has also signed distribution deals of its own, with Sony BMG and Warner Music to offer music videos. The Google deals should enable internet users in the US to view music videos, artist interviews, and other footage from the two firms on Google video for free from this month. 

The content is sponsored through a Google advertising-supported revenue-sharing agreement. 

Shock! Major record labels do deal with YouTube, pocket the cash and nine years later the whole industry cries foul because Safe Harbours gives Soundcloud, YouTube and Daily Motion (owned by Universal parent Vivendi) some sort of protection under the Safe Harbours legislation. What they mean is that these guys don’t pay enough (anything?) compared to other streaming services. We may have a point but again we look to outside legislators to change the rules to favour us. Having spent nine years nurturing, using, uploading and monetising video content on YouTube we now run to the European Commission to save us. Simultaneously, fans have uploaded unclearable content (bootlegs, TV shows, rarities) to YouTube to create a music lovers dream – the total celestial jukebox. And rights owners are busy monetising all of it.  

Meanwhile in the USA the issue of clearance of mechanical rights of songs before use is raising its head. The system for mechanical clearances in the US has been at best arbitrary, slow, and inaccurate for many years. There is no all-encompassing American MCPS but a number of competing services. No so long ago the labels paid the publishers hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears because of the barely functioning non-collective system.

It seems indisputable that all DSPs are technically breaking the law everyday. However, how many other tracks are released into the market every year in the whole world without the necessary formalities happening? Our systems are built on compliance eventually -  but rarely correctly in advance. All the old analogue systems creak under the weight of the digital load. The phrase “where there is a hit there is a writ” applies. The hits get sorted pretty fast because there is real money at stake but the low income earners take much longer - if ever. In the USA the system is cumbersome and not joined up. Here the labels and services used to pay the MCPS and they sorted it but direct licensing has fractured that system as well.

It seems to me that lawyers in the USA launching class actions are technically correct but are really aiming at the wrong target. They should be railing internally at the whole recorded music ecosystem for not collectively sorting this problem out years ago before the deluge of digital data made it 100 times worse. Then redirect the message to the whole publishing world for the failure of the Global Repertoire Database.

As it stands the tech companies have little choice but to sort this massive data issue for themselves. Our positive strategy should be to ask any company who knows about data for help and solutions and not to sue them for our inadequacies. In 2016 it would be very welcome to see all parties work together within our industry to solve these issues. After all labels, publishers, producers, engineers, session players, songwriters, managers  as well as Featured Artists work together to make the music we depend on. It would be great to see them all respected by each other and rewarded in both recognition and money. And that means getting the data correct in the first place.

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