Sunday, 17 December 2017

Royalties! What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours - most of the time

The joys of music publishing

                                  Pennies and pounds?
If you can, and you're West Midlands based, catch a John Mostyn music biz session. Last week's, in south Brum, was a belter. There's another in January, this time in north(ish) Birmingham; details are below. John told amazing music publishing tales. Some were jaw-dropping; some hilarious. And some were very sad.

I'm not retelling the stories. If you want to hear them, go to the next session; check his Facebook page. I'll be there for more info, anecdotes, and tales of scurrilousness and nobility.

I left thinking about one little corner of the royalty distribution world: how local musos can get local airplay, but miss out on payments. It's absolutely not right. But no matter how fair distributors PRS (the Performing Rights Society) sets out to be, the system fails these musicians. It's not perfect, not by a long chalk. 

Most of the time, in most old-school media, it kind of works

To be clear, I feel PRS do a good job standing up for the rights of songwriters. But the landscape in which songs are heard to has changed out of all recognition. And while technology now allows easy identification of songs, and their attached rights, it's also opened up dozens of new and sometimes obscure platforms. 

All of which would be fine, providing that the music is both registered and declared in such a way that PRS can collect music for the copyright owner.

But this actually isn't happening.

Consider today's typical radio station. It's dead easy to generate copyright returns from a station database. But not everything that gets played is necessarily on the station database. If so, someone should do the extra paperwork. That chore often slips through the cracks.

There's a further wrinkle. Many stations make partial returns. So anything outside the returns period isn't logged.

Now look at live venues. All venues should be licensed for PRS where music is used. But when was the last time you saw a band, playing live, submitting a tracklist for copyright return purposes in a backstreet venue?

There's a pattern. The bigger the venue, radio or television station, the more likely detailed and accurate copyright returns will be made. Big operations are visible; they have to be seen to follow the rules.

The new sort-of-not-really-level playing field

                 Fair shares? That would be nice
But we now have hundreds, thousands of tiny stations in the UK alone, most of them paying their PRS dues. They're short of staff and resources; PRS equally doesn't have the means to verify smaller operations. In addition to all the small venues who often put on live music for the love of it, they are joined by thousands upon thousands of podcasters. 

The rule of thumb for music in podcasts is to only allow short excepts. You may hear a serious chunk of song on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, but the podcast version will only contain fragments. But there is nothing to stop a podcaster from putting a wall to wall music show together – as long as he or she does not get caught.

So when PRS is already stretched in policing regular small mainstream stations and live venues that pay a nominal fee for music rights, what are the chances of their devoting resources to even smaller operations? 

This is, of course, before we consider the lousy fees that YouTube and Spotify dish out. But the long and short of it is that that many, many PRS members get their music out live at gigs or on air on one platform or another. They get exposure, of course, but they usually miss out of the fees that, no matter how small, are due them for the use of their material.

Cost-effective? Who for?

There is a counter argument that sort of justifies all this. It is that it's only cost-effective to collect from the big boys, where reliable and accurate returns accompany the very large fees dished out to PRS. It's the same principle applied out of hours at, for example, Birmingham New Street station (and other stations using ticket barriers), when the cost of manning the ticket barriers off-peak is greater than the revenue collected. So, most of the time, they don't bother; the barriers are left wide open, and potential revenue is written off. 

Maybe it's like this for 95% of music rights fees earned in the UK, while the other 5 percent - probably less than that, I'm just guessing here - comes from thousands of smaller operations. 

So should we worry?

Yes – if you're a new artist getting play on those stations. Here's why. 

Stations and venues pay a flat fee to PRS. PRS divvy it all up according to the music returns they get. If they don't get, or don't even ask for, a detailed return, the money they get goes into a general fund... which is then redistributed to existing members in proportion to their earnings.

Think about that. The money your brand new song earns through being played – even if it's a laughably small amount – still goes back to one of the big boys.

I don't see an easy solution. PRS can make the payments if they know who's had the airplay. At live gigs, musos can help the process along by taking the time and trouble to log live performance details. Some do; many do not. But PRS, and all the new broadcasters and streamers, as well as most if not all small venues, simply do not have the staff or resources to make this happen. Or, sometimes, the inclination.

Oh, the irony. Your song just made Paul McCartney another few bob. 


The next Mostyn music biz session is at 100 TradesJQ on January 30th. Get tickets here.

Check the PRS For Music website here if you haven't already done so. And take a look especially at their their Live Gig Reporting page.


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