SBA Inspector General Report: Serious Concerns About SBA’s Control Environment and the Tracking of Performance Results in the #SaveOurStages/Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program

By Chris Castle

As we’ve noted before, the Small Business Administration is seriously behind on opening the application process for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. Turns out we’re not the only ones who are concerned–the SBA Inspector General has issued a damning report on the SBA’s failure to properly staff and administer the billions in funds appropriated by Congress to get venues up and running in the music economy.

The federal assistance directive also specifies that the Director of the Office of Grants Management appoints all grants management officers and makes decisions on the respective warrant level based on the training, qualifications, and experience of the grants officer. However, on March 10, 2021, the acting Chief Operating Officer waived the standard experience, training, and certification requirements and the agency grants training plan for administering all existing and future emergency grant programs related to the impact of COVID-19. SBA established these requirements and the training plan to address the systemic weaknesses OIG found in prior audits of SBA’s grants management.

Currently, the [SVOG] program office has one designated official and its staff are on temporary detail. At this time, SBA has not formalized a plan for staffing this office relative to the volume of applications expected. The agency has also not defined the organizational structure for administering the program.

SBA expects the majority of the awards made under this program to be $1 million or less. Based on the current risk model, these awards would be disbursed as lump-sum advance payments with minimal reporting requirements and agency oversight. It is important that the application reviewing officials use careful scrutiny to review the applicants’ proposed budgets to ensure funds will be used for allowable, allocable, and reasonable expenses. OIG believes that SBA does not have the staff necessary to provide effective oversight over the SVOG program. Insufficient oversight of the SVOG program increases the risk that funds will be misspent, inadequately monitored, or improperly paid.

The Inspector General tends to worry about waste, fraud and abuse, but does it really need to be said that they assume the money is actually paid?

It is incredible that Congress has appropriated the funds but the bureaucracy cannot manage to get the funds through the last mile to the venues that desperately need the money–it’s really beyond desperation. I realize that the stimulus bill was passed immediately before a change in Executive Branch administrations, but that’s really no excuse.

Right now the money is just sitting at SBA and there better be a nice crisp answer for when applications are open and when money is to be disbursed. Applications were supposed to be open today, but the Inspector General’s report strongly suggests that there is not enough staffing available to actually process the applications. Remember–the money for this one comes directly from the SBA.

Austin Rep. Roger Williams, the bill’s House author, issued this statement:

“The SVOG Application opened this afternoon at 12pm ET. I’ve already heard from constituents experiencing issues with the SBA’s application portal, as of this afternoon the SBA temporarily suspended the portal due to technical difficulties. The SBA’s rollout of the SVOG has been torturous for venue operators who were promised relief more than 3 months ago,” said Congressman Williams. “My bipartisan Save our Stages Act authorized the SVOG and was signed into law by President Trump on December 27th. Under the Biden Administration the program has been plagued with delays and mismanagement at every juncture. President Biden failed to put in place capable SBA officials to deliver relief for small businesses and taxpayers in need. Just yesterday, the SBA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report detailing the Biden SBA’s shortcomings with the SVOG, which hampered the application process and called into question whether the appropriate governance and oversight is in place.

It’s critically important that that the House Small Business Committee address the SBA’s shortcomings. Further delays for eligible business owners are unacceptable. I urge the SBA to make the SVOG a top priority moving forward and President Biden to put qualified individuals into key leadership positions so similar failures will not occur in the future.”

Guest Post: Where is the Save Our Stages Money to #SaveOurStages? Texas Music Office Leads the Charge

By Chris Castle

We all breathed a bit easier when we heard that the $15 billion Save Our Stages legislation authored by Austin Rep. Roger Williams and Texas Senator John Cornyn had passed the Congress and was signed into law last December as part of the $2.3-trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. SOS is administered by the Small Business Administration and allows live performance venues, movie theaters, and talent agencies to apply for relief grants if they’ve lost at least 25% of their revenue due to the pandemic up to a maximum of $10 million. Venues employing fewer than 50 full-time (also known as every music venue I know of) can apply for a share of a $2 billion of the fund to cover payroll, rent, utilities, and insurance. 

The problem is that the Small Business Administration has failed to implement an application process so that venues can even apply–and months are going by.  As states reopen, thriving venues are going to be a big part of the economic recover, particularly in a state like Texas.  What’s even more bizarre than the SBA not having an application process in place (or bridge loans or something) is that the City of Austin has managed to distribute millions to the Austin music community while waiting for the legislation, which Rep. Williams and Senator Cornyn got through Congress in record time–which may be because Austin wants to keep the title of “Live Music Capitol of the World” when the live music business reopens.

It is very difficult to understand why the SBA is taking so long to distribute appropriated funds for federal legislation that was bipartisan and not controversial.  It’s not just me–Governor Abbot’s Texas Music Office s leading the charge to light a fire under the SBA.  

If you want to let you views be known, you can write to the SBA at advocacy@sba.gov contact your local members of Congress or your state and city economic development offices.

Here’s a letter from Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony to the head of the SBA asking for her to expedite the applications:

February 25, 2021

Tami Perriello, Acting Administrator
U.S. Small Business Administration
409 3rd St SW
Washington, DC 20416

Dear Acting Secretary Perriello:

Thank you for all that you do in service of the SBA, on behalf of  the American  people. And  thank  you for your organization’s steadfast work assisting small businesses across the state of Texas, and beyond, during the pandemic. At the TMO, we hear firsthand from our constituents that the daily work of the regional SBA offices has provided an invaluable lifeline of resources and information, supporting the livelihoods of countless hardworking Texans.

As Director of the Texas Music Office (TMO), a division of the Office of the Governor’s Economic Development & Tourism Office, my team and I represent the more than 210,000 constituents and their permanent jobs within the Texas music industry. We implore you to accelerate opening the application window for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Shuttered Venue Operators Grant in order to help provide a bridge to saving one of the first industries impacted by Covid -19 mitigation,and ultimately one of the last industries that will be able to fully re-open.

As of February 2020, combined, the music industry and music education in Texas directly accounted for $4.4 billion in annual earnings, and just over $ I 0.8 billion  in  annual  economic  activity.  The ripple effects associated with the direct injection related to music business and  music education  in Texas bring the total impact to $8.8 billion in earnings and $27.3 billion in annual economic activity.

Although most music fans around the world are familiar with our state’s largest music brands like Austin City Limits Festival and the SXSW Music Conference, it’s the small venues and historic dancehalls where Texas musicians cut their teeth which are currently impacted by closure. These hallowed venues are the testing grounds for our chart-topping artists like Beyonce, Selena, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Travis Scott, and so many more.

As each week passes, we lose more and more small music venues to permanent closure. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will be a crucial stopgap to helping our state’s music industry survive, providing the state’s music venues a bridge to help them weather this catastrophic event

On behalf of the Texas Music Office and its constituents from all across the state, please take the necessary steps to open applications for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant so that the Texas music industry    and the thousands of individuals employed by the state’s small venues – may live to see another day, as the permanent closure of these venues would  be immeasurable  to our state’s economy and culture.

Brendon Anthony

Director, Texas Music 
Office Office of the Governor

The venues really need our help to pry loose the money from the SBA that has already been appropriated by Congress.  I don’t ask for this often, but the Trichordist audience is very effective at contacting their governments.  Remember, that’s advocacy@sba.gov

Guest Post by @musictechsolve: SoundCloud Throws Down With Fan Powered Royalties and User-Centric

by Chris Castle from the MusicTechSolutions Blog

SoundCloud is the first music service to adopt a version of the ethical pool principles in a user-centric royalty model and I have to applaud the effort. It’s a really good first step.  “Fan Powered” royalties tries to connect the dots between what fans actually listen to and what fans actually pay for.

SC Fan Powered

Remember, the point of the ethical pool was to do something right now to remedy the hyper efficient marketshare distributions of the “big pool” or “market-centric” royalty allocation model that is pretty much the rule with digital music services (and to one degree or another with streaming mechanicals, too, although that’s a topic for another day). I acknowledged the transaction cost involved of truly changing the model which would require renegotiating all the big pool catalog licenses. The workaround in ethical pool is to allow those who want out to opt in to a user-centric model that would be separate from the big pool. This is a way to avoid the significant transaction costs of trying to change a system that is working well for some but not all artists on the service.

SoundCloud appears to have done something very similar. This accomplishes another goal of ethical pool which is to not upset the big pool model entirely as it is working for a lot of people and there’s a benefit to the entire industry that flows from that success. By adopting this middle-ground user centric model, SoundCloud is actually able to promote its user centric method as a competitive advantage to attract independent artists to sign up with the service. 

When you consider that the real choice of independent artists is to stream or not to stream because the revenues are microscopic but the cannibalization is gigantic, it is competition that is going to get the market forces aligned to produce real organic change. If services understand that offering at least some version of user centric is actually a competitive advantage, we may find that there’s greater uptake than anyone imagined.

It must also be said that fans will feel a lot better about SoundCloud’s model than the market-centric approach. It comes as abrupt news to fans that their royalty is being paid for music they don’t listen to–it’s only a matter of time until someone brings a false advertising claim against the services for failing to educate consumers about that one. And this is really the underlying issue with whatever flavor of user-centric you like: It’s better for the fans. As the erudite Martin Goldschmidt said in MusicAlly:

The bottom line, for me, is that user-centric is obviously a big win for the consumer. Long term, this will be a big win for artists, labels, distributors and DSPs. And we will all make more money.

Or as one fan said to me, I’m tired of my money funding crap. This is an isolated anecdote, but imagine what will happen if a million fans (or even 1,000) had this same reaction. All while the services are literally printing money.

As you can see from this comparison of Spotify share price to the FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), Spotify has far, far outpaced the FAANG stocks in its relative growth rate. You can also see that the COVID pandemic that has decimated the artist community has been rocket fuel for Spotify’s riches and has made Daniel Ek a multi-multi billionaire all why paying out fractions of a penny to artists.

Spot 3-3-21

You can find the SoundCloud user centric royalty terms here. And bear in mind–we’re all better off if artists don’t feel they have to opt out of the entire streaming business in order to make a living. 

Will the @CommonsDCMS Committee Ask How Apple and Spotify Got Away With Hundreds of Millions in Black Box for So Many Years?

One of the questions that immediately comes to mind with the announcement of the MLC’s $424 million black box payment is how did they get away with owing so much money to so many people for so long? Tough question to get an answer to for the average songwriter, but good news: The UK Parliament’s inqiury into the economics of streaming is meeting on February 23 and will have before it senior representatives of Amazon, Apple and Spotify! Great timing! These three companies alone account for $350,000,000 in black box, or 82% of the total.

MLC Payments

So not only can the Committee inquire into how long the companies got away with it and the justification for holding onto so much of other people’s money for so long, but the Committee could also inquire as to whether there are any UK songwriters included in the respective companies black box payments for exploitations in the US during the worst pandemic in living memory.

Remember, these services are required by law to obtain a license to exploit all these songs. This was always the deal and they knew going into business what was expected of them. The law requires them to find the songwriter or not use the song. It doesn’t require them to not find the songwriter but use the song anyway.

The MLC Announces the Inception to Date Black Box Payments: $424 million

According to an MLC press release, the MLC has $424,384,787 from digital music services:

The Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) announced today that it has received a total of $424,384,787 in accrued historical unmatched royalties from digital service providers (DSPs), together with corresponding data reports that identify the usage related to these royalties.  

A total of 20 DSPs separately transferred accrued historical unmatched royalties to The MLC as required in order for them to seek the MMA’s limitation on liability for past infringement. In addition to the accrued unmatched royalties transferred to The MLC, the DSPs concerned also delivered more than 1,800 data files, which contain in excess of 1.3 terabytes and nine billion lines of data. 

This is a lot of money, but you do have to ask if this is what they admit to, now much is really there? Time will tell. You also have to ask whether they would have paid the money at all if it weren’t for the lawsuit brought against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency by Eminem publishers Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated. Once the services got it through their heads that moving the goalposts wasn’t going to get them off of the front pages of the class action lawyer magazines (with a map that said “X MARKS THE SPOT”), the money was forthcoming.

Here’s the list of services that the MLC says paid the headline number:

MLC Payments

Note that the top five payments are from Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Pandora. It is simply laughable that of this group, the two biggest offenders are Apple and Spotify for different reasons. Apple tries to position itself as a friend to artists and songwriters and is the worst offender. Spotify has literally no excuse as they have been sued multiple times and as we now see for good reason. Amazon and Google are two of the biggest technology companies in commercial history, but they can’t find songwriters.

The moral of the story is that you can’t find what you don’t look for. And of course the one sided drafting of the Music Modernization Act basically gives the services a pass on whether this payment was even accurate. You have to think that if the accounting was so sloppy that these paragons of technology missed the target by 100s of millions, there very easily could be 100s of millions more that we’ll never get. Do not let anyone tell you that this is some great victory by the lobbyists–this is a great victory by the lobbyists for Big Tech. They are paying us with our own money through a pig in a poke. If our lobbyists are going to celebrate anything, they need to celebrate when every penny is accounted for and paid to the right person. And there should be no cost-benefit analysis because as we were told many times, the services are paying for it. So they should pay for all of it, including the distribution to the long tail. In other words, our lobbyists should celebrate only if the market share distribution is zero. Surely they thought of this.

But now the hot potato is at the MLC which is financed by all these same offenders. We need to ask if the money reported by the MLC is the exact sum that they received from the participating DSPs or if there were any “fees” that disappeared from view before it was reported. We also need to ask if the monies received by the MLC is the exact same dollars that were paid by the DSPs and whether any “fees” disappeared before the money got to the MLC.

But all in all, a potentially good day provided that money immediately begins flowing to songwriters. There’s a long way between here and there, but keeping pressure on will keep attention on that juicy target.

Guest Post: Good News for Music Tech Startups: DLC Changes Fee Structure for Using Blanket Compulsory License

by Chris Castle

(This post first appeared on the Music Tech Solutions blog)

Title I of the Music Modernization Act established a blanket mechanical royalty license, the mechanical licensing collective to create the musical works database and collect royalties, the Digital Licensee Coordinator (which represents the music users under the blanket license) and a system where the services pay for the millions evidently required to operate the MLC and create the musical works database (which may happen eventually but which currently is the Harry Fox Agency accessed via API).

Title I also established another first (to my knowledge):  The United States became the first country in the world to charge music users a fee for availing themselves of a compulsory license.  The way that works is that all users of the blanket license have to bear a share of the costs of operating the MLC and eventually establishing the musical works database (and whatever else is in the MLC’s budget like legal fees, executive pension contributions, bonuses, etc.).  This is called the “administrative assessment” and is established by the Copyright Royalty Judges through a hearing that only the DLC and the MLC were (and probably are) allowed to attend, yet sets the rates for music users not present.

The initial administrative assessment is divided into two parts: The startup costs for developing the HFA API and the operating costs of the MLC.  The startup costs for the API, vendor payments, etc., were assessed to be $33,500,000; that’s a pricey API.  The first year MLC operating costs were assessed to be $28,500,000.  Because it’s always groundhog day when it comes to music publishing proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Judges, the method of allocating these costs are a mind-numbing calculation that will require lawyers to interpret.  With all respect, the poor CRJs must wonder how anything ever actually happens in the music business based on the distorted view that parades before them.  You do have to ask yourself is this really the best we can do?  Imagine that the industry elected to solve its startup problems by single combat with one songwriter and one entrepreneur staying in a room until they made a deal.  Do you think that the best they could come up with is the system of compulsory licensing as it exists in the US?  Maybe.  Or maybe they’d come up with something simpler and less costly to administer in the absence of experts , lobbyists and lawyers.

My feeling is that the entire administrative assessment process is fraught with conflicts of interest, a view I made known in an op-ed and to the Senate Judiciary Committee staff at their request when the MMA was being drafted.  The staff actually agreed, but said their hands were tied because of “the parties”–which of course means “the lobbyists” because the MMA looked like what they call a “Two Lexus” lobbying contract.  Not for songwriters, of course.

Yet, the DLC appears to have reconsidered some of this tom foolery and should be praised for doing so.  The good news is that the market’s gravitational pull has caused the allocation of the assessment on startups to come back to earth in a much more realistic methodology.  Markets are funny that way, even markets for compulsory licenses.  While still out of step with the rest of the world, at least the US precedent appears much less likely to have the counterproductive effects that were obvious before MMA was signed into law due to the statute’s anticompetitive lock in.  And the DLC should be commended for having the courage and the energy to make the fairness-making changes.  That’s a wow moment.

Hats off to the DLC for getting out ahead of the issue.  I recommend reading the DLC filing supporting the revisions (technically a joint filing with MLC but it reads like it came from DLC with MLC signing off).  It’s clearly written and I think the narrative will be understandable and informative to a layperson (once you get past the bizarre structure of the entire thing).  The DLC tells us the reasons for revisiting the allocation:

Since the Judges adopted the initial administrative assessment regulations, the Parties [i.e., the DLC and MLC since no one else was allowed to participate even if they had a stake in the outcome] have gained a better understanding of the overall usage of sound recordings within the digital audio service industry, as well as the relative usage of various categories of services. This information has led the Parties to conclude that the allocation methodology could have significant impacts on smaller Licensees, and that the allocation methodology should be modified to better accommodate these Licensees, and that such is reasonable and appropriate. This is particularly the case as these Licensees transition to the new mechanical licensing system set forth in the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) and navigate new reporting requirements, and further as the country continues to generally struggle through the economic and health effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the cost, reporting requirements, and impacts of the pandemic are experienced by all Licensees, the Parties believe that it is reasonable and appropriate to modify the administrative assessment to better address the situations of smaller Licensees.

The “old” allocation resulted in this payment structure for services buying into the blanket license (setting aside download stores for the moment):

Old Assessment Alloction

It was that $60,000 plus an indeterminate share of operating costs that was the killer.  The new allocation is more precise applicable to other than download stores:

New Assessment Alloction

This makes a lot more sense and one can believe that some startups actually were asked what they think. Remember, David Lowery sent an open letter to the CRJs in 2019 raising this exact point reacting to the bizarre initial administrative assessment hearings:

The Judges should take into account that no startup has been present or able to negotiate the many burdens placed on them by this settlement. In particular, they have not been able to be heard by the Judges on the scope of these financial burdens that their competitors—some of the richest multinational corporations in history—have unilaterally decided to place on them with no push back.

This isn’t to say that any would be brave enough to come forward and challenge their betters if given a chance. But they should at least be given a chance.

There are some twists and turns to the new rule which was adopted by the CRJs as a final rule on January 8, 2021, and any startup should obviously get smart about the rules. But–these latest amendments have established two really great things: First, the DLC is paying attention. That is very good for the reasons David raises. The other is that the DLC is apparently actually talking to someone other than Google and Spotify and coming up with reasonable compromises. This is very, very good. Let’s hope it continues.

We’ll be watching.

Results and Recommendations of the Artist Rights Watch MLC Awareness Survey

Guest post by Chris Castle

Our sister site Artist Rights Watch fielded a Mechanical Licensing Collective Awareness Questionnaire during January targeting songwriters attending our MLC webinar.  (MLC Awareness Questionnaire 1/31/21 n=120.)  The purpose of the questionnaire was to give the panelists some idea of the awareness level of attendees about the issues we intended to discussed based on early responses to the survey.  You can read the analysis of the responses here, but I’m going to discuss them briefly.

Of the 120 people who responded, responses suggest that approximately 70% of respondents personally handled the business and administration of their song catalogs, 50% were self-administered, and 50% administered song catalogs of 100 songs or fewer.  In other words, the majority of respondents were exactly the kind of self-administered songwriters or administrators we sought to connect with and who are eligible to stand for the MLC board seats devoted to self-administered songwriters if the right insiders nominate them .  We are still analyzing the geographic data, but about 16% were from California zip codes with the rest distributed across Texas, Georgia and other fly-over states predictably not represented on the MLC’s board of directors.

The basic questions about the MLC awareness we were trying to better understand were whether respondents even knew what we were asking about, and if so, how did they know.  This will help understand the success of the information efforts to date by the MLC, the DLC, and the Copyright Office.  We also wanted to know if respondents felt that they knew enough about the MLC to advocate for themselves with the MLC as an effectiveness metric for other educational efforts to date.

An encouraging 63% of respondents had heard of the MLC, but 22% had not.  Less encouraging was 6.67% who had both heard of the MLC and successfully registered and 4.17% who had heard of it but had not been able to register.

When asked how they had heard of the MLC, respondents were asked to respond to a list of potential sources, including “other”.  The largest source of information was “news media” at 27.35% and the next largest was “other”, which included a variety of sources including The Trichordist, Artist Rights Watch and MTP.  

However, given the other answers, the education efforts of the MLC (including HFA), the DLC and the Copyright Office did not seem to be making much penetration into these respondents, although the Copyright Office led the pack, sometimes by a lot.  This is curious because it’s not really the Copyright Office’s job and they are not being paid millions to do it.

MLC Quesion Source

As a measurement of the cumulative effectiveness of the educational outreach by the MLC, DLC and Copyright Office, we asked whether respondents felt they could advocate for themselves with the MLC.  60.83% answered “no” or that they “could use some help.”  This was surprising, and I would have preferred to see that number down in the single digits.

Of those who tried to register with the MLC, 15.38% of respondents successfully registered, 12.5% were told to use HFA, but 32% were “not sure” what they were told to do by the MLC.  I think that it’s safe to explore whether the data indicate that the educational outreach has resulted in an abysmally low registration rate.

For whatever reason, this language has appeared on the MLC’s website in recent days:

Prior to January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under a compulsory license were required by law to account to rightsholders on a monthly basis, within 20 days after the end of each month. Starting on January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under the new blanket license will have 45 days after the end of each month to send their usage reports and royalty payments to The MLC. The MLC will then take 30 days to perform its matching functions and calculate the royalties due to each of its Members. That means that The MLC will send out royalty payments and statements to Members roughly 75 days after the end of each monthly period. Because the total duration of the new distribution process will be longer than the old process, there will be a two month gap at the beginning of 2021 between the time rightsholders receive their last monthly statements and payments from DSPs under the old process and the time when they receive their first monthly statements and payments from The MLC under the new process. 

12% of respondents said that they were paid monthly and 60% of respondents were paid quarterly or “other” than monthly or quarterly.

We will be studying the responses over the coming weeks, but I had a few thought on the responses and a couple recommendations.  

  1. I’m going to ask if ARW can field the same questionnaire periodically to see how responses vary over time. UPDATE: ARW will be fielding a new survey with a few additional questions, you can participate at this link.
  2. It appears that of all the media the experts are using to get their messaging out, the one making the greatest penetration for mere awareness is news media.  However, respondent’s lack of confidence in their ability to register with the MLC as well as the low level of successful registrations hasn’t yet supported a conclusion that the experts’ well-funded efforts are producing greater MLC registrations or a greater understanding of how to register, or, and most importantly, actual registrations.
  3. There seems to be considerable confusion for whatever reason about someone else doing the registration for songwriters, be it administrator or publisher.  Outside of the survey, we have anecdotal evidence that songwriters are finding that their songs are not registered with the MLC after having been assured they would be by their publishers.  Because of the announced songwriter payment gap that the MLC anticipates in the first few months of its operations, songwriters may only find out they are not registered when their payments stop.

    Recommendation:  One technique I observed with a  SoundExchange information session was that artists were able to bring their laptops to a seminar where they were literally walked through the SoundExchange registration process step by step after the informational Q&A session concluded.  Even during COVID this could be accomplished using screen share.  

    By using this technique, the MLC could make sure that the end result of their webinars, etc., was that songwriters or publishers registered works and learned how to do so for the remainder of their catalog.  Plus they knew who to call if they had any problems or further questions.  This takes time, but the whole process takes time and you’re only fooling yourself if you think otherwise, to be blunt. I would say that it matters less how these people managed to waste two years in which they could have been doing this than it does to fix the problem right here, right now.  Do not let them tell you that the need only arose on the License Availability Date of 1/1/21 because that is just a CYA lie.

    Recommendation:  The experts should make a focus of their messaging a very clear statement that if you don’t register you will not get paid.  That is the harsh reality.  By hiding that ball, they do everyone a disservice.  Maybe an unregistered songwriter will eventually be able to claw their royalty back from the black box at some point in the future, but in the time of COVID, that claw back comes with a mortality rate.

    Recommendation:  No accrued but unpaid royalties for the first two or three years of the MLC’s operations should be able to be placed in the black box.  Not that they wait to pay out black box for 3 years, but they cannot use any of this money for black box–ever.  Like state unclaimed property offices, they hold the money forever.  The reason is that there is a greater than 50% chance that the reason funds are unmatched is because of the MLC’s startup missteps, not anything the songwriter did.  

Songwriters Alarmed Biden Admin Looking at Google/Amazon Attorney for Antitrust Chief

The Intercept is reporting that the Biden administration is considering appointing Renata Hesse as Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust. The potential appointment has raised eyebrows in the press since Hesse in private practice worked on antitrust cases on behalf of both Google and Amazon. Google is already under antitrust investigation and if Hesse were to become AAG she’d at the very least have to recuse herself. Is it even appropriate to appoint someone that deeply conflicted? Were there no other antitrust attorneys in Washington DC to take the job?

But it’s even worse than it first appears.

Talk to any songwriter even tangentially involved in public policy and the story is much more alarming. Hesse isn’t just any Google/Amazon attorney. Hesse has a terrible history with songwriters. Last go around when Hesse was acting AAG for Antitrust in the Obama administration she tried to promulgate a new rule for songwriters that would have greatly benefited Google as it faced a $1 billion dollar lawsuit from an organization that represented songwriters. It was never clear why the DOJ took this action. It didn’t seem to emerge from any of the DOJ staff attorneys or public comments from licensees. She alone seemed to have pushed the change. The rule was so poorly reasoned the DOJ eventually drew two lawsuits. The DOJ lost one case and dropped/settled the other before it could be decided by the courts. During the fiasco it was revealed that Hesse had purposely omitted from her official DOJ bio her private practice work for Google fending off state antitrust investigations. As a result many people including myself have speculated the entire episode only made sense if the rule change was purposely proposed to help Google. In other words it looked suspiciously like a case of high level corruption that should have been investigated. It never was.

Here are the details:

First, the two biggest songwriter organizations BMI and ASCAP have been under “temporary” DOJ consent decrees since the early 1950s. Because of this songwriter public performance licensing and royalty rates are under the control of the DOJ. A single federal judge essentially sets the rates and terms for BMI songwriters and another judge for ASCAP. (Crazy right?) In the last 20 years digital broadcasters have become adept at exploiting this process to lower public performance royalties paid to songwriters.

As a result some songwriters have left these organizations and joined smaller organizations like Global Music Rights, because they are not under DOJ control and it is sometimes possible to get better royalty rates.

In 2014 Global Music Rights (GMR), alleged YouTube did not have the performance rights to about 20,000 works by artist GMR represents. These artists included some of the biggest artists in the business like the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and John Lennon. When Google refused to take down the works a lawyer representing GMR told the Hollywood Reporter that if Google doesn’t blink, “there will be a billion-dollar copyright infringement lawsuit filed.”

Not long after this happened the DOJ Antitrust section III (out of the blue) proposed a new rule for BMI and ASCAP. So called “100% licensing.” The rule basically said, if BMI or ASCAP controlled any portion of a song they could be forced to license the full 100% of the song. Not sure how the DOJ can force someone to licenses someone else share of a song, but I’m not a lawyer. Why does this matter? If you weren’t aware most hit pop songs are written by teams of songwriters and thus ownership is often shared by many writers. Professional songwriters typically enter into private contracts (co-administration agreements) with each other stipulating that they each administer and license their own shares of a song (fractional licensing). So if a movie studio wants to use a song, each of the writers must sign off on the contract. The DOJ proposal, 100% licensing, was odd. It went against longstanding industry practice. Further the DOJ antitrust section itself required this sort of fractional licensing in many of the contracts it supervised.

Songwriters and songwriter organizations were thus stunned by this development. At least until they realized that this was clearly helpful to Google in its dispute with GMR and thus made sense in a crony capitalist sort of way. Why? Well it is highly likely that many of those 20k tracks at the center of the GMR lawsuit were co-written with BMI and ASCAP writers (BMI and ASCAP writers/co-writers some weeks represent more than 90% of music streams). Thus by forcing the BMI and ASCAP cowriters to license songs on behalf of the GMR co-writers, the DOJ would effectively take hundreds of millions of dollars in statutory damages out of this lawsuit.

That is when attention began to focus on Renata Hesse. As Chris Castle at Music Tech Policy noted at the time:

Ms. Hesse appears to be the thought leader behind imposing 100% licensing on the songwriter community. I arrive at this conclusion by process of elimination, as the DOJ professional staff do not appear to be taking credit for coming up with it on their own. Ms. Hesse is the one who has authority over the process, at least most directly, so if the DOJ professional staff did not originate the idea, and if no one in the voluminous consent decree public comments came up with it, it must have come down from on high. At least within the DOJ or even higher.

However, it is worth noting that the ASCAP/BMI consent decree review started before Hesse took over as head of the Antitrust Division from Bill Baer.

I doubt that Ms. Hesse came up with this all on her own, so I asked myself how did this person end up being in the position she is currently in with the authority to do so much damage to so many people who don’t deserve it. Not to mention the fact that when it comes to anything that the Google network touches, which is pretty much everything in human experience, the U.S. Government–at least currently and unlike their European counterparts–only seems to be interested in enforcing the antitrust law to protect Google, not to challenge it.

Up until this point no one had noticed that Hesse seemed to have manipulated her official bio to omit the fact that during her last stint in private practice she had worked mostly as outside counsel to Google to head off numerous antitrust actions and investigations at the state and federal level. Other juicy details emerged. It was revealed in Texas Hesse worked hand in hand with Ted Cruz to lobby the state government on Google’s behalf. That is quite a thing to leave out of your bio. Especially in the antitrust division. Hesse for some reason knew she had to downplay this. Why?

Meanwhile songwriters (and privately many licensees that were not Google) began to loudly complain how disruptive this new rule would be to the entire music licensing ecosystem. For one, songwriters were quick to inform the DOJ that much of their repertoire was subject to private co-administration contracts, and the rule would require them to violate those contracts. The response from Hesse’s antitrust division was stunning. They instructed songwriters to renegotiate private contracts or remove the songs from the repertoire of BMI and ASCAP to comply with the new rules.

The consent decrees that the DOJ imposed on songwriters are ridiculous and need to go away. However there is one good argument for them as they provide a great degree of market efficiency. The consent decrees force BMI, ASCAP, to license their songwriters entire repertoire. This in turn influences the other two songwriter organizations to license their entire repertoire as well. These are called “blanket licenses.” Thus a radio station need only obtain four licenses to enable it to freely play any song. But removing thousands if not millions of songs from the BMI and ASCAP blanket licenses would require a radio station to enter into thousands if not millions of contracts to have the same freedom to play whatever they want. This change would completely undermine the entire rationale for the DOJ to regulate music licensing in the first place. Almost everyone involved on the songwriter side (as well as many licensees) became convinced this rule change was designed to help Google. This is stunning corruption. The entire DOJ antitrust division was being used to benefit a single company. A company that one could argue is/was involved in anti-competitive monopoly.

Around this time BMI and then Songwriters of North America (SONA) a songwriter advocacy group sued the DOJ. Essentially the lawsuits argued the federal government was forcing songwriters to violate private contracts or retroactively make previously legal activity illegal. (Ex post facto lawmaking is prohibited by the constitution.) Instead of backing down Hesse’s antitrust division responded with a new and dangerously unhinged claim: The consent decrees always required 100 percent licensing so songwriter fractional licensing contracts between songwriters were always illegal. This despite the fact the consent decrees never required 100 percent licensing and in case after case BMI and ASCAP were required by DOJ to license fractionally. But most embarrassingly as we noted at the time:

“If 100% licensing already existed why did the DOJ spend the last year asking for comments from songwriters, publishers and music services on whether to make this change or not?

It was a clown show. At this point several members of congress began to poke around in the matter. One congressman asked a different federal agency, The Copyright Office to weigh in on the matter. This was precisely because Hesse had wrecked the reputation of the entire antitrust division of the DOJ. And it smelled like corruption.

Eventually Hesse left the antitrust division, but she didn’t settle the cases before she left. She left the cases to drag on. I suspect out of spite. How many millions of dollars did these cases cost taxpayers and songwriters? I’ve always thought Hesse should have been investigated, if not for corruption then at least for incompetence.

It will be a very sad day if Biden appoints Hesse to oversee the antitrust division. 80 million Americans didn’t vote for Biden because he promised to put a Google attorney in charge of Antitrust at DOJ.

Guest Post: Streaming and the Embarrassment of COVID Riches

By Chris Castle (first appeared on MusicTechPolicy)

We’re starting to see a narrative emerging from the digital music services in reaction to artists chafing under the misery of streaming royalties.  Streamers want lawmakers to focus attention on the allocation of current period revenue that they pay to creators and deflect attention from the company’s stock market valuation (or private company valuation).  That’s a grand deflection and misdirection away from the true value of artists, songwriters and their recorded music to streaming companies like Spotify.  But they can’t escape the embarrassment of riches by discounting the value of stock price through deflecting attention to loss-making revenues that companies like Spotify keep artificially low through a kind of Malthusian reverse pricing power to drive growth.  It may be rational for investors, but it’s not sustainable for the creators of the company’s sole or primary product.

We saw this with Pandora–lawmakers were told how much of Pandora’s monthly revenue the company paid out in royalties as though revenue was the primary metric.  The deflection worked until lawmakers started realizing that Tim Westergren was booking $1 million a month in stock sales.  Then it rang pretty hollow.  But the commoditizers are at it again.

No matter how much Big Tech tries to commoditize music, this is not about selling widgets at a deep discount–it’s about people’s lives.

“Get Big Fast”

Let’s be clear–companies like Spotify don’t get into business to eke out a profit.  They get into business to get their snouts into the trough of IPO stock as fast as possible and share that wealth with as few people as possible.  (And get out of corporate governance before the chickens come home to roost.)  So looking at revenue allocation without the accretive boost of stock market valuation is simply a grand deflection.  Abracadabra!

That deflection is particularly galling when the executives dip into current revenues to reward themselves like drunken sailors.  This is the profit fallacy—I would go so far as to say that in Silicon Valley, “profit motive” is very 1980 and long ago was replaced by the motive of  “get big fast.”  These companies seek to capture public stock market valuation, and share price valuation implies a belief in top line earnings and market share growth–not current period profit or–God forbid–dividends to shareholders.  And “get big fast” is working for Spotify.

share of streaming services

There is also controversy about a perceived “allocation” of music royalties payable by the streaming services particularly between record companies and recording artists or PROs and songwriters (especially the PROs and authors’ societies that Silicon Valley would dearly like to replace).  The allocation theory again focuses on revenue instead of the total value transfer. It goes something like this: Streaming services pay 69¢ of each dollar for royalties. When the artists or songwriters complain, it’s not because the saintly streaming services don’t pay enough, it’s because the greedy record companies or PROs take too much of that 69¢.

There is a lot that is not said with that fallacious allocation statement. I think a focus on revenue “allocation” is the wrong way to look at the royalty issue from a policy perspective.  The “allocation” focus presupposes there is an aggregate payment for music that is somehow misallocated.  

Pie-ism a la Mode

This allocation or “pie” fallacy is a very familiar argument in the U.S. It often comes from broadcasters fighting equitable remuneration for recording artists on terrestrial radio by attempting to limit their total payment for both sound recordings and songs to the amount that broadcasters historically have paid for songs only.  Instead of acknowledging the value of sound recordings, the platforms confound song performance royalties with “music”.  They say, “We pay $X for music, we don’t care how you allocate it between songs and recordings.”  This is like comparing apples to oranges and producing a pomegranate.

I call this thinking the fallacy of the pie, a derivative of the fallacy of composition.  It makes creative sectors fight each other in a kind of digital decimation.  

There is nothing particularly sophisticated about this strategy.  But the policy challenge for industrial strategists is to how to grow the pie, not to cut smaller pieces for everyone.  Growing the pie is particularly relevant when the platform seeks to monetize its valuation in the public financial markets. At that point, focusing solely on the allocation of revenue to the exclusion of the total valuation transfer is simply a kind of cruel joke.

Here’s the sad reality broken down to current per-stream rates that are entirely based on service revenue:

etude-ecoute-en-continu-streaming-montants-spotify-apple-music-google

This is front of mind as we see reports of Believe Digital (owner of the independent pre-pay distributor Tunecore) contemplating a €2 billion IPO drafting behind the reported COVID-fueled success of streaming and the Spotify public offering.  Government may play a role in requiring a share of riches transferred from the public financial markets to be shared by those artists and songwriters who gave the issuer its valuation, particularly when the issuer did not invest in the creative community.  

Get COVID Profitable Fast

If profit were really the target, one could make Spotify more profitable almost overnight by moving their U.S. headquarters to Syracuse, Cedar Rapids or even Austin rather than multiple floors of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.  One could cut executive compensation, one could do many things to reduce their Selling, General and Administrative costs.  But profit is not the issue for them.  Valuation is the issue and valuation is driven by bets on future growth.   In Spotify’s case, growth is often measured as subscriber growth and subscriber growth implies competing on price because Spotify offers more or less the same product as its competitors in a triumph of the commoditizer.  Which in turn implies keeping retail prices down (and Monthly Service Revenue) in a race to the bottom on subscription price and to the top on share price.  You may find that analyzing the economics of who wins in streaming is similar to who wins a gas war among price cutting petrol stations.

COVID has nearly destroyed the live music business that sustained the artists who previously tolerated their mils per stream Spotify royalties.  Far from being harmed by COVID, COVID has been rocket fuel for Spotify which adds to the unfairness of the “big pool” revenue share royalty system.  As the COVID Misery Index demonstrates, Spotify’s growth in valuation has outpaced its fellow oligopolists:

COVID Misery Index 1-8-21

Given the urgency of the COVID crisis, it is important to understand the difference between the creator community and other workers affected by COVID.  For example, restaurants are not failing while some other entity succeeds in extracting value from their customers.  As the COVID Misery Index demonstrates, Spotify’s stock price has more than doubled since the onset of COVID.

Again, Spotify’s success is largely predicated on keeping both royalties and prices low and bargaining for special royalty treatment.  I don’t object to the company’s pricing decisions so much as the complete failure of Spotify to share its success with independent artists who make up a significant amount of its offering but who are doomed to scrap at the decimal point in search of a positive integer.

Instead of launching billion-dollar stock buy-back programs to juice their share price, it would be a simple thing for Spotify to credit the royalty accounts of independent artists and songwriters with a cash infusion not connected to the revenue share deflection.  They have a direct billing relationship with thousands of artists and songwriters and they could simply deposit some thousands in these accounts which overnight would help balance the inequities and also provide an alternative to government support payments.  We have experienced government payments to creators in Austin, and one of the biggest problems was the mechanics of getting the money from the government’s account into the creator’s account. 

Spotify could just do it today as a thank you for doubling the value of their company while artists and songwriters suffered. Or perhaps Daniel Ek could just pay it out of his own pocket since he loves creators so damn much.

Whether it’s driven by the embarrassment of riches or a guilty conscience, the commoditizer’s grand deflection is back. Don’t let them fool you twice.

Save the Date! January 14 at Noon CST, Zoom Panel with @musictechpolicy @northmusicgroup @sealeinthedeal for Independent Songwriters

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By Chris Castle

I’m grateful to Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, Austin Texas Musicians and the Austin Music Foundation for hosting an information webinar next week on the impact of the new blanket mechanical license under the Music Modernization Act on independent songwriters. We will also cover the nuts and bolts of dealing with The MLC, Inc. and a unit on the Digital Licensee Coordinator.

I couldn’t be happier to have two great panelists in music publisher and song data solver Abby North and my fellow Austin music lawyer Gwen Seale.

While this panel has an Austin origin, the topics are not Austin-centric and will apply to all songwriters in the world just like the MLC does.

Please RSVP to Eventbrite if you think you might attend at this link and also take a moment to complete the anonymous 10 question MLC Awareness Questionnaire on Survey Monkey at this link. The Zoom code to join will be posted through Eventbrite.

I’ll be posting some other materials, but for those who want the more nitty gritty background, you can read this package of documents at this link.