Another Call for Congressional Oversight of the Proposed Settlement of Physical and Download Mechancials

[Editor T says pay close attention to Gwen Seale’s analysis of the side deal.]

Gwendolyn Seale, Esq.

May 26, 2021

The Hon. John Cornyn III
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Ted Cruz
Russell Senate Office Building 127A
Washington, DC 20510


SENT VIA EMAIL

Re: Potential Settlement of Mechanical Royalty Rates in CRB Phonorecords IV

Dear Senators Cornyn and Cruz,

I am a music lawyer in Austin, Texas, and represent songwriters located throughout our great state. The views I express here are my own and are not on behalf of any of my clients or the State Bar of Texas.

I am contacting you as I am deeply troubled by the private party settlement of mechanical royalty rates pertaining to physical product and digital sales in the “Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords (Phonorecords IV)” currently pending before the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB).

Background / Historical Context


With the constant consumption of music occurring via the streaming services, many do not realize the degree of revenue generated from the sale of physical products (vinyl, CDs)  and digital downloads in the United States. Notwithstanding the devastating pandemic which forced the majority of workers to pivot, and resulted in at the very least the temporary shutdown of a significant amount of businesses, revenue from the physical music sales amounted to $1.13 billion dollars in 2020 (YEAR-END 2020 RIAA REVENUE STATISTICS). Additionally, vinyl record sales increased by more than 28% from 2019 to 2020.  Physical and downloads accounted for 15% of worldwide revenue for U.S. recorded music in 2020.

The current statutory mechanical royalty rate pertaining to physical products and digital downloads in the United States is 9.1 cents per song per record sold and has been so since 2006. To give some historical context, this statutory rate was frozen at 2¢ from 1909 to 1978.  Congress mandated that the rate be incrementally increased beginning in 1978, following the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act, from 2¢ to the 9.1 ¢ minimum rate in 2006. Prior to the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act, this rate had been frozen at 2 cents for 69 years.

The participants in this current private party settlement request that the 9.1¢ rate remain frozen through 2027, which results in this rate remaining the same for over 20 years. Note that the mechanical royalties pertaining to physical product sales are paid to songwriters and publishers by record companies and not by streaming services.  The Big 3 record companies also own the Big 3 music publishers who are the major members of the National Music Publishers Association, so the licensee record companies literally take the money for mechanicals out of one pocket and place it in the other—songs and recordings are tied together.

Mechanical royalties from physical product sales are a crucial revenue stream for independent songwriters – for Texan songwriters. In contrast, the mechanical royalty “rate” pertaining to streams on Spotify Premium during April 2020 amounted to $0.00059 per stream (according to the Audiam U.S. Mechanical rate calculator: https://resources.audiam.com/rates/ ). The “rate” for the ad-supported tier of Spotify was even lower. Note that the mechanical royalties pertaining to interactive streaming are paid by the streaming services.  The streaming services are not parties to the private party settlement.

The Private Party Settlement

I find it important to provide the aforementioned context because there is a serious lack of education regarding copyright, the various royalty streams pertaining to music and the innerworkings of the music industry. And if you happen to be a songwriter, particularly a songwriter outside of the Los Angeles, New York or Nashville hubs, this education gap expands exponentially. So now, let us draw our attention to this private party settlement.

The initial area of my concern pertains to the participants requesting the settlement. On one side, you have the major record companies, consisting of Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. On the other side, you have one trade organization, the NMPA, which represents certain music publishers, including publishing company affiliates of the major record companies (Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony Music Publishing, and Warner/Chappell Music Publishing) which companies have representation on the board of the NMPA.  You also have another trade organization, the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which represents a fragment of the songwriter community. This unequivocally presents a conflict of interest: how can songwriters be adequately represented when one of the two parties to the settlement, which are claims to advocate for the songwriters and publishers, is comprised of affiliated major record companies on the opposite side of the negotiation?  The Trichordist asked the question—if the willing buyer and the willing seller are the same person, is that a free market?

The settlement participants stated the following in MOTION TO ADOPT SETTLEMENT OF STATUTORY ROYALTY RATES AND TERMS FOR SUBPART B CONFIGURATIONS, Docket No. 21-CRB-0001-PR (2023–2027) at 4:

“And because the Settlement represents the consensus of buyers and sellers representing the vast majority of the market for “mechanical” rights for [physical, permanent downloads, ringtones and music bundles]…”

This settlement does not represent the consensus of songwriters; this settlement represents “buyers” and “sellers” who are one in the same at the corporate level.

Songwriters should have been included in these negotiations from the outset. But, at the bare minimum, parties to transactions involving the fate of this critical revenue stream for songwriters should be transparent to the people they purport to represent. Neither of the foregoing are occurring. Only after the circulation of a rash of articles concerning this issue did the settlement participants respectfully request that the CRB post the royalty rates and terms of the settlement in the Federal Register for public notice and comment.

There are plenty of organizations that represent our country’s songwriters which could provide feedback and suggestions without the presence of conflict, and it is simply disingenuous to ask those parties for their comments following a settlement being presented to the CRB for adoption as a done deal. Any public comments are and will be utterly predictable; songwriter advocates simply ask for an increase in this mechanical rate. Songwriter advocates foresee history repeating itself, with an increase in this rate occurring sometime around this country’s Tri-centennial.

Transparency equates to honesty, and on the flip side of the coin, a lack of transparency leads to distrust. As such, along with providing my concerns about the nature of this settlement, and the dire need for honesty in connection with settlements that affect every Texan songwriter and every songwriter in this country, I request that you press the CRB to request that the settlement parties disclose not only the actual settlement agreement (not just the regulations giving effect to the settlement) but also the “Memorandum of Understanding” referenced in MOTION TO ADOPT SETTLEMENT OF STATUTORY ROYALTY RATES AND TERMS FOR SUBPART B CONFIGURATIONS, Docket No. 21-CRB-0001-PR (2023–2027) at 3.

“Concurrent with the settlement, the Joint Record Company Participants and NMPA have separately entered into a memorandum of understanding addressing certain negotiated licensing processes and late fee waivers.”

If this “Memorandum of Understanding” was irrelevant to this settlement, the language would not have been included in this motion filed by the settlement participants. Setting aside the broadly drafted “certain negotiated licensing processes,” the phrase “late fee waivers” is exceptionally concerning, given the aforementioned context. It sounds like money is changing hands and it is consideration for the frozen mechanical—but only for a select few who were invited to the multi-tiered negotiation.

Thank you for your time and I am more than happy to discuss these issues with you anytime.

Best Regards,

Gwendolyn Seale

About Trichordist Editor

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